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Rabbi David Fohrman: Does the Torah Teach Science?

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Rabbi David Fohrman – author, lecturer, and founder of the Aleph Beta Academy – to discuss in what genre the Torah is meant to be, and how that should influence the way we think about it.

There are many approaches one could take when confronted with science that seem to contradict parts of the Torah. Some, including Nathan Aviezer, orchestrate elaborate readings of the beginning of Bereishis in accordance with Biblical concordism. Some, like Natan Slifkin, feel comfortable reading the pesukim metaphorically, feeling less need to provide literal reconciliations. Rabbi David Fohrman feels that many people could benefit from thinking more about how the Torah and science coexist, particularly the words of the first few chapters in Bereishis.

  • In what genre is the Torah?
  • How should we treat its content?
  • Does it ever try to teach us empirical facts about the world, or is it trying to give perspective on life?
  • What other kinds of patterns should we look for in the Torah?

Tune in to hear Rabbi David Fohrman discuss the many ways in which we could think about the pesukim in the Torah.

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month, we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring science and religion. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy questions that animate religion and Yiddishkeit in the contemporary world, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I think one of the most elusive questions, and essential questions, but it’s really hard to find an answer, is: What is Torah? How do you define Torah? Maybe it’s not a body of… The obvious answer is that it’s a body of texts, it includes the five books of Moses, Bereishis, Shemos, Genesis, Exodus, and all of that stuff. And then we have the oral law, and I guess this includes what’s written in the Talmud and later. But as you go later and later down, it’s really hard to define exactly what and when is something considered Torah. There are phrases that are just like part of general wisdom or general approach. If I were to tell somebody, “If you get knocked down seven times, you got to get up again.” You might find that in a pop song, you might find that in a Hallmark card. It’s also a verse in the Torah. Is that formally considered Torah? And what exactly, how do you define the parameters of what Torah actually is?

Now, this is a hugely juicy question, which I think has bothered nobody but me. I don’t really see people talk about this a great deal, maybe vis-a-vis the question of what’s the minimum amount that you are required to make the blessing on the Torah, the Birchas HaTorah, maybe in those circumstances? But nobody really does the deep dive to understand the actual definition of what transforms something that’s wise, and smart, and inspiring, or any of that stuff into actual Torah. And it’s a question that’s always animated me. It’s not exactly the question of today and today’s conversation, but it relates in many ways.

My conversation today with Rabbi David Fohrman, the CEO of Aleph Beta, who’s just been a phenomenal source of wisdom, interpretation of Torah in the last 30 some years. He originally worked, he was a translator for ArtScroll, he taught at John Hopkins, and then he would go around and give these masterful classes on how to understand Chumash, how to understand the Torah, the text of the Torah, that were simply jaw-dropping. And he’s just been a massive inspiration to me. And the reason why I thought he would be an appropriate person to have this conversation with is because so many of the questions about the way science relates to Torah come out from that first one or two chapters of the story of Genesis, the creation story, in the very, very beginning of the Torah, and trying to figure out, is this teaching me science? What am I supposed to read from this? What am I supposed to extract from this?

And this is part of a much larger conversation. There’s a fancy word called “Biblical concordism”, which is the school of thought that tries to read science into the Torah. There’s a masterful article, which we have on our site, we have link to it on our site from Dr. David Shatz about the history of Biblical concordism, and the dangers, so to speak, of Biblical concordism. And you could check more about that on 18forty.org, or in our Weekend Reader, we’re talking a lot about that this week.

But what I think Rabbi Fohrman does so uniquely is, he takes a step back and he asks, “What is the Torah? What is this book trying to do?” And figure it out almost in a literary sense. Like, what does this want from us? What does it want us to extract from it? And he’s done an extraordinary job of doing this on Aleph Beta week after week. He has a new book on Genesis, a Parsha reader on Genesis that you can find on the Aleph Beta website, we have it linked, or in your local Jewish bookstore, and he always finds new and inventive ways to take literary, and as you’ll see in our conversation, scientific thinking and look at the Torah and ask these basic, essential, fundamental questions.

And the fundamental question that we’re asking today is, not only does the Torah teach science, but even more fundamentally, what kind of book is the Torah? I mean, that’s the foundational question. Is it a science book? Is it a history book? What kind of book is it? And I think his approach and his questions, as always, are so fascinating, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. My conversation with Rabbi David Fohrman.

It is my absolute pleasure to welcome to the 18Forty podcast my friend, dare I say friend?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Sure.

David Bashevkin:

Certainly a mentor. Rabbi David Fohrman, the CEO and founder of Aleph Beta, an amazing site that gives you deep, curious, clever, insightful explanations for all sorts of issues that appear in the text of the Torah. He is the author of a new book on Genesis, on Bereishis, called A Parsha Companion, which all of your recent look absolutely gorgeous, just the aesthetics of the book. It is my pleasure to welcome Rabbi Fohrman.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Hey, Rabbi Bashevkin, it’s great to be with you.

David Bashevkin:

Is it okay that I called you a friend? Are we there yet?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Totally. You can even call me David. How are you?

David Bashevkin:

Okay. I’m going to stay away from that, but it is nice to call you a friend. So, I didn’t get a chance, I’ll be perfectly honest, to read through your entire new book, but I am quite familiar with your general approach to studying Torah, and we’re exploring now the issue of science and Torah and how they interact. And I guess before we talk about any perceived contradictions, what I was hoping we could talk about today is really focused on, so how should you be reading the Torah? When you open up a book, and you open up Bereishis, Genesis, you immediately are confronted by a creation story. And my question is, generally, how should people be reading the Torah?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah. So, I’ve got a lot to say about that, we can spend our whole podcast just on that, but I don’t talk a lot about that in this particular book. But there are some videos in Aleph Beta which are informative on this, specifically one on this coming week’s parsha on Noach, as well as a couple on Bereishit. One of the points I make in this Noach video is that, there I talk about dinosaurs, right? You know the old joke about, how come, well, some people think it’s not really a joke, right? Where did all the dinosaurs go? They died in the flood, right? So, is it possible that that’s true?

David Bashevkin:

True story, I’m 99% sure that’s what my mother told me when I was a little kid.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Are you really?

David Bashevkin:

No, my mother told me that the flood messed with the carbon dating. I was a six-year-old and I would ask these kind of questions.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Right. So, one of the points I made there is that one of the first things that a reader needs to do with any book, and it’s interesting that the Torah is actually a book, right? Consider that the master of the universe chose to communicate his will to mankind through the medium of literature, which is actually interesting, right? So, he’s going to use literary tools. You consider God the best writer in the world and help make maximum use of the genre, but if the genre for God’s communication of his well, of what he wants to tell us, is literature, we have to approach it like a book. What else are you going to do? So, if the Bible is a book, how do you approach any book? So there’s a great book that I read, which I would recommend to you, called How to Read a Book, aptly named. It’s written by Mortimer –

David Bashevkin:

Is there a second book that tells you how to read How to Read a Book? Could go on forever.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Right, it goes on forever. It’s kind of a meta-book, it’s an interesting book, I copied it actually in Yeshiva. And I was fascinated back, maybe in my first year of Beis Medrish I read this book, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. And in the book, he argues that most books aren’t worth reading. He says, “There’s only about a hundred books or so that are really worth reading.”

