I went to an awesome party on Saturday night. Modern-type egal Jews for the most part; at one point there were three conversations going on in the room, of which only one was in English, and the other two were in Yiddish.
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hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Jun. 14th, 2010 03:10 pm)
Learning Gemara at Hadar again this summer. The classrooms are next to each other, separated by thin walls.

We're talking about the first mishnah in the tenth perek of Pesachim, ערב פסחים סמוך למנחה, לא יאכל אדם עד שתחשך. אפילו עני שבישראל, לא יאכל עד שיסב; לא יפחתו לו מארבעה כוסות של יין, ואפילו מן התמחוי.

"Samuch l'mincha," says Rav Eitan. "What's that mean?"

Silence.

"Anyone?"

In the silence, Rav Elie's voice comes through the wall from the next room, where he is teaching his own class.

"Samuch l'mincha?"

Laughter.
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hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Dec. 16th, 2009 08:19 pm)
I forgot to post about the Halakha Yom Iyyun - a lot of the sessions were recorded, and you can download source sheets and watch the videos at http://www.mechonhadar.org/yomiyyun.

In particular, I heartily recommend the Opening Plenary: "Framing Halakhah: Law, Ethics, Philosophy or Values?" Professor Chaim Saiman, Villanova Law School - he had that kind of virtuoso skimming through his sources that you can only get away with when you know your topic ridiculously well, which is just good to listen to.
Some people see halakha as a sort of calculator into which you enter circumstances and from which you obtain answers. Some people see it as a great tide sweeping across time and space and carrying the Jews willy-nilly with it. And some people see it as a language, rising from the common experience and shared past of those who speak it and used to communicate matters of current concern.

However you conceive of halakha, rabbinic Judaism has always needed people who understand how it works. The computer scientists, the linguists, the navigators, depending on your model of choice.

I like understanding how things work, which is why I like halakha. I also like applying that understanding for practical effect, which is why a) I write Torahs b) I will be spending this Sunday at...

Mechon Hadar's Halakha Yom Iyyun
Halakhah as a Language of Applied Values:
Theory and Practice
Sunday December 6
at Yeshivat Hadar
190 Amsterdam Ave, NY
(@69th St – West End Synagogue)






A whole day with other people who think halakha is a living language. And who speak that language and use it to talk about everyday things and also those things which other languages cannot reach. And who are making rabbinic Judaism once more about halakha, in these days when "rabbi" chiefly means "pastoral adjunct."

And lunch.
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hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 21st, 2009 11:31 pm)
A goodly portion of Yeshivat Hadar spent this Shabbat in Riverdale, and I had the pleasure of cramming everyone into my apartment for (yummy potluck) lunch.

Following lunch, there was "Ask Rav Eitan."

Which is what? Well, here's a whole bunch of people who can see that their rosh yeshiva is entirely awesome, and they want to know what he thinks about fun questions like "Why is Judaism important?" Clearly nobbling him after Shabbat lunch, when he's too full of cholent to run away, is the best way of getting answers.

I jest. He wasn't trying to run away.

This is what was really going on:

When one's worldview isn't rendered in stark black and white, one has to find subtle shades-of-grey answers to any important question, existential or otherwise. One has gut feelings, or vague ideas, or half-formed rationales, regarding the big questions and the bigger picture, but fitting them together neatly is generally a bit beyond one, and we muddle along with more or less faith that it'll turn out okay in the end.

Then every so often you come across someone who has thought about all these things, and studied extensively, and is aware enough and articulate enough to express cogent, nuanced, informed, reasonable opinions. Sometimes they're saying clearly exactly the words you've been groping for; sometimes what they say or how they say it resonates with you so strongly that even if you don't quite agree, you want to hear more so that you can learn how to express your own opinions like that.

Here, you can see, is a way of constructing the security, the groundedness, which comes with the confident black-and-white answer, in the shades of grey one's intellectual integrity demands. Bit by bit you can muddle less and stand firm on sure ground; as people drawn to a measure of religious leadership, such grounding is a needed strength for ourselves and others.

