Friday, March 06, 2009

The *Implications* of Miracle Stories

Devarim 4:6
רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה

An interesting post at Matzav.com, which is a miracle story about miracle stories. We all hear miracle stories from time to time, and at the least, a good deal of them are made up. One such example is the talking Monsey fish, with the message that all should repent for the end is nigh. Another is the claim that Rachel Imeinu appeared to soldiers in Gaza, where it is clear how it developed: there was an initial core story (possibly true) about an Arab woman warning soldiers about a booby-trapped house, which was told over to Rabbi Lazer Brody at LazerBeams; he retold it with the unfounded suggestion that it must have been Rochel Imeinu; and later retellings had her say this; and other details were added with each retelling.

To be stupid and believe every urban legend that develops or is made up is not the mark of an Am Navon veChacham. And when one sees a whole bunch of stories like this made up, it is not a spiritual pegam to question it. One is not "Amalek." Yes, midrashically, Amalek is connected with doubt and the initial cooling. But accusing a fellow Jew of being Amalek, just like accusing the Israeli govt. of being the Erev Rav, is violent speech. After all, we will soon read about timcheh et zecher Amalek.

And Mishlei states that a fool believes everything. It is not a mark of righteousness to believe every crazy story. Especially as they may carry unintended, or perhaps intended, logical consequences. If someone told you a story of a Jew who was in trouble and davened to Yushke and was saved, the implication is that davening to Yushke is good and effective. For a less extreme case, if someone told you a story of someone who davened directly to a tzaddik, the implication is that such is good and effective. And yet there are many (most) who would say that such is possibly doreish el haMeisim and should not be done. The problem is that the fools who make up stories, and the fools who believe stories, are not necessarily theologically sophisticated enough to understand the implications of the stories, and that they are shifting people's hashkafa.

This was one major reason that Rav Weintraub criticized the Momma Rochel story in Gaza, saying that if if happened, at the most it would be a sheid. It is not that Rav Weintraub is chas veshalom Amalek, or a disbeliever. Rather, he realizes that there are philosophical and theological implications of a miracle story, since it relates to Divine intercession in the world, and he detected an improper message in the story. At least an improper message according to his hashkafa. I disagree with that hashkafa, but my point remains true all the same.

And now to the story reported in Matzav. There is an apparently old story about Rav Kanievsky and grasshoppers:
One of those lessons can be seen in the following story related by a rabbi from Brooklyn, who heard it directly from Rebbetzin Kanievsky, when he was in Bnei Brak about a month ago.

Approximately eight years ago, Harav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, was learning Maseches Chullin and a sugyah relating to chagovim, grasshoppers. Rav Chaim realized that he needed to see a grasshopper to better understand the Gemara - apparently he had never seen a live grasshopper before - and asked his daughter to bring him one. She tried, but reported to her father that she failed to find one. He went back to the sugyah, and lo and behold, a grasshopper came hopping through the window, landing on his Gemara. After examining it, he let it go. As he continued through the sugyah, he realized that he needed to study the hind legs a bit more, but the grasshopper was long gone. Before closing his Gemara, a second grasshopper hopped in and on to his Gemara, giving him the ability to study its hind leg in detail.

Whether or not the story is true, in all of its details, or was embellished, I don't know. I do know that sometimes stories get embellished in the telling. There is more to the story told over third-hand from Rebbetzin Kanievsky, but let us just focus on the message.

It is quite interesting and important (if true) that Rav Kanievsky wanted to study the actual metzius before coming to a conclusion in a gemara. There is the famous story about the "heilige kurkevan" (about Rav Baruch Ber?) when he finally saw the heilege kurkevan that he had written so much Torah about. But not knowing the actual metzius can lead to errors in understanding the sources, and from there to errors in pesak.

This is a specific level of Torah UMaddah -- that you need to learn the science to understand the Torah. This is somewhat obvious, and we have (IIRC) Rav apprenticing himself to a shepherd in order to study eye ailments of sheep in order to be able to pasken on Bechorot. While no one else in my shiur did this, when studying Chullin I took out books from the library on the anatomy of birds.

And here, Rav Kanievsky is apparently of similar opinion. He felt that to properly understand the gemara in Chullin, he had to actually take a look at the world. I would venture that most who have learned Chullin have not looked at grasshoppers, or if they have glanced at one, did not carefully examine it to learn about its construction.

I wonder how prevalent they are in Bnei Brak, that he would send out his daughter on a wild goose chase. Where would she look for it? They must be at least findable somewhere there. Perhaps a better way of approaching this, if not for the siyatta dishmaya, would be to go to a library and take out a book on it. For example, this book which discusses the anatomy and physiology of the grasshopper. Or to consult a zoologist. Or to go to a museum. Perhaps he would do that next, or perhaps not.

