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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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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Find a scroll? Read, or at least roll, it every 30 days

MISHNAH. IF ONE FINDS SCROLLS, HE MUST READ THEM EVERY THIRTY DAYS; IF HE CANNOT READ, HE MUST ROLL THEM. BUT HE MUST NOT STUDY [A SUBJECT] THEREIN FOR THE FIRST TIME. NOR MAY ANOTHER PERSON READ WITH HIM.
— Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 29b

The Mishna passage goes on to include care of other found items: cloth, which must be shaken once every 30 days and aired out; silver and copper vessels, which are to be “used for their own benefit, but no [so much as to] wear them out”; and gold and glassware, which “may not be touched until Elijah comes.”

The Gemara then proceeds to discuss how to treat a borrowed Torah scroll:

  • Don’t re-lend it to another person.
  • It’s fine to open the scroll and read it, but don’t study a subject for the first time: studying a new topic would stress the scroll.
  • The scroll may not be read by more than one person, because that would lead to multiple readers tugging, even if unconsciously, on the scroll.
  • Someone holding a borrowed scroll “must roll it once every twelve months, and may open and read it, but if he opens it in his own interest, it is forbidden.”
  • Some teachers say that new a new scroll should be rolled every thirty days, older ones, every twelve months.

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Cucumber Magic, Cucumber Illusion

some notes/resources on the planting and reaping of cucumbers (by magic or illusion), “worship of stars,” R. Eliezer, and Christianity. (posted here for Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group and anyone else interested — and to make use of WordPress’ memory, which is better than mine).
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