So you meet someone in whose expression of the bigger picture you can see your own fuzzy approximations, but clarified and extended and set into place almost beyond recognition. It is a picture you have been trying to see; you have found someone who sees it, and you want to know all about the picture as they see it. Every last detail, so that you can see it through your own eyes and carry it with you.

That's what "Ask Rav Eitan" is doing, in a sense.

The next chapter here probably concerns the nature of the picture seen by the Yeshivat Hadar leadership, and why I think it is at present unique and hence uniquely important, but it's 1am so it'll have to wait for another day.

In any case, this was originally intended as a light-hearted post about how this Shabbat, when we were Asking Rav Eitan, and Rav Eitan was talking in rather powerful and compelling ways about how and why Judaism is the framework of his life, the doorbell rang.

Two Jehovah's Witnesses were at the door, one of them brandishing a much-worn Bible and the other with a folder of magazines.

In my apartment right now, flashed through my mind, there are three rabbis and a dozen people who spend all week learning Bible and Jewish canonical texts. I could invite these Witnesses into the lions' den. It would be hilarious.

But it would also be rather cruel and gratuitous, so I suppressed the fit of giggles that was arising and said politely "This really isn't a conversation we want to be having right now."

"Oh; why not?" one responded eagerly.

Because here are a group of yeshivaniks clustered round their rosh yeshiva hanging on his every word, I thought, you couldn't really have chosen a less likely target. Every single person in this room learns Bible on a level you've never even thought about. You'd get slaughtered. And nothing you can say could be anywhere near as interesting as Asking Rav Eitan.

"We're a bit busy right now," I said feebly, closing the door.

I hope they didn't hear the laughter.
Went to a session ostensibly exploring this question, although owing to a certain lack of restraint in the construction of the source sheet, we didn't actually make it to the question.

One thing I've learned over the past ten years or so is that consistency is not essential. Not a necessity, and not a luxury – more like a red herring, or possibly a pretty toy.

I often say that Talmud combines the logical approach of pure mathematics with the interesting irrationality of people, and the halakhic system is indeed based on taking people's (on the whole more or less predictable) actions and absorbing them into a consistent system.

Given an halakhic system, should the system mould to the people, or should the people mould to the system? Overmuch focus on consistency forces the latter interpretation; the halakhic framework exists inviolable, like the integers, and all the rest is the work of man.

As I get further away from being seventeen and naiive, I find this approach less and less compelling. The idea of living within a prescriptive framework [is not nearly as interesting as watching that puppy outside the window omg puppy cute puppy]...um, yes, the idea of living within a prescriptive framework and having one's chief preoccupation be how rigidly one cleaves to its girders seems, not so much overly challenging as profoundly uninteresting.

These days I see the framework as a support, which one may use as support, or as shelter, or as basis – as any number of things, but always as something in relationship to the people. The point is not to blend into the framework, the point is that the framework is the basis for something greater.
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Don't remember the sugiya, exactly – something in Arbei Pesachim

but it went something like:

Statement, explanation, assertion A; assertion B; counter-example ¬B; assertion C; counter-example ¬C; assertion D; counter-example ¬D.

In terms of decisions based on the text, we had general agreement on A, and most people seemed also to think ¬C, but the Rambam thought C, and it was weird.

It looked as though it came from reading the sugiya two different ways, thus.

One way:
-> statement, explanation, assertion  A
<-   assertion  B  (challenging A)
->     refutation  ¬B  (accepting ¬B and reinstating A)
<-  assertion  C  (challenging A)
->       refutation  ¬C  (accepting ¬C and reinstating A)
<-  assertion    D  (challenging A) <-     refutation  ¬D  (accepting ¬D and reinstating A)

so you end up with A, ¬B, ¬C, ¬D.

Alternatively:

-> statement, explanation, assertion A
<- assertion  B  (challenging A)
     -> counter-example  ¬B  (with idea of reinstating A)
          -> in support  C  (supporting ¬B with idea C, hence supporting A)
               <- challenge  ¬C  (challenging C)
               -> refutation  D  (rejecting challenge to C using D)
          <- assertion  ¬D  (challenging C's ability to support ¬B, but ¬B still stands)

now you would pasken A, ¬B, C, ¬D.

