Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Advice For My Friend

In a posting yesterday on Circus Tent, my friend Chabakuk Elisha asked for advice on how to answer a question his son asked him about the story behind Akdamus. After thinking about what he wrote, here is my response:

Chabakuk Elisha:

As a Lubavitcher chassid, you believe that the reason that you learn Chitas every day is because when the Tzemach Tzedek visited the grave of his mother (Rebbetzin Devorah Leah) in 1843, he received a message from her that she had gained entry into the heavenly palace of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov then gave the instruction to establish the practice of learning Chitas on a daily basis. To the non-Lubavitcher this story may sound as contrived as the story that you have problems with. It is all a matter of perspective.

If you truly don't believe the story behind Akdamus, you should know that our tradition contains plenty of other "fantastic" stories, from the ten plagues in Egypt to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the cave, that many people deem as questionable and that require a person to accept with a simple faith. The story behind Akdamus thus does not strike me as being extraordinary in this regard.

Perhaps you could answer your son by saying that while you have trouble accepting this story literally at the present time, this does not invalidate the story in any way. Explain to him that many great tzaddikim extolled the kedusha of Akdamus and that you are still struggling to come to grips with it.

In the end, your son will respect your honesty and gain an appreciation for the fact that his Tatty, like everyone else, struggles with matters of emuna.

I hope you accept these words as words of friendship and not those of derision or condescension.


A Simple Jew


At June 7, 2006 at 9:52:00 AM EDT, Blogger Akiva said...

(second time, it lost my comment the first time, grr)

My dear virtual friend whom I have never met, I fear your position is dangerous.

There is a reason that midrashim are separate from our holy Torah. Further, even in the gemora there is a practical separate between discussions of halacha and agada. The holy words of the Tanach are indeed understood literally and figuratively. The midrashim and stories are not.

Even more so when we find sometimes a conflict between the two. There was an excellent article in the Jewish Press (here) that demonstrated a practical conflict between Torah pshat and a midrash.

Is it a conflict of emunah to say that both cannot be true in this physical world simultaneously? The niisim of the Torah and naviim were recorded by G-d and his designated prophets. There is no question they are taken literally.

Stories are not. (Even further, rarely do we find stories written by gedolim.)

Our emunat tzaddikim is not built upon the shakey foundation of stories, or even upon nisiim!

Stories have great moral lessons, and are often beautiful and always interesting to boot. Yet we potentially put our, and certainly for our less developed children, emunah at literal risk by putting belief in stories at a foundational level. Yetzias Mitzrayim and the associated nisiim is a foundational belief, as is the battle between Eliyahu HaNavi and the priests of avodah zara. Belief in every story of every tzaddik is not.

As I posted here, even some holy Rebbaim themselves stated that every story is not literally true.

At June 7, 2006 at 10:16:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Akiva: I am not sure why you think that my position is "dangerous". I am not advocating that one needs to accept every single story as literally true. I was trying to take the middle road.

At June 7, 2006 at 10:20:00 AM EDT, Blogger Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...

Stories mentioned in Midroshim and Shas are one thing, stories printed in story books are quite another.

At June 7, 2006 at 10:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Hirshel: So are you saying that it is possible that the Tzemach Tzedek did not receive instruction from Rebbetzin Devorah Leah after she passed away?

Is it also possible that the story
of Usaneh Tokef with Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never happened as well?

At June 7, 2006 at 10:41:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

I agree with ASJ, that he is trying to take the middle path, and to put CE's doubts into their proper perspective. It's interesting that we seem not to question a story when "our guy" is the "hero", but when it's about someone "else", then we question it up & down.

But I also agree with HT, that there's a difference between something recording in Shas & Midrashim, and those stories that came down later. And yes, it's possible the Tzemach Tzedeka-RDL story didn't happen.

At June 7, 2006 at 10:47:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: I am glad you see my side in this. At the same time, I too agree with Hirshel (and you and Akiva) that there is a big difference between something recorded in Shas and Midrashim and stories that are from later periods.

At June 7, 2006 at 12:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the effort!

Just to clarify:

I believe most Jewish stories. When the story sounds illogical, or fantastic, then I need a source – and if the source is a good one, then I’ll believe it (and I want to second Hirshel's comment above). In this case (Akdamos) we have an old ksav yad. I don’t know if that source is that reliable, so I am very suspicious, since this sounds like a kids story with all the trappings – and it might even never have been meant to be accepted as fact.

