Tuesday, July 17, 2007

And The Answer Is...

Lately I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon. When people give divrei Torah, they usually begin with a question. (No, that’s not the strange part.) Many will then continue, “And the answer is…” Whenever I hear this, it jars me. So I began to think: what about this simple phrase bothers me so much?

On the most basic level, the phrase implies that the answer given is the only answer to the question (by saying “the answer is…” instead of “Rashi’s answer is…” or “Rav Willig answers that…”). Saying “the answer” is a sort of conceit—and also, to me, comes off as uneducated.

When teaching a child Torah, it is common (and understandable) to pose a simple question, and then to give one answer as the answer. I remember learning this way in fourth grade, and being so proud to show off my knowledge to my parents. I had a question, and I knew the answer. Period. Children see things only in black and white—they cannot grasp the idea that there could be more than one correct answer.

Adults, however, understand the existence of multiple answers to Torah questions. The concept of shivim panim l’Torah is a fundamental component of our system. It is only those with some degree of intellectual sophistication who can understand that life is comprised mainly of shades of gray—and that Torah reflects this in the multiplicity of its perspectives. This idea is manifested throughout the entire system of Orthodoxy. It allows one to understand that there are many different valid derachim within halachic Judaism, and prevents belief in one’s own way to the exclusion of every other.

Religious fanaticism is the easy way out. It’s much easier to believe that there is only one right way, and that everyone else is wrong. It makes life simpler. It is also a childish and dangerous way of seeing the world. The basis for so much of what we believe rests in the idea that there can be more than one right answer.

Though “And the answer is…” seems but a harmless phrase, its philosophical ramifications are more complex and far-reaching than one might originally surmise. Though I don’t assume that anyone who uses that phrase has serious philosophical issues (since I understand that yes, it is only a phrase, and I shouldn’t read into it too much), the idea that it implies is deeply problematic.

11 comments:

jackie said...

And now I'm desperately trying to think of the time when I must have said this and it must have gotten on your nerves....hehe.

Only joking. I completely agree. And arrogance aside, when a person presents a dvar Torah like that, it's so straightforward that it's really boring to listen to, also!

Northern Light said...

Has somebody offended you with his arrogance lately? Or are you just suffering from existential malaise? I read your words and think: "and SO??"

THE truth is that for most things, there may be many answers, but some answers are more correct than others, or "fit" logic better, or are more suited to that particular situation or time. Not all answers are equal in validity.

Also, there are a few situations where yes, there is THE answer, and many of those proper answers are indeed defined in halacha. When you were a little girl, you learned some facts where creative answers wouldn't do--try 2 + 2 for example. When I was young, some idiot decided to teach "new math" where the process of deriving an answer was what counted--you got credit if 2+2=5. No, sorry, that wasn't the answer.

There are also situations where NO answer can really satisfy, or where no answer available is correct. We are told that when we leave this world, all our questions will be answered. 'Til then, we puzzle in amazement and awe at this bizarre world...

Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

SJ said...

Jackie - I've found that people use it even in complex divrei Torah--like when asking a question on the Rambam based on the explanation of the passage by eben ezra...etc.--they'll still say, "And the answer is..."! I understand that when dealing with such a specific question as the made-up one above, there may not be another answer, at least as of yet, or as far as the speaker knows. But it still jars me.

Northern Light - I freely admit that this post may seem nitpicky, but my blog is my place to post what I think about, so I do. In this post I am not referring to the kind of questions that only have one answer (e.g. is it ok to kill?) , rather I'm talking about questions on perceived issues in Torah text/philosophy etc. to which the idea of "shivim panim" applies.

Moshe said...

With all due respect, I feel that this post is a bit nitpicky. Firstly, like the Light said, there are certain instances in which there is “the answer.” Very often, even in situations where there may be millions of answers, there is one that is generally and most accepted.

Also, when one says “the answer is” he usually means that this is the answer he knows or heard, and I don’t see much harm in that.

I think the real problem is when people say “the answer is” without saying “I saw in the Ramban” or “I heard in the name of R Moshe Feinstein.” I find that people fail to give credit to the proper source. If one would simply provide the source for “the answer” it would bring geulah as well as alleviate your issue – since by providing a source one is saying that while there may be so many other opinions, here’s the one I learned/heard.

Ezzie said...

Oh, I probably should have commented here, too.

I disagree with Moshe to an extent, though I love the points about giving credit - I'm big on that.

While there often is a better or best answer, there is perhaps more often a couple of choices that each have their own positives and negatives. Yes, if your focus is A, then this is the best answer; but if you think about B, then perhaps that is the best answer. This is especially true of hashkafic discussions, and certainly true when simply trying to explain 'pshat' in something in the Torah.

Also, there's the idea that what is generally accepted may have been right in a certain timeframe - but nowadays, perhaps the disadvantages weigh heavier. (To go outside the Torah discussion for a second, Social Security is a great example.) While we certainly shouldn't just jump from the old approach, we should check often to see what other (valid) approaches exist and their possible effects.

Daphne said...

I agree w/ moshe in that when people say "and the answer is...", they simply mean "and the answer which I have prepared for you today is...", rather than "and THE answer is..."
Still, I hear your point, and I agree that it is always important to cite sources for proposed answers.
In response to Northern Lights, I think that with most Torah questions, there are multiple answers ,all of equal validity. Even for the question of "can one kill?", the answer is sometimes "yes", as in the case of amalek.

Diet Dr. Pepper said...

I have the same reaction to "and the answer is" statements. My sensitivity toward this sort of statement was created when, during a seminary interview, I began to resolve the difficulty I had raised against Rashi's answer with this exact phrase. The interviewer interjected, "No, an answer is..."

Perhaps we're being nitpicky, but now that I'm aware of the conceit inherent, although entirely unintended, within this comment, this statement jumps out at me every time I hear it used.

Scraps said...

I don't have as much of a problem with the phrase itself as I do with the attitude behind it. The assumption that there is one answer, and only one answer, to many of life's questions, is generally incorrect, and I think that not too long down the line we're going to really start seeing the ramifications of this attitude. Don't get me started on the state of Jewish education, I'll never shut up...

Rebecca said...

I agree with Scraps. I don't think people intend anything with the word "the" in general cases, it's the attitude that makes the difference.

haKiruv said...

One of the things that make me feel most comfortable about Judaism is the plurality of answers.

sharona said...

SJ, I also like the second way more (Rashi answers....)

And I agree there are many Torah paths like chassidish, litvish, modern orthodox, sefardic or in between.