Sunday, January 11, 2009

Things that should NOT be taught literally

My sister goes to a B"Y wannabe school (meaning, they pretend to be all frum, but the students actually care to pursue higher education - college). One of the things the teachers do, is they give over information normal people would not take literally, but give it as literal. Even if one learns under the premise of Gd being an omnipotent being, some of the things they teach are just beyond any rationale.

The other day my sisters Yedeot Luach (a total waste of time, they learn the depth behind the Jewish calendar) teacher, brought in a medrash that said "That Avraham's kidney's acted as his two Rabbonim." She expanded on it, and said that it means that instinct comes from the kidney's.

Bravo!! Why is this lady allowed to teach? Maybe she'll say that the expression "Gut reaction" proves this midrash?

The same teacher last year taught my sister Jewish History and Parsha. In the Parsha class this teacher explained how everything in Torah is to be taken literally, so my sister under her breath mumbled how Parshas Haezinu was a poem, all simile and metaphor. Anyway, her point was to prove that when it says, Eretz Zvas Chalav U'Dvash, it literally means a land flowing with milk and honey. The teacher brought in a bunch of examples from the Gemorah about people who were knee deep in fig juice/honey.

I don't think I need a conclusion. I firmly beleive that I conveyed my message already. lol.


p_almonius said...

Once in a while I find a leaky bag of milk in the makolet, but I put it back.

Lost And Not Yet Found said...

Of course the torah isn't all meant to be taken literally... else there wouldn't be a need for the oral torah or commentary, ect.

josh waxman said...

"She expanded on it, and said that it means that instinct comes from the kidney's."

I would point out that indeed, it *should* be taught literally. Even though *we* know it not to be true, in the ancient world, they quite possibly thought of the kidneys as the seat of emotion. maybe not, but maybe so. E.g. Aristotle considered the heart to be the source of thought, reason and emotion. Would *he* intend it figuratively?

Teaching it figuratively, as you are suggesting, quite possibly betrays the true intent. (The same is possibly true, IMHO, for much midrash.) Much better to say that it was intended literally, and so this is what this midrash means, even though we then disagree with it as a matter of truth.


Wisdom of Old said...

Josh is right. The same goes for a lot of things Chazal believed in, e.g. demons, a firmament, a flat Earth, etc. They believed it, but that doesn't mean we have to.

~Lady E~ said...

Josh and wisdom of old: if we now know that it's not true then don't you think it shouldn't be taught at all?

Anonymous said...

Lady E, That might be wise if the lesson to be learned was the science, but it almost never is. The wrong views of the world are embedded in whatever Chazal was really teaching, and that stuff is pure gold.

Mikeinmidwood said...

Chazal said it in a way for people to understand otherwise people wouldnt believe chazal. E.g. Flat earth, if chazal would say it is round nobody would have believed them.

josh waxman said...

Lady E:
"if we now know that it's not true then don't you think it shouldn't be taught at all?"
perhaps yes, perhaps no. i would not censor what i teach, for that would do Chazal an injustice, IMHO. would you teach Aristotle and deliberately leave out anythig that modern science says is wrong? you would not get an accurate portrayal of Aristotle's thought. When learning Shakespeare, would you leave out any text referring to the theory of humors?

on the other hand, there is the danger of teaching falsehoods, or alternatively making people think that you subscribe to incorrect beliefs.

Anonymous who replied to you is correct. In this instance, there was another point being made by that midrash. (Whether one agrees to that other point is another story.) Understanding that point in the midrash required the explanation that they regarded the kidneys as the seat of intuition. Should we avoid the entire midrash because of that? My inclination would be not to avoid that.

A possibility. Not one I personally endorse as the most likely. But that would be the approach that would then regard it as being figurative.
This whole question is much broader than can be properly addressed in a comment thread. Perhaps in a book. But here is a fun one. The mechilta about leaving the manna over cites the pasuk that it developed worms and rotted. The mechilta says the pasuk is not in order, but that of course it first rotted and then developed words. At play was a belief in spontaneous generation. If Chazal did not actually believe in it, and were using it as some metaphor for some other process, why bother to harass that pasuk? But there are many other examples, not for here.

Anonymous said...

Mikeinmidwood, that's ridiculous. Are you like those fools who think Chazal knew about electricity and how to cure cancer, but chose not "reveal" it?

Chazal were giants, but they didn't know any more science than anyone else of their era, and often less. To deny that is to make them into idols, c"v.

shoshi said...

I think this kideny thing is an ancient oriental belief.

As far as I know, the heart was considered the place where you think (the way we say "the head"). So why should not the kidneys be the location of feelings.

by the way: saying you feel with your heart is just as stupid as saying you feel with the kidneys. In reality, emotions are also managed by the brain...

David said...

"it means that instinct comes from the kidney's."

Technically, this is true (if by "instinct" you mean "urine").

~Lady E~ said...

