Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Escape from Metatron

For the uninitiated, the figure to the left is Metatron's cube. Who, you may ask is Metatron? Why he is a mysterious angel who figures prominently in Rabbinic writings. According to the Talmud, the famous heretic Elisha ben Abuya saw Metatron sitting down in Paradise and mistook him for a second G-d. He has a twin brother, the angel Sandalphon, who the Talmud says was so tall that his head reached heaven.

Why am I writing about angels? Because I am having a small crisis of faith. No, it is not doubting the existence of G-d. It is about the slippery slope of accepting more and more beliefs that don't really seem like a core part of Judaism, but seem like part and parcel of the Orthodox Judaism package.

I go to a "centrist" Modern Orthodox shul. Periodically, we get guest rabbis from the Kollel who give a Shabbos d'var Torah. Whenever they allude to a midrash, they always qualify it with the phrase, "Of course every midrash is literally true." Now, I don't know when people in the audience hear this what goes through their heads. Do they basically say, "Whatever, Rabbi! It is allegorical." Or do they actually think that the letters of the alphabet spoke to G-d, that the moon was jealous of the sun, that a giant frog plagued Egypt. (DovBear has some thoughts on this)

I started down this particular descent down the slippery slope after reading DBS' post on Megillah Ruth, where he mentioned the midrash of R'Meir praying at the Acher's grave. Reading about R'Meir, I discovered that he is descended from the Roman emperor Nero. Did you know Nero actually converted to Judaism after some miraculous signs with shooting arrows at Jerusalem and having a posuk explained to him by a young Jewish Torah student. Yes, the same Nero that had (alleged) sex with his mother, castrated his gay lover whom he dressed in women's clothes, burned down Rome, and then commited suicide. Funny, how his conversion went unnoticed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I wonder if anyone has ever catalogued all the miraculous events that are described in Rabbinic literature. They must have had a miracle happening every couple of hours.

People will tell you that you don't need to believe all this stuff is literal to be a good Orthodox Jew, but when I look around it seems like the people who are Orthodox in more than name only either truly believe this stuff literally, are really good fakers, or can compartamentalize better than Bill Clinton.


Blogger Tobie said...

First of all, I consider myself pretty Orthodox and I believe very little of this stuff. The general attitude that I've achieved is non-committal skepticism. Not believing anything that seems stupid, but not disavowing enough that I'll feel majorly stupid if it turns out it's all true. Which I can afford to do because really it makes very little difference in my daily religious life.

And second of all, I heard an interesting theory about Nero. One book suggested that he actually was a pretty decent guy. But all of the contemporary historicists hated him, because he was too fond of Jews (I don't know if it mentioned the conversion.) So what we know now is sort of like a giant smear campaign. Of course, I think the source may have been my Artscroll "History of the Jewish People" book, so I can't verify, but it's an interesting idea.

June 07, 2006 8:30 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


Thanks for your comment. I think you've really hit the nail on the head with the statement "It makes very little difference in my daily religious life." I think this is true for most people. However, I almost am starting to feel like I am being pressed against the wall. Either I have to believe all this stuff or I am not really Orthodox.

Secondly, based on my reading of your blog and comments on other blogs, I'd say you're a fairly un-Orthodox Orthodox. Am I wrong in this impression? Do you think that most of the people at your level of observance feel as you do?

I am pretty skeptical about the theory that Nero was fond of Jews. Frankly, most of the contemporary historians thought very little of Judea. It was a little sh*thole of a province way out in the boondocks. They had much more to worry about in Gaul, Britain, Byzantium, Egypt, Spain, and many other provinces. Plus, Nero is not smeared any worse than many of the other emperors, e.g. Caligula, or other prominent patricians. I think you are right that some of the stories are exaggerated, but I doubt it has anything to do with Jews. If you have the book handy, maybe you can confirm that you read it in Artscroll.

