It’s not either/ or

Apparently, I’m not the only critic of Dennis Prager’s last column.  In a follow-up piece, Mr. Prager presses the point that competence is a more important requirement for leadership than character.

I agree.  But that is beside the point.  I would much prefer a Bill Clinton in the White House than a Jimmy Carter.  But far more than either I would prefer a Washington or a Lincoln, a Teddy Roosevelt or a Harry Truman.

To ask whether we are better off with an adulterous statesman or a virtuous bungler merely muddies the waters.  Needless to say, we often have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but my objection to Mr. Prager is that he is rationalizing immorality into irrelevancy.  We need moral leaders as desperately as we need capable governors.  That we may have to make compromises when there is no Harry Truman to be found is an unpleasant fact of life, not a reason to diminish the value of virtue.

Mr. Prager goes on to prove, anecdotally, that not every case of adultery is as bad as every other.  This is obviously true, just as not all acts of robbery are equal and not all acts of spilling blood are equal.  But that is the point precisely.  It is only when we have leaders of moral stature that we retain the ability to make meaningful value judgments and not slip into the moral anarchy that characterizes so much of our society by elevating “nonjudgmentalism” to the highest strata of virtue.

Regarding Biblical interpretation, Judaism operated for over 3000 years within a system of rabbinic authority built upon the authority handed down to Moses at Sinai.  Separatist groups like the Hellenists, the Sadducees, and the Kaarites attempted to overturn those conventions with only fleeting success.  They all disappeared, and authentic Torah tradition endured.

But their spiritual descendants keep coming back.  The lessons of Jewish history rest upon a solid understanding of how the prophets and sages chose to transmit their teachings.  We cannot reinvent them to fit the sensitivities of our times, although sometimes we have to try to find a new way of explaining them to which modern ears will be receptive.

Of those who have commented, some clearly have not read or do not care about what I wrote in the linked essay about David and Bathsheba.  Others have offered explanations, even in David’s defense, that have no basis in Torah tradition that I know of.  Oddly enough, the same people who would never argue against going to a doctor for medical advice, going to an accountant for tax advice, and going to a mechanic for auto advice, believe that they are fully justified in offering their own unschooled interpretations of manuscripts that have been analyzed and annotated by the most brilliant minds over the last hundred generations.

This is what we call chutzpah.

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  1. #1 by Canuck on December 13, 2011 - 11:12 pm

    Who is being chutzpadik? If you disagree with someone’s interpretation of Tanach, why don’t you just show how that interpretation is implausible or incorrect. I don’t think it’s necessarily chutzpadik for someone to offer a novel interpretation or an unschooled opinion, as long as it’s consistent with a simple reading of the biblical text. As a rabbi, won’t you please explain the Torah as you understand it and correct any misunderstandings or misinterpretations, rather than belittle people with less Jewish education?

    BTW, when you refer to adultery above, are you using Dennis Prager’s definition (that a man with an unmarried mistress is committing adultery)? To be clear, I’m on your side here, and I respect the rabbinic traditions. Although I respect Dennis Prager as a force for good on the radio, I think observant Jews who specifically honor him are ignoring his rejection of the oral law, despite his yeshiva education.

  2. #2 by torahideals on December 14, 2011 - 9:59 am

    Many of the comments I’ve received flatly ignore answers and explanations already given, demonstrating either a lack of interest in the other side or a lack of attention, either of which makes it difficult to advance the conversation.

    For scriptural interpretation to be consistent with authentic Torah tradition it must build upon the Oral Tradition and fit with the accepted opinions of classical commentaries over time. Novel interpretations that meet this standard are worth considering. Those that violate it are not.

    If you have a source that either Bathsheba or Uriah was a convert, I would like to hear it. To simply toss out such a possibility without citation is like suggesting that George Washington was a midget on stilts. Prove it.

    For the record — again — the only definition of adultery relevant to the case of David and Bathsheba is the Torah definition of intimacy between a married woman and a woman other than her husband, for the reasons explained in previous posts and comments.

  3. #3 by Canuck on December 14, 2011 - 12:25 pm

    You are being disrespectful. I didn’t state that there are sources claiming Uriah the Hittite or Bathsheba were converts or not, or Jewish or not. I was simply laying out a set of logical scenarios (not inconsistent with the simple reading of Tanach) to determine under which conditions King David might have been guilty of adultery. In the end, I concluded that the evidence exculpated King David of that particular sin. I agree that much has been said and written on the subject, but I disagree that interpretation is off limits to casual readers. Rabbi, don’t forget you can learn from everyone.

    Also, why didn’t you more clearly respond to Dennis Prager’s assertion that King David committed adultery, by laying out the reasons why that view is rejected in Jewish tradition? That was more important than offering your wish for more moral leadership among elected officials.

  4. #4 by torahideals on December 14, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    I am baffled by what you consider disrespectful, and I must insist that you have not carefully read my articles or my comments, since all the information you ask for has already been provided, as well as an explanation why suggesting that Uriah and/or Bathsheba were converts is untenable without a source in Torah tradition.

    I have been ridiculed for explaining how the Oral Tradition interprets the Written Word and am now criticized for not being open-minded enough to allow creative explanations.

    Torah scholarship is no less a discipline than any other field of study. The conventions are routinely ignored by those who have not invested the time in learning them and mocked by those who have already made up their minds that their own conclusions are superior to the collective wisdom of the Talmudic sages and their successors.

    Canuck, if you say we are on the same side, please look at what I’ve written more closely. The answers to your questions are already there for you to find. Indeed, half my article on JWR and the linked essay provided refutations of the claim that King David committed adultery. I’m sorry if you have taken offense at my words, but it strikes me as an exercise in futility to restate explanations that have not been carefully considered.

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