Something like that. Not sure exactly, but you get the general idea? Sometimes things are ambiguous enough that you can break the assertion-refutation pattern in different ways such that each read is equally plausible.
At a Yeshivat Hadar class the other day which quoted some rebbe suggesting that learning ought to engender "spiritual growth," and accordingly after having engaged in Judaic learning, one ought to do "a sort of spiritual check-in," in order to ascertain whether said growth has occurred.

This kind of talk isn't my cup of tea at all.

However, after some thought, I conclude that what he is saying is, if you come away from a class thinking "Hm, there's a blog post in this," you have probably grown in the way he is talking about, and you can talk about it without having to use cringily cheesy vocabulary.

All about language.
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hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Jul. 23rd, 2009 03:04 pm)
Shai Held on how the first liturgical breath of the morning is Modah Ani, "Thanks I offer" rather than Ani Modah, "I thank you" - putting the thanks before the ego. Cute and nice, but even Ani Modah is better than when your alarm didn't go off and your first word of the day is SHIT.
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It being 17 Tammuz, a fast day, Hadar is learning about fasting.

We learned the story from Ketubot 67b:

In Mar Ukba's neighbourhood there lived a poor guy, and every day Mar Ukba used to leave a dollar in his mailbox. One day, the poor guy decided to find out who was leaving these dollars, so he kept a look out. Now, that day Mar Ukba stayed late at the beit midrash, and his wife came to find him. They went home together via the poor guy's mailbox, and the guy spotted them and came out! Mar Ukba and Mrs Ukba ran away fast fast fast, and hid [naturally] in a conveniently-empty communal oven. But it was still hot, and Mar Ukba's legs got burned, ouch. But his wife's legs were fine.

So she says to him, stand on my feet. And he does, but he's devastated. Well, dear, she says to him, what do you expect? You give charity to the poor by putting an anonymous dollar in the mailbox, I do it by having them round for meals.

Thus it is said, it's better to leap into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone publicly.


Well, you can analyse that as much as you like, re different modes of giving charity and their respective merits, relationships with those to whom one is obligated, and so on, and we did, but my brilliant chevruta remembered another story about people who go into ovens, and WOW, is that one ever brilliant.

Get this.

Bava Metzia 85a. Rabbi Zeira used to live in Babylon, but mid-life he went to Israel. There were learning communities in both places, and there were a few rabbis who travelled between them, carrying the Torah of the communities one to the other. This was how the academies of Babylon learned the scholarship of the academies of Israel, and vice versa. Important exchange of scholarship.

But Rabbi Zeira, when he went to Israel, he fasted a hundred fasts so that he would forget all the Torah he had learned in Babylon, so as to be able to concentrate on the Torah he could learn in Israel.

Rabbi Zeira fasted another hundred fasts so that Rabbi Elazar, administrative head of the community, would not die and leave all the world on his, Rabbi Zeira's, shoulders.

And he fasted another hundred fasts so that the fires of Gehennom would not burn him in the hereafter.

He used to make sure he was okay vis-a-vis Gehennom thus: every month he'd go stand in an oven, and his legs wouldn't get burned, so he knew he was fine. But one time, his colleagues gave him the evil eye, and his legs got burned. And ever afterwards he was known as "that little guy with the burny legs."


Now connect to Berakhot 6b, which teaches that how the whole point of fasting is charity, and Sanhedrin 35a: one who fasts without doing their charitable duty is like one who spills blood. Not to be overly judgemental, but Rabbi Zeira's motives could have used a bit of work - I mean, he wanted to learn Torah from other people but he didn't want to share his own Torah; he didn't want to share the duties of running the community, and he apparently wasn't 100% comfortable with his own behaviour because he still had to keep fasting to avoid the fires of the hereafter.

And his colleagues weren't so delighted either; they gave him burny legs!

