Some Say 400 Cubits: Slow Dancing with Talmud

I first learned the story of “The Oven of Akhnai” (B. Baba Metzia 59a-59b) in the context of Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, and her teaching about “the gate of wounded feelings.” I learned more about Rabbi Eliezer’s life, post-Akhnai, from a class on one of the Nine Talmudic Readings of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition, I’ve seen and heard the text referenced in many a commentary emphasizing that “Torah is not in heaven.” (See notes below on Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Levinas.) For the first time, however, I am now reading the story in a small community of learners grappling directly with the text as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud…

…word by word,
sometimes syllable by syllable,
through Aramaic and Hebrew,
without relying on previous translation,
until we’ve discerned, at least tentatively,
each word’s root and tense,
gender, number, and possible meanings.
We learn how the words work with one another,
how “technical” expressions like “it is taught,” add clues,
how we, together with our study partners,
and then as a group with our teacher,
can work together to explore
what the text might be saying
and what that says about Jewish thought….

For this “Contemplative Bet Midrash,” taught by SVARA Fellow Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, we are asked to set aside any previous meetings and encounter the text as though for the first time. (For more on SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, visit their website.)

We are encouraged to look up every word, even ones we (think we) know, in order to consider a variety of possible definitions.

SVARA-Inspired Slow Dance

The opening line of our text, for example, tells us “they cut it into pieces,” without explaining who cut what or why. So, we test out “circle” and “dance” and “everyday” before settling on “sand” as the best definition for “חול (chol),” the substance between these unexplained pieces.

We learn that these pieces and sand are “the oven of Akhnai,” and then ask, right along with the voice of the Gemara: “What is this, Akhnai?”

We experience as passing strange the introduction of a carob tree as a point of proof in this argument. Our studies paused this past week right after “they” tell Rabbi Eliezer, “we don’t take evidence from carob trees.” And from this cliff-hanging perspective, I notice things I previously missed.

I’ve never noticed before how this story begins with an image of brokenness — “they cut it into pieces” — and then introduces Rabbi Eliezer already in opposition to the Hakhamim (“Wise Ones,” that is, scholars holding the majority opinion in this case). Previous passes through this material made clear there was a dispute of some magnitude, but I never noticed the extremes of response here, even before we reach the carob tree and what follows:

  • Rabbi Eliezer does not just argue but brings “all the responses (or refutations or arguments) in the world [כל תשובות שבעולם (khol teshuvot sh’ba-olam)],” while
  • the Hakhamim refuse to accept (any) arguments from him, [ולא קיבלו הימנו (v’lo kivalu heimenu)],” rather than simply disagreeing.

“They refused to accept (anything) from him.”

When our learning for one week paused at this point, that phrase just seemed so stark. (Despite attempts to meet the text anew, I’m sure my reaction is influenced to some extent by previous encounters. Still.)

BabaMetzia1

You are There

Along with feeling the starkness of Rabbi Eliezer’s rejection, I understood the frustration of a community that had made a decision and still heard “all the refutations in the world” from one individual. After all, I’ve been there often enough: watching participants in a community meeting come to a difficult decision while one person — for better or worse in the long run — just cannot get on board….

…Some readers might remember when Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) did those “You Are There” reports, like this one when he speaks from the midst of the Chicago Fire on October 18, 1871. There is a big difference between such a “report,” however contrived, and more distant approaches to history….

One of the effects of the SVARA-inspired slow pace through the material, I’m realizing, is a little like those Cronkite reports: I am there in a way I had not been before.

Learning unfamiliar jargon — or “technical terms” — of the Talmud, as SVARA-inspired spaces encourage, also promotes the “you are there” experience. Some other Talmud studies have included such terms, but I’ve never before been in a group where the practice is to stick with one bit of text until we all have the basics of how it arrived. I now know, for example, that “we learned there” [t’nan hatam] doesn’t reference something taught elsewhere in Babylon or in Jerusalem: instead, it means “elsewhere in the text” (and I am now able to locate the citations on the page). Rabbi Tuchman teaches us to recognize shifts from Mishnah to Gemara and back and make sure we know who is speaking to whom and when. Being asked to constantly orient ourselves within the text makes for a different experience of it.

When the carob tree gets up and moves 100 cubits for Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, the rabbinical report includes the expression, “but some tell it” [v’amri lah], and the alternative recollection: “400 cubits.” In the past, I’ve read this, without giving it much weight, as two variants of a fantastic tale. But, in this word-by-word, step-by-step shuffle with the text I hear two sets of witnesses telling me that they were there. Now, so am I.

