The Yeshiva Bochur YouTube and its Discontents

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No, I don’t applaud the now-infamous YouTube– but I do not agree with much of the criticism leveled against it.

To co-opt the phraseology of another writer on the topic, I am a “maximalist” regarding the reverence and honor due to the Avos. I’ve gotten into heated and public debate with those who saw the Avos as just ordinary people who happened to be the first kids on the Jewish block. The Avos are the very foundation of Am Yisrael, the ones who uncovered certain midos of HKBH and made them part of our world. We invoke their names in davening not because of their primacy, but because of their spiritual accomplishment.

My beef with the video is that it was predictable that some people would – quite inappropriately, I believe – see it as a swipe at the Avos, or at those who choose to take the words of Chazal literally unless guided to an allegorical approach by a Torah giant of the past. We ought not to take chances and liberties with the respect owed to the Avos, or to large numbers of yerei’im u-sheleimim. The video was creative, smart, and fun – but I would not have the risked the reaction.

I almost always find Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s writing to be intelligent and engaging. Jews were perhaps destined to disagree with each other; on this issue I will have to disagree with several of his points. I don’t believe that the video denigrated either the Avos or those who take the “maximalist” approach to Chazal in general. The target of the video was people who do not stop and think. If I were asked for input into planned additions to the cardinal sins of Torah Judaism, I too would put disengaging the brain on the short list.

There is not a single question addressed by the skeptic in the video that has not been asked by talmidei chachamim of the past, starting with the question of how Yaakov could marry two sisters if he kept the entire Torah. (Ramban’s answer – that he observed Torah law only inside Israel, but not outside – is well known. Fewer know of the Maharal’s approach: the Avos only kept mitzvos aseh/ affirmative obligations, but were not bound by any prohibitions.) Those who tended towards taking Chazal literally were faced with more questions than those given to allegorical interpretation. They met the challenge and answered the questions.

Now, some people might find some of those answers elegant, and others find them strained and unattractive. The point is that talmidei chachamim asked the questions. They were aware of the difficulties, and had grappled with them. The yeshiva bochur in the video, however, meets every question with – silence. He shows a triumphalist attitude towards his interlocutor, but he has never thought of the questions, and is left speechless. The video, I believe, mocks those who uncritically absorb without stopping to think of the implications and the difficulties. Torah is too complex and too precious to treat that way.

Moreover, the so-called “traditionalist” approach (a misnomer, since the older works dealing with aggada – and probably the majority who have directly considered the issue – take an allegorical approach) works best for people with a surfeit of emunah peshutah. By now, most of us wish we had a way to mass-produce and bottle that precious commodity. Alas, we are hearing more and more of our children ask more challenging questions about more fundamental issues at earlier ages. Three things are guaranteed to turn them off: angrily suppressing questions, not validating their questions, and giving them bad answers. The video not only raises a good point, it should sound an alarm. If that yeshiva bochur winds up teaching in a classroom, we don’t want our children to be there.

I find the word “maximalist” problematic when linked to a more literalist position. I understand where Rabbi Hoffman is coming from, but I think there is much merit in reversing the designations of maximalist and minimalist. At least the Maharal believed so. Contrary to the assumption of those unfamiliar with Maharal, he did not help the student of Chazal by successfully allegorizing difficult ma’amorei Chazal. More often than not, he allegorized as well the passages that do not strike people as difficult! He did so because, he says, Chazal’s words are far more profound than people think. Taking their words at face value obscures the deeper meaning contained in them. That meaning becomes accessible only when you uncover their allegorical sense. To Maharal, the allegorists are the maximalists in wringing out the most enlightenment from the words of Chazal, while the literalists are the minimalists!

The swipe at YU (included in the Voz is Neias version, but not in the Five Towns text) will hopefully not cause too much grief to bnei Torah from that institution. They should see it as a compliment. After all, Rabbi Hoffman argues that those involved in kiruv should present three different general approaches to Chazal. Graduates of YU can pride themselves in having access to rabbeim who have experience with, and can offer guidance in, all three of those approaches. If people versed in Emunos V’Deos, Moreh Nevuchim et al (not to mention the works of figures like R Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and the Sridei Aish) are magidei shiur in American yeshivos, their identities are being hidden very well from the rest of us.

Rabbi Hoffman writes that “the overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold of the maximalist position.” I hope that he doesn’t mean that they hold the maximalist position in general, not just regarding the particular issue of the Avos observing all of the Torah. That would put them in the first category that the Rambam talks about in his introduction to Perek Chelek. (About those literalists Rambam writes that instead of the nations praising us as a “wise and comprehending nation is this great people,” they instead point to “a foolish and degraded nation is this small people,” for believing inanities.) More likely, they hold what the Rambam writes in his Introduction to Mishnah, that Chazal hid their true intention in parables and stories, so that children would be able to grasp them. The plain-sense meaning of Chazal is important to reach the greatest number of people. We should not confuse them with sophistication that they cannot understand. (Even in this there are exceptions. R Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l spoke many years ago to a yeshiva principals’ convention. He mentioned the dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether the “new king” at the beginning of Shemos was a different person, or merely the same monarch who had adopted radically new policies. R Yaakov opined that neither of the two opinions had a mesorah as to the “facts.” Rather, they disputed whether a person who had benefited from someone as greatly as Paroh had from Yosef could later turn on his legacy completely, and bathe in the blood of his descendants. The dispute was about the human personality, not about the succession of Egyptian rulers. One principal asked R Yaakov whether this was the way to teach children in elementary school classrooms, and he responded affirmatively!) We should also, however, remember the next words of the Rambam, which state that the early, literal approach to Chazal is justified until such time as their minds mature and they can understand the nimshal – the real, deeper intent of Chazal!

The “maximalist” position that Rabbi Hoffman detects may also reflect a different subtlety. It is difficult to believe that those with whom he is acquainted are simply unaware of just how many in our mesorah were not literalists. That would be tragic. To believe that they are aware of them, and have “paskened” that they are now to be considered beyond the pale would be even worse. To take shitos of beloved rishonim and acharonim and ban them from use would be unparalleled in Torah history. (The words I have heard from my own rabbeim about such a position are the closest to “expletive deleted” that you can get from talmidei chachamim.)

