This session (Fall 2022) at SVARA, I have been part of a small group exploring “The Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir.” We began learning of Rabbi Meir’s tendency to add so many “faces” or facets or perspectives to an issue that his colleagues “could not stand on the end of his insight.” We looked at how his colleagues viewed R’ Meir and some of his students fared (Eruvin 13b).
We detoured — or maybe entered the heart of the matter — to discuss the sheretz, its ritual status viz a viz purity, and its relationship to the death penalty (Shabbat 147b).
We explored Rabbi Meir’s initial arrival before Rabbi Akiva, where he could “not stand on the heart of” his learning and went to Rabbi Ishmael, where he gmara‘d g’mara and then returning to R’ Akiva where he svara‘d svara (Eruvin 13a). This was “mei-ikar,” in the beginning or maybe, from the essence of the thing.
Then we learned (returning to Eruvin 13b) about the years-long dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and the bat kol that settled the practice while widening the teaching.
All this called to mind for me active parallels with my own learning, from youth to whatever age I am now, and from early days of the Havurah movement to wherever things are today. One result of my more organizationally-oriented musings is this “Teacher-Filled Tale” document, which concludes with “Blessing for Recitation by Descendants of Rabbi Meir.”
— which we are exploring in SVARA‘s “Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir” with Bronwen — reminds me of David Bowie’s 1972 “Changes” and the way folks had no clue what to make of Bowie in 1972, and maybe he didn’t yet know what to make of himself:
“Turn and face the strange”
Straight text follows the text-box-heavy graphic version in this PDF–
After six weeks of Svara study around the concept of “overturning a betrothal,” here are a few thoughts on force and how it works in commerce and in the subset of acquisition in the ancient world known as marriage or betrothal. The bulk of this post is a PDF, and most of this in its present form will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t studied the passage in question (Baba Batra 47b-48a).
…More to come soon, I hope — the final session of our summer bet midrash is about to begin….
Meanwhile, for anyone interested, here is Adrienne Rich (1977 “Natural Resources) in conversation with the rabbinic worldview. Without attempting to translate the phrases from Baba Metzia highlighted between Rich’s verses, they emphasize “his will,” forcing him to say he agrees, his betrothals, and his use of sexual intercourse to effect a betrothal.
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” –2Pac
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 people 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
Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970
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.
This document — “Bava Metzia 58b with DS9 and related background” — was prepared in my own wrestling with text on ona’at devarim, “harmful speech,” explored at SVARA this season. Thanks to all in, and supporting, Mixed-Level Bet Midrash fall 2021/5782: teacher R’ Bronwen Mullin, Fairies Sarit Cantor and Annie Kaufman, fellow bet midrash students. Special thanks to my chevruta who was a wonderful partner in exploration.
Responsibility for this document and anything not directly attributed to someone else, is, for better or worse, mine alone. (Bava Metzia 58b can be found at Sefaria.)
Here is a different form of exploration around some of the same ideas, particularly the concept of blood being shed by humiliating someone… or draining away at their identity, drop by drop….and yes, I know, there are mixed metaphors in the whole “becoming white” thing.
Gittin 55a states that an individual who experienced the theft of a beam, which was then built into a large structure, must receive the value of the beam as reparation. This ruling is מפני תקנת השבים, due to or because of…
outside (standard) translation of takanat ha-sh’vim:* a phrase meaning “[Rabbinic] Law of Penitence”
inside (word-by-word) translation: a phrase with roots תקנ “repair” [tiken] and שׁוב “return” [shuv] — something like the “repair of the returning” or the “remedy of reparation” (“Inside” translations don’t sound like smooth English.)
This is far-fetched grammar-wise, but it captures an important aspect of what’s on my mind regarding this text. Shifting focus, however grammatically fanciful: might we read בים [bim] as related to בימה “stage, platform, bima“?
…The modern Hebrew verb, “to stage” בים, biyem, was created from בימה. The Klein dictionary (c. 1983 CE) says בימה was originally a Greek loan word, but Jastrow (c. 1883) says specifically that this is NOT so, arguing that the Greek word βῆμα would be spelled with an aleph in Hebrew, rather than a hey. Either way, though, the examples Jastrow gives for בימה are all about holding forth, making announcements, hearing from distinguished speakers, etc. So, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to bima-ing as a verb meaning to hold forth from a raised position (metaphorically and physically)….
The result would be something like, “remedy of that which is bima-ed,” suggesting that those who experienced theft are entitled to reparation from a bima, for all that was taught, from positions of power, over the centuries, continuing to build up a bigger and stronger bira [large structure] of systemic racism.
How much bima-ing has continued to raise up many laudable-sounding ideas while failing to note:
that we sit on unceded, stolen land;
that our country was historically built with stolen labor;
that today stolen labor continues in our prisons and other inequitable systems;
that some among us experience relative security built at the cost of well-being, freedom, and sometimes the very lives of others, including Black, Indigenous, queer, and other people whose human rights have long been a stolen beam still built into a structure that benefits others; and
that Jews have often been complacently “bima-ed” around these topics for a long time?
Heading into the Days of Awe this year, I wonder about the need to take more responsibility, from the pew, for what goes on from the bima:
If our Jewish communities are not hearing from those who teach Torah, in its many forms, about our obligations in regard to stolen beams, then do we, from the pews, have a responsibility to “remedy that which is bima‘ed”?
How do we do that?
What if we cannot (immediately) change the bima-ing? Then what?
What, exactly, is our responsibility — individually and collectively — when it comes to learning and what we are taught to act on as a community?