David Bashevkin:

Are our books on that list?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Our books are on that list, the Bible and the Talmud are on that list.

David Bashevkin:

I was talking about Genesis: A Parsha Companion and Sin•a•gogue.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

No, no, that doesn’t make the list. Basically, in his mind it’s the super classics that are worth reading. And he argues that a book that’s worth reading is a book that’s timeless, a book that you can always come back at different points in life and see something new in it for you, a book that has different dimensions of meaning, and a book that almost by definition is above you, which is to say that you struggle to comprehend it.

And he wrote a manual about how to read those books, which frankly is great reading for any yeshiva guy or seminary girl who is looking to read Tanach, looking to read the Gemara, because that’s what these books are. So, how do you go and tackle a book that seems so intimidating in many ways? And he gives you a manual as to how to do that, and he has a lot of great advice in there. He advises, for example, to read the book quickly before you read it slowly, and not to worry about whether you understand everything at once, but just to get the lay of the land, just to understand the general structure of the book. Can you outline the book? And he argues that, as you go through the book several times, you’ll get closer and closer to understanding the author’s meaning, and to be patient. And that’s one thing he counsels you with.

The second thing he counsels you to do is to avoid critiquing the book before you’re absolutely sure that you understand it. In other words, don’t seek to form any opinions about what you think regarding what the author is saying without first really focusing on whether you’ve understood the argument that the author is making. Understand the argument before you seek to respond to it, right, and that is a key point.

But one of the most basic points that he makes in that book, which pertains to your question, is the question of genre. One of the things he asks every reader to do is to, before you even open a book, to make a decision, or to try to pinpoint, what genre the book is. Because genre will depend on how you read the book and how you interpret the book.

So, for example, if you’re reading a poetry book, but you don’t know it’s a poetry book, and you think it’s a science book, things aren’t going to go very well for you. Alternatively, if you’re reading a science book and you think it’s a poetry book, things aren’t going to go well for you. And he argues that essentially, what reading a book, what reading any book, and this is a fascinating notion, is that reading a book is actually having a conversation with an author who is not in the room. You have to think of a book actually as a conversation, as a dialogue, between you and the book. And really much of the argument of what he’s talking about is really the same skills that are necessary to have a good conversation with somebody. Imagine I’m having great conversation, right? A lot of times we have conversations with people but we don’t have good conversations with them. You, in terms of your podcast here in 18Forty, I imagine this is one of the things that is something, behind the scenes, that’s an avoda for you, right? Which is like, how do I have a good conversation with someone?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, I love a great conversation, I hate that all of them are via Zoom. My nightmare conversations, to come back to the genre question, is, I’ve had conversations with people and I don’t know their name or where I know them from. You bump into somebody on the street, and you’re like, “Were you a student? Did we go to camp together?” And it weighs on the whole conversation because you don’t even know who you’re talking to, which gets to your genre point.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah. And that’s a big problem. If you don’t have context, it’s very, very difficult to have a good conversation, you want to place somebody. So the issue with genre is like, for example, let’s say you’re reading Carl Sandburg’s poem, “The fog crept in on its little cat feet.” Right? You raise your hand and you say, “Teacher, I don’t understand that poem. The fog isn’t a cat. It can’t creep. It doesn’t have feet. This whole thing doesn’t make any sense.” If you’re a teacher, how do you respond to a question like that? There’s no way to respond to a question like that. The whole question is wrong because you haven’t understood the genre that you’re dealing with. You think you’re reading a chemistry textbook and you’re reading poetry.

So, you’ve got to understand genre. Now, the question of genre is not always easy to answer, and when it comes to the Torah, it’s very hard to answer. If you think about the Torah, if I said to you, “Well, what genre is the Torah?” It’s not so simple to answer that question. So I might say, “Well, what genre is the Torah?” So you might say, “Well, it’s a law book,” because it’s got all these halachos in it, it’s got these 613 laws in it. And if you’ve been in Yeshiva long enough, you might be convinced or snickered into thinking that that’s a sufficient definition for the Torah. It’s a law book, it’s a book of Halakhah. But of course, if it’s a book of Halakhah, there’s too many stories in it to be a law book. What’s Genesis doing in there? The whole book of Genesis, right? You go through the Minchas Chinuch or the Chinuch, where you got one Halakhah –

David Bashevkin:

Who enumerates all of the commandments, he starts all the way a fifth of the way through in the third parsha in Exodus.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Indeed, in a way that’s even Rashi’s question at the beginning of the Torah. Rashi really asks, “Why is Genesis there? We could have started from “hachodesh hazeh lachem”. We could have started from –

David Bashevkin:

The mitzvah of sanctifying the moon.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

The mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon, which is really the beginning of the halachic portion of the Torah, which appears a little bit into the book of Exodus. So why is Genesis there? It seems superfluous, it’s a law book. So you say, “Well, I’m sorry, you read, it really isn’t a law book, it’s a history book. We’re hearing about the history of this nation.” So you say, “Well not so fast. If it’s a history book, how come it has so many laws in it? I have this blend of history and laws.” So you say, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a philosophy book, because there’s some philosophy in there. Love your neighbor as yourself, and things like that, and laws about… I mean, it’s a theological book, right?”

Now, the truth is it’s not really a theological book. Theological books like Aquinas, City of God, and Dante’s Inferno are imaginations of what God’s world looks like. You actually have very little of that in the Torah, it’s very focused on us.

David Bashevkin:

Almost entirely absent, I mean, that –

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Almost entirely absent.

David Bashevkin:

We don’t talk about the world to come in the Torah.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah, to such extent, by the way, you almost feel like a little bit of an idiot, because you think that it’s a theological book. Imagine that conversation with you and Joe on the plane and Joe on the plane says, “So, you’re a student of the Bible. What does God do all day up in heaven?” And you say, “I don’t know.” “What? Doesn’t it say in your book what it’s like to be God?”

David Bashevkin:

I would already be pretending to be asleep on the airplane before anybody tortures me with such a question. I’d be deep, with my cover over my eyes, and just pretend to snore to avoid such a question.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

That’s right. Exactly. So, the question of genre is a bedeviling question, it’s very difficult to understand, and what I would argue is that the genre for the Torah probably is guidebook. As the word “Torah” signifies, Torah really from the lashon of horah, it’s there to teach you, it’s there to be moreh derech, there to teach you a way. Even Halakhah is best defined as walking along a path rather than laws. It’s a guide book. But a guide book is actually something which is above and beyond a law book or a history book or a philosophy book. In other words, the question is, what does it take to guide a person and a nation through their lives in terms of how they ought to be relating to those around them? And by those around them, I mean, in the case of the nation, other nations, in the case of a person, other persons, but also animals, also the world at large, also their parents, also God. All the important relationships that we have in life, what does it take to do right by those relationships?

