Something New, Something Old

On the surface, wouldn’t it seem somewhat chutzpadik to think that I, you, or some Ploni Almoni who owns a local shoe store will add some new interpretation — a chiddush — to the incredibly huge storehouse of Jewish Halachic and Midrashic literature?

(Photo credit: Reuvenk)

Consider this: The full-size Babylonian Talmud alone is printed in 20 huge, heavy volumes. I am not a scholar, rabbi, PhD in this field, nor a Professor of Rabbinic literature. Still, my library on this subject numbers perhaps 100 books. To really be competent to speak  authoritatively – these are, after all, two millennia and more of accumulated Torah insights – one needs multiples of 100. Now we have a better perspective on what we are up against.

And yet, we hear and see chiddushim – new understandings of what the text talks about. Can there possibly anything new to be discovered?

Allow me to contrast this question with a poem by poet laureate Billy Collins. He writes about his experiences teaching poetry and the students’ obstinate desire and need to know the meaning. He says it’s like tying the poem to a chair and torturing a confession out of it, even beating it with a garden hose to get the answer. They’re young, they don’t “get” that poetry makes meaning in a different way than they have learned in their other classes. In contrast with the Talmud, Rambam, and Pirkay Avot the relationship of student to the words is not hostile but loving. Students of Jewish texts are committed to these words that are extremely important to them as Jews, for a great percentage of them, sacred. In addition, there is an intuitive sense that Torah texts are so rich, they can sustain examination and near-infinite re-examination and still yield more meaning.

I believe this is similar to the Talmud’s statement (Chagiga 9b) that someone who reviews a text 100 times is not the same as one who goes over it 101 times. Something that might not be understood before, now just might or is bound to make sense. In some ways, at least the way my detective best-sellers describe it, it is like the cop who makes the witnesses repeat what they saw again and again and the “perps” are forced to retell their story as many times as the police consider it necessary. There might be some crucial detail that was missed, or in the suspect’s recitation the eighth time some body language, voice inflection, change of speech rhythm that proves the suspect’s innocence or guilt.

Who will be the ones most likely to make a chiddush?

There are, in fact, many categories of people who see or hear a text who are likely candidates for coming up with something new – everything from a relatively small “tweak”- like insight to a truly revelatory breakthrough.

Among those people are: young, even the youngest children because of their innocence; any student studying alone, with a partner, or in a class; Elders because of their accumulated life experiences; people who have never studied Jewish texts, some of whom don’t know Hebrew or Aramaic; anyone whose brain works differently than the norm (e.g., people with ADD, bi-polar disorder, dyslexics, LD’s, savants, geniuses – anyone with electrical mis-firings in the brain’s circuitry, or has a genetic irregularity); armed forces, law enforcement personnel, and local, state, federal employees (because of the regimen, the acronyms, and slang of the jobs); physicians; computer techies and class-A geeks; recent immigrants not-yet-totally-familiar with the local language and culture; prisoners and ex-convicts, and lastly, Rabbis, text scholars, and educators in Jewish schools if they are not totally locked into their own understanding of the text. Each of these brings to the text his or her own unique conscious and subconscious mental, physical and spiritual  presence to interact with the words.

Personal experience
I am most fortunate that I have some friends, some closest of friends, and many students who over the years have made chiddushim that have astonished – no, awed – me. One in particular sometimes tells me, “It’s obvious” even if I have worked with and taught the text for years and eventually got stuck, feeling that there was no way I go farther or deeper. This is a great blessing for a Torah teacher.

Four important possible scenarios that might come into play. Picture the following persons who may contribute a chiddush:

  • Imagine a woman, an attorney in her in her 40’s is sunning herself by the pool at a 12-star resort (because of the half-price coupon deal) on Maui, a volume of Talmud on a small table beside her on ancient jurisprudence, and, on the other hand, another one in Fairbanks on December 8th at 9:00 a.m. – it is still dark – heading to the congregation’s regular Torah study group, or
  • A stressed out eleventh grader worried about his or her pre-SAT’s next week compared to some 43-year-old caught in a dreadfully stifling job who still dreams of tinkering in the garage and inventing a world-changing device of some kind, or
  • A risk-taker who enjoys scaling sheer cliffs but is now laid up with a broken hip, knee, and ankle and most of the time confined to the house (but in the wheelchair he balances a volume of the Rambam on his lap), or
  • A completely lucid and alert woman in her late 80’s who marched in Alabama with Martin Luther King.

All of these varied descriptions of random people show how factors of location, mood, personality, age, and even temperature may be contributing factors to producing chiddushim.

The Jewish 180 degree psychological reversal
For most mathematicians, there is no connection in their work whether Leibniz or Newton invented calculus. The same is true for the cardiac surgeon who has just saved a life with the Hofnagel valve who knows nothing about the life of Dr. Charles Hofnagel. That Dr. Hofnagel taught, performed surgery, and did research at Georgetown University Hospital Center does not in any way effect how this present surgeon repairs her patient’s heart with a Hofnagel valve. There is no connection.

This is not the same as in the world of chiddushim.

Let us imagine that our suntanning woman comes up with an astounding chiddush while studying a difficult passage in the Talmudic volume Sanhedrin concerning the interrogation of witnesses. Her Jewish soul must feel an authentic Jewish high. Later, when this slightly-browned woman returns home, she is excited to tell friends in the Talmud study group about her chiddush. Following her explanation, one of the chevra respectfully points out that the Rif (Isaac Alfasi) said exactly the same thing. Our reluctantly-returned vacationer, rather than feeling ego-deflated, is delighted that she is related to an Algerian Jew who lived half way around the world 1,000 years before the Hyatt on Ka’anapali Beach was built. They are forever connected, soul-siblings.

She then recites the wonderful line that expresses this turnaround and the new-found Jewish-bond that has been created. When the woman hears about Alfasi’s words she proudly says to the others:  Baruch Shekivanti LeDa’at Gedolim – What a blessing it is for me to have thought of the same thing as one of The Greats!

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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