R. Yohanan’s Opinion: Daf Yomi #4

In today’s reading (B. Ber 5a-5b), we see* that a tanna [reciter] stood in the study hall/academy in front of Rabbi Yohanan (Johanan) and recited:

If one engages in Torah and acts of charity and [nonetheless] buries his sons, all his sins are forgiven to him.**

R. Yohanan responds with verses from Proverbs (16:6, 21:21, and 23:23) affirming that Torah and charity are means of atonement but asks the basis for the teaching about burying children.

An elder stands and recites in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, linking Prov 16:6, previously cited (“With mercy and truth iniquity is expiated”), and Jer 32:18: “He repays iniquity of the fathers onto the bosoms of their children.”

Direct response to this is not recorded, but R. Yohanan’s next statement is:

Leprosy and [the lack of] children are not chastisements of love.**

The discussion goes on to consider a contradiction between this statement and another teaching which calls leprosy a chastisement of love. One solution offered is that R. Yohanan’s teaching involves visible leprosy and the contradictory one, concealed. Another suggests that R. Yohanan’s teaching refers to Jerusalem, where treatment included being banished outside the city, while the contradictory one concerns Babylon, where treatment was less extreme and isolating.

In the course of this narration, we learn that R. Yohanan buried ten children.

* Paraphrase, based on Soncino and Koren/Steinsaltz translations
** Indented text directly from Soncino translation of Ber 5b

For the list of sources considered in decision-making:

  • “um, excuse me? you haven’t a clue!” from someone who has been through an experience being discussed;
  • differing impact of a label or decision based on regional exigencies and actual differences in experience

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

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The Story and the Reasons: Daf Yomi #2

Continuing to notice what kind of sources are included in the Talmud and what use the rabbis make of them: today’s daf includes Rabbi Yosei [Jose ben Halafta] relating how he met, conversed with, and learned from the prophet Elijah:

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי
It was taught [in material outside the Mishnah] that Rabbi Yosei said
פַּעַם אַחַת הָיִיתִי מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ
וְנִכְנַסְתִּי לְחוּרְבָּה אַחַת מֵחוּרְבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם לְהִתְפַּלֵּל
Once I was walking along the road
and I entered a ruined site among the ruins of Jerusalem to pray.
בָּא אֵלִיָּהוּ זָכוּר לַטּוֹב
Elijah, his memory for good, came
…לְאַחַר שֶׁסִּייַּמְתִּי תְּפִלָּתִי אָמַר לִי …
…When I finished praying, he said to me…
— B. Ber 3a

Rabbi Yosei (Jewish Encyclopedia; Sefaria) is recognized as a very important teacher of the 2nd Century CE, during the period of the Tanaaim. Steinsaltz says “one of the greatest of the tannai’m…the imprint of his teachings is evident throughout tanaitic literature” (Koren Talmud Bavli, Berakhot p.14 “personalities”).

This story includes Rabbi Yosei’s declaration that he learned three things — about when, where, and how to prayer the Amidah when traveling — from this incident:

  • one may not enter a ruin,
  • one may pray along the road,
  • one who prays on the road uses an abbreviated prayer.

The story goes on to tell of heavenly voices Rabbi Yosei heard and of Elijah’s addition of God’s perspective on those voices. The Gemara does not appear to judge the story or its narrator or dispute its conclusions. Neither does it adopt as given what Rabbi Yosei learned from Elijah. Instead, discussion moves on to provide separate reasoning for Elijah’s first teaching about not entering ruins.

So, I believe we can add folklore and personal experiences of teachers to yesterday’s list of sources that inform decision-making discussion, noting along the way:

  • there is no Talmudic objection to Rabbi Yosei changing his own practice based on his encounter with Elijah;
  • there is no Talmudic suggestion that any one else take another teacher’s private experience as proof, on its own, for new practice; and
  • the Talmud includes many forms of thinking and expression as part of its methodology.



PS — I won’t quote in depth again from “Harvey,” but I cannot help note that I personally have learned a lot from Elwood P. Dowd telling us about his encounters with a teacher, whom few can see and whom Elwood happened to come across while walking on the street alone.

Photo by Josiah Lewis

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The Day Clears Away: Daf Yomi #1

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The day clears away, [as people say], The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— B. Talmud Berakhot 2b

‘The evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd, “Harvey” (1950)

Some thoughts on Berakhot 2B, as Daf Yomi (page/day study of the Babylonian Talmud in 7-1/2 years) begins anew, Jan 5, 2020.