So, some of what it takes is law. Law is important to guide you. But interestingly, the Torah is not only a law book, probably because the discipline of law is too narrow to completely guide a human being. You can’t just put this law tome in front of somebody and say that’s the be all and end all of how you’re supposed to act in all your relationships. So there’s also stories, and stories are there to teach us ethical truths and to teach us things that go above and beyond law, that give us some of the color and complexity and the richness, teach us some of the mistakes which our forefathers made before us that we can learn from, teach us some of their values and their heroism that can inspire us. And those stories are important to guide us. There’s some philosophy that’s necessary to guide us. If you put it all together, that’s the genre. Now, if that’s true, genre influences everything about a book. It’s almost like the glasses, it’s almost like the lens through which the author of the book sees everything they’ve talked about. So one might say, “Well, why does the Torah talk about creation?”

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, I was about to ask. Meaning, if this is in fact a guidebook then start with, I don’t know, when you wake up in the morning, start with, I can think of a hundred other ways to start. Rather, maybe you could talk about God created the world, I don’t need all the details.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah. So let’s talk about, yeah. So first of all, you don’t get many details, do you, David? I mean, if you were thinking from a scientific standpoint how long it would take to write about creation given what we currently know, how long do you think it would take? If you had a God’s eye view of creation, you wanted to really tell the story from a scientific standpoint, give me a page count on the book.

David Bashevkin:

It would be more than a chapter, that’s for sure.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It would be more than a chapter. It’s 31 sentences, right? There’s very little there to tell the story of what happened scientifically. So the idea is is there must be something that is necessary to guide us in creation. In other words, if you’re going to live in this world, and let’s just talk about what that might be. Let’s say you’re God, let me put you on the hot seat – not really a hot seat. You’re God, you’re writing your guide book for people. Why might you want to start with creation? You have no interest in telling them scientific truths. They’ll study chemistry for that. They’ll study biology, they’ll figure out what they figure out, but if you’re interested in guiding them, in building their relationships with the world around them, with the people around them, with nature, with animals, with the environment, with other nations, with everything, so why would you start there?

David Bashevkin:

It’s funny, it reminds me of a story. There was a great book written by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who actually NCSY published, called If You Were God. And I remember I was one time in camp, and my counselor at the time, who’s now a pretty big scholar, Rabbi Yehuda Balsam, he picked up the book, he looked at the cover, he looked at me with a smile and says, “What do you mean ‘if’?” That’s like a one-liner. But I think that question, if you were God, of asking yourself to place yourself in this genre, how would you begin? I think a lot about, Stephen King has a wonderful series of essays that I believe he wrote for The Atlantic, though I could be wrong about the importance of a first sentence, and how much time he spends, and what are the mechanics of a great first sentence, of a great opening, that draws you into a book?

I feel like the Torah begins with a great opening first sentence, it feels like a saga, it feels like a grand narrative, and then it nose-dives a little bit. Again, I’m talking theoretically as a reader who didn’t know what it was about. It sounds almost like Greek mythology. Obviously it’s not, but you read this great myth, and then you get into these stories, which seem to be really, really interesting. And then the thing that bothers me even more, and maybe you could talk about this, is that opening and then the list of names. You got a lot of lists of a lot of names. And I’m just like, “Where’s the wow? Where’s the eloquence that you come to rely on from Rabbi Sacks, or Rabbi Fohrman, or any of the…” You don’t necessarily get that in that opening. So help me here.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Right. So one of the things, going back to the genre, interestingly enough, is, not only is it a guidebook, but it is an incredibly minimalist guidebook. If you think about the words, the Bible uses, think about… and by the way, it’s a plus in a certain way. But for all of the grand eloquence of the King James translation and things like that, the Bible itself in Hebrew, does it strike you that the Bible uses particularly sophisticated language?

David Bashevkin:

No. No. Definitely not. There are some words that don’t exist. I have a running list of central words that just do not exist in the vocabulary of the Torah. My favorite is zman, meaning time, doesn’t exist. Again, it exists in later books, but not in the five books of Moses.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It’s an incredibly minimalist book. It’s almost, if you had a vocabulary of 200 words in Hebrew, you can understand Biblical Hebrew. You could get 85% of what the Torah is talking about with 200 words. It’s the same verbs, and yet the Bible is this classic work of literature, all of history’s greatest bestseller. It’s very, very condensed and it’s very packed, and we can talk about exactly how you pack meaning into such a minimal book, and we can discuss that a little bit later if you like. But getting back to this idea of genre, I was asking you, why would you talk about creation? I think the answer is, it’s very grounded. One of the basic things you need to understand is what your place in the universe is, who are you, and where do you belong? If I’m trying to guide you, you need context. The same way you can’t really have a conversation with someone if you don’t understand where you know them from, you can’t live in the world unless you have some sense of where you belong and where you fit in this world. And so, therefore, a story of creation that places man in the story is a story that helps me gain my footing. Did you ever see Lost, the television series?

David Bashevkin:

It’s one of those shows that I started the first episode, was enamored with it, and I got scared by the time investment. Because they’re hour-long episodes, so many seasons, too big of an investment, I get scared off when I see those time price tags.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

So, but go back to the first episode of Lost. What’s the first scene in Lost? It’s a great scene. The scene begins with someone opening their eyes on the floor of a jungle. The central character, Jack. And Jack opens his eyes and he’s completely disoriented, and he brings his focus in and he sees palm trees above him, and he just doesn’t know where he is. And he gets up and he looks around, he’s in this jungle, and he sees there’s this shoe that’s next to him, and there’s this bandaid, there’s this stuff next to him, he doesn’t know where it was, why it’s there. And he starts running, and he hears this sound, and he hears this whining, and there’s this jet engine sound, and then he sees people screaming. And he sees a beach, and the sense of… And slowly it becomes clear to him, there’s been this plane crash, he’s been thrown from his seat. There’s this wreckage, he’s a doctor, he can help.