The bottom line is that I fully agree with Rabbi Hoffman. He states that all three of the positions he culls from Torah literature should be presented to certain people. We simply disagree about who those people are. I believe that in communities that are hermetically sealed off from outside exposure, it might be that only the “maximalist” approach should be used, in order to preserve the beautiful presence of emunah peshutah. Those of us reading the Five Towns Jewish Journal and Vos Iz Neias online, however, may need more weapons in our holster against the inevitable depredations of Amalek, whose modus operandi is the creation of safek, of doubt and uncertainty, in our minds. If we take the time to think, unlike the cartoon bochur of the video, Hashem will surely guide us to the proper insights from within Chazal.

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41 Responses

  1. Chaim says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, you seriously “missed the boat” on the intention of the video; it was designed both to mock both “yeshiva bochurim” as well as chaza’l and rishonim. The immediate response of the cynical bear, “Am I hallucinating?!”, is not derisive toward the yeshiva bear’s lack of a thoughtful approach; he has just finished his d’var torah!
    You write “But art (according to Jacques Derrida) and lehavdil Torah (according to Rav Kook) have lives of their own, beyond the intent of their human creators.” Hence, the video creator’s denial is meaningless (besides, in my opinion, disingenuous).
    I do applaud, however, your defense of the “someones” posting all those comments on YWN and Matzav.com. Emunah peshutah is not a contradiction to chakirah, it just means that the emunah remains the same regardless of the results of the chakirah. Hence, asking and answering the various question on the “literalist” or “maximalist” approach is not an exercise in exploring one’s belief system, but rather, simple limud hatorah. When dealing with those who mock chaza’l, there is no point in intellectual debate; “For one without emunah, there are no answers, for one with emunah, there are no questions.”

    [YA – If I did miss the boat, so did the designer of the video, who by now has explained himself on several occassions, especially in the combox at Hirhurim. Either he is lying, or I didn’t miss the boat!]

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    “I find these kind of stories spiritualy revolting.”

    I find them interesting for two reasons:

    (1) They show how some of the elite in the Torah world valued the chakirah works. Similarly, there is a story of R. Baruch Ber Leibwowitz speaking in awe of R. Avraham Dov Ber Levine’s(“the Malach”)secret seder in Moreh Nevuchim with R. Chaim Brisker, as mentioned in the Mishpacha interview about the Willamsburg Malachim sect(another interesting historical point is that it was R. Yehoshua Baumol, R. Lamm’s grandfather, to whom R. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz turned to when considering whether to evict the Malachim from Torah Vodaas for their extremism).

    (2)They give insight into the personalities of gedolim, conventional or otherwise, and to their development; here we see that R. Lopian told his talmidim that he had a “chakirah-inclination”(I checked the Lev Eliyahu on Friday night, and I think the story is on page 313 in the “Maaraches HaTeshuvah” section in back of Devarim; R. Shalom Carmy, in a recent Tradition article, “He Thought She Was Drunk”, discusses the related question of how far to go insofar as personal revelations for pedagogical purposes, based on RYBS).

    I also think it’s hard to divide Chakirah vs. non-Chakirah neatly along Centrist v. Charedi lines. I would imagine that Centrist yeshivos value emunah peshutah, certainly when young; it’s just a difference in how much variety will be offered to the public, and therefore institutions such as YU will have room for a broader range of people. In R. Lamm’s case, the issue was one of the reasons why he went to YU, while in R. Lopian’s case, in another era, it had no effect on him(R. Shraga Feivel, himself, had a broadness and eclecticisim and was probably open to this sort of thing; he had to defend himself studying RSRH’s works when he was in yeshivah in Hungary, which was apparently unconventional at the time, IIRC).

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    “The people wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years understood the cosmos and biology and even, dare I say, quantum physics, better than a Stephen Hawking ever could.”

    A few years ago, I attended a presentation given by R. Slifkin at the Bridge Shul( a Shul located right off the George Washington Bridge)and he quoted Rabbeinu Bachya about the generation which received the Torah needing to hear about reward and punishment in the here and now, not as far as Olam Haba. I brought up during the presentation a question of how to reconcile R. Bachya with the Dor Hamidbar being a “Dor Deah”, although I do not recall his response then. R. Bachya’s opinion(as well as any opinions which might disagree with R. Bachya) would be one place to start in clarifying whether there are any definitive Torah sources about what the Dor Hamidbar did or did not know as far as science.

  4. Miriam says:

    I doubt that dveikus is achieved by bringing to light old opinions that have been rejected, even if they are Rishonim…

    Hmmmm. I don’t think we say that about aggadata, only halacha.

    If the raw materials were available in the desert, there would have been iPhones as well.

    Hee hee – crocs too ;-) Actually no, because there were no Chinese sweat shops in those days. Slavery didn’t stoop that low on such a massively regimented scale.

    But your words just underscore the importance of accepting elu v’elu – there’s nothing wrong with your *not* delving into “why” and “science vs. Chazal” as much as there are approaches that encourage it. But unfortunately from what I see in the comments acceptance of a different set of interests isn’t very common.

  5. YEA says:

    “The people wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years understood the cosmos and biology and even, dare I say, quantum physics, better than a Stephen Hawking ever could.”

    Where in the world did you get that from?
    In any case, I think you would make a great Poshiter Christian. Any questions about your faith have a very simple answer: “just accept what our leaders and teachers of the past have told us.” The rest of us will continue to make use of our brains to the best of our God-given abilities.