I am also not a partisan story accepter – I’m an equal opportunity skeptic when the story sounds wrong to me. (BTW, I know that the reason I say Chitas is because of hiskashrus, simply because the Rabbeim asked us to, and not because of the story – which is not to say that I don’t believe the story – I actually don’t remember hearing it before) But that wasn’t what I was trying to get to; I wanted to know what I should tell my kids.

I know what I think, but don’t want to undermine their rebbeim or yeshivos. ASJ, do you think I should have validated the story, and just said that I struggle with it?

(Interestingly, a friend told me yesterday that he read an old book not long ago, where it is said that the story is indeed a mashul, and the details are references to things going on at the time. He didn’t have time to talk, but I hope to ask him t elaborate (and perhaps lend me the book ;-) )

At June 7, 2006 at 12:32:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Chabakuk Elisha: You asked "ASJ, do you think I should have validated the story, and just said that I struggle with it? "

No, I think it is possible not to validate it without dismissing it outright. In this way you are saying that you view it hovering between truth and untruth...not 100% sure what to make of it at the present time.

At June 9, 2006 at 6:29:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ, you know I don't understand the doubt toward the holy piyut of Seder Akdamus? After all, it is contained in our Siddurim, and is ascribed to Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchaki (of 11th C. Worms) and is a vehicle for mystical understanding. Maybe the crevice of doubt is much deeper for this person? Nowadays, we must strengthen our (and our children's) emunah in Hashem and not leave any gaps for doubt to seed and grow.

Allow me the following: (from Reb Lazer of

After davening this morning, I told the Rebbe shlit'a about Rav Shalom Arush's and my newly released cassette, "Gog and Magog", and about the amazing things Rav Shalom heard from his teacher, Rav Eliezer Burland shlit'a. The Rebbe was pleased, and nodded his agreement.

Out of the blue, he asked me a question: "Do you know why the tests of epikorsis (faithlessness and agnosticism) and arayos (lewdness, forbidden sex) are so difficult in this generation?

I didn't answer, waiting eagerly for the Rebbe to give me his answer.

"We have a tradition from the great Rebbe Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin zatza'l, that the last generation before Moshiach will be faced with the most difficult tests of epikorsis and arayos. The Generation of the Flood died because of arayos, and the Generation of the Tower of Babel died because of epikorsis. Their souls are reincarnated in our generation - the reincarnated souls from the Generation of the Tower of Babel are today's epikorsim and the reincarnated souls from the Generation of the Flood are today's purveyors of lewdness. On one hand, that's why our tests in emuna and our tests in tikkun habrit (personal sanctity) are so hard. On the other hand, we should rejoice, for this is solid proof that this generation is the generation of Moshiach." The Rebbe shlit'a also told me that Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schechter shlit'a from Jerusalem, one of today's foremost Ashkenazi Kabbalists, mentions this idea in his book Likutei Amarim.

Thank you and wishing you and your new fuller family Bracha and Hatzlacha. Please let us know the little one's new name.

At June 11, 2006 at 3:28:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Neshama: E-mail me and I will tell you my daughter's name.

At June 11, 2006 at 3:33:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I find it annoying, when in some new editions of this story, some parts are censored out! (Namely about the galach-mechashef). Probably because it doesn't fit into standard view of what is appropriate. However it is probably inappropriate to lay hands on such things.

As for the story itself, I think it's a beautiful classic of our mesoyro. You can find similar stories in Kav haYoshor if you like. Why don't ask if they are authentic? Rational mind can't accept such things, I understand. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of pure rationalism and materialism. That was the trap of “haskolo” and is a very basic mind set of society outside Yiddishkayt.

Probably there is always a hidden "maskil" in every one of us, saying - "Come on! Do you really believe this? It's complete nonsense!". Rebbe z”l once said (as a guzmo), that it’s better to be a fool and to believe everything (and so to believe in true things), than not to believe anything (and so not to believe in true things). The message of this is not to fall the victim of materialism/rationalism (which is challenging, because really to be a fool is not good as well).

And about the land of the shvotim – it is not that far fetched, as it may seem! There were a number of chachomim, who tried to locate that mysterious place. And about teleportation – it is not against our traditions as well J For example, look in Eymek haMelech, where he speaks about 7 lands (Shivo artzoys) and how he explains this concept. You’ll be amazed by that. (Just to give you an idea - he speaks about teleportation between them and etc.). Better look inside yourself, though.

So I think such problems with this story are too artificial. By the way, may be you can put here a full version of this story (with details!) as you saw it? It will be interesting to see.

At June 11, 2006 at 3:41:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw a version given by Chabakuk Elisha: here
What I ment by "censored out" is, that in old version of thi mayse, Reb Meir went to the galach, who actually was the one who teleported him to the land of the shvotim!!


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