Josh waxman: I remember learning about aristotle and all his wrong theories in school. The difference between learning about aristotle and this medrash with the kidney is that my science or history teacher who was telling us about aristotle told us his theories were proven wrong, and continued with the theory we follow today. In the case of this teacher, she taught the medrash as truth and even based a lesson on it to prove something else, all on a false piece of knowledge. It would be the same thing as a science teacher trying to teach a modern science class while holding on to the theory of geocentricity. That just wouldn't work out! The teacher would end up proving something true based on falsehood.

josh waxman said...

Lady E:
"In the case of this teacher, she taught the medrash as truth and even based a lesson on it to prove something else, all on a false piece of knowledge."

I wasn't there, so I don't know if this is so or not. But the "midrash" in this case is not feeling with the kidneys. *That* was just an *expression* used in the course of the actual midrash, which was discussing the belief that Avraham kept the entire Torah. How could he have known all the mitzvot, you may ask? The answer is that his kidneys acted as his teachers. Now, the teacher explained, the intent of the midrash's author is not that Avraham had talking organs. Of course not. To take that literally would be silly. Rather, since there was this belief in the kidneys as the seat of intuition, the midrash's author is saying that he intuited the proper course to take, and intuited what the mitzvot would be.

I do not know that the teacher taught this incorrect factoid (rather than midrash) as truth; regardless, I would guess that it was not just "one frum skeptic"'s sister who did not come away believing that intuition is based in the kidneys. But in no way did she then "even based a lesson on it to prove something else." Rather, she likely explained the true intent of the midrash's author.

To my mind, this is not so much akin to learning the theories of Aristotle, but more to understanding Shakespeare. For example, Lady MacBeth states:
"And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers"
A good English teacher would at this point explain the theory of the four humours, and how Lady MacBeth means that she is saying her milk would turn bitter, connected with an excess of yellow bile in the gallbladder, the effect of which would be to turn someone ruthless and insolent.

The English teacher would not (likely) be criticized for teaching medieval medical beliefs with the aim of helping students understand "peshat" in Shakespeare; nor would she be criticized for basing a lesson on the incorrect science.

If indeed there is a worry that students will take this literally in this school, then solution is not necessarily to tell the students what may be a falsehood, that Chazal did not believe in kidneys as the seat of intuition, but were only speaking figuratively. (Unless one believes that they did mean it figuratively -- in this case, the practical effect of understanding the source is the same.) Rather, if need be, explain what is means and also say that this was based on their contemporary medicine, which we do not agree with nowadays.


Eli Federman said...

wow, this post is great. Is one meant to understand the story of creation as literally taking place? How about the global flood of Noah? Or Jonah being swallowed by a monster fish creature? How about the anthropomorphizing (ascribing human characteristics to something non-human) of G-d?

The Torah is not a scientific textbook or a great work of historical facts; rather it is an instruction manual on how to live a moral, ethical, and meaningful life in any society and under all circumstances.

Yevamos 24a states that “a verse may never be divorced from its literal meaning.” This statement should not be confused as espousing a strictly literalist approach to scripture.

Yet we find many verses in the Torah have to be interpreted metaphorically, such as instances where G-d is described as having human characteristics. “He ceased and rested” (Shemos 31:17) “G-d smelled the pleasant aroma” (Genesis 5:21) those are all obviously metaphors. If one took those passages literally they would be going against the Torah since we are forbidden to attribute human qualities to G-d.

Rather the statement “a verse may never be divorced from its literal meaning,” according to Midrash Tana’im, must refer specifically to cases where a point of practical observance (such as a commandment) arises from a literal reading of the text.

Thus, the directive to take things literally would not apply to narrative that is meant to teach us lessons in life. Therefore, biblical stories (stories that we don’t derive commandments from) do not have to be taken literally; rather they can be taken as cosmic metaphors with relevant messages to all humankind.

Since the Torah is by definition a spiritual document, the fact that some parts of it (with the exception of commandments) are only true from a metaphorical/spiritual perspective does not compromise that fact that the messages are still eternal.

Short Answer:
Torah commandments are meant to be taken literally, but the stories do not always need to be taken literally.

A land flowing with milk and honey has no connection to any Halacha of practical observance and therefore may be interpreted metaphorically.

Anonymous N. said...

We can't ignore the signs, the teacher is reform!
She interprets the Torah literally, therefore, she must been a an apekores.;)(lol)
You speak of your sister's teachers, well she has barely much to worry about. My teachers are a real treat, from a Kiruv school! My point being often there is a bad apple amongst a tree of good ones, as in this case, but then just look at the dieing tree that tries to put forth some kind of fruit. That is completely messed up.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

I haven't read the other comments, but I just wanted to say that Rabbi Avigdor Miller had some kind of (actually pretty logical explination) of how the kidneys "give councel".. Ican't remember what it was though.. ..but he does have a lot of very innovative explanations of queer passages and statements in Gemara and Midrash.