Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Misquoting Kohelet Rabba

I typically read the letters to the editor in the Jewish Press each week. This week's ended with a dvar Torah sent in showing how Chazal were big fans of environmentalism.

The letter starts:
Shavuos honors the receiving of the Torah, the time when Jews accepted the responsibility to be a light unto the world. Part of that responsibility is to accept God’s creations. Koheles Rabbah (VII, 13) states, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are; and I created all of it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world because if you spoil it, there will be no one after you to repair it.”
The quote appears to be talking to all of man, and telling him to take care of the world and not ruin the environment, for if you spoil it, it cannot be undone.

In fact, the full quote is:

Thus, it was directed to Adam haRishon, not to all people. The beautiful and wonderous works were the trees of Gan Eden. The ruining of it was not by chopping down trees or polluting a river but rather by sinning by eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the quote would have made that clear since it continues from "there will be no one after you to repair it" with "and not only that, but you will cause death to that righteous person" (who is Moshe, as we continue to read). Thus, the topic is refraining from sin rather than environmental protection.

And as we see, he did mess up and caused all this.

Perhaps one can extrapolate from all this an environmental message (and perhaps not), but this is either deliberately or accidentally dishonest. And where you start manufacturing quotes by taking them out of context, I begin to wonder whether any of the sources legitimately bolster your claim. (In fact, this has been true in the past for other environmentalism devar Torah claims.)

Indeed, his other two quotes make use of ellipses, which make me wonder whether he is Dowdifying the quotes. I don't have time right now to examine them, though.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Unless you understand Adam Harishon to be representative of the Adam species as a whole... although that doesn't deal with the sin/pollution confusion/identification.

joshwaxman said...

though i'd much rather that such extrapolations be made explicit. one who IMHO does way too much of this mis-citation which can be cast as extrapolation is R Eliezer Berkovitz.

Anonymous said...

Can you give examples of that in R' Berkowitz?

From what I've seen of him, my impression was that he reads sources well, but makes suggestions that would never fly today due to essentially social concerns (sometimes valid, sometimes not).

joshwaxman said...

it would take to long to go through all the examples - I think there is one on almost every page. a while ago, Eliyahu lent me his book and that was my reaction to it. Alas, I no longer have the book.

But to give one example off the top of my head - he introduces each chapter with a short quote, and in one of the later chapters, he has a *positive,* pro-woman quote from a Yerushalmi, and if you look at the actual source that is not what it means (though one might be able to kvetch that message out).

But e.g. taking derashot such as the definition of "mishpacha" in a Biblical verse to arrive at a specific known halacha and taking the exclusion of the woman's family as denigrating the woman.

Taking "ain X elah Y" (the same form of "ain mayim eleh Torah) in this way, in the *exact* same way that anti-Semites take Talmudic passages that say that "Adam" only means Israelites to be a denial of the humanity of gentiles. (where it really means that the particular word can midrashically take this definition, as we see from another usage.) Things like that. I remember being very aggravated, over and over, as I looked up the sources in original context.

Anonymous said...

I was actually thinking solely of his analysis of Tanach, which for the most part does not have immediate black-and-white halachic consequences. I don't have an intelligent opinion on how well he interprets Chazal.

But I do remember that I found a couple of his Tanach-interpreting essays in "Essential Essays on Judaism" very insightful. Specifically, the long one near the end on the topic of... um, kedushah perhaps (I don't even remember for sure).


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