The Mar Ukba story makes it quite easy to judge Mar Ukba negatively - his feet got burned, his wife's didn't, so his method of giving charity wasn't utterly reprehensible but it wasn't amazing either. But compare to Rabbi Zeira! In Sanhedrin 37a, we hear that Rabbi Zeira used to hang out in rough neighbourhoods trying to get the locals to repent and reform (his colleagues didn't approve of that either, incidentally). Even someone who agrees that reformation is generally a good thing ought to be able to see that this type of charity is not awfully appropriate, being unsought, imposed, condescending, and lacking all empathy. Leaving a dollar in the mailbox may not be ideal, but it's a heck of a lot better than going up to someone and saying "Ah, you look like a poor person! Here, poor person! Let me give you this healthy apple I didn't fancy at lunchtime."

There are lots of ways of giving charity. I may not be on the Mrs Mar Ukba* model, I don't usually form human relationships with the recipients of my giving (and anyway that's not always entirely appropriate); but at least I'm not on the Rabbi Zeira model, imposing said relationships to make myself feel good. There are worse things than just giving money to charities.



* I know Mar means Mr. Mrs Mar Ukba is humorous.
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Part 1 - the Rambam.

Crikey, that got long )

If you're sailing a boat in the normal way of things, you might have three people on each side, and if they all sat on one side, the boat would tip up and go under. But when the wind blows hard, the boat leans over and you need all six people on one side to compensate and keep the boat upright. So if you're a little community in a big society, it might well be that the winds of social change blow and you have to make a change to compensate, a change which would be silly or threatening in other circumstances.

It is, for instance, no longer the case that men are forbidden to wear trousers. I would suggest that in a society where women do not lead things, for a woman to want to lead prayers is potentially (although not necessarily) rather destabilising. However, in a society where women lead stuff all the time, for a woman to want to lead prayers is not all that destabilising. In the strictly local sense, yes; over time, it might be more destabilising to insist that women may not lead prayer despite leading stuff in other contexts.

This feels like a good place to pause. Tea. Part three soonish.
Rambam is asked, in a congregation where everyone is capable of praying independently, is the reader's repetition of the Amidah necessary? Perhaps, if it is unecessary, it is actually forbidden? (Responsa, 221) Unecessary rituals involve unecessary blessings, which are a major problem in ritual.

The answer, to get it out of the way so you can concentrate, is that strictly speaking it isn't necessary, and he himself would have been okay getting rid of it in those circumstances, but there are lots of reasons the reader's repetition should stay in place regardless.

In particular, one thing he explores is the idea that the reader's repetition is only warranted if some one of those present has not prayed the Amidah, since the original idea was that the reader would repeat the Amidah aloud on behalf of anyone who couldn't do it himself - praying by proxy, essentially. If all present have prayed, there is no reason for the repetition, and in this case, logically it ought to be omitted.

The particular nuance I'm interested in today is where he saysהיו החכמים ז"ל נותנים דבריהם לשיעורין והיו צריכים לבדוק כל אדם בבית הכנסת ולדעת מצבו, ואז יחזור שליח צבור על התפלה או לא יחזור, ולא כך עניין התקנות והגזרות - that if the repetition were to depend on the have-you-prayed status of every person there, you would have to inquire of each and every individual to establish whether or not he had prayed, and only then would you know whether the reader should repeat the Amidah or not. That is not how rabbinic enactments work, says the Rambam.

This interests me because it's my problem with Joel Roth's approach to women and congregational prayer, but I have never hitherto had halakhic language in which to express the problem. The problem Joel Roth faced was that of how to engineer being able to have women lead services and count in the ritual quorum despite their having a lesser level of obligation than the gentlemen present, given that praying by proxy, like voting by proxy, only works if one's proxy has a level of obligation equal to or greater than one's own. His proffered solution was that if women were to assume, voluntarily and permanently, the higher level of obligation, they would be able to function in prayer on an equal basis with men.