  6. Poshiter Yid says:

    My 2 cents: Some of us just don’t bother thinking about these things, and accept what we are told by our Rebbeim and Rabbanim, and we like it that way. It makes no practical difference to us whether Avraham Aveinu wore an actual pair of tefillin, or whether they were Rashi or R”Tam tefillin, or none at all. If Chazal say the Avos kept kol haTorah kulah, then they did. They had a sukkah, they had matzos, they had karbonos, they had a parah adumah, etc etc. Leave it alone already.
    How about dedicating some this powerful high level of energy towards convincing people of the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisroel, bikur cholim, or tzedakah? What happened to “lo yatzar hamikra midei pshuto?” If it says all the animals were on the ark, nu so they were! What, all of a sudden we don’t believe that Hashem can manipulate the natural world the way He wants to? It was good enough for the Chazon Ish and the Chasam Sofer to believe it, but not us?
    Frankly I find all this investigative journalism very troubling, and no good can come of it. I think it’s a very secular notion that just because we have a brain means we should stretch it to its limits. Sometimes it’s better for everyone to just accept what our leaders and teachers of the past have told us. The concept of yeridah hadoros applies as well. I’m sure you will find this wrong as well, but my understanding of it is that we can never ever approach the level of binah that was held by any generation before us. In other words, a Rav Elyashiv can never understand a gemara as well as a R’Weissmandl did, and he couldn’t darshan as well as a Vilna Gaon did, and so on back to MOshe himself. The people wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years understood the cosmos and biology and even, dare I say, quantum physics, better than a Stephen Hawking ever could. If the raw materials were available in the desert, there would have been iPhones as well. Hashem didn’t see fit to provide them at that time, nor the knowledge base for it. It’s not new technology, it’s newly DISCOVERED technology. It was there all along. It’s in the Torah, we just don’t know where to look. The Gaon said “All that ever was, is, or will be is in the Torah.” We believe that literally. Whether it’s embedded in codes (which as far as I’m concerned are Hashems secret language to us, and that Moshe knew all of them) which Harold Gans convincingly describes, or whether it’s in plain sight but not visible yet, is irrelevant. That’s what we are taught, and I am fine with it. It’s not blissful ignorance, as you call it either. It’s acceptance of something larger than ourselves. It’s acceptance that we will never understand His ways, so we do what we are supposed to do, as laid out in Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura, and that’s enough. Leave Kabbalah to the Kabbalists, and astonomy to the astronomers. If they want to fool themselves into believing in such nonsense as Big Bangs and other things, luz em gayin.
    I doubt that dveikus is achieved by bringing to light old opinions that have been rejected, even if they are Rishonim, or by figuring out if the Avos baked real matzos or only spiritual ones. You want dveikus? Put more kavana in your davening and try to understand pshat in a Gemara or a RamBam. Give a bag of food to a needy Yid. When Eliyahu HaNavi comes, these other things will be resolved.

  7. Michoel says:

    This is a remarkably fair, respectful, well articulated piece. It calls to mind the expression “the medium is the message”. Everyone of strong opinion (hainu most Jews) on the right or the left, should read this for the way it is written as much as the content.

  8. Mark says:

    We ought not to take chances and liberties with the respect owed to the Avos

    Of course not! But this doesn’t imply insisting that the avot kept all the mitzvot that would eventually be given to us in the Torah is the way to do it. In fact, throughout Torah, each of the avot (and other great figures) almost always has a “character flaw” disclosed. I’ve heard drashot that stated that the reason those character flaws were included in Torah is to let us know that the avot weren’t perfect yet were still great, the greatest, figures in our history.

  9. Miriam says:

    Mr Cractow writes: Aside from buttressing emunah peshuta (which I really don’t even think it does) someone please tell me what advantage there is to any Jew in reducing aggadot to a bunch of fairy tales, rather than delving into their deeper meaning….

    Somehow I think even the olden-days version of emuna peshuta wasn’t being foolish, but rather, “I know there are Rabbis/people bigger than me who study these things, and if they’re satisfied so am I.” Just because it’s out there to be delved into, doesn’t mean everyone is interested or even has to. The problem begins when education suggests that it’s wrong to question, and someone who is interested heads outside the sources.

  10. Mr Cractow says:

    I just don’t understand what possible maalah there is in a literalist (or maximalist, as has been thrown around lately) approach? It’s fairly obvious that Chazal were trying to tell us something through aggadot, and if aggadot are reduced to their literal meaning, what is to be learned from them? We should all just go on ESPN and look at sport stats, because that’s all Chazal seem to be telling us: Moshe was 10 amos tall, Ester’s skin was green, Rivkah was 3 years old when she got married, etc etc etc. Granted, this stuff is pretty whimsical and fantastical taken at face value and thus fun to learn, but I hardly think Chazal was concerned with our whim and fancy.

    Aside from buttressing emunah peshuta (which I really don’t even think it does) someone please tell me what advantage there is to any Jew in reducing aggadot to a bunch of fairy tales, rather than delving into their deeper meaning and truly breaking our heads over them to discover their true meaning, just like we do with the legal parts of gemarah?

  11. YEA says:

    Perhaps this YWN comment about Rivka marrying at age 3 will clarify:

    “Rashi has Ruach Hakodesh. Every word he uttered and wrote is with divine inspiration and intervention.
    Additionally, Rivka getting married at age 3 is the classical and standard explanation to cheder boys in Pre-1-A through Beis Medrash.

    I should add, aside from these points, Rashi surely had a more authoritive version of Seder HaOlam — closer to its authorship than us — despite any so-called “modern research” (a/k/a rubbish).

    If someone doesn’t like such due to modern 20th century sensibilities, so be it. Our Torah is eternal and needs no revisions.”

    It seems to me like this commenter may qualify as “someone like the yeshiva bochur character”

  12. Ken Bloom says:

    Up until the very last two lines of dialog, the yeshiva bochur in this video sounded like a freshly-minted ba’al teshuva who’s become totally hooked on Judaism, and is totally excited about it, but hasn’t been learning for long enough to develop knowledge base or a mature approach to reconciling conflicting aggaditas. That’s a problem that ususally goes away with time.

  13. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >He continues to the current talmidim, that “while I am not necessarily saying that you should study Shaar Hayichud –start with the other chapters–however, if you have but even a little yiras Shomayim, it will not harm you”.

    >I found the description similar in a way to R. Lamm’s account in the Commentator, where he describes how as a boy he was reading Moreh Nevuchim in his uncles home in Crown Heights, where he “kept on reading furtively, afraid that at any moment some adult would walk in, catch me in the act, and publicly reveal my shame”

    I find these kind of stories spiritualy revolting. Who would want to be a part of a spiritual approach which is too afraid to allow its adherents to study the works of the very sages and scholars on whose shoulders they stand?? Let me put it more clearly. If works such as Moreh Nevuchim, Shaar HaYechud, Drashot HaRan, etc, etc are dangerous to your faith, then there is something wrong with the nature of your faith! It seems so conceited to me to publicly shun these masterpieces (and make no mistake, fear of being “caught” learning these books shows a society who has shuned these works) because these don’t jive with modern cultural dogma or because they may legitimize this or that position of your ideological opponents. A society which is afraid of its own intelectual history will never preserve or contribute a thing to the future. The irony is that this sort of utilitatian thinking (eg. “we can not learn the Moreh because it will raise questions in the students’ minds”) itself fails any viability test towards the future.