NOTE: This blog was updated with additional references on 1/6/20.

The Day Clears Away

“The day clears away” is an expression used in several translations of today’s page. The rabbis are discussing when evening occurs, in the context of determining “from what time one recites the Shema in the evening.” In the process, Lev. 22:6-7 is cited as an example in the Torah of evening’s onset: When a priest has come in contact with certain types of ritual impurity, he is ritually unclean until evening…

וּבָ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וְטָהֵ֑ר
and when sunset comes, v’taheir [he/it shall be clean]
— Lev. 22:7

In the Leviticus verse, “וְטָהֵ֑ר v’taheir” is generally translated as “he [the priest] is clean” or “he will become clean.” Taheir can also mean “to be cleared away” or “to be gone,” however, and a bit of grammatical minutia suggests that perhaps the DAY clears away.

That English expression caught my attention for its sheer, if ambiguous, beauty. A few Hebrew/Aramaic notes appear below. Meanwhile, some thoughts prompted by the expression itself and its repetition in the discussion.

The Evening Wore On

At one point in the 1950 movie, “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart’s character pauses to savor and repeat another evening-focused phrase:

At first, Dr. Chumley seemed a little frightened of Harvey, but that gave way to admiration as the evening wore on…’the evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again [Dowd pauses, as if actually tasting the words]: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd to Dr. Chumley’s co-workers
— 1:00 mark in this clip from Turner Classic Movies; more on “Harvey,”

Evening Wore On

from “Harvey” (1950): “…the evening wore on.”

This may seem far afield from the Berakhot page, but Dowd’s love of language and the images it conveys strikes me as not unlike the Talmud’s love of Torah and the possibilities of its language. The comparison also highlights the fluidity of the Middle English participle describing a process, the “coming on of even,” a period of becoming dark — something like the rabbis’ complex and fluid experience of evening. In addition, Ber 2b includes its own bit of popular culture.

Sources of “Evening”

In “How to Read the Talmud,” Rabbi Benay Lappe writes that the Rabbis of the Talmud hoped we would hear them urging us:

“…Use our methodology. Be courageous and bold, like we were, and know that what you are doing may seem radical, but is deeply Jewish — and deeply traditional.”
— “How to Read the Talmud: Why this classic work of law, stories and wisdom isn’t really about any of those things”

Rabbi Lappe teaches us to explore HOW the rabbis made decisions as much as the decisions themselves. In this spirit, it is interesting that we see on the first page of the Talmud such a variety of sources:

  • Natural: ‘evening’ is sometime between the sun’s setting and the appearance of stars;
  • Practical: ‘evening’ is the end of the work day, or the chance to rest;
  • Torah: ‘evening’ is as mentioned in instructions around the priesthood;
  • Historical: ‘evening’ is when the priests actually used to immerse and then eat;
  • Linguistic: perhaps ‘evening’ is when ritual impurity “clears” with the end of the day, or maybe how the day itself “clears”;
  • Reasoning: ‘evening’ is defined in a logical compromise encompassing several avenues of thought and tradition
  • People say: ‘evening’ is as popular understanding has it, when the “day is past” or “cleared away.”

As we attempt to learn, and eventually learn to implement, rabbinic methodology, it seems noteworthy that what “people say” appears as a source for understanding and decision-making on the very first page of this project.


Notes

B. Berakhot 2b:

מַאי ״וְטָהֵר״ — טְהַר יוֹמָא, כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: ״אִיעֲרַב שִׁמְשָׁא וְאִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא״
What is the meaning of we-taher [v’taheir]? The day clears away, conformably to the common expression, The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— Soncino translation

Conformably. Soncino has this phrase, while others use the more straightforward “as people say.” Frank‘s Practical Talmud Dictionary notes that “כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי” means “people say” and “is used to introduce a popular saying.”

Cleared away. Jastrow Jackpot for דְּכִי:

2) to be cleared away, be removed, be gone. Ber 2b: אִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא the day is past v. טְהַר
— Jastrow, p. 307 left, under Ithpa


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REFERENCES
In recognition that the movie version of “Harvey” is now 70 years old and that maybe not everyone has most of it memorized, an IMDB link, a Wikipage, and a few words of background:

Harvey is an invisible, magical, 6′ 3.5″ rabbit who spends a great deal of time with his friend, Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood seems to have no lack of financial means, enjoys many a drink at local watering holes and makes many friends. He sums up his situation at one point:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood’s family believes his odd ways threaten his niece’s chance for a good match and try to have him committed. But the asylum director, Dr. Chumley, leaves with Harvey, leading to the “evening wears on” scene in this clip.

