Possibilities and Persons Unconsidered: Daf Yomi #3

Ber 4a-4b shows that the Talmud, when rendering decisions, attempts to anticipate all kinds of circumstances and possibilities. The rabbis’ thoughtfulness, wide-ranging exploration, and deep concern are evident. So are their blinders and limitations.

My Jewish Learning’s note for today focuses on the famous idea (Ber 4b) of creating a “fence” around decisions to keep Jews from falling into common errors. We also see examples of consulting with advisors and with God before rendering decisions. In particular, David consults a teacher and worries over his rulings (Ber 4a; more on this below).

Possibilities Unconsidered

The appearance of the “fence” after some lengthy discussion of content and method in deciding when to recite the evening Shema shows rabbinical concern for sacred text, everyday holiness, and practicalities of life. As already noted, the Rabbis’ depth of thought and range of concern is clear. And I am trying to focus on tools the rabbis are giving us, when they share their reasoning (see Benay Lappe’s “How to Read Talmud“), rather than on the problems of the text.

We’ve seen from the beginning that the language is, in the original Aramaic and Hebrew and most English translations, entirely masculine. We’ve known all along that the Rabbis speak primarily for and to those like them, a group that appears wholly cishet male and able-bodied. Many of us are accustomed to reading around and through text that knows little about us. It’s hard work for me (cishet woman), and I know it’s harder for many others.

I’m sure that others hit snags sooner than Daf 3 (pages 4a-4b), but today I hit mine: the text explicitly mentions a woman for the first time — and she is an object, primarily of concern within heterosexual relationships aimed at procreation, rather than an actor in her own right. This was the first time that the usual mental gymnastics let me down entirely…at least temporarily.

I returned to Benay Lappe’s suggestion that we read the Talmud as though the sages were telling us: “We don’t know what parts of the tradition will stop working in your generation, but we trust you to know that. Stand on our shoulders….” Instead of sticking with the “fence” material — which is important and interesting and less challenging for me, in many ways — I refocused on the spot where I stumbled.

Prioritizing

King David appears in 4a as someone in power who prioritized study and seeking out yafeh [“well-joined,” appropriate, strong, auspicious, beautiful] decision-making:

יָפֶה דַּנְתִּי? יָפֶה חִייַּבְתִּי? יָפֶה זִכִּיתִי? יָפֶה טִהַרְתִּי? יָפֶה טִמֵּאתִי?״
did I decide properly? Did I convict properly? Did I acquit properly? Did I rule ritually pure properly? Did I rule ritually impure properly?
— B. Ber 4a

This midrash on verses from psalms shows David studying a good portion of the night. His choice of topic — miscarriages and declaring a woman “ritually clean for her husband” — seems both a sober choice and one involving personal commitment to repair:

On the one hand, he facilitated procreation and increased the population, in atonement for his part in the death of Uriyya the Hittite. On the other hand, he facilitated intimacy between husbands and their wives as atonement for his conduct with Bathsheba.
— Steinsaltz commentary, notes to Ber 4a

Based on Ps. 86:2 (“Keep my soul, for I am pious [chasid]”), David tells God how these choices set him apart from other kings who choose to gather in bunches for their glory (Jastrow Jackpot here). This effort, and others, are intended to ensure that David was “not embarrassed” through poor rulings.

…We might wonder whether David’s choice of night-time activity sets him apart from other kings or instead substitutes a different form of glory-seeking — and that, perhaps, is why the Talmud goes on to bring another teaching, using the odd dots surrounding ״לוּלֵא״ in Psalm 27:13 to suggest that David himself had doubts about his piety.

While David is not an average Jew, the general message seems to be that one should value “yafeh decision-making” above partying and pomp. David’s story also highlights asking a counselor for help, deep investigation, and seeking rulings that support health and relationships (as he understood them). A bit of rabbinic methodology also seems evident in the presentation of this story, bracketed by a discussion about decisiveness and one about doubt.

I’m also noticing, I believe for the first time, how the Talmud is interjecting the personal —

  • Rabban Gamliel’s sons out late at a wedding,
  • Rabbi Yosei meeting Elijah in the ruins,
  • David choosing study topics in need of repair

— into collective decision-making.

Choosing to study topics where one’s behavior — and, by extension, one’s community or wider world — fell short seems important. Maybe making that choice is another kind of “fence”?