Another Cliff-Hanger

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s Contemplative Bet Midrash left us all, at the end of our last session, in the midst of a dispute about cooking that has spiraled into strange realms. A group of Hakhamim have made their decision, while Rabbi Eliezer, so convinced of his own point of view, moves from verbal arguments to calling on supernatural “proof.” Witnesses saw the carob tree move 100 cubits, though some say it was 400 cubits. But the Hakhamim don’t accept that as “evidence” in this oven dispute.

Where will the frustration, anger, pride, arguments and magic lead? How will community kashrut standards be effected? What will be the result of those decisions in terms of holiness? What will be the effect on the community?

I confess to an inclination to read ahead or binge watch to the conclusion. But one of the things this slow dance teaches is that any such conclusion would be meaningless. The real goal is not to “finish” the story, maybe choosing to be #TeamEliezer or #TeamHakhamim along the way. The goal — at least as I understand things this week — is to consider the story together with others, sharing insights and concerns, and to experience together real fears for how this will all turn out for the individuals and the community involved. And that includes us.

It’s uncomfortable, even a little scary, up here on this cliff. But we won’t get down on our own.




NOTES on the Oven of Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Women in the Talmud NOTES:

  • Akhnai
  • Imma Shalom
  • Levinas and The Akhnai Story
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Annette Aronowicz, trans. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. Lectures 1963-1975 in French
    • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism, offered a series of classes on the Levinas chapters at National Havurah Committee Summer Institute
    • The chapter, “Desacralization and Disenchantment,” looks at Sanhedrin 67a-68a, which describes the end of Rabbi Eliezer’s life. (It was this chapter I had the opportunity to explore in a long-ago week-long class at the Institute.)

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The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

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Locating Psalm 30

The Book of Psalms is divided in several different ways: into five books, into seven and thirty sets for recitation over the course of a week or a month, and by attribution and other identifiers for the purpose of study. Using these divisions, Psalm 30 has a number of locations.

Book One
Psalm 30 is in the first of the five books — counted as one, not five, of the 24 bible books. Thematically, notes Amos Hakham in The Jerusalem Commentary:

    • “psalms in the first book relate to the kingdom of the house of David at its height,”
    • those in second reflect “times of trouble and defeat,”
    • in the third, a period of humbling of the kingdom, and
    • in the fourth and fifth, exile and rebuilding.
      — p.XXXV-VI

This does not necessarily imply that Psalm 30 and others in the first book are of earlier composition. With the exception of Psalm 137 — which mentions Babylonian Exile — there are no references to extra-biblical events to help in dating; scholars disagree as to whether Psalm 137 itself should be assigned to the period in Babylon, post-Exile — with some choosing to assign it, prophetically, to King David. Generally, scholars date the Book of Psalms, overall, from somewhere between David’s reign in 10th Century BCE and post-Exile, with collection as late as 4th Century BCE.

Some contemporary scholars seek dates based on linguistic aspects, specific biblical connections, or theological ideas. Previous posts in this series have discussed attempts to assign Psalm 30 to the Hasmonean or Levitical periods, based on its superscription. Encounters with the psalm today, however, for individual and communal prayer, can incorporate ideas around Temple service, re-dedication at Chanukah, and other historical associations without dating the psalm to a specific period.


Chronology
The Rabbis discuss chronology in the Book of Psalms when asked why Psalm 3, “when David fled from before Absalom his son” (see 2 Sam 15), appears before Psalm 57, “when he fled from Saul in the cave” (see 1 Sam 22), an event which happened earlier in David’s life:

for us who do derive interpretations from juxtaposition there is no difficulty. For R. Johanan said: How do we know from the Torah that juxtaposition counts? Because it says, [The works of God’s hands] are established [סְמוּכִים] for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).
— (B. Berakhot 10a)

“סְמוּכִים,” translated in Psalm 118 as “established” (JPS 1917) or “well-founded” (JPS 1985), can also mean “nearby,” as in “adjacent (in space)” or “around (in time).”

The passage from Berakhot continues:

Why is the chapter of Absalom (Ps. 3) juxtaposed to the chapter of Gog and Magog (Ps. 2)? So that if one should say to you, is it possible that a slave should rebel (“nations shout, people plan in vain”) against his master, you can reply to him: Is it possible that a son should rebel against his father? Yet this happened; and so this too.

Hakham calls this a “polemical answer,” adding: “But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV).

