We traditionally learn Pirkei Avos throughout the summer months – the fascinating letter we share this week is to an author of a book on Pirkei Avos. In it, the Rebbe gives the author constructive criticism and advice regarding the sources he uses in the writing of his book. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
25th of Tammuz, 5726
New York, N.Y.
Greeting and Blessing:
I duly received you second volume on Pirkei Avot. Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness.
I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your method of developing the thought of a Maamar Chazal in a manner which not only reveals new insights but also makes the words to the Torah more attractive and acceptable to the audience and reader, seeing the practical application of the saying of our Sages, “Turn it and turn it again , for everything is in it.”
You are surely aware of the common trait among Jews of wishing to make a personal observation about everything, or challenging a statement for further verification and the like. No doubt this is based on the fact that a Jew does not like to take things for granted in seeking out the truth and its practical application in the daily life, which is also your objective in your volumes. It is in line with the principle of Rabbi Yochanan, found in the Gemoro (B.M. 84a), who, when told of supporting evidence for his statement replied, “Don’t I know that I said it well?”, but was more pleased when his statement was challenged, which presented the opportunity for further elaboration.
My point of criticism is a general one, which regrettably is quite prevalent among many authors and preachers in the United States. It is that when an idea is expressed, it seems insufficient that it originates in the Torah, but for some reason it is found necessary to look for support among non-Jewish sources, where the same or a similar thought is expressed. Presumably the intention is a good one, for unfortunately there are Jews who will more easily accept an idea in the Torah, if it has also been said by some Goy. Obviously the detrimental aspect by far outweighs the benefit. In the first place, it does not lend dignity to the Torah or to a Maamar Chazal, if it has to be confirmed by extraneous sources. Secondly, it creates the impression in the reader that any idea of the Torah which is not supported by a Goy, l’havdil, is a moot question. Furthermore, it generally lends support to the unfortunate attitude of Ma yomru hagoyim, seeing that even a prominent orthodox author resorts to it.
There is yet a further consideration. A footnote in general has a double purpose: one, to verify a citation; two, and this is even more important, to encourage the reader not to rest content with the quotation, which for obvious reasons has to be brief, but to go to the original source cited, in order to delve more deeply into that source and what was said before and after the particular quotation. Just as such a footnote is all profit, if the quotation cited is derived from Torah Shebiksav, or Shebe’alpe, the opposite is true if the quotation is from extraneous sources, l’havdil. For as you know, the Shulchan Aruch very reluctantly permitted the study of extraneous sources and under special conditions, as in the case of Rakachot v’Tabachot, but certainly not for general consumption, where the Shulcah Aruch takes a very stringent view (Hilchot Talmud Torah).
Had the author been anyone else, I would not have felt quite at ease to be so candid, but I am sure that you will accept the above in the proper spirit. I mention it only in the hope that, in regard to the third volume, which with G-d’s help you will surely publish soon, my remarks will be taken into consideration.
With esteem and with blessing,
Among my correspondents there are Rabbis and authors on various levels, among them such who excel in homiletics. One of them in particular, makes it his custom to begin his sermon on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a quotation from a non-Jewish source, not always the wisest of them, not to mention the most pious of them. For several years I have been trying to convince him that there surely is no absolute necessity to usher in the New Year or the Yom HaKadosh with such a quotation, which surely does not add to the true inspiration of holiness among the congregants, especially those who belong to the so-called three-days-a year-worshipper. Why, I asked him, should you start with a Goy, even before you have had a chance to tell them something about Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim? Even granted that this would raise your prestige in the eyes of certain individuals, surely you are not in need of it, ofr you have a life contract?
You can, of course, gues the qnswer with which my arguments were countered: “Accept the truth from whatever source.” But of course, this principle is quite irrelevant in this case. For one would not have to apply this in a case of self-evident truth, such as twice two equals four and the like. An idea and thought of the Torah – whether Torah Shebiksav or Torah Shebe’alpeh, does not require extraneous confirmation. Needless to say, I have not been successful so far, although I have not given up the hope that that I might eventually be able to sway him.
The above letter is from The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).
These letters were written originally in English and were prepared for publication by Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, whose responsibility it was the Rebbe’s correspondence in English and several other languages.
We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.