    It seems like all the discussions of these topics all revolve arround the needs of a shrinking and isolated segment of the community. If we are already going to think in a purely utilitarian manner, then what about the needs of the historically and scientific minded frum community? Do people who find aggadic literalism, rabbinic infalibility, oracular daas Torah, and magical segulos to be spritiualy revolting and border line avoda zara not also have needs? Does there rationalisitc faith in the essential compatibility of Torah thought and general knowledge not deserve to be defended. It seems to me that the more isolated communities should consider themselves lucky that the more modern community does not employ the same loose-tongued, herem-proclaiming, book-banning, mocking and boycotting methods which our brothers employ towards us. If we were, we would have an all out war in which everyone would lose – the isolated communities, probably more so than anyone else.

    [YA – Dear Chardal,
    Are you possibly going a bit too far here? There are other reasons to shun particular works besides not fitting in with the prevailing of a given community. You would have no trouble rattling off the names of Rishonim and Acharonim who cautioned students against studying material until they were optimally prepared for it. This did not mean that they rejected the works. They rejected an improper understanding of those works, and contemplated the real danger that students with poor background/ unripened thinking skills/ lack of access to mentors and guides would face. While all of what you describes does happen, not all who urge students to stay away from certain works are guilty of the crimes you point to. Some yeshivos and rabbeim simply believe that their students are not ready for such study, and very honestly concede that they, the teachers, are not familiar enough with the works, their background and context to be able to guide their students! As you know, I don’t share those reservations myself, at least not for my own students, but your argument is weakened if you apply it universally without any limud zechus at all.

    As far as the needs of the community that you point to, I do not see why those who pursue a narrow curriculum should have to worry about them. Those who need more can find it elsewhere. They are not bound by the decisions of the advocates of limiting study. What it frowned upon in Bnei Brak or Monsey does not impact very much on the choices available to you and me.]

  14. Miriam says:

    “…a fascinating account in the Lev Eliyahu….similar in a way to R. Lamm’s account….”

    Two enjoyable anectodes but it often seems to return us to a fundamental difference between YU and everyone else – in the [charedi/agudah/yeshivish/your-label-here] crowd, even when encouraged the exploration is in private, while in YU it’s unabashedly and enthusiastically for the masses (women’s learning too for that matter). Why?

  15. Shades of Gray says:

    “A good collection of the shitos on both sides can be found in the intro to the Lev Tov edition of the Chovos Ha-Levavos”

    I recently saw a fascinating account in the Lev Eliyahu (sections on Teshuvah), which is related to this discussion. R. Lopian was telling his students in Israel how they had it better than him, as when he was young, he needed to learn on his own certain mussar priciples from Reshis Chochma without the benefit of a teacher. He then says something to the effect that he had either interests in, or a chakirah-personality, and that when he studied the chapter of Shaar Hayichud as a boy, he did so privately, as he was afraid that he would be kicked out of yeshivah for doing so! He continues to the current talmidim, that “while I am not necessarily saying that you should study Shaar Hayichud –start with the other chapters–however, if you have but even a little yiras Shomayim, it will not harm you”.

    (I found the description similar in a way to R. Lamm’s account in the Commentator, where he describes how as a boy he was reading Moreh Nevuchim in his uncles home in Crown Heights, where he “kept on reading furtively, afraid that at any moment some adult would walk in, catch me in the act, and publicly reveal my shame”; this lead him to transfer to Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchanan, where, presumably, he was able to study it in a more public fashion (“There is Only One Yeshiva College: A Memoir”, Commentator, 11/16/04).

  16. Izzy says:

    Great essay overall, but I have to echo the points of Rabbis Slifkin and Fink. 1 – Why would it be justified to censor rishonim in order to preserve a particuliar path to emunah? Doesn’t the fact that emunah peshuta depends on ignorance of the shittos of major rishonim tell you that it’s not worthy of preservation? 2 – Even if you were correct regarding point 1, there is no such thing as a hermetically sealed community of any persuasion, anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of remote villages in 3rd world countries, and that sort of thing. Certainly none of the chareidi communities in the US or Israel could be considered hermetically sealed.

    [YA Regarding 1), you are disagreeing with Rishonim and Achronim who saw the very process of questioning as dangerous. Enforced ignorance does not prove that emunah peshutah is not worth preserving, any more than self-censorship in many other areas of life where the energy needed to cope with a challenge may not be worth the effort. (Remember, i’m not advocating this view, but it should not be criticized unduly or unfairly.) 2) You haven’t met some of my relatives]

  17. YEA says:

    “One of my sons pointed out that he had never met someone like the yeshiva bochur character in all his years in yeshivos.”
    *Someone* must be posting all those comments on YWN and Matzav.com.

    [YA – I don’t get the argument. Some of those “someones” may very well have thought through the issues, and have answers to provide, rather than silence.

    We now have confirmation on Hirhurim (11/27 9:27PM) from the video’s creator that the target of his acid wit was not “maximalists,” but those among them who have not thought of the questions, and indeed have no response to skeptical bears (or dogs.)]

  18. Yoni Schick says:

    A sensible and balanced approach by RYA; only two points I would like to offer: 1: hermetically sealed communities simply do not exist anymore. There may be hermetically sealed individuals left, but they are by far the exception. 2: though I agree that the video has a place in our collective conversation, I think the comment towards the end about crocs, etc. betrays and ultimately waters down the intent of the clip.

  19. E. Fink says:

    As usual, Rabbi Adlerstein has done a masterful job. Thank you.

    It is time to wonder if there is any value in as RYA calls it, “emunah peshuta”, in today’s day and age. Information cannot be stopped, it cannot be silenced, it cannot be avoided and acting as if the elephant is not in the room does not make it disappear.

  20. Miriam says:

    Bob: [Did] this pre-world Torah [have] the same words in the same order as our Torah MiSinai?

    The explanation I was taught, based on a Gra on a gemara (something about Moshe Rabbeinu writing the last 8 verses describing his death “b’dema” – with vision obscured *as*if* from tears), is that the letters were the same but the words were broken up differently. The primordial Torah is all names of Hashem.