Fence

My Jewish Learning’s note for today, Ber 4a-4b, focuses on creating a “fence” around decisions — חֲכָמִים עָשׂוּ סְיָיג לְדִבְרֵיהֶם.

In this case: Rabban Gamliel’s idea that reciting the evening Shema before dawn is acceptable (as in the case when his sons were up at a party and thought they had missed their chance, but he ruled they could recite at the early morning hour in which they returned home) is acknowledged as the more lenient ruling, but the “fence” is established in a more strict ruling: one should recite by midnight to avoid temptation to say, “I will go home, eat a little, drink a little, sleep a little and then I will recite Shema,” which could easily result in falling asleep first. (See MJL’s Daf Yomi archives.)

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Jastrow Jackpot

יוֹשְׁבִים אֲגוּדּוֹת אֲגוּדּוֹת בִּכְבוֹדָם
Jastrow Jackpot, here, p.11 right: “Ber 4a ‘אֲ’ אֲ in companies (amusing themselves).”

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Photo: Pixabay on Pexels.com

More on Daf Yomi

Reaping the Omer (Beyond 46)

In her book, The Other Talmud, Rabbi Judith Abrams notes that “Nowadays, we count the days of the Omer, but in the days of the Temple, they reaped the omer.”

Let’s give Shavuot the makeover it deserves….

We can transform the Omer counting from the dolorous business it’s become to what it probably was before: a countdown that gets more and more raucous the closer we get to the holiday….It could be a celebration of our history, from biblical times right up to the present.
— Abrams, The Other Talmud: the Yerushalmi, Unlocking the Secrets of the Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012), pp. 159-160

These weeks of “Making the Omer Count” have offered thoughts and resources designed to widen our reaping during the omer and our perspectives as we approach Sinai for the giving of the Torah.

Oftentimes, on this journey that makes so clear how much work is still to be done to make the harvest equitable to all, I think rather irritably: Aren’t we there yet?

As we get closer and closer to Shavuot this year, however, I appreciate the vision Judith Abrams presents: A countdown that becomes more raucous with every voice added to it, streets wider and wider as more and more perspectives are added.

If you’re ready….

We counted 46 on the evening of May 19. Tonight, we count….

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.

Thoughts and sources welcome.

JourneyOmer

Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

A Meditation

Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.

I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Today is forty-seven days which are six weeks and five days in the Omer.
Hayom shiv’ah v-arba’im yom shehaym shishah shavuot vechamishah yamim la-omer.

In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.

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Malcolm X and the Power of Small Things (Beyond 45)

“The fame we get from fighting for the freedom of others creates a prison for us,” Malcolm X wrote in 1964 to Azizah al-Hibri, then a college student at the American University in Beirut. Their brief in-person connection and subsequent correspondence are still treasured by Dr. al-Hibri, now retired as chair of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, the international organization she founded. Moreover, the papers and their story illustrate some important things about leadership, race, gender, and media.

from correspondence between Dr. Azizah al-Hibri and Malcolm X

from correspondence between Dr. Azizah al-Hibri and Malcolm X

As president of the college debating society, al-Hibri arranged for Malcolm to speak on campus while he was touring and also had the opportunity to get to know him during his brief visit. A shared ice cream at the airport launched a correspondence between the two that continued until his death in February 1965. At his request, al-Hibri kept her correspondence private for over 40 years.

In 2012, al-Hibri released a few pieces of correspondence and donated other papers (still private for now) to America’s Islamic Heritage Museum. She said then, in a speech at DC’s Masjid Muhammad, that she wanted to ensure that Muslims are “proud” and “happy” about connections with the slain leader and to forge bonds between the African American Muslim community, with historical connections to the Nation of Islam, and what many call the “immigrant” Muslim community, with different historical roots.

Here’s more from the July 2012 East of the River Magazine story:

From his correspondence it is clear that he already suspected that his life and work were coming to an end. But he knew, even though al-Hibri didn’t yet, that her future as a leader was ahead of her.

