I. Disagreeing While Understanding
The blogosphere is abuzz over a video (all the way below) about two bears arguing over whether the Avos, the biblical Patriarchs, observed all of the commandments. The net result of the video is that the bear who holds that the Avos kept all of the mitzvos looks foolish. I found this video funny but offensive and unproductive. Let me explain why.
The mark of a sophisticated thinker is understanding the views of people with whom he disagrees. You do not have the right to reject an opinion until you understand it. The video mocks the bear’s position without understanding it, out of ignorance portraying it as foolish. Someone coming to the video without prior understanding will leave it with a sense of condescension toward a view whose complexities he doesn’t realize. More importantly, he will reject this view as irrational and unacceptable. He will write out of Judaism a view that has ample precedent among Rishonim and might very well be the majority view among Acharonim.
II. Avos and Mitzvos
The view that the Avos observed all of the mitzvos occupies a hallowed place in Jewish tradition, with Rashi in particular adopting it (e.g., see Rashi to Gen. 19:3 that Lot served the angels matzah because it was Pesach). Someone who mock this position, mocks Rashi. Think about what that says about you. However, it is not just Rashi. Ramban (Gen. 26:5) asks questions on the view that the Avos kept the mitzvos — e.g. how could Ya’akov marry two sisters? Unlike the bear in the video, Ramban does not dismiss the view as foolishness. He instead answers it. Only then does he offer an alternative explanation of the text.
The Rashba (1:94) and Radbaz (2:696) both write responsa defending the view that the Avos kept the mitzvos. R. Eliyahu Mizrachi and R. Mordechai Yaffe, in their supercommentaries to Rashi, go to great lengths to explain the logic and mechanics of the patriarchal observance of mitzvos. And the Meshekh Chokhmah consistently explains nuances of patriarchal behavior based on this concept.
Those who believe that the Avos kept all the mitzvos mean it in the same way that we keep all the mitzvos. No single person can keep them all. It is logically impossible for someone to be both a Cohen, a Levi and a Yisrael; a king, a judge and a priest; a man and a woman; etc. He keeps all the mitzvos theoretically possible. Exactly what that entails is debated by the commentaries, with some brilliant and fascinating suggestions along the way.
Shall we cross out all of these commentaries? Shall we throw them into the garbage? The argument on behalf of R. Natan Slifkin was the exact opposite — to keep the canon open to authentic views. Are we now closing our minds and rejecting Rishonim and Acharonim?
III. These and Those
In 1727, not long after R. Yehudah Rosanes’ death, his halakhic-midrashic essays on the Torah were posthumously published in a book titled Parashas Derakhim. In the book, R. Rosanes not only assumed that the Avos kept the mitzvos and applied various talmudic texts to their lives, he argued that biblical characters who quarrelled did so based on their adoption of differing views within the Talmud or Rishonim.
The way I understand his approach is that the Torah encompasses multiple views. Eilu va-eilu, these and those, means that God included multiple approaches within the Torah (this is the Ritva’s approach, quoted by R. Moshe Feinstein in his introduction to Iggeros Moshe). Therefore, when two scholars disagree, we can say that both of their views are part of the Torah. When Rambam and Ra’avad disagree, both are expressing authentic Torah views. Both of their opinions are included in the Torah. Thousands of years earlier, those views were already part of the Torah even if not yet voiced. It is possible, therefore, that prior scholars and even biblical characters intuitively adopted the same stances.
If today, R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv follows the Rambam (and Arukh Ha-Shulchan and Rav Soloveitchik — see here: link) and forbids wearing crocs on Yom Kippur, he is stating an authentic view that was long ago embedded as one of the multiple views in the Torah. If one accepts his stance as the most authoritative, the application of Torah that Ravina and Rav Ashi would have made had they been alive today, then one certainly can say that ancient scholars, even biblical characters, adopted the same position as R. Elyashiv. There is no logical impossibility if this is phrased properly.
IV. Old Controversies Die Hard
From what I have been told — I tried unsuccessfully to find a record of this* — a controversy ensued upon the publication of Parashas Derakhim, with some rabbis denouncing the book as ahistorical and others defending it. The debate is reminiscent of this video’s implications. Except that over 250 years have passed and Parashas Derakhim has attained a respected place in Jewish literature. It is not only quoted in biblical commentaries but also in halakhic treatises. Are we expected to turn back the clock and reject the Parashas Derakhim? And the Meshekh Chokhmah and numerous other respected works?
I cannot speak for Modern Orthodoxy in general but my bookshelf has space for those who assert that the Avos kept the mitzvos and those who do not. If Ramban can quote both views, so can I.
* But I did learn that R. Rosanes never wrote a commentary on the Rambam. His Mishneh La-Melekh was adapted by an editor from long essays into a commentary on the Rambam.
This post as a video
The original video