The problem, you will have seen, is that only some women will do this. Most of the women in your average congregation simply won't do this, for whatever reason. So if you go into a room of two men and seven women, you have to ask each of the women if she has raised her obligation level before you know whether you can repeat the Amidah, for instance. This is not practical except in very closed communities, and that impracticality was largely why I moved away from being a Roth Jew. Seeing it expressed by the Rambam in the language of halakhic discourse is terrifically gratifying.

The next bit of this thought train is circling round Friday night kiddush in synagogue, and I'm going to put it in another post, following complaints about long posts being hard to follow. (Part 2.)
A few weeks ago, we read parashat Beha'alotekha, which contained the enactment of Second Passover, the repeat festival for those who missed it the first time round. Passover in the Torah involves sacrificing a lamb and eating it, and if you happen to be ritually impure on account of having had contact with a corpse, you can't eat sacrificial meat.

So in Numbers 9:7 we find a group of people who were ritually-unclean-because-of-contact-with-a-corpse at Passover time, and they go to Moses in protest. למה נגרע, they say, לבלתי הקרב את קרבן ה' במעדו בתוך בני ישראל? Why should we be excluded, kept from making the Lord's offering in its season with all the other Israelites? Why should we, through no fault of our own, be barred from participating in possibly the single most important ritual of Jewish identity? And Moses says Hm, hang on a second and I'll see what God has to say.

"Why shouldn't we be allowed to?"

The other scenario beloved of observant feminist circles is the daughters of Zelophehad in parashat Pinhas, in which the intrepid daughters of Zelophehad successfully challenge the law of inheritance. Both are frequently cited as examples of "It's not fair!" protestation in the Torah, but there is a vital difference.

Spotted it? Zelophehad's daughters say "It's not fair! Our father's name will die out!" The ritually unclean men (okay, anashim is arguably non-gendered as an inclusive masculine noun, but at base it is a word meaning men) protest on their own behalf, and the daughers of Zelophehad protest on someone else's behalf.

This is a terrific example of the subtle ways we have different social expectations for men and women, that have their roots in pre-Torah civilisation and continue today, so much part of the wallpaper that most people don't even notice.

It's absolutely acceptable for men to want things for themselves. We raise men to conceive of the world as being basically about them. But it's much less acceptable for women to want things for themselves - we label them as pushy, greedy, bitchy. We raise women to value themselves based on how useful they are to other people, such that acceptable wants are on behalf of others. Men say unashamedly "I want;" women say apologetically "I need." Men get away with being competitive and self-focused; women are expected to be selfless and share even at the cost of their own well-being.

The degree to which this applies depends on the society you move in, but it applies, and for Zelophehad's daughters to say "Why shouldn't we be allowed to participate?" is pretty much as unthinkable now as it was then. Yet we like to think ourselves egalitarian.

Another verse in Beha'alotekha concerns the superlative humility of Moses. The balance between humility and pride led the Kotzker Rebbe to say that a person should have a piece of paper in each pocket; one says "The world was created for me" and the other "I am dust and ashes". The idea is that you balance the two.

This is laudable, and it is one of the areas where egalitarian Judaism fails utterly.

I'll explain.

If you are brought up as a man in our society, you start out with a good-sized "World was created for me" paper, and you have to keep reminding yourself of the dust and ashes bit. However, if you are brought up as a woman, your "World was created for me" paper is very small, and your "dust and ashes" paper, probably along with a "You are bad and worthless unless you are useful to other people and they love you" paper, is very very large.

The mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) says נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחד מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ...לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם - Adam was created singular to teach you that the loss of one soul is akin to the loss of the entire world, and the saving of one soul is akin to the saving of the entire world...Accordingly, every individual is obliged to say, "The world was created for me."

Except that as a woman, I am continually and acutely aware that the world was not created for me. So who owns this text? I don't.

There is a later emendation to the text that restricts the souls in question to Jewish souls only, and it's a plausible interpretation because the text is speaking to a limited audience. It's not really speaking to all people, it's speaking to people like us, important people, people we want in our world - even taking out the Jewish particularism, this text is still a text with a limited audience, and I am not part of the intended audience.