It was unusual in 1964, for a woman to be president of an organization like the college debating society, al-Hibri notes. And she, like many women of that decade, had not yet envisioned for herself anything like her role today as professor of U.S. law and international human rights advocate. It was similarly odd to consider that women might be leaders of Islam. But Malcolm X saw beyond the confines of his time, says al-Hibri, pointing to words of encouragement – to her as a woman and a Muslim leader – inscribed in a book he gave her: “You have and are everything it takes to create a new world – leadership is needed among women as well as among men…”
full article here


The Power of Small Things

Of all the stories I covered for East of the River Magazine, this is one that sticks with me as most fascinating and important —

  • the young al-Hibri’s not knowing about U.S. racial dynamics, what her college dean meant about “airing the country’s dirty laundry”
  • al-Hibri’s struggle to reconcile the man she met with the picture she later saw portrayed in the U.S. media
  • the race-sensitive context of her later decision to share her experience, while keeping most of the correspondence private
  • Malcolm X’s interest in corresponding with someone outside the “prison” of his work
  • his recognition of the need for women leaders in politics and in Islam, before many saw it in 1964

I share this today, in honor of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (born Malcolm Little, 5/19/25-2/21/65). I share it in recognition of the work of Dr. al-Hibri and KARAMAH — a small, powerful organization. I share it as a shout out to the too-little-known Americas Islamic Heritage Museum. And I share it to acknowledge the hard and complex work of overcoming racism between religious brothers and sisters.

Perhaps most importantly, I return to this story again and again as an example of the power of small interactions to shape our world.

We counted 45 on the evening of May 18. Tonight, we count….

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.

Thoughts and sources welcome.

JourneyOmer

Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

A Meditation

Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.

I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Today is forty-six days which are six weeks and four days in the Omer.
Hayom shishah v-arba’im yom shehaym shishah shavuot ve-arba’ah yamim la-omer.

In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.


Race and Religion

I am sure many readers are aware, as I am, of anti-racism, police-brutality protests in Israel as well as in the U.S. and of the shameful legacy there; not being Israeli or particularly closely connected with Israeli culture, I have chosen to leave that topic for the better informed. I do believe, however, that Muslims and Jews face similar issues and can learn from one another on these issues, even as problems BETWEEN communities persist.
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Range of Possibilities (Beyond 44)

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“The media we consume has a profound impact on the range of possibilities we can imagine. Therefore, centering Black female narratives in our reading habits should be a central practice for anyone trying to envision a world in which Black Women are respected, honored, supported and loved.” — So writes Aaron Goggans in his post, #ILoveBlackWomen Day One: Read, and I gratefully accept the suggestion.

from Aaron Goggans' "Well Examined Life"

from Aaron Goggans’ “Well Examined Life”

Important in its own right, focusing on women seems also a good antidote to this week’s all-male Torah portion (Bamidbar [“in the wilderness”], Numbers 1:1-4:20), and to the masculine-centered Sinai narrative of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. (In which “the people” are told “don’t go near a woman” [Ex 19:15].)

Deep as erasure, sexism, and misogyny has been for Jewish women and women in Western culture generally, Black women face, in addition, misogynoir. It is, therefore, as Aaron Goggans points out, particularly important to “intentionally consume art, music and literature created by and about Black Trans* Women, Black Women and Black Girls” to counteract this reality.

half-bloodMoreover, any life missing out on Black female voices is simply deprived. And so, in the spirit of #ILoveBlackWomen: READ, I share a few favorites:

Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues. NY: Picador, 2011.
An engaging novel which also offers a glimpse into some often-overlooked bits of history, including the experience of Afro-Germans and France’s “Rhineland Bastards,” following WWI and through WWII. (See U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for historical background.)

Issa Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Personal reflections — too young, at 30, IMO for a “memoir” — from the creator of the web comedy series by the same name as well as a number of other comedy projects. Rae reports taking out some first-draft material in deference to family feeling, but the result is still honest and insightful, and — like her video work — humorous without cruelty.

Sonia Sanchez, Morning Haiku. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
A collection of “haiku” in the sense of spare, powerful verses (not necessarily of the 5-7-5 pattern). Verses are written for varied individuals, from Emmett Till to Ras Baraka, Sarah Vaughn to Oprah Winfrey. See below for an excerpt from 21 Haiku for (Odetta).

A number of other authors, filmmakers, and other powerful Black female voices have been mentioned over the course of this Omer journey from oppression to Revelation. Here is a sampling:

Rain to the Desert

You asked: is there
no song that will
bring rain to this desert?
— Sonia Sanchez (see below)

Thanks, again, to “The Well Examined Life” for the reminder of how many songs, with how much potential to bring rain, we might miss without making a conscious effort to hear from Black trans women, women, and girls. Check out the blog for additional #ILoveBlackWomen activities.


We counted 44 on the evening of May 17. Tonight, we count….

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.

Thoughts and sources welcome.

JourneyOmer

Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

A Meditation

Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.

