What is the Meaning of Life? - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for January 2019

Dear Rabbi Zahavy
Your Talmudic Advice Column
January 2019

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

What is the meaning of life?

Wondering in Weehawken

Dear Wondering,

Sure, at this time of the new year it makes sense for a person to wax philosophical and to ask such a big question.

However, let me consider that perhaps you were not really serious in sending in this question to begin with.

In that case, I will answer by quoting to you from the epilogue, the last scene of the 1983 Monty Python comedy film “The Meaning of Life.” There the host opens an envelope containing, well yes, the meaning of life. She reads it out loud and here is her profound advice: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

While that may not be the momentous meaning of life, that is not bad advice.

Now, let me consider the alternative, and take your question as a serious inquiry and try to reply in kind.


Is Haym Soloveitchik a hero?

[Republished from 3/14/2013] You may start reading about this controversy here.

Professor Haym Soloveitchik has stepped up yet again to "blow the whistle" on the "insufficiencies" of the scholarship of Professor Talya Fishman. Haym has raised his mission to the level of a crusade with his latest rejoinders and critiques, published here and here.

Why the crusade? Haym explains his motives through a personal anecdote in his rejoinder on his web site:
When Becoming the People of the Talmud appeared and then won the Jewish Book Council Award for Scholarship, the danger posed by this was clear; nevertheless, I was conflicted about putting my assessment into print. I discussed the matter with one of my oldest colleagues over dinner. He listened carefully and said, “Haym, the only way you can justify the review that you are thinking of is if you state openly what the real reason for it is, the larger issue that is at stake here. You can only do that is by becoming first, a whistle-blower and then stating matters with an explicitness that breaches the proprieties of academic engagement. You have to point out not simply mistakes but also their elementary nature and what they say about the writer’s basic competence.” I thought about this during the meal and, as it was drawing to a close, replied: “Those rules of propriety, and they are good ones, apply when they are superimposed on the quality controls that function as a matter of course in academia. Everyone then understands what is being said by indirection. However, when that community is wholly in the dark as to what is transpiring, those rules must be breached. Look at what happened in Talmud. A few reviews were, in fact, written in the 1960s and ‘70s pointing out the errors of the author and hinting at his ignorance. The criticisms were shrugged off, because people thought, ‘Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.’ They didn’t know that the errors were ones that a schoolboy would never have made. This couldn’t be stated openly because it was against the rules of the game. Look at the situation now. If these rules aren’t finally broken and the whistle blown, there will be little left in a decade.”
I that none of the scholarship in the field that Haym calls "Rabbinics" is scientific, or for that matter even vaguely social scientific. So "facts" are not at issue in judging the worth of contributions to the field. Assertions by these scholars are "opinion and conjecture" about matters that are far distant from us in time, space, culture and language.

Haym has stepped up heroically to claim supremacy of his opinion over Fishman's based on his assertion that by his "rigorous standards of quality," Fishman is illiterate in rabbinics. Therefore her work is worthless. And unless Haym roots Fishman out of the profession, the field of "rabbinics" will be ruined.

So Haym imagines himself to be a scholar-hero. All we can say is, Bravo to brave Haym the Hero.

[Republished from 3/14/2013]

Update on the Insults: A Battle Over a Book: Haym Soloveitchik v. Talya Fishman

[This post is edited and republished from my original post of 12/18/2012]

My once-upon-a-time teacher at Yeshiva University has panned a recent book about rabbinic cultural development.

It's a veritable battle over a book, Haym Soloveitchik v. Talya Fishman.

The book is Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Jewish Culture and Contexts).

The review by Haym is locked away to subscribers only at the Jewish Review of Books. I infer from hearsay and from the rejoinder that it is quite negative. (see below for details.)

Fishman is busy issuing several rejoinders to the review, the first part is here - Response to Haym Soloveitchik “The People of the Book: Since When?” in Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2012, pp. 14-18.

She starts off, "Reading Professor Soloveitchik’s remarks, I was unable to recognize the book that I wrote." She then makes a methodical case for the inaccuracies and errors of Haym's review.