Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion writes:
Rabbinic Cover-Up? Shabbat 56
Interpreting Scripture is no easy feat. One of the difficulties in understanding biblical literature is figuring out what parts are to be taken at face value and which are to be understood in a more symbolic fashion. While we take it for granted that physical descriptions of G-d are anthropomorphisms, such was not the case before the Rambam eradicated the notion of a physical G-d from our conception of the Divine. The wide-ranging nature of belief in a physical G-d is highlighted by the critique of the Rabad, who simply notes that "a number of greater and better [sages] than he went with this idea according to what they saw in the verses" (Laws of Repentance 3:7)
The above comes to mind as I think of a series of claims by Rav Shmuel bar (the sone of) Nachmani in the name of Rav Yonatan that "whoever says...sinned is only making an error" (55b). Beginning with the story of Reuven, of whom the Torah says "he slept with Bilha, his father's concubine" and continuing with the sons of Eli, the sons of Shmuel, King David, Solomon, and Yoshiyahu, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani--in seeming contradiction to the verses of the Tanach--interprets the sins ascribed to them as much more minor errors. Heaven forbid that Reuven slept with his stepmother; rather, he only moved the bed of his father out of her tent into the tent of Leah.
While we are told the children of Eli "slept with women" that only means, Rav Shmuel asserts, that through their delay in attending to the Temple sacrifices, women had to wait an extra day before they were allowed to be intimate with their husbands. King Solomon did not really do "evil in the eyes of the Lord", but rather did not protest the sins of others. And on and on it goes.
While a cursory reading of the Talmud may lead one to the conclusion that Rav Shmuel is whitewashing the sins of our biblical heroes--engaging in apologetics--it is anything but. It is worth noting that these "reinterpretations" were all offered by Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rav Yonatan. While the Talmud does not offer dissenting opinions, it does not necessarily follow that his view was unanimous. The Talmud often records minority viewpoints, and when it comes to Aggadic (non-legal), as opposed to Halachic (legal) matters, there are no official binding rulings.
Regarding Aggadic sections of the Talmud, we are even entitled to disagree with Talmudic views (see, for example, Tosafot Yom Tov Nazir 5:5 who, in an amazing passage, notes that "permission is granted to interpret scripture as our eyes see").
More importantly, Rav Shmuel is actually being most harsh on our heroes. They did, in fact commit much lesser sins than the Bible ascribes to them. But the Bible chooses to claim they committed a great sin; minor sins of our leaders are greatly magnified. While for others we may overlook minor discretions, this is not the case when we are talking about biblical greats from whom much more is expected, and whose minor errors may lead to major consequences.
Reuven may have only moved the beds, but such audacity is considered as if he actually slept with Bilha, a far graver sin. Our sages, to quote Nechama Leibowitz, were no "respecter of persons". In fact, they had extremely high standards, and would often not tolerate even minor indiscretions. May we merit such leaders, who do not even "move the beds" of others.
No, Jay. You're wrong.
We have 1300 (at least) years of proof that this Talmudic passage was used to cover up all kinds of crimes committed by prominent men and rabbis and the expense of the weak, the poor, women, and children.
The Talmud does not say "Rabbi X could have done this particular heinous crime but he really didn't. He is only being treated as if he did because he's a great man, and his minor sin is equal to a major sin committed by anyone else."
What the Talmud does is use the following formula to excuse major Jewish leaders and rabbis of all sorts of heinous crimes: "whoever says...sinned is only making an error."
As your own Toronto community is facing two high profile (or is it three high profile) cases of child sexual abuse allegedly committed by prominent men in the local haredi community – crimes that were covered up by local haredi and Orthodox rabbinic and community leaders for decades – to make the claim you have made is offensive.
Are you blind? Are you deaf? Are you stupid?
What about Rabbi Chaim Halpern in London? Rabbi Nechemya Weberman in Brooklyn? Rabbi Mordechai Elon in Israel?
What about Kolko and his nephew and Weingarten and Yegutkin and so many, many others?
How about the financial crimes, the Ponzi schemes, the extortion of agunot?
Are you blind? Are you deaf? Are you?
The constant factor that runs through all these cases is the idea posited by rabbis and community leaders that "whoever says Halpern, Weberman, Elon, Kolko, Kolko, Weingarten, Yegutkin, etc., sinned is only making an error" – or lying, or whore, or a bum.
This very Talmudic passage has been used in all of these cases to kasher the criminal.
Admit the truth.
Shmuel bar Nachmani was wrong and the sages who edited the Babylonian Talmud were wrong for including his error without sufficient clarification, and their errors have caused untold pain and suffering for victims ever since.
You bet there are. Lots of them.
And Jay Kelman just added another to that long and shameful list.
Jay should be ashamed of himself, and he should apologize immediately to all the victims – current and in the future – that he has hurt.
Shame. Shame. Shame.