June 07, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Again I would say that my attitude is geneally one of an Occam's razor approach. Again these stories fall into four categories. 1. Literal and factual. 2. Allegorical 3. Exaggeration and 4. A story which got confused through the passage of time. So a Roman General or governor becomes the Emperor as people say.

June 07, 2006 9:08 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

I wonder what it means to be "Unorthodox-ly Orthodox". I mean, I don't resemble most of my high school friends in philosophy, but that's because I went to a Beis Yaakov High School. And I don't resemble my new college friends in hashkafa either but... that's because of the Beis Yaakov background. I think in general, most people just don't bother grappling with these issues. It's not worth their trouble. It doesn't hurt them to believe anything and they never bother having the intellectual curiousity to wonder. Mean, but probably true.

Of those that do wonder, I think that many, many come to the conclusion that midrashim need not be literal. The seminary I went to, while Modern Orthodox, was pretty mainstream and we had a whole class on how Midrashim shouldn't be read literally. Of course, my high school would have been shocked at the notion, but then, they're not crazy about my learning gemara or going to secular college either.

I just think that in general, there's a pretty wide range of options out there, once people start bothering to be intellectually honest and curious.

Re: the Nero thing. I'm sorry to say that my statement was based on some vague recollection of something I once heard. Which isn't the best source. I think it was either in my high school Jewish history class or in a similar forum.

June 07, 2006 9:16 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Pretty much what Tobie said in both comments: Most people don't care, and it doesn't make much difference in daily life [which explains why people don't care].

Plus, on most of this stuff, if you look back through the sources you'll find that earlier Gedolim didn't generally buy into it. It's a more recent phenomenom. My fave is the frog one from DB - Rashi says the splitting frog pshat, then says "U'PSHUTO..." - the simple understanding [the one that makes the most logical sense] is that it's simply a linguistic idea. But most people never learn that pshat...

June 07, 2006 9:40 PM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>I wonder if anyone has ever catalogued all the miraculous events that are described in Rabbinic literature.


>They must have had a miracle happening every couple of hours.

I present you the following question from Berachot 20a:

אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?

Said R. Papa to Abaye: How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed?

Abaye and R. Papa lived in the 4th century CE.

Don't get so hung up on miracles. The fact is that there's been two factions, one more rationalist and one less rationalist even since ancient times. R. AJ Heschel's work Torah Min Ha-shamayim Be-aspaklaria Shel Ha-dorot tries, and succeeds on some level, in tracing these two points of views, pointing to the more mystical bent of R. Akiva and more rationalist bent of R. Yishmael. And this trend continued until the present day.

Rememember that the fact that great, wise men and women of genius believed things that are untenable outside of their own context shouldn't be a problem--after all there is simply no doubt that we in our own cultural context believe things that will be seen as untenable in other cultural contexts in times to come.

There is a great book called Strange Histories by D.J> Oldridge which is enormously helpful in describing what strange beliefs were held by our antecedents and why. One example would be the widespread acceptance of alchemy, even until relatively late in early modern times.

In addition, you cannot forget that much of these things may have been intended to be poetic and metaphorical. While I cannot accept completely Karen Armstrong's thesis that the ancients distinguished between "mythos" and "logos" so completely as to not at all imagining the mythos to be literally true in the sense of "it happened," it is possible, and in some cases it can be demonstrated, that this was the case.

What is dismaying is what you've identified: there is all too little critical reading of our texts and traditions by Orthodox Jews, perhaps to compensate for the excesses by other kinds of Jews in reading these texts, perhaps because people learn to compartmentalize the religious sphere from the practical sphere without achieving synthesis.

June 08, 2006 6:00 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

I once asked a rabbi about whether you were supposed to believe all the midrashim, and he told me that they were stories and not completely meant to be taken literally. However, what he also said was that we don't know exactly how much is supposed to be factual and how much is allegorical, and that we just have to believe with skepticism. I certainly haven't figured that one out yet.

June 09, 2006 6:37 AM  

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