And that scene is a great metaphor for me of waking up in complete disorientation and trying to place yourself, who am I and what is this environment? And once I get it, then I can start helping, then I can put on a tourniquet on someone in pain. But I need to know what this is about, and to me, that’s the beginning of Genesis. Who am I, and where I belong, and that’s the agenda of a creator speaking to a creature and trying to help yourself understand who it is. So I think it’s not fundamentally a scientific agenda, but it’s a different question. It colors the agenda. That having been said, the reason why it’s complex, I think, or this answer is complex, is because facts are facts. So one way or the other, you can come back to me and say, “Yeah, I get it, Rabbi Fohrman, it’s not really scientific, but it is talking about a scientific thing. It’s talking about… Like, let’s say if there’s a big bang, the big bang either happened or it didn’t happen. Let’s say there was the creation of dark energy and dark matter, that either happened or it didn’t happen. So you can’t just ignore the science just because you say there’s another agenda or there’s another-

David Bashevkin:

When it contradicts, when an outright themes contradicts.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Right, you’re still contradicting the science, so how do you understand that? And that goes back to that point I made, which is that your genre gives you the lens through which you tell the story. And let me explain what I mean by that. In other words, I think that the Torah is talking about scientific events.

David Bashevkin:

Is there a wind chime in your room.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

There is a wind chime outside my window, believe it or not.

David Bashevkin:

How charming.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Isn’t that nice?

David Bashevkin:

How charming, yeah, let it go, let it go.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Okay.

David Bashevkin:

Very charming. You are the type of person who I would imagine has a wind chime, and it’s very suiting for your personality and brand.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I figured if I was going to be in Palo Alto I was going to get myself some wind chimes.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly. So please continue, I’m sorry I cut you off. I just heard that charming noise in the background.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah, no problem. I do believe that the Torah is talking about scientific truths, but it’s talking about them from a non-scientific perspective. In other words, there’s a different hound in the hunt as it were than science. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. So, God could be talking about dark energy and dark matter, what that original light that God created. God could be referring to something, some great electromagnetic pulse, the background radiation of the big bang. It’s just not God… So in other words, God is like, “I’m not going to lie. I got to talk about scientific truth, but I’m not going to talk about it in a way that’s easily explicable from the standpoint of science. My main point is how to see your place in the world.”

I’ll give you an example. Imagine for a moment that you are a victim of a robbery. Imagine that you came home one day to the Bashevkin home and there’s police tape around the home, and there’s flashing lights in the darkness, and there’s broken glass on the floor, and you look around and somebody has been through your drawers, and your daughter’s crying, and her grandmother’s comforting her, and there’s a policeman who’s interviewing people about what happened. It turns out that there was an armed robbery. There was somebody in the house at the time, there’s a lot of trauma. Somebody saw the guy, he had a knife, it’s a really scary situation. Now, imagine that, three months later, they actually catch the guy. They find the guy. And he’s hauled in, and there’s actually a trial. There’s a trial. And your daughter is called in to testify at the trial. And she testifies, she’s the one who saw the guy. And she’s asked to identify him. And she identifies him, 5’10, medium build, blonde hair, the whole thing, and she has him down.

The defense lawyer comes in and says, “I’d like to introduce into evidence something which will disqualify this witness.” What does he have? Says, “I have a cell phone recording that your daughter made on the night of the robbery.” And she plays the recording. And she’s talking to her friend, and she’s sobbing, and she’s shrieking. And she’s talking about how intimidating the guy was, and how big he looks, and how scary he looked, and how sharp the knife was. And you listen to that recording. That doesn’t sound like a 5’10 person with a medium build and blonde hair, it sounds like she’s describing a monster. It sounds like she’s describing someone who’s overpowering, someone who’s much more physically strong. If you had a good lawyer, what would your lawyer’s counter move be in response to the defense’s attempt to discredit your daughter?

David Bashevkin:

I’m going to put on my lawyer hat for this. As you’re telling the story, I’m thinking of all of the robbery stories that I have, which aren’t too many, thank God, but in my family, we do have, and I’ll… In lieu of stepping into the Lawyerly hat, my grandfather, who, during World War II served in Caserta, Italy, he got the telegram from the information center that ended World War II.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Wow.

David Bashevkin:

Extraordinarily valuable, tens of thousands of dollars. And when he was in his late eighties, as he was packing up his car to drive from Baltimore to Florida, his car was stolen with the safe that housed this document.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Wow.

David Bashevkin:

And it was that kind of trauma. They found the person, they identified the person, to this day, my zaide passed away, he sends a check to our family in restitution, which my family actually just discussed saying, “Keep the money. Build a life for yourself. We don’t need the, whatever, $700 a month that we get from this.” But what would a lawyer say in that situation? You have this identification.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I’ll tell you what I would say if I was the lawyer for your daughter. What I would say is that the two conversations may seem contradictory, but they’re perfectly consistent. You have to ask what the genre of each conversation is. What was your daughter doing when she was talking to her friend? She was processing the emotional trauma of what was happening. She wasn’t there to convey scientific facts about what the assailant looked like. She was there to talk about the feeling of what it’s like to have somebody break into your home. That’s a completely different conversation than the conversation she has with the policeman who’s asking her, “What’s the height and build of the person, and what exactly does he look like?” Both conversations are true, but they’re from different points of view. And therefore they don’t contradict each other.

So it’s similarly, there’s a scientific account of creation, and then there’s the Torah’s same account of those same events from an entirely different genre that’s saying, what do you need to know about your place in the world? Let me begin to tell you a story, which will reference those events, but will reference them without being interested in the scientific details of them, but will see them otherwise. I’ll give you another example of this. We have a saying in yeshiva where we talk about one of the great principles, which I’m sure you’re aware of, from your learning experience, is the notion of “ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah”, right?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, there’s no dating, stories in the Torah aren’t necessarily told sequentially.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

What kind of business is that? How can you have… When you’re telling me that I can’t rely on the chronology, what kind of history book is that? That I can’t rely on the chronology, that this thing happened after that thing, even though it came first, that you can mess around with the chronology? That’s nonsense. What are you even doing?

David Bashevkin:

It will ruin it. It reminds me, I was one time watching one of my favorite shows on one of the streaming services, and sometimes you share streaming services with other people. So, unbeknownst to me, I just clicked on the title card, and I didn’t realize until I was two thirds of the way through, I had started with the last episode, which ties everything together, all the spoilers. And now I was like, “Oh, no. Do I have to go back and start from the… How do I do this now? I want to erase this, because I see how it all ended.” But that’s basically what –

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah, I’ve done that too. But you even think about this way, to use the analogy of a show. My wife and I were actually watching a documentary last night, and the documentary was actually Unorthodox.

David Bashevkin:

Pardon me asking, I need to know which documentary are you watching?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I’m not sure if you call it a documentary, I guess it sort of is, a memoir. It was actually the first episode of Unorthodox on Netflix.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, sure.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

So, who is it? Deborah Feldblum or someone?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Sure we’ve spoken about that in other contexts on this podcast.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Don’t love it but also felt the need to watch it.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah. So, I just watched the first episode, and whatever you think about Unorthodox or her story or whatever it is, one of the interesting things is just a classic thing, which is used by screenwriters when they put together a documentary, or even a fiction show like West Wing or something like that, is that you will have smooth cuts into flashbacks without it being clear that it’s a flashback.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly, that’s become very popular now.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It has. And ask yourself artistically, what’s happening when you do that? It takes the reader or takes the watcher 30 seconds to realize, “Oh one second, this is a flashback.” You don’t even realize it’s a flashback until you have to ask yourself, “What’s going on?” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s a flashback.” And then you begin to see, “Oh, why am I seeing this flashback?” You’ve got to ask yourself, “Why am I seeing this flashback now?”