More on Harvey and Elwood in a drash given on Yom Kippur 5775.


RETURN to evening


Frank, Rabbi Yitzhak. The Practical Talmud Dictionary. Jerusalem: Koren, 1991. Third edition Maggid (Koren imprint), 2016.

Jastrow, Prof. Marcus. Dictionary of Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, Midrashic Literature and Targumim. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950. (originally published, 1903)
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Is Our Blood Redder? Synagogue Security and Police Alliance

Thoughts, fears, and tears following a recent class on “How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

The June 5 panel included presentations from several local congregations on issues faced in deciding on security measures, as well as comments from a community security advisor. Brief notes on their initial presentations appear below. The main points included ensuring that Jewish values are considered in decision-making (Garfinkel, Fabrangen), attempting to protect diversity of all kinds within a congregation (Zeilinger, Tifereth Israel), and “acknowledging that other people in the country who want to do you harm” (Apostolou, Ohev Sholom). Some of the discussion included attempts to make congregations welcoming spaces across difference, but each presentation included the importance of creating a close alliance with police.

I had the opportunity to query what it means to ask Jews to enter into an alliance with police, when we know police do not necessarily ensure the safety of Black people, queer people and others or enhance feelings of safety for many. Responses to this query are below within each panelists remarks. While two of the three congregational responses included some level of concern about alliance with police, one panelist actively dismissed the concern, repeating, “Who else are you going to call?”

For anyone concerned about privacy: The class was video-taped, and a Washington Jewish Week reporter was present throughout.


The Unasked Question

Throughout the class, and especially throughout responses to my query about alliance with police, I could not shake the question: “Is your blood redder?” But no one on the panel or in the class asked it aloud, and no one but me raised objections or even questioned an alliance with police…. Instead, most people laughed when heavily armed MPD officers entered the room and someone said, “well, now this is the safest class in the city.”

I began to wonder if perhaps I had remember the Talmud passage incorrectly or had its basic meaning wrong. Here, for anyone who isn’t familiar or just wants to refresh, is the basic quotation:

…[An individual] came before Raba and said to him: “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill So-and-so, if not, I will kill you.’” Raba answered him: ‘Let him kill you rather than that you should commit murder; what [reason] do you see [for thinking] that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.’ — Talmud (Pesachim 23b, Sanhedrin 74a)

And here is one teaching that puts it in more context:

[Previous discussion points out that a Jew must accept martyrdom rather than engage in three behaviors: idol worship, forbidden sexual practices, and murder. (This is the text Jerry Garfinkel referenced in his remarks about Jewish values.)]

Two out of the three of these demands for martyrdom — the demand that one forfeit one’s life rather than worship idols or engage in forbidden sexual practices — are contested. In each, a biblical grounding is sought and presented. However, the demand that one allow oneself to be killed rather than murder another is based purely on s’vara, in argument rather than biblical precept:

And from where do we know [the prohibition concerning] the murderer himself? It is common sense. It is as the one who came before Rabbah and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘God and kill so and so; if not, I will kill you.” He said to him, “He should kill you and you should not kill; who would say that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.”

Turning the question around (“who is to say that your blood is redder,” rather than “who is to say his blood is redder”) essentially answers the question for Rabbah. If you are to actively take someone else’s life, then you have to be able to articulate an argument that shows that your life is more important than that of the other person. In order for you to claim the right to tip the balance in your favor, when you are on one side and another person is on the other, you have to have a substantial–or even overriding–reason. The instinct of self-preservation is not enough.

— Aryeh Cohen, “And Give You Peace” IN David Birnbaum & Martin S. Cohen Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly Blessing. NY: New Paradigm Matrix, 2016.

And here is another perspective, one that assumes we will likely never have to make such a life-and-death decision:

God willing, none of us will ever have to face so horrible a situation. Still, the Talmud’s insistence that other people’s blood is as important as our own should affect our daily behavior, even in non-life threatening situations. For example, those who push ahead of others in lines are likewise guilty of thinking that their blood is redder than others and that they need not wait their turn. Therefore, before you push your own interests at the expense of others, and assert that your time is more valuable, as yourself the question Rava posed to this man, “Do think that your blood is redder than his?”

— Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Book of Values. NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2000, p.429.

I do appreciate that each congregation represented is endeavoring to, as Chris Zeilinger said, “doing the best we can.” I understand the struggles, fears, and hard realities that congregational security must face. I am deeply troubled, however, that the question of whose blood is redder does not seem to be taken as relevant.