Stay tuned for some juxtapositions around Psalm 30 — as this series winds down.


25 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Poverty and the White Horse’s Red Strap

Exploring Babylon Chapter 18-1/2

The previous chapter, “Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot,” looked at nine bible verses using the word “kur,” usually translated as “crucible” or “furnace.” This addendum shares the odd midrash on one such verse, mentioned in the earlier post, which suggests some ideas about Passover, exile, and learning.

Furnace Midrash

Each appearance of “kur” involves “great trouble and misery” (1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) and all relate suffering to sin. The phrase, kur ha-barzel — “iron blast furnace” or “iron crucible” — appears three times as a reference to Egypt, from which the people were rescued to become “God’s own.”

Isaiah employs a similar metaphor, the phrase “kur oni,” in reference to the Babylonian exile:

הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [or poverty].
— Isaiah 48:10
(more of this passage below)

A midrash, retold in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, discusses the meaning of Isaiah’s “furnace”verse:

[The prophet] Elijah said to Ben He He (some say to R. Eleazar): The verse “Behold, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of poverty” (Isa. 48:10) implies that, among all the good states of being that the Holy One scrutinized to give to Israel, He found none better than poverty.
Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik & Ravnitsky, 341:57

The Talmud passage, on which this is based, adds a “folk saying” meant to further elucidate the point:

א”ל אליהו לבר הי הי וא”ל לר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו מח, י) הנה צרפתיך ולא בכסף בחרתיך בכור עוני מלמד שחזר הקב”ה על כל מדות טובות ליתן לישראל ולא מצא אלא עניות אמר שמואל ואיתימא רב יוסף היינו דאמרי אינשי יאה עניותא ליהודאי כי ברזא סומקא לסוסיא חיורא:
Elijah the Prophet said to bar Hei Hei, and some say that he said this to Rabbi Elazar: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction [oni]” (Isaiah 48:10)?

This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought after all good character traits to impart them to the Jewish people, and He found only poverty [aniyut] capable of preventing them from sin.

Shmuel said, and some say it was Rav Yosef: This explains the folk saying that people say: Poverty is good for the Jewish people like a red bridle [barza] for a white horse. Just as a red bridle accentuates the white color of the horse, so the challenge of poverty draws out the purity of the Jewish people.
— B. Chagigah 9b
Wm Davidson Talmud, via Sefaria.org
line breaks added for ease of reading

 

Further Commentary

Hershey H. Friedman discusses the red strap midrash within the context of economics and Jewish history:

The enigmatic statement quoted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 9b), “Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse,” is interpreted by Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, in the following manner. A horse is saddled up when it goes out; in the stable everything is removed. So too, the Jewish people should wear their poverty when they go out in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. Within the privacy of one’s house, however, wealth is good (Kreuser, p. 171*).
— “The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law”
*Kreuser, Yissachar Dov. Genuzas Ha’GRA. Jerusalem: self-published (in Hebrew), 2000.

Friedman concludes on the ethics of ostentation and wealth:

The sages recognized that very little good can result from a splashy, gaudy lifestyle. On the contrary, it produces envy, suffering, arrogance, dishonesty, and shaming of the impecunious. The Torah teaches us that ostentation is not the true purpose of wealth, helping others is.

CooCoo for Coco argues differently from a fashion perspective and use of red in ancient Jewish ritual:

Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic….Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway….Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse….

Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticeable when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush…
–“Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud”


Questions

Isaiah’s phrase “kur oni,” a furnace of affliction or poverty, resonates in the Passover seder, when we eat “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. Isaiah’s prophecy suggests that God is teaching the People through exile, a common understanding of the Exodus as well (the “iron furnace”). Moreover, the passage from Isaiah seems to say that the People could not, or at least did not, learn from prior experiences.

Some questions this raises:

  • Are there lessons from Exodus and Exile that are uniquely learned from those experiences?
  • What was NOT learned in the Exodus that was to be learned in Exile?
  • What about poverty: does it teach specific lessons? or is that romanticizing a difficult state of being?
  • Do we need some kind of “affliction” to learn?
  • How do we use the seder to (re)create experiences that bring important learning?

