About that stolen beam…

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 —

from a recent video, shared on Facebook, by Serve Your City DC
from the same video

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.

rendering is from the website of DC area developer Douglas Jemal

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.



TEXT

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]

BACK

What Needs Prooftext? Daf Yomi #5

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׃]”
(Numbers 22:34).

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).

More on Daf Yomi

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.)

BACK to top