Is this because the people involved do not believe that police are a threat to any within their congregations? to others in the city?

Is this because the people involved have simply resigned themselves to “who else are you going to call?” and refuse to consider other alternatives?

Can we, please, at least ask the question?

More Reading

For consideration, a few op-eds on related issues:

“Opinion: It’s Time For Jewish Communities To Stop Investing In The Police” from Lara Haft, 3/23/18.

“Op-Ed: On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism” by Brant Rosen, 12/2/18.

After Pittsburgh, Jewish Communities Need Community Defense, not Cops” by Lara Haft, 11/3/18

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice “Community Safety Pledge


How Can We Manage the Need for Security in Our Sacred Spaces?

Jewish Study Center course announcement: Wednesday, June 5: Voices From the Community. Community security leaders discuss their practical experience balancing sacredness and security, especially in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting and rising concerns about anti-Semitism. Panel members: Andrew Apostolou is a historian of the Holocaust who is Security Coordinator at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue. Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel is a retired mathematician who is Treasurer of the Jewish Study Center and Security Coordinator at the Fabrangen Havurah. Vera Krimnus is the DC Area Regional Manager of the Community Security Service (CSS) that provides security services to the Jewish Community, including training, physical security and raising public awareness about security issues. Chris Zeilinger is a US government transportation executive, a former president of Tifereth Israel Congregation and its Security Coordinator. If you have grappled with this issue in your own community, or felt its effects, come join the conversation!



Chris Zeilinger, from Tifereth Israel, shared in his initial presentation his own thoughts, and some from congregants, including how some members feel safer around a visible security presence and others find it “unwelcoming and scary.” He spoke about the congregation’s efforts to ensure welcome for Jews of color and Jews with different identities and expressions of Judaism. Zeilinger also addressed mental illness issues, both in families within the congregation and in individuals who might be seeking to visit or find succor in the congregation.

In response to my query about alliance with police, Zeilinger added that alleged perpetrators in synagogue shootings have “looked like me,” reiterating that they endeavor to make all Jews and visitors welcome, not to screen people out, and, ultimately “do the best we can.”

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Andrew Apostolou, of Ohev Sholom, says he does not consider the U.S. “his country,” and spoke about living in London. His original presentation warned that “security in the US is always considered secondary to something else,” including class expectations (people with “fancy degrees” shouldn’t have their Shabbat ruined by security worries) and younger generations having less focus on communal endeavors. He believes Jews, and the country at large, do not want to acknowledge potential threats.

Apostolou insisted: “If I don’t stand out front of my synagogue ready to call police, I don’t care about the community,” adding that “the ultimate line of defense is deadly force.”

In response to my query about police alliance, Apostolou argued that skin color and appearance are “irrelevant” in security and argued that issues around policing in the US are “domestic political issues” and not practical problems for someone providing synagogue security. He dismissed community solidarity safety efforts as “fodder” for automatic weapons, and repeated several times: “Who else are you going to call?”

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Gerald (Jerry) Garfinkel, of Fabrangen Havurah, spoke in his initial remarks about life being paramount in Jewish values, citing the tradition that only three commandments are subordinate to preserving one’s own life: sexual immorality, idolatry, and murdering someone else (B. Sanhedrin 74a). He talked about working jointly with Muslims and other groups using the same building with Fabrangen in ensuring safety and said the goal was to “protect ourselves and others in the community.”

Garfinkel mentioned that Secure Communities Network , which oversees security for Jewish Federations, warned at a recent conference that arming citizens does not solve problems but causes more. He also stressed that the goal of security, as he understands it, is to prevent someone who means harm from entering the space.

In response to my police alliance query, Garfinkel stressed that all police involved in security for Fabrangen are minorities.

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Vera Krimnus, local representative of the Community Security Service, discussed how her organization works with congregations to arrange security. She argued that security is part of a welcoming environment, saying: “If I’m sitting there, worrying about the safety of my kids, is that really welcoming for me?”

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel, taught the first session of the two-part class (which I was unable to attend). Jerry Garfinkel very briefly summarized the class as follows: The community is responsible for security, and should provide it, taxing to do so if need be; however, this “must be done right,” without impeding people who need to use the space.

R. Alexander’s sources for the first session include texts focusing on why we build walls, who is responsible for them, and what to do when a wall blocks out poor people crying for help; whether weapons can be carried into sacred space, under what conditions; and responsibility for activity that may be dangerous to others.

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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

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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