Sunday, August 05, 2012

King David. Two Perspectives (Daf Yomi - Berakhot 3b-4a)

On the Israeli Religious Zionist scene, a storm has raged in recent weeks about the proper way to study Tanakh (Bible). Does one study the text itself, or does one approach Tanakh exclusively through the filter of Hazal (the early Rabbis)? Now this is a highly politicized debate, but at some level it has focused upon the appropriate manner in which to treat Biblical characters, in particular the heroic ones. Should they be viewed as real people, great people, but with human achievements and also failings, or, alternatively, should they be seen as exemplary, almost superhuman role-models, whose sins are not open to assessment on a regular human sale of measurement?

This question is regularly brought to the fore in my Tanakh classroom, when studying Jacob's trickery of his father, or David's sin with Batsheva and Uriah. How should we assess these figures?

Well, in today's Daf Yomi, we see a classic example of one Rabbinic way of viewing King David that seems at variance with the Tanakh text.

Berakhot 3b-4a views David as the most pious of men, who spends his nights studying Torah and praying to God.
R. Ashi says: Till midnight he (King David) studied the Torah, from thence on he recited songs and praises.
He is a posek, a Rabbinic expert who issues Halakhic rulings on laws of Nidda and the like:
Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, am I not pious? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood [of menstruation], with the foetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman clean for her husband
David's advisor Benaayah is the head of the Sanhedrin, and the Kreti and Pleti are the scholars themselves.
I have frequently pondered upon the difference between a Tanakh-based education in the regard, as opposed to a Talmud based education. Let me explain. My children, and the students in the Religious Zionist school system meet David first as a warrior through the pages of Sefer Shemuel. He is the man first described in I Samuel ch. 16 as a man who is:
"... skillful in playing (the harp), a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him."
Our students hear about how he kills the lion and bear, they watch him defeat Goliath and rise up the ranks in the army. They also know him as a principled man who will not kill the king, who wishes to build the Temple,  who understands his place "before God" as he dances in a sense of wild abandon before the Ark, who occasionally sins, but who lives his life with a palpable sense of God in all that he does. They may also know David's religious persona - his humility, passion, repentance, thankfulness, faith, God-awareness - from the Book of Tehillim. But the primary perspective of David is of a man involved in state affairs, a warrior, a deeply religious man, but a worldly person. This is the rpism through which they will view the trials and tribulations, the sins and triumphs that characterized his life.

But for the student who draws a perception of David from Massechet Berachot, David arises every night to sing God's praises, he is a man who debates technical Halakhic minutiae; he is first and foremost a man of prayer, a Talmud scholar. In a similar perception, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) turns Joab's assassination of Avner into a complicated Halakhic debate about the laws of Halitza. David's warriors: Banayahu, Joab, Avner, are in fact, warriors of the Law.

My children see David in army uniform; the children of Meah Shearim see him in a long black coat sitting in the Beit Midrash. The difference is huge.

I am fully aware that at the foundation of this discussion is the genre of Talmudic aggada. Should aggada be understood as metaphor or read literally? When the Rabbis discussed biblical (and even Rabbinic) figures, were they discussing the past, or describing their contemporary reality? 

But I return to the fundamental point. What is my base line? When discussing characters in Tanakh, do I start with the Tanakh or the Talmud?


David Galpert said...

In my humble opinion, I would say we should start with the source, which is the Tanach. The Talmud offers different layers of interpretation and understanding of what is brought up in Tanach, but first requires a foundational knowledge of the descriptions in Tanach in order to build upon them.

When Talmud study overshadows Tanach study which unfortunately often occurs, passages of Tanach are seen just as parts of the Talmud and Tanach's own significance and importance is lost.

Alex Israel said...

I of course agree wholeheartedly with you. I met someone the other day who criticized this post for being too evenhanded and ambivalent. So I'll say it outright - I think we should take our basic reading of David Hamelekh from the Tanakh.
Furthermore, it seems elementary to me that Hazal knew Tanakh forwards and backwards and that Midrash is built upon an earlier understanding of the "peshat" of Tanakh.
Without a clear comprehension of Tanakh, we run the risk of misunderstanding Hazal.

Joshua Stadlan said...

It feels a bit foolish for me, your student, to post a comment regarding tanach education on your blog. SAs another reader posted above, it seems that the consensus among critical-thinking, analytical Jews is to read tanach and use the gemara and midrash as, well, drash--the first-stop for another perspective after reading the text on one's own. I do think it's interesting, however, to note the general trends in tanach-based vs. gemara-based education. Just recently I noticed two dissenting articles on the topic,
'Overhauling Orthodox Education To Make Better Jews by Rabbi Dov Lipman'
and 'Never mind the Bible, it’s the sanity of the Talmud you need to understand the world and yourself ' by Rabbi Steinsaltz

A simple observation on the particular example of king David:
(I'm sure I would be able to comment more eloquently and intelligently had I taken your tanach chug)
King David of the tanach seems to reflect the hero of the time, when Israel was a small yet brave sovereign nation that had God's divine guidance but plagued with enemies on its borders; Torah study and prayer was not yet the people's modus operandi; worship dealt with prophets and sacrifices would soon center around the beit hamikdash.
King David of the Talmud is the hero Jews needed in the diaspora, in Bavel, Roman Palestine, and later Europe--arbitrator of halachah, author of tefilah, a role model of moral superiority--qualities that enrich and perpetuate Judaism religiously and ensure the future of Jews away from home.
Today, of course, with both a sovereign state and thriving religion of study and worship, we need both King Davids, and we as a people must decide what type of synthesis/dialectic/dichotomy (a' la Rabbi Lamm's chapter in Torah U'Madda that you shared with us) between the two King Davids we will become.

Shabbat Shalom/Shavua Tov!