    Toby Katz: There is a huge difference between criticizing from the inside with a view to improving the community you love, and knocking from the outside with a view to destroying people’s respect for the Olam HaTorah.

    There’s more than one community out there. Many are coming from a not-so-frum background, and even among those who are, their great efforts in their teens and beyond to use all their mental powers to internalize Torah are a source of pride. But they are constantly thinking and analyzing. And they’ve been more than frustrated by mistakenly acting as if everyone can appreciate the depth of their thoughts and inquiry into Torah hashkafa (some would call that a “rookie error” ;-)). And even when they’ve joined a charedi community, they still have that thought process going inside.

    I’m not so sure that this group is knocking from the outside, so much as comforting itself that you just can’t communicate with everyone out there. The problem is that this group communicates heavily via internet which becomes public domain for all to see, and offends the emuna peshuta types who don’t sympathize with their frustration.

    To the credit of the emuna peshuta camp, there are indeed some semi-kofrim that go along with the inquisitive camp and give it a misleading reputation and make it look like a downright risky approach.

  21. lacosta says:

    if there’s a lot of sophisticated kfira out there, the response needs to be the rYA’s of the world finding it and countering it point by point… the response to this video should not be putting YU and relatively liberal yeshivot and drachim in cherem— it means a six minute deuling video with the same characters, with the thoughtful answers that should be the response ….

    we live in an era where there may be 70 panim ltora , but 69 of them will label you an apikoros… [of course maybe it’s not new– one of my classmates from 30 yrs ago , his rosh yeshiva didnt allow taping gmara [the pshat of today may be wrong], but did allow taping hashkafa [there’s only One Derech haemes]…..]….

  22. Harry Maryles says:

    Great Post. There have been a lot of posts on various blogs so far on this video which has gone viral (in O circles). But of all of them so far I think you really nailed it and said so in my own post on the subject. Kol HaKavod!

  23. Toby Katz says:

    “There is not a single question addressed by the skeptic in the video that has not been asked by talmidei chachamim of the past”

    That is true, but the video does take a nasty tone towards yeshiva students, painting with a broad brush. Nevertheless R’ Adlerstein’s response to the video’s critics is [mainly] correct and eloquently written.

    One of my brothers in J-m told me today that a friend of his had seen our father, R’ Nachman Bulman, quoted in R’ Adlerstein’s latest essay, though not by name. What was the quote? It was “[expletive deleted]!”

    The friend instantly recognized R’ Bulman’s hashkafa and strong emotions, too!
    :- )

    Yup, that’s exactly what my father would have said about those on the right who want to write half of the Rishonim and Achronim out of history — for being too deep and too intellectual.

    Nevertheless my father himself was very much a man of the right, and he would not have liked this video.

    There is a huge difference between criticizing from the inside with a view to improving the community you love, and knocking from the outside with a view to destroying people’s respect for the Olam HaTorah.

  24. chareidi leumi says:

    >I don’t think you mean “haskalah” in the literal sense of the nineteenth century movement, since the merits of “emunah peshutah” were debated much earlier, for example, as the Chasid Yavetz is often quoted about it, in the context of Spanish Jewry

    I do mean it in that sense. I pointed out that the merits of emunah peshuta was a debate among the rishonim with the majority being against such a religious orientation. The accendancy of emunah peshuta as the predominant education goal of religious schooling can be traced, I believe, to the advent of the haskala movement. Of course, it is probably more complex than that but at the very least, the haskala was a major factor.

    >We live in difficult times. Our Mesorah is under constant attack in recent times from the left wing of the Modern Orthodox who are trying to undermine the authority of Chazal and all those who came before and after as being no more than regular people who walk the street today. They believe we are throughly capable of challenging Chazal and they deny Yeridas HaDoros.

    So let me get this straight. Yeshivish ignorance regarding these topics are the fault of the left wing modern orthodox?!?! Is there anything which is not the fault of your ideological opponents?

    [YA – I think you are being a bit harsh with him. He is not blaming ignorance (or obfuscation) on the lefties. He is explaining why there is such sensitivity to playing fast and loose with Chazal. Extremes beget pushback. You will find exactly the same phenomenon on the left, with some people so appalled by what the right has done to the notion of Da’as Torah, that they’ve thrown out the valid parts as well.]

  25. Elimelech says:

    I find that when ma’amarei chazal are hard to accept, it’s a pretty good sign that we are not understanding them as chaza”l intended. The Maharitz Cahyis (Chajes) has a long maamar about this, as do others. The Maharsh”a, (and rishonim and other acharonim too numerous to mention) are always “explaining” what the ma’amarei chazal mean – the maamarim are frequently either allegorical or conceptual. If they are universally to be understood literally, why the need for any explanation: “it is what it is – now get out of my face!” It’s quite obvious that the avos couldn’t have kept every one of the 613 mitzvos – did they bring karbanos in the bh”m? A literal reading – that is, with the definitions we normally apply – is inconsistent with the other things we know about Torah. That doesn’t mean that chaza”l’s observation that the Avos kept kol haTorah kula is false; it means that we have to define our terms and chazal’s expression in a way that leads us to an understanding that is consistent with the other things we know about Torah. This is the honest approach to learning Torah, regardless of the topic – aggada or otherwise.

    I didn’t find the video terribly irreverent, at least not towards chaza”l. It does challenge appropriately the ridiculous (literally) position that all ma’amarei chazal must be taken literally — even when that literal reading is inconsistent with the other things we know about Torah. Frankly, I don’t know of any authority who maintains that position.

    A more challenging question is, how about when they are not is inconsistent with the other things we know about Torah, but are inconsistent with things we know about the world? Many m’forshim read many such midrashim allegorically. My impression is that Tosafos frequently adopts a literal, technical position where the allegorical would seem to offer a comfortable understanding. The video also takes a shot at people who offer lomdish explanations of certain ma’amarei chazal, where that explanation grates. Fair enough. Where allegory stops and Litvish halachic analysis begins is a legitimate question. But I sense that contemporary fundamentalists on literal readings of many ma’amarei chazal go much further than Tosafos, and are actually preventing the message of chaza”l from hitting the mark. In that case, it may be in – or close to — the category of “m’galeh panim batorah shelo k’halacha”.

