9/11/2007

A Poor Example of Educational Storytelling

Someone recently quoted to me, in the context of a discussion of Hilkhot Shemittah, a story that apparently appears in one of the ‘Magid’ series by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. The story pertains to the rule that one is not allowed to feed a non-Jew produce which contains kedushat shevi’it. Although this rule seems to be in direct contravention to Vayikra 25:6, Our Sages have limited the scope of this passage to a case where the non-Jew is a long-term member of the Jew’s household (See Rambam, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 5:13).

So this story begins with a husband returning home to find that his wife had given two kedushat sheviit fruits to the goyishe help for her ride home. Acting quickly, the husband tracked the Gentiless down on the bus after an apparently difficult chase. When she saw him, she immediately confessed and opened her bag, revealing the jewelry she had just stolen from the family.

I must admit, I found this story offensive. I believe that stories are the primary manner in which values are communicated (in fact, it’s an assumption which underlies a lot of what I write on this blog: some examples can be found here, here, here, and here), and that the values reflected in this story are problematic.

The central problem I find is in the All-for-the-Boss-esque reward of zeal with miracles. Miracle stories are problematic in general, and this problem is compounded when the miracle is a reward for behavior which is supererogatory at best, negative at worst. The prohibition against giving a non-Jew fruits with kedushat Shevi’it is based on the fact that one must treat these sanctified fruits with proper respect, and giving them to a non-Jew is disrespectful. The story’s ‘hero’ is justifiably concerned with the fact that this non-Jew would violate the sanctity of the produce, but at what expense? Public embarrassment of the Gentile? Embarrassing his wife? Furthermore, it seems clear from Tosefta Sheviit 5:20 that once the produce is in the possession of the non-Jew, there is no need to take it back (the Tosefta discusses, and permits, a similar scenario in the case of an animal, which is generally more stringent than a human when it comes to consumption of foods which have kedushat Shevi’it; I’m not ready to outright permit such a case, but there is certainly reason to pause and especially if there is counter-pressure).

I’m also not thrilled with way the story portrays the wife (as a half-wit) and the Gentiless (as a thief). I think it’s poor values-education.

I’d have been much happier with the following ending (leaving aside the man’s treatment of his wife or her apparent ignorance): the man quickly rushes to the local makolet (a word for which there’s no real English equivalent, unless you count bodega) and buys soda, chips, and cookies. He then hops into a taxi to chase down this gentile woman. Upon reaching her, he apologizes profusely that he actually can’t give her those fruits (without explaining the halakhic rationale) and offers her the bag of food instead.

That way, he can actually fulfill the Biblical mandate of shemitta in spirit as well as in the letter, for there is no doubt that the Torah, through the mitzvah of shemittah, wishes to instill concern about the plight of the wage-earner.

And if the story truly happened the way that Rabbi Krohn tells it, then just don’t tell that story in an educational setting. Better edifying fiction.

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