But then, if they randomly hop onto people's gemaras, or infest houses in Bnei Brak (as we will see), then maybe they are prevalent enough for it to be a reasonable request to his daughter. Even so, not every time one goes looking for something will one find it. There are plenty of ants in Queens, but if I were to go out today looking for an ant colony, I might not happen upon one. We also do not know how soon afterwards the grasshopper came.

Now, it is possible that this story happened. It is also possible this story did not happen. There are enough stories out there which are made up, or stretched beyond their initial state. Is one a rasha for disbelieving a story? Does one insult Rav Kanievsky by disbelieving the story? Elsewhere, Rav Kanievsky said that anything said in his name is false. And there was a previous misattribution to him, that he mystically predicted that during Chanukka, everyone in Israel would be in bomb shelters, something he did not do. No, one is not wicked for disbelieving these stories. One is not Amalek, despite what some people, who like to believe every silly story, would say.

So now on to the more recent twist, told over by an unnamed rabbi from Brooklyn -- gee, there are so few of those he is surely easily identifiable! -- who heard directly from Rebbetzin Kaneivsky (does she talk to men? I thought Rav Kanievsky talks to the men and she deals with the women?) -- a story about an unnamed Rav in Bnei Brak:

Two months ago, a rov giving a shiur in Bnei Brak criticized the tales people tell about gedolim, explaining that the stories cannot all be true, and sound silly. As a case in point, he brought the maaseh of Rav Chaim and the grasshoppers, viewing it as ridiculous and leading people to the wrong conclusions regarding Rav Chaim, who, after all, learns Torah like everyone else. After the shiur, the maggid shiur went home and found his house infested with grasshoppers (in the same Bnei Brak that Rav Kanievsky’s daughter - seeking to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av - could not find one). He tried for three days to rid his home of the insects, but could not. Someone suggested that he go to Rav Chaim and ask for mechilah.

The rov approached Rav Chaim and told him what had happened. Rav Chaim laughed, saying that he did not need his mechilah at all, as the grasshoppers could have come to anybody (after all, the window was open!), and he was certainly mochel him if he needed it. The maggid went home - and the grasshoppers were gone!

Forget for a moment about whether this story is true, or not. What is the implication of this story? It is precisely what we were saying above. Here is a rabbi, and thus a Torah-educated individual, with rabbinic bona-fides, who is telling everyone not to be fools and not to believe every single story. He was effectively saying that being gullible and stupid (to use harsher words to make the point) is not considered a middat chassidut in Judaism. And furthermore, he was making the important point that these stories carry messages of hashkafic import, and we should not simply allow any urban legend to shape our hashkafa.

He gave the example of the story with Rav Kanievsky. Again, I don't know that the story is true, or if true, in all its details. It is quite possible that it is true. After all, it is possible to investigate and hear directly from the people involved. But where people are making things up and attributing it to Rav Kanievsky, then it is reasonable to question it. (Similar to many other rebbe stories, which purportedly happened to Rabbi X, but others say Rabbi Y, and some say Rabbi Z). And it is reasonable to point out there there are intended or unintended messages.

In this case, perhaps he did not like the endorsement of Torah UMaddah, and that was the intention of "leading people to the wrong conclusions regarding Rav Chaim, who, after all, learns Torah like everyone else." Or perhaps what was meant was that he is a human being, rather than a malach. I don't know.

However, according to this story, this rav did something wrong. He was Amalek, and was cooling people's emunah. And by questioning a story about Rav Kanievsky, he was somehow insulting Rav Kanievsky!

And so, the Divine wrath. A plague of locusts in his house, as middah kenegged midah. It only went away after he went to Rav Kanievsky and asked mechila. Rav Kanievsky, of course, was a tzaddik and did not take offense, but did offer mechila. And the mechila was obviously needed, despite the fact that Rav Kanievsky explicitly said that mechila was not needed, because the grasshoppers only went away afterwards.

Now to return to validating the story. Here we have a story told over second-hand (or possibly more) from Rebbetzin Kanievsky, from an unknown Brooklyn rabbi. We don't know that he exists, or that he is not prone to embellish or make up stories in order to "inspire" people. (Some misguided people unfortunately do this.) We do not know the name of the rabbi in Bnei Brak this happened to, so we cannot call him up and confirm.

And so, a questionable and unconfirmable miracle story is brought with the intent of conveying the message that one should not question questionable and unconfirmable miracle stories; and it conveys a message discounting the idea of this rav that some of these stories convey questionable messages.

Yes, I am entirely persuaded!

3 comments:

Yehuda said...

If he had never seen a grasshopper before how did he know that it was a grasshopper that had landed on his gemara?

Shimon said...

I do totally agree with you.
The only thing that might change my mind is if you report back in a few days that your computer has been infested by grasshoppers.

Rafi G. said...

that is a very interesting story and discussion. I never heard this story before.

One question I had when reading it (similar to Yehuda but a little different) is that there are so many species of grasshopper, how did he know that looking at this one, or only this one, would help him with the sugya? Why did he not ask for more variations?
Or maybe he just checked it and got his answer and had no need to ask for more....

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