  26. Shades of Gray says:

    “I am afraid that the educational cost of the “emuna peshuta” method seems to cause much more damage than its worth. Considering the seeming historical source of this educational method as being a religious response to the haskalah…”

    I don’t think you mean “haskalah” in the literal sense of the nineteenth century movement, since the merits of “emunah peshutah” were debated much earlier, for example, as the Chasid Yavetz is often quoted about it, in the context of Spanish Jewry.

    “We need more weapons in our holster against the inevitable depredations of Amalek, whose modus operandi is the creation of safek, of doubt and uncertainty, in our minds.”

    I’ve given the metaphor of “Amalek and Doubt” some thought (the Nesivos Shalom discusses it regarding Purim, available in “Light from within Concealment” on Torah.Org). The demonization of doubt is certainly applicable, as the Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zarah explains that this may lead to “destroying the world… and being chased away from Olam Haba”. The Amalek metaphor also explains, historically, why there were organized forces of anti-intellectual opposition to Torah, which is still potent today, though to a much smaller degree than in the nineteenth century(I recall reading that one of the speakers at a recent gathering of Flatbush rabbonim regarding youth at risk made reference to the easy availability of “sophisticated kefirah”).

    There also seems to be another angle of looking at doubt, as it being a natural cognitive process. On page 141 of “Religious Compulsions and Fears”(reviewed in current issue Jewish Action) Dr. Avigdor Boncheck writes, “… As we grow up, we begin to be aware of other perspectives on many life issues… it is for this reason that the Rambam wrote Moreh Nevuchim…so investigating and questioning one’s faith is a natural stage into developing into a faithful believer in Torah and Judaism.” Regarding organized intellectual opposition, R. Slifkin, in one of his posts, quoted R. Bulman that one such organization “was doing a service for the frum community in that they would force it to confront these issues”( it’s obvious that neither R. Bulman nor Dr. Bonchek are disagreeing with the hora’ah of the Rambam regarding studying kefirah).

  27. Bob Miller says:

    We have sources saying that the Torah pre-existed our world and was used as its blueprint. Did Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim… say that this pre-world Torah had the same words in the same order as our Torah MiSinai? Or did they say that its inner essence was the same, but its format and manner of expression were different?

  28. Micah Segelman says:

    Thank you to Rabbi Adlerstein for writing this piece and thank you to CC for facilitating this sort of discussion.

    I largely agree with Rabbi Adlerstein but I would go further in my disagreement with Rabbi Hoffman. Rabbi Hoffman shaped this issue as an attack on our Mesorah and our Gedolim. He said that the video even attacks Rav Elyashiv shlit”a in a “very unbecoming manner.” We demonstrate great weakness when we respond with an agressive posture towards every opinion expressed which challenges, even slightly, the perspective which we are most comfortable with. And we demonstrate even greater weakness when we misinterpret as attacks things which aren’t. Nothing in the video showed disrespect to Rav Elyashiv or his psak about crocks on Tisha B’av – the video ridiculed the contention that Yaakov Avinu didn’t wear crocks on Tisha B’av because of the psak.

    Furthermore, although of course we should teach the approach in our schools that the Avos literally kept the mitzvos, we should teach it in a way which invites critical thinking. This includes entertaining the sorts of questions the video asks and then providing good answers, some of which Rabbi Adlerstein and Rabbi Hoffman allude to. The point of the video is that we shouldn’t be educating our children to be simple-minded automotons. Unless we encourage critical thought we are educating our children to actually become like the video’s strawman.

    I also reject the idea that lechatchila we should aim to educate students to be unaware of more “rationalist” approaches to Torah. Should we reject, for example, every Ramban which offers an explanation al derech ha’pshat and only teach the other approaches? In this week’s parsha where Yehuda says to burn Tamar – should we ignore the Ramban’s approach al derech ha’pshat (38:24) and only teach the other approaches?

  29. Raymond says:

    My reaction to reading this article is confusion and bewilderment, as I am reminded what a small mind I have compared to Rav Adlerstein’s towering intellect. I cannot even hope to respond to it adequately, but let me make two simple points from my limited place anyway.

    First, I have found over the years that in evaluating Rabbis, one of the chief criteria I use is how they respond to my persistent questions. Those who react with hostility or try to change the subject by singing a song (this often occurs at Shabbat tables), I know are not deserving of their title of Rabbi. At the other extreme are those who not only take my questions seriously, but treat them as if they are intelligent and thoughtful. Not to embarrass him or anything, but it may not be a coincidence that Rabbi Adlerstein most definitely belongs in that latter category, perhaps more than anybody I have met.

    The other point I want to make is on the issue of allegories. My admittedly limited understanding of the Rambam, is that only a fool would take literally those stories related by our Sages, that on face value are logically and/or empirically absurd. Put another way, one should use common sense when evaluating what our Torah sages tell us.

    All that is fine and well, but I wonder how far one can take this principle, especially when applied to the Torah itself. What is allegory, and what is actual historical fact? Most of those of us who value the Torah, take literally the event where Avraham and Sarah serves dairy and then meat to their famous guests, who turn out to be angels. But according to the Rambam, this event never happened in the real, physical world; it was, rather, a prophetic dream taking place inside Avraham’s head during sleep. (I wonder how Sarah and the lambs they slaughtered, feel about this)

    But again, how far can one take this? Did Noah’s flood ever happen? The flood itself may not defy common sense, but having pairs of every single land animal in existence on board a ship clearly not big enough or built well enough to carry them all, stretches our sense of credulity. And what about the Garden of Eden? Does eating a particular fruit, perhaps grapes or a citron, give us knowledge of good and evil or any other kind of knowledge at all, or is that whole incident merely an allegory from which to learn moral lessons? Was Adam the first man, or does Evolution have a rightful place in Judaism? Is it literally true that every time a Jew in Egypt would drink water, it would in fact be water, but the moment he handed that same glass of water to an Egyptian, it would turn into blood? This, too, defies our sense of our everyday reality upon which our common sense is built. Inquiring minds want to know.

  30. yitznewton says:

    I think you were too kind in your interpretation of the video; after hearing the way some of the challenges were phrased (e.g. “some kind of stroke”) I have a hard time not seeing it as leitzanus against literalism. Either way, thank you for your characteristically insightful remarks!