I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Today is forty-five days which are six weeks and three days in the Omer.
Hayom chamishah v-arba’im yom shehaym shishah shavuot ushloshah yamim la-omer.

In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.

Misogynoir
Although the concept is not new to me, the word is. For more on this term — meaning “how racism and anti-Blackness alter the experience of misogyny for Black women, specifically” — see Gradient Lair and Wikipedia.

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21 Haiku (for Odetta)
from Sonia Sanchez’s Morning Haiku

1.
the sound of
your voice thundering out
of the earth

2.
a drum
beat summoning us
to prayer

3.
behold
the smell of
your breathing

4.
dilated
by politics
you dare to love

5.
You opened
up your throat
to travelers

6.
exhaled
Lead Belly on Saturday
nites and Sunday mornings

7.
your music asked
has your song a father
or a mother?

…10. You asked: is there
no song that will
bring rain to this desert?

[fuller version at Google Books]
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Pretension to Lucidity (Beyond 17)

As the “Tifereth” [“beauty”] week of this journey away from oppression continues, I return again to the biblical concept that all humans (other than Moses) see only a part of any picture:

…The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.
— from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers (see fuller quote and citation in Beyond 14)

In a post published today, Talia Cooper, program director of Ma’yan, provides an example of failing to get the “full picture.” the failure to understand and acknowledge anti-Semitism in the “leftist activist community.”

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.
— “A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege” on Mayan.org

She goes on to explore the “privilege” factors in the complicated intersectionalities of any one identity expression:

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.
— Read the rest of Cooper’s piece

LucidityCooper addresses specific conversations she believes Jews must have around intersectionality.
This omer series introduced the topic with “Are (Any) Jews White?” early in the Passover week. Readers are urged to share their thoughts and if/how their thinking has evolved over the course of this omer journey.

The midrash quoted above — insisting that we NEVER have the whole picture — offers a powerful call to remember the dangers of “pretension to total lucidity.”

We counted 17 on the evening of April 20. Tonight, we count….
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(Beyond 15)

Yesterday’s post included a note from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers.

…Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

Also yesterday, theGrio — the African American Breaking news site — published “Study: Teachers more likely to label black students as troublemakers,” describing the “black-escalation effect”:

…teachers were shown records of kids with either stereotypical black names (Deshawn or Darnell) or stereotypical white names (Greg or Jake) and asked what disciplinary steps should be taken after certain infractions.

While the response to the first infraction was the same across both races, after the second rule infraction, teachers pushed for more punishment for the black students than the white students.

“It’s not that these are racist people, it’s just that we all are exposed to stereotypes in the world,” Jason Okonufua, the study’s lead researcher, said.

“The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision.”

We counted 15 on the evening of April 18. Tonight, we count….
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Balancing Kindness and Strength (Beyond 14)

With the new week, we begin a third leg in our journey away from oppression, and so shift focus to a new aspect of divinity. The first week focused on Chesed [“loving-kindness”]. The second, on Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries,” sometimes “judgement”]. The third, “Tiferet” [“beauty”], is said to combine the first two. On its own chesed and gevurah are each untenable: in individual lives and in the universe as a whole a non-stop flow of loving-kindness leaves no room for boundaries; unmitigated strength leaves no room for compassion. The third attribute of God, and this third week of the Omer count, represent a balancing of forces.

In the early days of this omer journey, we focused on knowing as an act of loving-kindness, moving away from the moral deficiency of not-knowing — as when Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph (his country’s past) — in the early Exodus story. In the second week, we focused on strength required to persevere in the face of oppression and complex boundaries of gender and race.

To launch the third week, here are two potentially “balancing” thoughts —

one from bell hooks on Black women and feminism:

Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
— bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981.) p.6

and one from Avivah Zornberg on subjectivity and post-slavery views of a “good Land”:

bewildermentsThe world cannot be seen without ‘interference.’ According to a classic Talmudic description, Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

[Moses sees the land as “good.”] But the people are driven by fantasies and anxieties that make goodness an issue of love and hate; the Land represents other questions about themselves, the world, and God. No demonstration of lush fruit can ever lay rest the efes [however] coiled within them. Moses’ dream of vindication cannot address their need. For them, a journey will have proved necessary, if they are to find a way of speaking of the good Land with all their heart.
— Avivah Zornberg. Bewilderments. (NY: Schocken, 2015), p.134, 146

We counted 14 on the evening of April 17. Tonight, we count….
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