In Talmud studies at Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva, as at houses of Jewish text study for 1500 years or more, students are asked to recite what is written from memory. At Svara, students are celebrated for giving voice to and “owning” a recitation of a few words, the whole long passage the class has been learning, or anything in between. Many of us struggle with this practice for all kinds of reasons. This session, I’ve been struggling with whether I can voice these particular words.
Over the weekend, I learned something new about a relatively common word that appears in our passage and in one that is being taught in a different class. I think it is helping me figure out some next steps in reciting, or not reciting, my particular passage this term.
Trigger warning: this Talmud passage is about legal discussion of capital punishment and executing youth; responses travel through difficult, racist territory.
R’ Bronwen Mullin said her class, which is also discussing capital punishment-related texts (in a different passage, not the class I am taking this term), talked about the tiny word “Atu.” It is commonly used to introduce a rhetorical question, like “Is it because….?” in English. But, R’ Bronwen said their class did a deep dive into the meaning “Atu” — which Jastrow’s Talmud dictionary says is an abbreviation of a word meaning “for the protection of.”
אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ). Atu — an abbreviation of amtul, which means “for the protection of” and so: “for the sake of, on account of.” (A definition appears below, and here’s a link to the entry in Jastrow Talmud dictionary at Sefaria.)
So, R’ Bronwen said, the question could be asked of the passage in which it appears: “What are you/we protecting?”
I went back to the passage where this word appears in text I’ve been struggling to recite, from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 68b.
Disclaimer: the ancient rabbis are here using the legal tools they had to make sure no one is ever declared “ben sorer umoreh [rebellious and wayward child]” (Deut 21:18-21)…their intentions don’t necessarily make the text easy to read:
אנן הכי קאמרינן אטו בן סורר ומורה על חטאו נהרג על שם סופו נהרג וכיון דעל שם סופו נהרג אפילו קטן נמי
Our class, taught by R’ Benay Lappe, came to a translation something like this: “So, we are saying it is because of his [past] sin that the wayward/rebellious son is executed? Rather: on account of his end [for an ultimate, later act] he is killed. And because he is to be killed for a later act, even a minor can be considered.”
אפילו קטן נמי — afilu katan nami [even small one also]
The particular wording that opens this section, “So we are saying,” was found in Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (for “אנן הכי קאמרינן”). My study partner and I were reminded of the Plastic Ono Band chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I even offered a little singsong: “So, we are saying: give kids a chance!” Then I started writing, a few days ago, thinking of Yoko and John in bed in 1969.
But I quickly landed with with Gil Scott-Heron and 2Pac instead:
So, we’re protecting this notion of executing a boy for his sin?
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you
–2Pac, “Changes” 1998
talking blame and guilt, though he’s a minor? afilu katan nami
Or, no: We fear for his “end,” trouble he might one day cause?
“You see them?
Look at the color of their skin
That one is probably dangerous.”– 2018 Poetry Slam entry
calling him a danger, small as he is! afilu katan nami
based on a future adults (who may be strangers) imagined for him?!
“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”
condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami
Well, I’m new here, and I forget
Does that mean big, or small?
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
–Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here,” 2010
talking execution when he’s a minor, though!
The Loudest Question
What are you protecting?!
It has been such a struggle, for my study partner and me, to approach this text through the roar of “Super-predator!” “Chronic behavior problem!” “Thug!!” We’ve been hearing this chorus for much of our lives used to protect property and some people, often those who are already far safer than most, from youth perceived as threats. Across the U.S., this means primarily endangering youth of color in the name of “public safety.” Where each of us lives, this is disproportionately directed toward Black children.
How does this passage reflect — maybe help create — the idea that some people have a right to protect themselves from perceived threats: our country’s “tough on crime” policies that protect some at the expense of others, all based on that chorus of “thug!”?