  31. joel rich says:

    I believe that in communities that are hermetically sealed off from outside exposure, it might be that only the “maximalist” approach should be used, in order to preserve the beautiful presence of emunah peshutah.
    ========================================================
    I’m curious how those within that community who are gifted with one of the key characteristics of a talmid chacham (per R’YBS)- an almost childlike curiosity/intellectual honesty- deal with the obvious questions that caused the Ramban and many others to reject the maximalist position. Certainly articulating the questions in shiur/public would cause either an undermining of the community’s emunah pshuat or require the questiones removal from the community or his being told you’re right but don’t say anything. None of these sound palatable?

    BTW how do you understand the Ramban – Yaakov was not metzuveh in the 613 aiui according to anyone. So is the Ramban saying that rachel had to die because yaakov decided to be michayev himself as an eino metzuveh voseh??
    KT

  32. Shmuel says:

    While “The Internet” has become the popular whipping boy of many rabbomim this issue is actually an excellent example of using the internet for good The video may be derided as leitzanus or worse but it has generated an excellent conversation and debate eloquently articulated by both yourself and Rabbi Hoffman as well as a number of insightful comments ( and unfortunately too many less than useful)
    Most bnei Torah other than the most insular look at midrashim such as this one and often engage in debate about the implications of the midrash until they reach an impasse Its useful to see that questions that arise and bother me have bothered others before me and greater than
    In discussing midrashim like this I find its not whether one should accept the maximalist or minimalist approach that makes them valuable Rather its the duscussion and implications and lessons that arise if one takes different approaches
    70 panim l’Torah doesnt mean that one must accept a single approach to an issue Its that since Torah is multifaceted it behooves us to examine it through multiple approaches

  33. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Alderstein writes, “It is difficult to believe that those with whom he is acquainted are simply unaware of just how many in our mesorah were not literalists. That would be tragic. To believe that they are aware of them, and have “paskened” that they are now to be considered beyond the pale would be even worse. To take shitos of beloved rishonim and acharonim and ban them from use would be unparalleled in Torah history. (The words I have heard from my own rabbeim about such a position are the closest to “expletive deleted” that you can get from talmidei chachamim.)”

    I agree completely, but I go a step further. It is not just the positions of these sages that some find the need to ban, but it is their methodology as well. To many of these gedolai olam, observation, logic, science and even philosophy were all compelling enough that their apparent truths had to be reconciled with our Mesorah and texts. In my mind what separates (currently dominant elements of) chareidi judaism from the dominant view in our traditional past, is the willingness or even the desirability to declare such challenges the work of the devil.

  34. Pliny says:

    “I don’t believe that the video denigrated either the Avos or those who take the “maximalist” approach to Chazal in general.”

    How about Chazal themselves, who are the ones who made the extraordinary claim about the Avos? (Note the question asked by the female character at the 40 second mark, “I must be hallucinating…”)

    [YA – You may be right, and it may have been the intent of whoever created the video. But art (according to Jacques Derrida) and lehavdil Torah (according to Rav Kook) have lives of their own, beyond the intent of their human creators. The video itself does not denigrate the ma’amar Chazal. The “enlightened” character does not dismiss the maamar Chazal, but believes that there must be a more subtle way of understanding it. Even the maximalists believe that. In answering the questions on the simple meaning of the statement that the Avos observed the entire Torah, they wind up restricting observance to some but not all mitzvos, or to observing the Torah in the sense of attaching themselves to the shoresh elyon of each mitzvah. Her surprise is not in hearing the Chazal, but in hearing someone who accepts that passage without any sense of the dozens of seforim that have addressed the issues. Had he been aware of them, his answers to her would have showed greater hesitation.

    One of my sons pointed out that he had never met someone like the yeshiva bochur character in all his years in yeshivos. Bochrim may indeed have been members of the maximalist school, but they had all either asked the questions, or heard others ask the questions, and absorbed the available answers. Perhaps we have all been lashing out at a straw man. I told him that we still encounter far too many people who have not learned to extrapolate from one ma’amar Chazal to the next, and accept every new ma’amar they hear without asking the critical questions – and finding out what the seforim have said about them. Part of this is resistance to the sizeable zerem of commentary that answers the questions through allegory, etc.]

  35. Moe says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for addressing this. I thought the video was hilarious and the point is an important one, but I would never support posting it to youtube because of the nasty jab it takes at Yeshiva Bochurim who forget to use their brains. Sorry – I’m just not in the nasty jab business. Furthermore, I also went to Yeshiva and I knew many Bochurim who did use their brains so it’s an unfair stereotype. It’s also important to consider that Yeshiva Bochurim often get a bad rap, regarding the video’s accusation and others (like driving too fast and smoking for example), when in truth the beef is with teenagers or Yungeleit. Young people are known to think simplistically and engage in unhealthy, and sometimes dangerous, practices and I think they should be forgiven for their immaturity and gently guided towards more intelligent approaches.

    On the issue of the Avos keeping the Torah, there’s an important Teshuvas HaRashb”a (94) I’ve seen that I believe addresses the questions elegantly. I haven’t seen it inside recently so please forgive me if my understanding is a bit off. What I recall is that he said the Mitzvos of the Torah given to Moshe are our key to tapping into the spiritual principles that they represent. The Avos were able to discover these principles on their own because of their intense level of spiritual consciousness – they didn’t need the actual Mitzvos that we have in order to tap into those principles. When we say that Avraham ate Matzos or that Yaakov washed Netilas Yadayim they may not have observed those Mitzvos in the way that we understand. It may just mean they tapped into the principles that those Mitzvos represent. It’s possible they even observed the Mitzvos similar to the way we observe them, but not necessarily with all the details with which we observe them. There’s many reasons for the Mitzva of Matzah – one of them is to remember that we left Mitzrayim in haste. Eating Matza with that intention taps into certain spiritual principles. The Avos obviously didn’t eat Matzos as a remembrance, but they tapped into the same spiritual principles, either by actually eating Matzos, or through some other means. See the Rashb”a inside – I think that’s at least close to what he said and it seems to solve the problems raised in the video.

  36. Dr. Yitzchok Levine says:

    R, Yitzchok Alderstein wrote:

    I believe that in communities that are hermetically sealed off from outside exposure, it might be that only the “maximalist” approach should be used, in order to preserve the beautiful presence of emunah peshutah.”