NOTE:

Isaiah 48:6-11
“You have heard all this; look, must you not acknowledge it? As of now, I announce to you new things, Well-guarded secrets you did not know.
Only now are they created, and not of old; Before today you had not heard them; You cannot say, “I knew them already.”
You had never heard, you had never known, Your ears were not opened of old. Though I know that you are treacherous, That you were called a rebel from birth,
For the sake of My name I control My wrath; To My own glory, I am patient with you, And I will not destroy you.
See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.
For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name] be dishonored! I will not give My glory to another.”
More at Sefaria or Mechon-Mamre

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Siddur as Hometown: Don’t Dismiss the Travel Guide

1

When the ancient Rabbis want to etch something in memory and make it part of regular practice and belief, they stick it in the siddur. I cannot specific cite a source for this pronouncement, which I included in a recent dvar torah — although Berakhot, the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate on Blessing, is one source that lends lots of support to this idea.

The prayerbook is such a rich environment, but it’s easy to miss most of it as we pass through. We often treat the siddur like our own hometown: we can imagine why others are fascinated and seeking to learn more, but we just want to traverse it to get wherever we’re trying to reach; a travel guide for the place we’ve been living for decades seems beside the point. Additional teachings that have developed over the centuries, to explain why things are (or are not) in the siddur and elaborate on ideas contained in the prayers, can be terrific resources, though.

Here are a few:

  • The dvar torah on Parashat Re’eh, mentioned above: The Commandment to See
  • Small archive of Divrei Tefillah, words about prayer, produced by congregants at Congregation Rodfei Zedek (Chicago); dvar by Rebecca Milder is quoted in above
  • Elaborate Making Prayer Real website, with articles and webinars and more; related to book by Rabbi Mike Comins, released in 2010 (and frequently quoted on THIS blog).
  • Re-recommend exploring something along the lines of “Map Your Heart Out

Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)

NOTE

The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”
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Death by Disrespect (Beyond 31)


How can we end the plague of disrespect around race-related topics that threatens our country with disaster? Perhaps the Omer journey shows us a way to begin.

Rabbi Akiva, a key player in the story of four who visited Paradise (see yesterday’s post), is also central to a narrative linked with the Omer period. The Talmud relates how 24,000 of Akiva’s students “died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

Later tradition identifies the “same time” as the first 32 days of the Omer and the proximate cause as a divine plague. (More below on Akiva and the Omer.)

Rampant, Unacknowledged Disrespect: Then…


The Talmud speaks of plague victims as “twelve thousand pairs of students,” referencing the practice of learning with a partner. Among the many questions this brief, symbolic tale raises is one of awareness: Did Rabbi Akiva realize his students were disrespecting one another and fail to intervene? Or did he somehow not notice the disaster brewing among ALL 12,000 pairs of students? How could anyone be that oblivious?

One explanation is that Akiva’s students outwardly gave the impression that all was well, pretending to respect one another’s opinions and learning.

Are we behaving any differently in this country today?

…and Now

How many of us have been vaguely aware that we live in a nation divided by White privilege but failed — whether through indifference, despair, or confusion — to address it, opting instead to go along to get along? And when an uprising occurs in Ferguson or Baltimore, how many of us find the whole thing too painful to consider in any serious way?

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

How many of us have engaged, however unconsciously, in the variety of mental gymnastics that help maintain the “all is well” impression, with any suggestion to the contrary attributed to isolated incidents and (usually “outside”) individual agitators?

How often have perspectives of people of color been dismissed as “extreme” by media, and individual consumers of it, instead of taken seriously?

And how often have we dismissed every perspective but our own, often using labeling — “liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Right,” “Left” — to define others as unworthy of consideration?

Ending the Plague

According to legend, there are 32 days of plague followed by 17 more days in the Omer. The Hebrew numbers “32” and “17” can be read as equivalent to the Hebrew words “lev [heart]” and “tov [good].”**

It is the “good heart” that seems to have been missing from Akiva’s learning community and that is all too often missing from discourse in our country today.

Perhaps we can begin to turn this around by consciously chipping away at the veneer of “all well” and pursuing real respect in its place.

What if each one of us committed to having one difficult, but honest and respectful, conversation about race?

Suppose 12,000 of us engaged in such a conversation, yielding 24,000 people with a slightly broader understanding! And if each of those 24,000 engaged someone else….

Imagine our experience of Revelation, at the end of the omer period, encompassing the many new perspectives gained during this journey. If we approach Sinai this year with hearts each a tiny bit more attuned to the neighbors surrounding us, what more might be revealed?

**lamed + bet = lev/heart (32) and tet + vav + bet = tov/good(17).


Who’s ready? And how might we share our commitments to this effort?

We counted 31 on the evening of May 4. Tonight, we count….

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