Monday, October 12, 2009

Wild Mass Guessing

The title is taken from here, and describes what happens when fans of a fictional work try to “fill in the logic holes and rationalize the weird.”

This was the phrase that sprang to mind when I read a short d’var torah on sukkos. The article started by asking, “Why do we sit in sukkos,” and, “Why is Sukkos in the fall?” To which the obvious answer is, ‘because it’s a harvest festival, and people camped out in huts in their fields while they were bringing in the harvest.’ Of course, this isn’t at all spiritual, merely practical. The holiday, canonized in the chumash, has to have connections both to the miraculous past of the Bnei Yisroel and to glorifying God’s name. So various views were quoted, including a discussion of whether the sukkos are a representation of the ananei hakavod or are a remembrance of actual huts which Klal Yisroel lived in while in the midbar; and whether sukkos is in the fall because that is when the Jews camped or because by living outside when it is getting cold we are showing that we are doing so because God commanded it and not because it is fun to camp out.

If one accepts that Sukkos evolved from a harvest festival, the discussions among the meforshim seem kind of silly. They are an attempt to make sukkos fit into a spiritual framework that probably wasn’t in place when the holiday first started, and into which it was never really molded. [Unlike, say, All Hollows Eve, which was a deliberate attempt by the Church to turn a pagan harvest festival involving spirits into a Christian holiday involving the dead.] These rabbonim, fans of the spiritual framework of Rabbinic Judaism, are engaging in wild mass guessing to fill in the holes.

For a long time now, my initial reaction to any unfamiliar religious concept or practice I come across (and any I’m used to that I really start thinking about) is, “How did that get started?” Unfortunately, the traditional answers are often like the above d’var torah’s discussion of Sukkos. Wild Mass Guessing by various people attempting to construct something that makes sense out of various disparate parts, full of retcons and discontinuities, often bending over backwards to explain something that makes perfect sense when approached without preconceptions into which it needs to be made to fit. When it comes to how well these apologetics work, Your Mileage May Vary.

As the Wild Mass Guessing page says,
Warning: Prolonged exposure to these pages will result in them making sense.


  1. It's like evolution. We find a bunch of fossils, don't know what they mean and then "scientists" invent some ridiculous meaning for them. Wild Mass Guessing.

  2. Come on JP, you can do better than that!

  3. I LOVE this post. You nailed it, formed the words I've been trying to find.

  4. It's so unfortunate that we have lost touch with nature in such a big way... the changing of the seasons should be a spiritual experience in and of itself... without the need to add on all kinds of other explanations

  5. kisarita, I get the feeling that you and I are coming from very different places. The changing of the seasons is just the consequence of the Earth going around the Sun. Round and round we go, propelled by inertia and tethered by gravity. No spiritual forces needed.

    I do agree that there is no “need to add on all kinds of other explanations”

  6. I have the same experience when I listen to many dvar torahs. I don't mind the spiritual message, or the interesting historical conjecture, although I know in my mind that it is mostly BS.
    I always like to say that the bottom line to every dvar torah, no matter how long-winded and sophisticated, can be boiled down to 2 words: Be Good. Thing about it.
    Personally I have difficulty coming up with dvar torahs myself now, even though I am occasionally asked to. I have thorough mastery of Hebrew and the gmarah, and I have a yeshiva education. The problem is that I can't come up with any "vort" that I actually believe in myself, and that would be acceptable to a traditional audience. So I feel it would be quite unconvincing to others.

  7. Its not hard to come up with a believable vort. Most aren’t great insights, just something cute tangentially related to the parsha and the event at hand. I’ve had a similar problem though. If I had to give a traditional dvar torah I think I’d choke on the words. So for my sister-in-law’s sheva brochos I gave a “vort” based on Descartes (I helped her with her philosophy class the semester before she got married) and her and her choson’s personalities. I discovered you can tweak anything to make a cute vort.