    I can only wonder how many “hermetically sealed off from outside exposure communities” are around today given the widespread usage of the Internet by Chareidim and Chassidim.

    YL

  37. G*3 says:

    I’m curious, how do you reconcile your statement that, “If I were asked for input into planned additions to the cardinal sins of Torah Judaism, I too would put disengaging the brain on the short list.” With your glowing praise a few paragraphs later of emunah peshutah? In your last paragraph you praise “the beautiful presence of emunah peshutah” “in communities that are hermetically sealed off from outside exposure.”

    Which do you see as the better approach? Turning off one’s brain and living in blissful ignorance, the beautiful emunah peshutah you want to bottle, or thinking through the issues and having a more nuanced understanding?

    [YA – This is an excellent question, but I can hardly have anything to contribute to it. Torah giants since the time of the rishonim have weighed in on the pros and cons of chakira vs. emunah peshutah. (A good collection of the shitos on both sides can be found in the intro to the Lev Tov edition of the Chovos Ha-Levavos.) The way I score it is a standoff. There are rich berachos in each approach; each is also fraught. I can applaud those who excel in emunah peshutah, just as I appreciate those who have successfully navigated the straits and shoal of chakira.

    For myself, there was never a question. I needed, demanded, and thrived on inquiry and answers from an early age. I could also see very little chance of succeeding in hermetically sealing off my kids when they were young, so I opted for them to also grow up in a home more open than some others. They wound up all different, all frum b’chasdei Hashem, and all over the continuum of openness and closedness. In retrospect, I would still not hesitate to go for the open approach for most anyone in the US, but I would do some things differently than I did back then.]

  38. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook zt”l use to often say: אמונה פשוטה זה לא דבר פשוט

    which roughly translated means: “simple faith should not be confused with simplistic faith”

    I am personally of the opinion that the information revolution made a deep simple faith something which is simply not achievable in the modern world. Any sociological structure or education approach which tries to imbue such an approach to faith in its students is much more likely to generate simplistic faith than anything else. This is something which is deeply troubling to those of us to whom the study of machshava is central to our religious lives.

    Further, I think it needs to be mentioned that the very propriety of emunah peshuta is itself a debate in the rishonim, and one in which the pro-emuna peshuta croud is in the minority (with the Kuzari being its primary spokesman and even the kuzari did not imagine the kind of emuna peshuta which is popular today). Just a few examples of rishonim (and geonim) who felt emuna peshuta was a religiously inferior position are R’ Saadia, Rambam, R’ Bahye (both ibn Pekuda and Asher), Ralbag, Meiri (and the list can be made MUCH longer). And such an approach is not limited to the rationalist rishonim listed above. The great baalei Kabbala also saw the more religiously virtuous approach as being one complex understanding and not of simple faith. Just see the Shla HaKadosh for an overview of how he and his predecessors saw the comprehention of the Divine cosmology as a prerequisite for deveikut of any real kind.

    I am afraid that the educational cost of the “emuna peshuta” method seems to cause much more damage than its worth. Considering the seeming historical source of this educational method as being a religious response to the haskalah, perhaps it is now time to re-evalutate the strategy in our new information age where avoidance can not be the only coping mechanism with the new challenges. In fact avoidance has become impossible. (which is perhaps why the rabbinic leadership of bnei brak try to outdo themselves each year in banning any new form of information technology in the vain hope that they can still shelter their flock from any questions)

  39. ARW says:

    We live in difficult times. Our Mesorah is under constant attack in recent times from the left wing of the Modern Orthodox who are trying to undermine the authority of Chazal and all those who came before and after as being no more than regular people who walk the street today. They believe we are throughly capable of challenging Chazal and they deny Yeridas HaDoros. They do not consider our Mesorah any more authoritative then a Greek historical text. They do not recognize that our Balei Mesorah had enourmous emunah and yiras shamayim and only strived to pass on Hashem’s truth. This makes sense from their perspective as embracing values they hold dear, namely democracy and evolution. Both say that we minimially are “all created equal” or in the case of evolution, that we are actually getting better. One of their key weapons in this undermining or our Mesorah is allegorization. They just call allegory anything they don’t like.

    As a result of this those farther on the right are being forced more and more to take hard line on being literal and defending the literal correctness of the words of Chazal. In better times when those inside our camp are not trying to sow doubt, we could use allegorization LeHagdil Torah. Today many stay away from it for fear or sounding like Apikorsim, even though not allegorizing may make them seem like simpletons.

  40. Ezzie says:

    One of the best and most well-presented posts in the J-blogosphere that I can recall seeing in five years of reading. Yiasher kochacha.

  41. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, yasher koach on a superb article. If I may make some very minor quibbles:

    I am not sure why those in “hermetically sealed communities” should be prevented from studying the “minimalist” view of the Sephardic Rishonim. Unlike topics such as Chazal’s knowledge of science, I don’t see why this is something that would shake their emunah. Furthermore, how will they become Torah scholars, if they are forced to be ignorant of a major view amongst the Rishonim?

    But seeing as such an approach of banning the views of “non-yeshivish” Rishonim and Acharonim is proposed by Rabbi Hoffman on a large scale and even by yourself on a small scale, I don’t know why you write that “it is difficult to believe that those with whom he is acquainted are simply unaware of just how many in our mesorah were not literalists,” and that it is even more difficult to believe that they “have “paskened” that they are now to be considered beyond the pale.” In light of the sentiments expressed by Rabbi Hoffman, it is all too easy to believe that there are rabbonim who are unaware of these views or want to write them out of history – even if such a position is “expletive deleted”! You say that “To take shitos of beloved rishonim and acharonim and ban them from use would be unparalleled in Torah history” – as we know, it unfortunately does have a parallel, about six years ago. And recently, I have documented effectively the same phenomenon (albeit not consciously occurring) with the views of the Rishonim concerning Shiluach HaKein and the discussions in the Gemara about astronomy.

    Anyway, I wrote my own letter to Rabbi Hoffman and the 5TJT, which can be read at RationalistJudaism.

    [YA – I’m hibernating today, writing a paper for the Orthodox Forum. I will respond later. In the meantime, all Cross-Currents readers join in wishing you and Tali a mazal tov on your tenth wedding anniversary tomorrow. Congrats to the shadchan, too!]