And then you begin to understand, oh it’s the thematically related to what I just saw. It’s not chronologically related, it’s thematic related. And by seeing this flashback, now I’m getting a richer understanding of what’s happening here from understanding this in a subtle way. I’m not being hit over the head with it, but once I put two and two together, I see what she’s doing here in a different light given the nature of this flashback.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, and it reminds of the show, This Is Us. I don’t know if you have… I only watched the first season with my wife, it got too sappy, but maybe the first two seasons, but the whole show is different lives within different periods of time. And it’s not chronological, but it gives you all these flashbacks that gives context to the present day events you see unfolding.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

So I think if you’re writing a history book, in other words, if your concern is the facts, tell me what the facts are, ma’am, then “ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah”, the notion that there’s no chronology in the Torah is preposterous. That’s not the way you write the history of the Jews, that’s not the way you write The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, that’s not the way you actually tell the story of the events. But what if that’s not your agenda? What if I’m using history as a guidebook? In other words, I’m trying to make a statement, I’m trying to tell you something about how you should live your life. And because of that, I’m using episodes in history to help you understand that. Well now, if I can put two episodes that were 300 years apart in Sefer Shoftim, pilegesh be-Givah together with something else, that weren’t chronological, but thematically, they relate in such a way that they give you a sense of an overall time period? And I see something by the juxtaposition that I wouldn’t have seen without the juxtaposition.

If the genre is guidebook, then that consideration trumps chronology. “Ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah” doesn’t mean there’s no chronology, but it means you can’t trust the chronology, because there might be a flashback at any given moment, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s artistic. There’s an artistic reason for that flashback. I’m getting context. I’m getting a theme. I’m understanding something of the meaning of all of this.” So, that’s how genre completely changes my understanding of events. So much so that I would argue that when you read the six days of creation, I would go out on a limb and say, “ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah” would apply even to the six days of creation. You can’t be so sure you’re even looking at something chronological even in something that sounds like day one, day two, day three, day four, day five, because, again, other considerations may trump that.

David Bashevkin:

I mean, my favorite example, I actually write about in my book, it’s about the dating of when the story of eating from the tree of knowledge took place, that if you read a straight reading of the Torah, it seems like God created the seven days of creation, and then after Shabbos, at some point, there was this story of Adam eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve, from the Etz Hada’as.

And what has always fascinated me is that the Talmud very deliberately dates it as that story taking place as a part of creation, which I think has some grand implications in how you view that story, which is not represented in the simple meaning. So, let me ask you: There’s a concept that I assume most listeners are not familiar with, but I wanted to hear your thoughts on it anyways. There’s a concept called Biblical concordism, which Dr. David Shatz, a brilliant philosopher at Yeshiva University, wrote a very long article about. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s okay if you haven’t.

He writes about the… I don’t want to say importance, but the dangers, or on the opportunities, of reading science directly into the Torah. There are a lot of books that are written and say, “Look, you could read the big bang, and evolution, and dark matter, and quantum -. You could read it directly into the text of the Torah.” And he provides the fact, and this is certainly true, that a lot of the rishonim, these medieval commentators on the Torah, did exactly that. And I’m curious, nowadays, this is definitely popularized by, Gerald Schroeder’s done a marvelous job of doing that. He’s always number one. His book is a big seller, Genesis and the Big Bang. I’m curious what you think about that strategy in reading the text. Are they making a genre mistake, those sorts of readings?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

My answer to that I think would be possibly, but not necessarily. And let me explain why. I think a straight out attempt to read the Bible in a direct, frontal way as a scientific manuscript is bound to fail. And if that’s what they’re trying to do, then I think it’s certainly a mistake, and I think they’re making a genre error. That’s not the genre, and it’s not what we call in the yeshiva world the pashut pshat of the texts. It’s not the simple meaning of the text, it’s not the way the text is directly communicating with us.

However, that being said, I think it’s not necessarily folly to attempt to reconcile in some way science with what is going on in as much as, and I’ll try to explain it to you, right? In other words, the genre argument basically just means that there’s different ways of looking at the same thing, but either way, I’m looking at the same thing. If I’m telling you something true, I’m always looking at the thing, I’m just looking at it from a different angle. So, there may be a way, theoretically, to adjust the angle of something so as to see it in a different way, and that things come into resolution in a way that is surprising. Let me describe to you what I’m talking about. Let’s say, for example, that the Torah is a guidebook. Let’s say that, so as a guidebook, you would say, “What’s the Torah going to emphasize in creation?”

It’s not going to emphasize the objective scientific meaning of things, it’s going to emphasize how the events of creation are meaningful for human beings existing in the world and understanding their place in the world.

If I would summarize that in a sentence, what I would say is, if I could be certain of one thing more than anything else, I would say, the Torah is likely to take a more anthropocentric approach to creation than science would. In other, anthropocentric is just a fancy way of saying man-centered approach. So, in other words, if I take a scientific view of creation, the earth is the third rock on a pretty medium star and a pretty ordinary solar system among a hundred billion other stars in the Milky Way galaxy among a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, pretty unremarkable, and certainly not the center of anything.

And of course, if you look at the history of science, one of the great struggles of man has been to understand, from an objective standpoint, how not the center of everything he really is. Of course, in the beginning, we all thought that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was the center of everything. And if you think about the opposition to the Copernican Revolution, where, basically, Copernicus comes along and says it’s not true, and he has certain scientific evidence to support the notion, the moons of Jupiter, Galileo’s telescopes, they’d be able to show that, in fact, the sun is the center of the solar system, what he thought was the universe at the time, and it’s not the earth.

The opposition to that was actually interestingly enough coming primarily from a religious standpoint. If you think about the persecution of a guy like Galileo, it was by the church, who argued that what he was saying was heresy because according to the Bible, the sun sets and the sun rises, and clearly the sun is at the center of the universe. And that, I think, is a genre mistake. The church was making a genre mistake. You can’t persecute Galileo because you think the Bible puts us at the center of things. Obviously, if the Torah is a guide book, it’s going to write an anthropocentric story. It’s talking to human beings. So from the standpoint of a human being, I am the center. I look out from me, I see sunset, I see sunrise. I look at a world and I say, “What does it mean to me?” So God says, “Good, humans. I’m going to talk to you about what the world means to you.”

