Go to the Source

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Macro of female hand open and reading the book
30 Jan 2019

The other night, I gave a shiur that included two parts: (1) looking at several texts we’d already studied in the series, searching for phrases related to a particular angle of the topic; (2) reading just a few paragraphs of a long teshuva by Rav Moshe Feinstein, some of which we’d already read and more of which is to come next week.

The same information could have been conveyed in under ten minutes, had I simply restated the phrases from those sources and summarized the point of the teshuva. In fact, if I took that approach, we could have finished all the information in my eight-page handout in those 45 minutes. Did we really need to read four passages in Rambam, if three say the same thing? Did we really need to read through Rav Moshe’s words if the same information could have been summarized more quickly and maybe even more clearly?

Yup. Whenever possible, I will always choose to go through the sources – myself, and then with whoever comes to learn with me – because there is always more to say, and no one says it better than the source.

Yitro knew this. He heard what Hashem did for Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 18:1), but at first demonstrated no immediate reaction other than picking up and going to Moshe. Only after hearing the story from the source (v.8), from an eyewitness who was intimately involved at every stage of the process, does he react. “Now I know that Hashem is greater…” (v.11) – did he not know already, having heard the story  ten pesukim ago? Apparently not. He didn’t really know until he went to the source.

Teachers and academics know this, demanding carefully-sourced material and differentiating between primary and secondary sources. Journalists used to know this. Verifying sources used to be a thing, and fortunately for some it still is, though the age of the internet has brought daily avalanches of information and the news cycle moves so quickly that stories are often circulated, even by reputable news agencies, with inaccurate information. (Do I need to give examples here, or have we all seen enough of those sources by now?)

In theory, we all know this. After all, we’ve all had teachers who made us check and cite sources. We’ve all read the news, and noted or lamented the presence or lack of verifiably accurate information.

But how often do we apply that knowledge in our lives?

How often do we make claims without providing basis? I once read a dvar Torah, by a true scholar of Tanach, who built a whole theory based on the absence of a piece of information in the Torah – but that information was in fact explicitly stated in a pasuk. Even he neglected to check his source!

How often do we rush to snap judgments and reactions, without taking the time to consider whether further source-checking might be in order?

Back when I had the time to really learn parsha weekly (as a teenager studying in Israel), I noticed a surprising pasuk in Parshat Mishpatim, and my initial reaction was basically to look for the “dislike” button (not that we had such things then). “Don’t mention names of other gods” (23:13). What? That’s so weird! We’re supposed to avoid mentioning G-d’s Name, but idolatry should be recognized as mundane; I should say the names of idols all the time just to show how little I think of them!

Often, when presented with ideas that aren’t immediately intuitive, we simply react: That’s crazy! Or on the flip side – when presented with an idea that does sit well, we simply accept it without question. Instead of looking for further sources that might explain things further and more accurately, we assume we know. We react quickly and often emotionally, either embracing or dismissing but often forgetting to ask or search.

I once wrote an article pulling together a number of sources in pesukim and midrashim that portrayed biblical heroines as having played major roles at the forefront of the nation and of history, in an attempt to demonstrate that our tradition has plenty of room for women to serve in public, active, or vocal roles and that such roles do not necessarily involve immodesty.

Since this was a hot topic at the time and my approach seemed obvious to me, I felt tremendous pressure to “get it out there” as quickly as possible; surely others were already working on the same sort of article! Imagine my surprise when one friend shared my article with the tagline “For those who appreciate a source-based approach” – as if a source-based approach were some sort of novelty, something that not everyone would appreciate. And indeed, most of the writings I’ve seen on the topic, before and since, are built mostly on logic or personal feeling, perhaps with one or two sources mentioned as a springboard or aside.

There is certainly room for all of those perspectives. Some issues can and should be addressed based, at least in part, on personal experience or observations. But some issues can and should be, at least in part, rooted in something outside of ourselves. Surely, with such a wealth of Torah writings and a tradition of building one upon the other (Mishna on Tanach, Gemara on Mishna, etc.), it should not be such a novelty to value and pursue source-based accuracy, authenticity, and depth.

Similarly, I have occasionally been approached in shul, or the supermarket or wherever, by people who know I give a regular shiur on women and halacha and who want to hear my take on the latest hot-button issue related to Jewish women. They are right to assume I have an interest in these issues – but wrong if they assume I have an opinion. I’m often surprised by others’ surprise when I tell them I don’t have a take, because I haven’t researched that topic yet. It seems we often don’t realize that having a take requires first taking in what has already been said about the issue. In fact, that’s exactly why I started that shiur: to provide myself and others with the background in what our traditional sources actually say about various areas of halacha, so we can build informed perspectives rather than kneejerk emotional responses.

When I was surprised by a pasuk in Mishpatim that didn’t match what I thought I knew about how to properly show respect for G-d – and I had access to a well-stocked beit midrash and the time to use it – I researched. I found myriad sources in both exegetical and halachic texts that more than adequately explained why my initial reaction was incomplete, analyzing the issues from angles I hadn’t thought of. I developed, then and since, an intimate appreciation for how simply pulling a book off the shelf – and then another, and another – could fill in gaps in my knowledge and perspective that I didn’t know were there.

I also discovered, then and since, the value of checking original sources rather than relying on quotations or summaries that might be incomplete or even misrepresent the intended meaning. As Rabbi Jack Abramowitz illustrated masterfully just last week, context is everything. I often find this to be true in researching to prepare my classes, which is why we read such long selections of so many teshuvos. Sometimes seeing a quote in context simply offers greater insight, and sometimes I find that the isolated quote or summary actually misrepresented the author’s meaning.

One example that happened to come up in a different class recently is the Gemara in Shabbos 55b-56a. (At least, I think it’s an example; learn it and see if you agree!) In a lengthy passage, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani famously states (in the name of Rabbi Yonatan) about several biblical individuals that “one who says X sinned is nothing but mistaken” – despite apparently unambiguous biblical statements that X did in fact sin. Some quote this Gemara as evidence that the various individuals never did anything wrong; others offer it as evidence of the terrible sin of whitewashing biblical sins. Rarely, however, do I hear this line quoted with the crucial continuation, “as it is said…” The Gemara doesn’t just offer a kneejerk reaction, “don’t you dare say X ever did anything wrong!” Rather, it confronts conflicting pieces of textual evidence: on one hand, we have a pasuk suggesting X did something truly terrible; on the other hand, we have a pasuk suggesting X was truly wonderful. In attempting to resolve these contradictions, the Gemara is not reacting emotionally or blindly whitewashing terrible deeds; it is paying attention to its sources, in ways we will never appreciate if we only hear the soundbite and don’t study the full source.

When I do research those hot-button issues related to women and halacha, I often encounter quotations that come across one way – somebody is offended, in some direction – but which in context suggest a whole different spin, with a greater degree of nuance that inspires a greater degree of respect in all directions.

It’s easy to react when we first hear something, but we have to remember to first get the whole story – like Yitro did.

Of course, not everyone has the means or the time or, let’s face it, the interest to investigate every statement or news story that comes our way. But we can certainly resolve that if we’re not going to embark on appropriate investigation of the sources on any given issue, we will also not claim to know what we’re talking about.

As Rabbi Elazar says in the name of Rabbi Chanina, “anyone who says something in the name of the one who says it, brings redemption to the world” (Megillah 15a). And before we can cite our sources – we have to be sure of what they say.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.