And it’s that “thug” that kept leading my mind back to Tupac Shakur and then to Gil Scott-Heron. Eventually, though, 2Pac’s “THUG-LIFE” led me to another question…
That THUG-LIFE concept, and my conversations with rabbis Bronwen and Benay, led me, eventually, to ask: Who am I protecting in not reciting that piece of Talmud?
Black children are expected to leave the house every day in places that continue to view them as a dangers — “some type of demon, killers, or something like that” (see below) — meaning their every step is a risk.
Black children are expected to learn history that, especially in the current trend toward removing all context, either erases or demonizes them — meaning every page is a minefield for them.
If Black kids of all ages — and queer kids and kids with disabilities, visible and not — can show up and try to learn from flawed texts that constantly endanger them, maybe I can recite this…even if I’m simultaneously screaming?
And Questioning Questions
In her recent piece “How We Question,” R’ Bronwen wrote about naming our intentions when we question Torah and existing rabbinic discussion. Talmudic tradition, she wrote, “always invites us into the audacity” —
the audacity of naming what our intentions are in the act of questioning; of elevating the questioning itself to a radically reparative and transformative plane. When we fail to do this, our shortcomings, our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, take over a situation, and the bright light of possibility is overshadowed. Hopefully, we can continue to make our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors proud by refusing to take our questions for granted. When we examine our questions we find our deepest motivations and intentions, and through that process we bring more light into the world- the light that we need to guide us in this time of crash. How we question, as our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors intuited, might be the very torch we need.— “How We Question,” by R’ Bronwen Mullin, from Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva (29 Adar Bet 5782, 4/1/22)
It has been hard, during this class on the rebellious child, to figure out which of my reactions to the Talmud text are really reactions to public policy discussions in my town right now and which are about one particular theological question.
There’s a sort of hidden “What/who are you protecting?” embedded in this passage. The ancient rabbis sought to reconcile their understanding of divinity with a text, apparently in God’s name, demanding the death of this wayward and rebellious child. One resolution they suggested was reading the passage in a way that protected God’s intentions — that’s how the Talmud got to the idea that the text is somehow about killing a minor for something they might someday do as an adult.
…still screaming from my place of still limited understanding: Why would anyone think it a good idea to demonize young people to “rescue God”?! And, given that the text chose that road, (how) do I voice, attempt to own, these words?
Some Additional Voices
I’mma be very honest, some adults won’t just believe in us just like that. It’s going to take them some time to believe in what we want to do and what we want to achieve in life. They think we’ll grow up and be some type of demon, killers, or something like that, but that’s not what we really are. We’re trying to build something.Kevin Mason, 16 — “Voices of Wards 7 and 8 Youths,” DCist 3/31/22
“And, 12-year-old Isiah Jones adds, it shouldn’t be too difficult for adults to learn more about what kids need.
“’They could come find out,’ he says.”
downloadable version with graphic and full text below
Svara teaches: The revolution will not be translated. It’s our breath and our voices that keep the ancient text alive and redeem it with our collective learning. I am not yet sure if I’m ready to “own” this particular text. It’s already been one illuminating, if incredibly difficult, journey.
…Still not resolved — and there are still four hours of class left to learn…Meanwhile: so much gratitude to Svara, R’ Benay, R’ Bronwen, all the faculty and other students, and especially my amazing chevruta. Although, of course, all the above except direct quotes from R’ Bronwen and poets, are my words and responsibility….
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white peopleGil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat
From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary
אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ) 1)on account of, because of, for the sake of(h. . קנסו שוגג א׳ מזיד they fined the inadvertent transgressor for the sake of the wilful one (in order to prevent wilful sin). Git. 53ᵇ; a. fr. —2) (in questions expressing surprise, indignation) is it because? do you mean to say? Ib. 7ᵃ א׳ אנא לא ידענא do I not know it myself? Ib. 30ᵇ א׳ ברשיעי עסקינן is it with wicked men we have to deal? (i.e. shall we presume deliberate sin?); a. v. fr.