So, in that sense, I think it’s a mistake to take a reading of the Bible in a way that opposes science directly. But as I was asking before, it may be possible to engineer something like a genre switch if you are very sophisticated about it. And what I mean by that is the following: Imagine you were in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and imagine you were looking at a Monet painting of water lilies, or a Degas painting of a bunch of Parisians on a town square in the sun-dappled garden. Now imagine you were a computer science student and you had an idea for a very cool app. You’re going to make a lot of money with your new app.

What’s your app? Your app is that you can take great master works of art and change the perspective. So, in other words, imagine that it’s a fancy Photoshop version. It can do something that Photoshop can’t do yet, which says, okay, let’s say I’m looking at the Degas painting, exactly as Degas painted it, but he’s looking at it from the angle of the tree on the northwest side of the garden. I want to see that same picture the way Degas saw it, but I want to see it from the perspective of the park bench on the northeastern side of the garden. Could you imagine a computer program that could take all of the data, and then shift the perspective so I see the exact same painting from the perspective of the park bench, which you see in the painting across over there? I want to be at the park bench and see what it looks like. You can imagine a sophisticated computer scientist possibly creating such a program. Maybe even make a few bucks on it on the app store. It would be cool.

Could you engineer something like that with the Torah? In other words, could you say, “Great, the Torah is a guidebook, I get it. But I’m not interested in being guided. I’m not interested in Mussar, I’m not interested in philosophy. I’m a hard data kind of guy. I’m interested in science. This is God’s book. Who would know more about creation than God? I’m interested in re-engineering the book from a different perspective. Can I factor out the guidebook qualities of this book and arrive at the underlying science of the book?” That might be possible. I think that might be possible, but that’s tricky.

In other words, you’d have to say, “Can I factor out all that human guidance, and somehow, almost like an algebra equation, the way you factor out certain things which you don’t want in an equation and you get left with that which you want, can I factor out the guidance and end up with the perspective from the park bench that what’s left is an objective view of what happened? I think it’s at least conceivable that you could do such a thing. And if I were someone like Gerald Schroeder, with a physics background, the science background, that would be an interesting approach. It’s something which I’ve actually dabbled in. I tried my hand at it. It would be too involved to go into in detail, I think, in us, in the time that we have here, but for those who are interested, I wonder if we have it up on Aleph Beta. I gave a talk on this about four years ago at the Yemey Iyun B’Tanach at the Gush in Israel.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, we could link to that. And allow me to just interject and say you are a masterful analogy creator.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Thank you.

David Bashevkin:

I mean, that was quite gripping. Let me ask one final question before we get to our rapid fire questions, I don’t know if you have a very hard stop in a few, but I wanted to ask you about understanding this genre. Are there still passages and verses that you grapple with in understanding, why is this here? Meaning, there are so many questions that the contemporary mind could ask, whether it’s moral issues that may offend the contemporary mind, or, just like I mentioned earlier, those very long lists of names that seem to be, what are you doing for business? What are you getting paid for? Where’s the value-add?

I have a few mentions of books that no longer exist, milchamos Hashem, that we’ve lost. Do you still grapple with either verses or chunks that you’re not sure where the guide component is? And what advice would you give to somebody who’s grappling with finding that resonant meaning in this text?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So first of all, the answer is yes, I do. I haven’t figured everything out. And there’s some stuff that still troubles me and certain stuff that… I don’t think you can ask me about everything in the world and I’ll have a ready answer.

David Bashevkin:

Sounds like you have a ready analogy though.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Maybe. I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that I haven’t figured out everything, there’s certain things that trouble me. That said though, the way I approached the book is a little bit differently than you might suspect. In other words, I think you can imagine a reader approaching the book from the standpoint of their questions. Say, “Here are my top 10 questions about the Bible. I’m going to try to figure out what the answer is. How come it says that Timna was the pilegesh of, what do you call it?”

Or Timna was from, what’s his name? Achos Lotan Timna, right? I’m sorry. That Lotan was one of the previous chieftains of Seir before Esau came, and his sister was by the name of Timna. Could you please explain to me what the relevance of that in the Bible is. That’s one way of doing, going through all those verses and saying, “I don’t understand that.” I have a different way of approaching the Torah, generally, and it’s funny because it came as a big surprise to my growing staff in Aleph Beta as I was building the company.

One of the earliest employees at Aleph Beta was my partner, Immanuel Shalev. And Immanuel will happily tell you about how, in the beginning, when he started working with me, he took that approach, like, “Here are these big questions I have, here are these things I don’t understand. What do you say about that?” And I was generally completely uninterested in engaging with them on that level. And he couldn’t understand why I was uninterested in that. “Isn’t that the way you work? You find some difficult issue, you grapple with it and you figure out some great way of understanding it?”

And I said, “No, frankly, that’s not the way I work. Let me tell you how I work. What I do is I try to check my baggage at the door. I actually try to even check my questions at the door. I actually begin by observing and listening, almost in a conversation. If reading a book is like having a conversation with an author, imagine how you would begin a conversation with me or with any other person that you were interested in conversing with. The first thing you’d do is, you might throw out a question or something, but the first thing you do is you listen to them, and see where the conversation goes, and then actually analyze what you’re hearing, and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Where does that go? Where does that take you? How come you said X when you said Y?” And when I listen carefully, and it’s like, where is this person interested in taking me?

If I want to understand his mind and his world, if I want to understand the author, then their conversation screen is a window into their mind. So what I find interesting is, what I’ll do is, I’ll just read. And as I read, I’ll come to something that’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s really weird.” It’s like, “How could you say this when you said this over there?” And slowly, as you begin to ask questions, and as you begin to listen, pictures begin to emerge, that then have implications. And what I find in my own study is that as you listen carefully, and as you begin to see this world of meaning, meta-meaning, emerge in the conversation of the Torah, all of a sudden, certain things which seemed weird and which didn’t seem to make any sense start to open up in very, very surprising new ways. And all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s what’s going on.”

And I’ll find something else which I’ll just share with you, which is really weird. It’s usually at that moment that I’ll become aware of a question that I was never really aware of, but in retrospect seemed obvious, and I’ll ask myself, “How come you could have never seen that question before? And why is that?” And I think it has something to do with the human brain, which is that we’re very afraid of basic fundamental questions, because they have the capacity to shake us too much. You’re very vulnerable when you’re asking basic fundamental questions, and the human brain takes care to make yourself as least vulnerable as you possibly can be. And unfortunately what that means is that your brain will blind you to the most obvious things that it doesn’t want you to see because it’s worried that you won’t know how to deal with them.

So you won’t see questions. I’ll ask you a basic question: “How could God be angry at Adam and Eve for eating from a tree of knowledge of good and evil?” Which supposedly they don’t have the knowledge of good and evil before they eat from the tree, which means they have no moral understanding, but how could he be angry at eating from a tree if they didn’t know it was wrong to eat from a tree, then they must have had some kind of moral understanding? So, that means that they had some sort of knowledge of good and evil before they ate from the tree, which means that the tree is irrelevant because they had the knowledge before they ate from the tree.