Consequently, it is all very well to draw beautiful universalist messages from it, but unless you acknowledge the text's fundamental limitations, your own message is likewise going to be fundamentally limited. The text is speaking to the audience it conceives of as default people, normal people, and in our culture that means men. When your universalism is speaking in a men's voice to an audience of default-people, which-means-men, it is a limited universalism, just as a white person lauding racial equality in a roomful of white people rings somewhat hollow.

How to deal with it? I don't know exactly, but it seems to me that one needs to be extremely conscious of one's audience, particularly if one is male, particularly if one is expanding a traditional text into a non-traditional audience. Egalitarianism isn't the same thing as gender-blindedness, or being oblivious of matters gendered.

Egalitarianism means being aware of one's tendency to oblivion, and making efforts to accommodate those in different circumstances to one's own - it doesn't mean assuming that everyone's circumstances are the same. Specifically, gender egalitarianism has to include awareness, because otherwise you are giving male messages to a male audience, and you risk ignoring the women in your audience. למה נגרע? Why should we be excluded?
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These Jewish Thought classes are causing a lot of crochet, but I'm getting a surprising amount of blog mileage out of them as well. Hmmm.

So we were talking about Heschel being cheesed off with God because of the Holocaust, more or less, and about how nonetheless Heschel wants his God to be terribly human(e) and generally fluffy (a multivalent term), and the subject of David Blumenthal's book Facing the Abusing God: a theology of protest arose.

Consensus seemed to be, on the whole, that at some point the proper thing to do with an abusive relationship is leave, not build a theology round it, and that Blumenthal was being a bit of an idiot writing a book grouching about living with an abusive God when he could have just left.

Blumenthal and abusive gods were absolutely not the subject of the class, so I didn't say, but thought: it's not that easy.

I mean, if your whole identity is Jewish, and you say "bugger this God business," and you rip the God out of Judaism, that's ripping out a pretty fundamental part of your identity. Non-theistic Judaism isn't inconceivable, but not just like that.

Sometimes your abusive relationship is near enough to your surface that you can leave, with greater or less pain, but sometimes it's so wrapped around your core that to separate you and it is well-nigh impossible. We know that some people stay in abusive relationships forever: they would rather the low-level trauma of constant abuse than the major trauma of having one's identity ripped away and having to rebuild.

So give Blumenthal a break, and give people in abusive relationships a break as well. They have it hard enough without other people being judgemental and saying "Why don't you just leave?".
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Today at Hadar we were talking about covenant, and one of the gentlemen in the class, waxing lyrical, said something like "this covenant we inscribe in our flesh..."

Well, only when "we" means "we chaps," and it's yet another of those statements that means very little to most of those present, who have no covenant inscribed in their flesh on account of having ladybits. So I got to wondering.

If you've got the covenant inscribed in your flesh, in the form of a line of scar tissue proclaiming "foreskin woz ere," does it remind you of the covenant every time you see it? Or does it get so's you don't notice it?

I am seriously jolly interested in the answer, but if I know you IRL can you spare my feelings and comment anonymously?
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hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Jun. 28th, 2009 09:29 pm)
The Story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the Cave.

You probably know this one, but you've never heard me tell it. It's Shabbat 33b, if you want to read the original, but I find a certain degree of paraphrasing makes for more vivid retelling.

Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were sitting, and Yehudah ben Gerim was with them.

Rabbi Yehudah said, Aren't the Romans great? They've done all this good stuff for us! Super markets, lovely bathhouses, and absolutely ripping bridges.

Rabbi Yose said nothing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, Huh, they made markets so's they could find whores, bathhouses for pleasuring themselves, and toll-bridges for ripping people off.

Yehudah ben Gerim spread this around (
Careless Talk Costs Lives) and the Romans weren't best pleased. They praised Rabbi Yehudah, exiled Rabbi Yose, and decreed that Rabbi Shimon should die.