This is a musing prompted by this year’s Elul learning through SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. For a different musing, prompted by last year’s studies, see “About that stolen beam…“
takanat ha-sh’vim: This is a transliteration of the phrase as worked out in Beit Midrash [House of Study] of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. The Talmud gives us no vowels, and the work of the Beit Midrash is to explore possible meanings before settling on one or more. Deciding how to vocalize, or transliterating too soon, prematurely limits the meaning….but I’m including this, and other transliterations, here for convenience.
Trying to learn a few lines of Jewish text, about a “stolen beam,” I find myself completely confused about the basic idea of ownership. The studies are part of Svara’s Elul Extravaganza, “learning as a deep spiritual practice in service of teshuva and transformation leading up to the Days of AWE-some.” The underlying, or overarching, topic is reparations.
The text, from Gitten 55a, speaks about a “stolen beam” and what measures should be taken to compensate the owner, if the beam has been already built into a large structure. It seems pretty clear from what we’ve deciphered so far that the rabbis of the Talmud assume the beam had a legitimate owner and was taken, illegitimately, from them.
But I found myself stymied by the idea, proposed by Beit Shammai, of returning the beam to it’s “baalav” — which seems to mean, on the face of it, the beam’s “(true) owners.” But a “baal habayit” is a landlord, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some shady landlord was somehow benefiting from a loophole in the law…as too many of our big ones here in DC are wont to do…and had, by vague analogy, no right to that beam in the first place.
Encampments and Luxury Dwellings
I recently interviewed advocates for the “Vacant to Virus Reduction” (V2VR), campaign. One of the arguments of this campaign is that WE, District taxpayers, have already paid dearly for luxury housing — through tax incentives and other perfectly legal means — and so should be able to claim some of that benefit now, in this crisis involving health and housing.
Here in the District of Columbia, we have thousands of housing insecure people and several tent encampments, like these under the train tracks —
The tent encampment shown in these two photos lines an underpass not far from the nation’s Capitol Buildings. Just around the corner, meanwhile, we see luxury developments, like this shiny new one pictured below… some of which have vacancies that the V2VR campaign would like filled by those who are currently unhoused in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
The DC government regularly removes and destroys the belongings and shelters of neighbors in the encampments, insisting that they have no right to live where they do. The same DC government regularly supports the building of luxury dwellings with all kinds of incentives which come from taxpayers’ pockets.
The Root of the Trouble
Svara method in Talmud study emphasizes looking up each word encountered, even if the study partners think they already know it. We learned that the Hebrew word “baal,” which is usually translated as “owner” or “master,” is based on a two-letter root, bet-ayin. And that root can mean to search out, lay bare, or ransack.
And, while I confess to some bias here before I opened the dictionary, finding this root really spoke to one of the many issues bothering me about the idea of returning the beam to its baalav. I cannot argue that either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel (whose position we will discuss next week) thought property ownership was a form of ransacking. But I will argue that people in DC — and probably in many other locales — need to be thinking about how many of our beams were obtained, what it would mean to extract them or their value, and whether someone who took a beam — or chose to shelter under one that does not technically belong to them — is really the culprit.
None of this even begins to consider the issue of reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade, for this country’s genocide and massive theft from indigenous people, or for the more recent, ongoing displacement of Black people in DC and elsewhere. But it has caused me to ponder some aspects of the work ahead…into the high holidays and far beyond.
The lines we’re learning are from the Talmud, Gitten 55a.
Here are the two lines we have explored so far:
NOTE: Attempting to cut and paste Hebrew/Aramaic text turns it backwards here, so sharing an image; here’s a link to full text at Sefaria. And here is a translation based loosely on what’s at Sefaria and our Svara class:
And about a stolen beam that was built into a large [maybe multi-residential] building [bira], remove the value, due to an ordinance instituted for the penitent….Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners [l’baalav]
In their essay on today’s reading, Berakhot 6a-6b, Laynie Solomon of SVARA outlines the radical nature of prooftexts, the ancient rabbinic practice of creatively interpreting sacred text so that it speaks to post-biblical conditions. In this case the situation involves participating in synagogue services:
…the assumption that the answer will be positive is baked into the question: Where in the Torah is it shown that God is found in the synagogue?
…The rabbis, through the creative and sacred word-play and interpretation of midrash, imagine a theology in which God is fully present with them — and therefore also with us. What if we felt this same invitation? What practices would you seek to find prooftexts for?
— the whole essay on My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi archive
In partial response, I suggest seeking out prooftexts for deepening equity, inclusion, and coalition:
How do we know that we must seriously heed when told a course of action of speech is hurtful or dangerous to others?
“’I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’ [חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃]”
How do we know that our coalitions must be more inclusive?
It is written: “Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man. [וּמָ֣צָא בָ֗הּ אִ֤ישׁ מִסְכֵּן֙ חָכָ֔ם וּמִלַּט־ה֥וּא אֶת־הָעִ֖יר בְּחָכְמָת֑וֹ וְאָדָם֙ לֹ֣א זָכַ֔ר אֶת־הָאִ֥ישׁ הַמִּסְכֵּ֖ן הַהּֽוּא׃ ]” (Ecclesiastes 9:15).
Where do we learn to take trusted outsider’s advice?
As Jethro told Moses: “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you [עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ]” (Exodus 18:19).
Where do we learn to walk difficult paths with others?
From “And the two went on [וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶ֔ם]” (Ruth 1:19).
And how do we know that not all journeys are shared?
“And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.’ [ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יִתְר֛וֹ לְמֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְשָׁלֽוֹם]” (Exodus 4:18).
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.)
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.
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:
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.)