David Bashevkin:

They already had that capacity, yeah.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

That’s a very basic question about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. You know how many years I had to study the Torah before I became aware of that question? My brain had been keeping me inoculated from that question for a long time because it was too basic and too threatening. It was only once I began to see an answer to the question that I became aware of the question’s existence, because now your brain isn’t so scared. So it’s like, “Oh my gosh. Now I understand why it is that this tree is there.” So what happens is that as you listen to the Torah carefully, ironically, not only do you become in tune with a whole new level of meaning, you become in tune with whole new questions that you had never even believed is there. So, to me, that’s how I work. I start by listening, and ironically, I end with the question, but with an approach to the question also.

That said, yes, there’s many things I don’t understand, but I guess for me, I don’t make the claim, I guess my sense of myself as a student of the Torah is not, I know everything that the Torah means to tell me, I have an explanation, I’m the guy who can impress everybody at an ask-the-rabbi context, because whatever you throw at me, I’ll give you an answer. That’s not my claim to fame. What I try to offer myself in my study and anyone who would like to study with me is a journey which will take us to exciting places and bring us to conclusions that neither of us would have understood. And when you take enough of those journeys, you see enough of those things that you begin to trust the book a little bit. And it’s almost like, as you begin to trust somebody, the nature of trust is, I may not understand you because you’re above me. We’re talking about God here. So it’s like, how much am I going to understand God? At some point I’m never really going to understand you.

But I’ve seen enough of this wisdom, I’ve seen enough of this understanding, I’ve seen enough of this sensitivity, that I begin to have a sense of trust that even though there are things that seem completely irrelevant, and even though there are things that I’ve seen that seem like I have no understanding what they do on the book, I’ve seen enough that I’m willing to take a deep breath and say, “I don’t understand now, but maybe in five years, maybe in ten years. There’s something that come up [inaudible] that gives me a whole new way of seeing things. So that’s my general approach.

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely beautiful. Usually at the close of a interview I ask a couple more rapid fire questions. I have a thousand other questions that I could ask you, and this isn’t the first time that we’ve been interviewer and interviewee together, so hopefully there’ll be more opportunities in the future. But I was wondering, I always like to end with a few rapid fire questions. My first question is, I’m curious, do you have a book recommendation? You already recommended one fantastic book, How to Read a Book. Do you have any other book recommendations? My only caveat is, please don’t recommend your own book, or Lord knows the people I speak with I would be able to answer it for them. What is a contemporary book that helps open up the text of the Torah to the contemporary modern mind that you have appreciated?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Oh, sure. I mean, well, How to Read a Book is one of them. I have a bunch of other books, I can give you a few of them. Another great book that I like, which actually underpins much of our discussion, so if there’s folks who are interested in understanding where I’m coming from in a lot of the answers which I gave you to these things, another great book to read, but it’s not easy to make it through. So, take it in small bites, and you don’t have to read the whole thing at once, and read a few paragraphs and save the rest for another day, is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

David Bashevkin:

One of my favorites. So glad you recommended that. Why do you love that book so much?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

So, Thomas Kuhn was interested in something fascinating, which is, what are the patterns that emerge from a study of scientific revolutions in science? That is, you look and you see the Copernican Revolution, if you look and you see Einstein’s Revolution, if you look at Planck and you look at Niels Bohr.

David Bashevkin:

Newtonian physics, whatever, yeah.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Newtonian physics. So, what are the patterns that you see as science comes to understand a whole new paradigm for seeing the world? Indeed, the use of the word “paradigm” that’s become so ubiquitous in our conversation probably goes back to Thomas Kuhn’s book. He was actually the guy who popularized that word. And I just find it fascinating because, to me, the kind of stuff that you and I are talking about is paradigm-shifting ways of viewing Torah. And hence, what greater book to read than that? What does it mean to shift the paradigm? How do you engage?

Because I think that’s the age we’re living in. Every age of commentary has its own paradigm for how it sees the Torah. Let’s not kid ourselves. The rishonim were doing different things than the acharonim were doing. The people in Germany and [inaudible] Kabbalah and the Malbim and Hirsch were doing different things than the Meshech Chochma and the Sforno was doing. And the Medrish was doing different things than the Ramban and the Sforno were doing. You really have to understand different paradigms for understanding the Torah.

And frankly, what we’re doing nowadays with this new kind of way of looking at text and seeing the interconnectivity of texts is another paradigm shift. It’s simply what it is. And I would argue that it’s not really so new, in a way we’re going back now to what the most ancient form of the Torah really was, which is, Midrashic commentary I think was doing this thousands of years before you and I were doing it, but it is a paradigm shift. So, Thomas Kuhn’s book is a great introduction to understand all of the dynamics of how paradigm shifts are made. What is a paradigm? How do you –

David Bashevkin:

I am so thrilled that you are saying this book. And you should know, I have conversations with really the co-founder and the person who sponsored and drove me to build this, Mitch Iken, and we always talk about, he’s a questions first kind of guy. He has a list of questions that he wants an answer to, and I always associate that with, again, this is a little inside philosophical baseball, but Karl Popper’s methodology of falsification. Meaning, give me the answer, tell me is it true or false, and then move on from that. And what Kuhn was really responding to was this kind of falsification approach to scientism, which is everything is just going to be proven true or false then move on to the next one, and really have a much more thematic paradigm approach, and it’s just absolutely brilliant and quite inspiring that you point to that book. Again, Thomas Kuhn, the, remind me the title.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn.

David Bashevkin:

The Structure of Scientific Revolution as a lens to even understand developments in Torah itself, which I find totally true, resonates a 1000% and is a really brilliant answer. My next question, they get less and less serious, so bear with me. If you were given, I know you’re on a sabbatical of a different sort, but if you were given a full paid sabbatical to go back to school and get a PhD, curious, you do not have a PhD. I’ve always been curious why. I know that you got a master’s and used to teach in John Hopkins, but if you were to be given a PhD to go back, what do you think the title of your dissertation would be?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Well first you have to ask what discipline I would take the PhD in, right?

David Bashevkin:

I’m hoping we’d be able to gather that, the genre from the title. You could humor me with both.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Let’s see. I don’t even know. I mean, one of the questions, it really depends –

David Bashevkin:

I’m shocked right now that you don’t have a PhD that you’ve been waiting to write over –

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Well –

David Bashevkin:

Or several.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Any number of the things I’ve been working on, any number of the Aleph Beta videos, frankly, could have been PhD thesis. One of the strange things about Aleph Beta is that Aleph Beta, again, is a genre-defying website. You log onto Aleph Beta, the first thing you see are a bunch of animated videos. What do you think?

