[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times]
Generally speaking, we should be open and tolerant of views and interpretations of others that may differ from ours.
BREACH IN THE MESORAH
Sometimes, however, when we perceive a breach in the Mesorah of the interpretation of a passage in the Talmud and it is presented as fact, it is incumbent upon others to vocalize their dissent. This is particularly true when the misinterpretation has no substantive linguistic indication to that effect within the text.
The essay in question stated that Rabbi Elazar, of the first generation of Amoraim, was suffering from mental illness. The essay was penned by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the editor of Ami Magazine, whom I generally consider someone who would not misrepresent a Torah text. Nonetheless, the particular essay (issue 237 entitled “A Look Inside Psych Wards”) struck this author as troubling.
THE GEMORAH IN BRACHOS
Rabbi Frankfurter based this assertion on a passage in Brachos 5b which states as follows:
Rabbi Elazar once became sick. Rabbi Yochanan came to visit him and saw that he was sleeping in a dark room. Whereupon Rabbi Yochanan uncovered his own arm and immediately the room grew light. Rabbi Yochanan then noticed that Rabbi Elazar was weeping. Rabbi Yochanan asked, “Why are you weeping? Is it because you have not learned Torah sufficiently? Behold we are taught, ‘No matter whether one offers much or little – only the intentions of one’s heart counts for the sake of Heaven.’ Is it because you are in need and poor? Not everyone receives a table in the world to come and a table here. Is it because of trouble from your children? Here is a bone from my tenth son. “I weep,” responded Rabbi Elazar for that beauty which will ultimately decay in the earth.” Rabbi Yochanan responded, “For that you really ought to weep.” Both wept together. Rabbi Yochanan then asked of him, “Do you love afflictions?” Rabbi Elazar answered, “Neither them nor their rewards.” “Then give me your hand.” Rabbi Elazar did so and was made well.
RABBI FRANKFURTER’S TWO ASSERTIONS
Rabbi Frankfurter writes, “It is clear that Rabbi Elazar was suffering on a psychological level from a pall of darkness enveloping his mind, rather than from physical disease.” He bases his interpretation on the fact that Rabbi Yochanan did not ask Rabbi Elazar if the reason he was crying was on account of poor health or physical pain. Rabbi Frankfurter then suggests that Rabbi Yochanan is engaging in “existential psychotherapy” in his discussion with Rabbi Elazar.
INJECTING SECULAR THINKING INTO TORAH TEXTS
There is an unfortunate tendency for people to, at times, get caught up in their mada studies, in their Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Rank philosophies, and then retro-inject them into various Gemorahs and Midrashim that they come across with forced readings. Existentialist psychotherapy is strictly an early 20th century phenomenon. Injecting this type of therapy into the interpretation of a Gemorah with no Meforshim backing it up is anachronistic.
The results are not just incorrect readings of Torah texts, but there are two other repercussions as well: There are grave methodological missteps where, for example, an early Amorah is labelled as someone who is mentally ill; and the traditions of the classical commentators on our texts are entirely ignored.
THE TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATIONS
This Gemorah has been amply and adequately interpreted throughout the generations.
The Ran understands this passage to mean that “in a dark room” means that Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Yochanan’s student was destitute. Rabbi Yochanan opened his hand in generosity.
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh, the Nesivos, and the Malbim all interpret “sleeping in a dark room” as headed toward his ultimate demise which is called “a dark room.” Rabbi Yochanan was thus attempting to inspire Rabbi Elazar not to give up his will to live despite the sufferings of his illness.
Rabbi Avrohom Kara, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva Eiger and author of the Ayil HaMeluim explains “in a dark room” to mean that Rabbi Elazar looked at Rabbi Yochanan in a slightly negative light in that Rabbi Yochanan was quite wealthy and it was thought by some that he did not distribute charity in the appropriate amounts. Rabbi Yochanan revealed his light means that he showed Rabbi Elazar his hidden acts of charity.
The Gedolei HaAchronim have given numerous interpretations throughout the centuries to this passage. Not one of them, however, suggested that Rabbi Elazar was suffering from mental illness.
THE SOURCES FOR THE AMI INTERPRETATION
In response to a query from a reader named B. Mann (issue 239) about what his sources were for the interpretation, Rabbi Frankfurter responded, “The most important source for the interpretation that Rabbi Elazar’s illness was of a psychological nature is the Gemorah in Brachos (5b) which I cited.”
Rabbi Frankfurter then juxtaposes a Mishna in Shabbos (29b) that discusses extinguishing a light on Shabbos because of a ruach rah, which the Rambam interprets as mental illness. He correlates the need to extinguish a light with the fact that Rabbi Elazar was in a darkened room. It is significant to note that no commentator correlates the Mishna in Shabbos with the Gemorah in Brachos. Also, Rashi provides an entirely different understanding of Ruach Rah which would entirely rule out any basis for correlating the two passages.
Rabbi Frankfurter’s “sources” for his interpretation are technically not true sources in the classical sense, rather they are inferences that Rabbi Frankfurter perceives within the text; namely that Rabbi Elazar was in a darkened room and the dialogue between the two Rabbis expressly underscoring the psychological aspect of his suffering. As we have seen, however, there are different interpretations of this idea.
The mental illness interpretation suggested in the Ami article, however, is not novel. Reform Rabbi Ruth Adar, suggested just such an interpretation last year in her blog. The point is that such interpretations are foreign to traditional Judaism. This is not a gratuitous attack. If the only fellow travelers on a path are Reform Rabbis when the topic was dealt with by our classical meforshim for centuries, then something is clearly wrong.
Ami Magazine has always stood at the forefront of defending Torah-true Judaism. This is an important mission, and ny and large they have met this mission suscessfully. The interpretation of this passage in a manner that stands in contrast to the Rishonim and Achaonim is a violation of what Ami Magazine stands for. In this author’s opinion Rabbi Frankfurter should retract the essay.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org