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Judah: A Perplexing Character?
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Today I want to talk to you a little bit about kind of the kind of questions that we're looking for and I want to make two distinctions with you. The first is a distinction between what I call big questions and little questions, and the second, a distinction between what I call internal versus external questions. Let me tell you a little bit what I mean by that. Let's start with big questions and little questions. There was this book written a little while back by Thomas Kuhn about the history of science and particular, how scientific revolutions unfold, called, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the book he talks about the Copernican Revolution and he talks about Einstein's revolution; the Theory of Relativity. Copernican's revolution was about the sun being at the center of the universe instead of the earth. He says, how do these revolutions actually unfold? What made scientists change their minds? Scientists are a sort of stubborn lot and they don't change their mind that easily, what did it? Was it like there was this one, huge, big question that came along and said, boy, I can't deal with that.
For example, Galileo - right? So Galileo comes and Galileo makes himself a telescope - here's our really crummy-rendition of Galileo's telescope. Galileo is looking at the stars and Galileo sees that there's actually these moons that are orbiting Jupiter and this is like a big problem, the big question for this idea that the earth is at the center of the universe and everything revolves around it. Because there were supposed to be this crystalline spheres, these solid spheres that the stars and the planets were in, and how could there be these moons orbiting something that it was encased in this solid glass kind of sphere?
But this question alone didn't destroy the geocentric universe - the view that the earth was the center of the universe. It took - what Kuhn says - is an accumulation of small questions, a whole bunch of little problems with the theory; little problem 1, little problem 2, little problem 3, and for each one of these problems you can answer with an ad hoc kind of way. You could come up with, oh well maybe there's this, maybe there's that, and that's what scientists did for a while. But after a while when there's like five, 10, of these ad hoc solutions, somehow it just doesn't seem to be reasonable any more. The community of scientists comes together and says, it doesn't seem to make sense that there's all these different kinds of answers to all these small questions, maybe there's a paradigm shift, maybe there's a whole different way of viewing it? If we just shift our assumptions we can make one shift of assumptions in a kind of big way, and all these little questions go away. Ultimately, Kuhn argues, the little questions are more powerful.
I agree that in some sense little questions are more powerful, but I think when you look at a story it's helpful to begin sometimes with asking, are there any big questions in the story? Even if those big questions might not completely lead us in the direction of an answer, they are still helpful to kind of get out on the table.
I want to tell you a story about big questions actually. So back when I was in Yeshiva, I was in Talmud class and every once in a while I would ask this - what I would think is a big question - that completely destroys the theory that the lecturer had put forward. Every once in a while he would just sort of - I would go to my teacher about this and he would just sort of stroke his beard and say in Yiddish, the phrase; Shtark nisht fun a kasha - which basically, roughly translated in English is, you don't die from a question. I was very upset about this. I would say, how could he walk away and say you don't die from a question? I had this huge question, you're telling me I don't die from a question, like what does that even mean? I understood ultimately later in life when I became more mature what he was really saying is, you know, you give me a bunch of little questions, that can destroy my theory, but just one, big question, okay, you don't die from a question.
That having been said there are certain questions which if you don't die from, they should at least keep you up at night and those are the big questions. I would define a big question as the kind of question which if you don't have a solution to you really can't say you have a theory, a way of understanding the story, that works. It's not like I don't understand why the verse added an extra word, I don't understand why the phrase is this turn of phrase instead of another turn of phrase. It's a question which gets in the way of your understanding of the whole story. It's one of those big, thematic questions. I think when we look at the story of [Adam and Eve 4:47] we want to ask ourselves before we get to the small questions, what are some of the big questions in the story? Are there any big questions in the story? I think there are.
Let me get to the second distinction I was talking to you about, what I call internal questions versus external questions and let me look at the Book of Jonah with you as a way of kind of fleshing out what it is that I'm talking about. You all know the story of Jonah and the whale, right? Jonah gets swallowed in the whale - this is where the Pinocchio story gets it from. Imagine you're teaching the story of Jonah and some student raises their hand and says, I don't understand, how could Jonah survive in the fish for three days? I don't really get that. How would you answer that question? Well it's not so easy, an answer to that question, as a matter of fact I would argue there is no answer to that question.
Basically what's bothering him? What's bothering your student is the idea of miracles. This guy is a twenty-first century guy, the whole idea of miracles is a problem for him. But that's not really a question about the Book of Jonah, that has very little to do about the Book of Jonah, it's actually an external question. It's a question about miracles, not about the book. An internal question is a question which requires you to enter into the world of the book, to accept its preconceptions. The book believes in miracles, accept that idea, are there any other questions that bother you?
Of course there are some big, internal questions in the Book of Jonah. Verse 1 in the Book of Jonah says, one upon a time the word of G-d came to Jonah and said go to Nineveh. Verse 2 in the Book of Jonah says, Jonah ran away from G-d and he went to Tarshish. Well why did he run away? I mean, why would you go into the prophecy business and decide to become a prophet if you're just going to run away when G-d tells you to go? There's a missing motivation - a motivation doesn't seem to be there, why is he running away? That is an internal question, it's a question the book wants you to ask. That question is really kind of a window into the meaning of the text. If you open up that window it's going to tell you something about what's going on in the book. Which is why, I think, internal questions are more interesting than external questions. They're more interesting because if you open the window, if you grapple with the internal questions and you find some answers, they're actually going to tell you something about the story.
1. Introduction to Yehudah and Tamar
2. Kinds of Questions
3. A Question of Placement
4. A Tale of Two Digressions
5. Does Rashi Answer The Question?
6. Are We Explaining One Sentence or a Whole Story?
7. A Triangle of Descent
8. The Unexpected Element
9. Perpetual Mourning
10. Failure to Persuade
11. Patchwork Quilt
13. Lest it Come to Scandal
14. Recognize, Please..
15. Tales of Goats and Coats
16. Keepsake or Evidence?
18. How Many--and Why?
19. What's At Stake?
20. Yehudah's Name
22. Superfluous Details
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