Interlude on Yehudah ben Gerim, added in response to comments. Yes, this means "son of converts," and the reader is cautioned against dismissing this with a "ugh, disgusting attitudes about converts, rotten Talmud."

Remember "gerim" also means "strangers," and that the Jews are in a particularly insular mindset at the moment. We've just had the Bar Kochba revolt; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the revolt and ended up being tortured to death. R' Shimon bar Yochai and his chums aren't so inclined to trust those on the outskirts of the community. Read it as dissing on converts if you will, but don't get too invested in that. We continue:

Rabbi Shimon went and hid in the beit midrash. (This was kind of silly, I mean where else would you look for Jews?) Then he decided that wasn't a good place and went and hid in a cave. (Caves are good places to go if you want to be terribly ascetic.) He and his son buried themselves up to the neck in sand (so they were totally disembodied and thus very intellectual), and studied all day, sustained by a miraculous carob tree.

Twelve years pass, and one day Elijah the prophet drops by saying hey guys, the Romans have calmed down, you can come out now. When they came out of the cave, they saw people doing agriculture, and Rabbi Shimon was jolly miffed that people would be doing such mundane and materialistic things as producing food, when they ought to be focused on spiritual things and learning Torah. He was so miffed that everything he looked at went up in flames.

A voice came from heaven and said HEY, don't do that! get back in your cave! so they went back into the cave, and they stayed there for twelve months, that being the amount of time the wicked spend in Hell. Then they came out again.

Rabbi Shimon's son was still somewhat overzealous and went around igniting people, but Rabbi Shimon healed them because he'd learned his lesson.


What a lovely story. Are you sick yet?

This is apparently a nice story about balancing learning and real life, often used that way by well-meaning teachers to stimulate discussion about which is greater out of study and action; famously, the answer is study-because-it-leads-to-action.

(I think this is a rather silly question, it's like asking which is greater out of chickens and eggs. I really hope that the rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of this, and hoped that their audience would be also, but I have never seen anyone else say so.)

Observe that the entire impetus of the story is this incident where the three rabbis are talking about the Romans. Without that, there would be no story, no lesson, nothing. What is the incident? Three rabbis sitting around gossiping.

They aren't doing any of that stuff where you bring prophetic verses and compare the Romans to evil Babylon or Assyria or Amalek. They're just sitting around chatting. This is not study, and it is not action. It is idle time-wasting.

Rabbi Shimon is cross with the farmers because they are not philosophising, yet surely sitting around gossiping is much worse than farming? Even if farming isn't study, it is at least action, so what gives?

What gives?

At some point, Rabbi Shimon went to a (Roman) bathhouse, and a chum of his bewailed the horrible state his body was in after spending twelve years in a sandpit (remember that, we'll come back to it). On the whole, he was pretty mellow, and decided to give thanks for the miracles which had befallen him by doing some good in the world. "What needs fixing?" he asked, and he went to the (Roman) city of Tiberias, where there was some issue with ritual impurity which meant the city's priests had to take the (Roman) long way round and it was annoying. And he sorted it out so the priests didn't have to go the long way round any more.

Some guy said Rabbi Shimon had been out of line, and Rabbi Shimon wasn't impressed, and killed him with his scary fiery eyes.

Then Rabbi Shimon went out to the
(Roman) market and ran into Yehudah ben Gerim. Fancy meeting you here, he said, and turned him into a heap of bones.

Aha, obviously he hadn't learned his lesson properly, and we can leave this story knowing that it's jolly hard to overcome zeal and maintain a sensible study-action balance, etc. A message as sweet as it is utterly trite.

Naturally, I find triviality as irritating as saccharinity, so when people leave off at this point, as they do all too often, it makes me Sad.

Down with triviality! The Messianic arc

So let's ask what Elijah was doing there.

Elijah pops up (amongst other things) when Messianic figures are around. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is one of the figures in his generation who had the potential to usher in the Messianic era, and in part, this is a story about how his Messianic potential trickles away. He starts off with unlimited zeal, terrific scholarship, super fiery eyes...and as twelve years pass in the cave, his scholarship becomes more concentrated (note, by the way, the suffering-of-the-messiah trope; twelve years in a wilderness, buried in sand, horrible physical affliction...), but his connection to the real world wanes. Messiahs need to be concentrated spirituality, but embodied - part of the real world. And he loses that side of himself while he does nothing but study.