David Bashevkin:

I’m not going to comment on the style of the animated videos. It looks like children’s videos, they’re for kids.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It does. It looks like they’re for sixth graders. And frankly, we’ve got a great following of sixth graders, because, let’s face it, it’s cartoons. By the way, I have a newfound respect for the intelligence of sixth graders, which I’ve actually gotten through my work with Aleph Beta –

David Bashevkin:

I don’t blame you. When you log on to 18Forty’s website, it looks like it’s a grunge rock tribute site. It’s much darker and brooding, it looks like a ’90s tribute site to Metallica. So, if I had to choose between the two, I get why the sunny, colorful disposition of Aleph Beta shines through. But what would the title of your dissertation be?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

So, I don’t know. I mean, I have a lot of things I’ve been working on, some of the things in biblical themes that I’m really excited to get out there. I was just thinking about this morning, I have a series, you can find it on Aleph Beta. I’ve been working on it for the last few years. It’s called A Tale of Two Names. And what it is really, among other things, is it’s a response to Biblical criticism. It’s not intended as a frontal responsive Biblical criticism. Again, going back to my genre things, I don’t think that’s particularly helpful, but it happens to be a response to Biblical criticism. By A Tale of Two Names, I’m referring, of course, to the cradle from which Biblical criticism rises, which is the E and the J names at the beginning of Genesis. The observation that the first chapter of Genesis is an Elohim story that begins with God called “Elohim”, and then immediately after that, you have a second story of Genesis in which God is referred to as Hashem Elohim, with the yod hey vav hey, or the J name, is introduced. And of course, the Biblical critics answer to that is, “Well, we see that there’s two authors. There’s a J author, there’s an E author. And we can go throughout the Torah and we can see.”

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Deep dive in Biblical criticism. I almost drowned in that pool. So you got to be careful, but yeah.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Right. So, my take on that is, in essence, in short, is that the Biblical critics weren’t wrong in their observation. I think sometimes you get so scared by something like Biblical criticism that we reflexively discount it and we don’t want to have anything to do with it. Almost like, historically, the study of Tanakh itself was pushed to the side during the enlightenment because we were so scared of where the maskilim were going, and we just couldn’t deal with Tanakh anymore, which is a great tragedy. How could you not deal with Tanakh just because the maskilim were dealing in the Tanakh. Similarly, how could you not deal with a great question like what the heck is going on with the name of God in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 just because the Biblical critics do something that you find offensive? It’s a great question. We should be thinking about that question. So, A Tale of Two Names actually is an exploration of that question. It’s a lecture series that’s about 45 lectures long. And what I’m doing in that series –

David Bashevkin:

Quite the PHD.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It’s quite the PHD.

David Bashevkin:

We’ll link to it, you don’t even need to take us through it, we’ll link to it, we’ll make sure that it’s up on the site, and it does sound great. This is our final least significant question, but the one I’m always curious about. Your daily schedule. What time do you usually go to sleep and what time do you usually wake up in the morning?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Gee, I wish I was more consistent about that –

David Bashevkin:

You look like somebody who is not consistent.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

No.

David Bashevkin:

I feel like we have that in common, but I’ll let you answer.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

No, I wish I was more consistent about it. Generally speaking, these days, I’ve been actually more consistent about it. I’m usually an uncharacteristic early sleeper these days, usually going to bed at about 11 o’clock my time, and an uncharacteristic early riser these days-

David Bashevkin:

I’m shocked.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Getting up at about 6:20, 6:15.

David Bashevkin:

My world of Rabbi Fohrman, the way I look at you, you like a 3 AM to like right before 9:30.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

Honestly though, my natural instincts are the 3 AM to 9:30 slot in terms of going to sleep, and generally speaking, under normal circumstances, it would be something about getting the house quiet at night and just being able to melt into that. I will tell you something interesting regarding this, which relates to your question but it’s a little bit different. Another interesting question is you might say is, “Fohrman, when do you do most of your thinking, or when do your ideas come to you? Is that why you stay up – ”

David Bashevkin:

Let’s add that question in, I’m curious to hear that. When do you do your best thinking?

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I’ll tell you a crazy answer, but it’s true. About 80% to 90% of almost any major idea I’ve had in throwing things together come to me at one particular time, which is dusk to nightfall on Friday night.

David Bashevkin:

Huh. Isn’t that that transitional period between the week and Shabbos.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

The transitional period into Shabbos.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It’s fantastic. Walking home from shul, walking to shul, musing during the extended melodies of Kabbalas Shabbos, I’m telling you, it’s sometimes the morning on Shabbos also, and the afternoon on Shabbos. There’s something about Shabbos, I just don’t understand it. It’s crazy, but I’ve come to expect it. Everything I’m doing during the week is just playing –

David Bashevkin:

It just tells you, I’ll get back to you at the end of the week.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

It’s crazy. It’s like I’m playing catch up –

David Bashevkin:

That’s because you have more time. That’s when your ideas come. That’s great.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I’ll play catch up for Shabbos. And it’s frustrating. So you can’t write anything down, and you have all this stuff in your brain. And so Saturday night and Sunday is note-taking time, where you try to capture as much as you can from what you saw during Shabbos. And then during the week, you’re trying to still process it and you get it through. Almost nothing original comes to me during the week. It’s crazy, but that is a fact of life. I have some theories about why it’s true, but the fact that it’s true for me at least is undeniable.

David Bashevkin:

Very beautiful. Rabbi Fohrman, it has been such a joy speaking with you today. Thank you so much. Wishing you all the best and hope that we get a chance to speak again soon.

Rabbi David Fohrman:

I do. It’s always fun, David. If it takes a podcast for us to be able to spend a quality hour and a half together, count me in any time.

David Bashevkin:

I always enjoy speaking with Rabbi Fohrman, and I think the takeaway for me in a way is from the book that he references, which has been on my shelf for decades. What a fabulous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Which really retells the story of scientific history, not as a binary of true and false of one scientific theory replacing the other, but more as the shifting paradigms of the way in which we look most broadly at the mechanics of how science works. And I think the question, at least for me, that I’m left with, is, what is the paradigm, or the structure of religious revolutions, the different paradigms with which those who are committed to religion, what is the paradigm through which they view their commitment, the language that they view their commitment? And I think you find this in a lot, you could map out the history of popular analogies to explain our commitment.

I remember, in the late ’90s, early 2000s, when it came to explaining the minutiae of Halakha, the minutiae of Jewish law, rabbis loved using the analogy of, if you type into a web browser www.google.com and you leave out the dot, it’s not going to take you there. And they would use the language of computers to explain religious commitment, which I actually hated, for the record. I think it was a very poor analogy that hurt a lot of people and their religious commitment, and I don’t think that’s how Jewish law works. But leaving that aside, it is an example for, what is the paradigm, what’s that large paradigm with which we view our religious commitment? And how, if at all, does that change maybe within our lifetime, and more broadly, throughout Jewish and human history, that paradigm with which we look at those daily commitments every single day for religious life?

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