Nonetheless, he emerged, and he could still have retrieved the situation, except that he was so out of touch that instead of having Messianic mercy on the world he burned it up. And when he came out of the cave a second time, he'd mellowed so much that he was pretty much just an ordinary person, and all the Messianic potential had trickled away. Instead of doing the Messiah's job of large-scale tikkun olam, fixing the world, he potters about fiddling with cemeteries and arguing with his colleagues. He even had to ask what needed fixing, so far removed from the people was he. A Messianic arc which fizzles out into obscurity.

This is one of the narratives in the story as it stands. Looking at the story as part of a redactional unit gives another picture.

The story beneath: tragedy and nostalgia *

The Babylonian Talmud contains many of these failed-Messiah stories. One might be excused for thinking that the Babylonian Talmud, redacted centuries after the messianic fervour of the first century had died down, after generations of Jews had lived and died never knowing the Holy Land, after all hope of a restored Temple had gone - that it might be a bit cynical as regards messiahs.

Indeed, that messianic stories such as these might appear to preserve good messianic values on the surface, but underlying them might be a current of tragedy, of nostalgia for the days when Elijah roamed the land and the salvation of the world seemed imminent. The Talmudic redactor is living at the end of the period of great sages, in an age of decline, when the great yeshivot are a fading memory and the Jews are so comfortable in Persia that they will never return to Jerusalem. This is the voice telling the story. He has to hold out messianic hope, but he's been waiting a long time.

Grotesquerie and cynicism **

Recall that, amongst other things, this story appears to be assessing the relative merits of study and action. In that case, why on earth does it frame the story with two scenes having to do with neither? It starts with gossip, and it ends with petty venegance. If not precisely comedy, this can definitely be described as grotesquerie, in my book.

More wry humour: observe that Rabbi Shimon disses the Romans' markets, bathhouses, and civil infrastructure. When he emerges from his cave because the Romans don't want to kill him any more, he goes to the bathhouse, he goes to the market, he trots around on the infrastructure.

The Talmud isn't stupid. It uses grotesque humour to make points.

What's the point here? Think like the redactor again. He's distilling the learning of the past half-dozen centuries into narrative form, because there are no longer enough scholars to know all the learning. A vast mass of ancient traditions, creative exegesis, brilliant logic, communal history, laws, and customs, is all being cut and pasted into the form we know today, lest it be lost entirely as its teachers die out. If you'd said to the redactor "Judaism is in its worst-ever crisis and in imminent danger of total extinction," he would have given you an award for understatement.

And for what? Action? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is living in the period immediately following the Bar Kochba revolt, when the Jews tried to take action and failed miserably. The redactor is living in exile in immoral Babylon, the Temple has not been rebuilt, the Messiah has not come, the Jews are assimilating like nobody's business, and the poor old redactor doesn't see any action happening to make life any better. No, the merit of study has not redeemed the Jews, it has not led to action, neither study nor action has proved of any use - we might just as well have spent all our time sitting around gossiping, because we've turned into a heap of bones.

What gives, really?

We've redeemed this story from being sweetly inspirational, but in so doing it's become rather bleakly cynical. Merits of study and action? Messianic hope? Failed messiahs, idle talk, and heaps of bones.

Of course, you don't have to read the story all the time on every layer. Maybe just seeing that layer of pain is enough, and then you can read the story on its own terms and draw what lessons you like from it. Maybe bleak cynicism is more palatable than pious homily. Maybe just as one needs to maintain a study-action balance, and remember that they have a chicken-egg relationship, one needs to maintain a cynicism-piety balance, and remember that they too have a chicken-egg relationship.



* Cribbed from Limmud sessions with Daniel Landes
** Cribbed from Limmud sessions with Daniel Boyarin

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