Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 47

This is it! The end of year 1! And what a climax it is! We'll formally complete year 1 with a siyyum next week at the NHC Summer Institute. Post a comment if you'll be there and are interested in participating in the siyyum and haven't let us know yet.

  • Monday - 3:5:56-57 (The Messiah)
  • Tuesday - 3:6:1-7 (The Good That Is to Be)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 3:6:8-17 (The Good That Is to Be)
  • Friday - 3:6:18-27 (Resurrection of the Dead)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 46

From out of the the harsh experience of exile, we turn our thoughts to redemption. This is the penultimate week of the first year of the project!

  • Monday - 3:5:1-2 (Archives of Travails and Archives of Deliverance)
  • Tuesday - 3:5:3-8 (The Merit of the Fathers)
  • Wednesday - 3:5:9-22 (The Time of Redemption)
  • Thursday - 3:5:23-35 (The Footprints of the Messiah)
  • Friday - 3:5:36-49 (Redemption and the Ingathering of Exiles)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:5:50-55 (The Day of Darkness and Light)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 45

The Three Weeks continue, and so does the narrative of exile.

  • Monday - 3:4:25-35 (The Hardship of Exile and the Enslavement by Kingdoms)
  • Tuesday - 3:4:26-39 (Israel: An Object of Derision among the Nations)
  • Wednesday - 3:4:40-48 (The Holy One is Partner in Israel's Travail)
  • Thursday - 3:4:49-58 (The Guardian of Israel)
  • Friday - 3:4:59-69 (Watchman, What of the Night?)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:4:70-79 (Watchman, What of the Night?)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 44

The beginning of the section on exile coincides with the beginning of the Three Weeks of mourning leading up to 9 Av.

  • Monday - 3:2:92-109 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)
  • Tuesday - 3:2:110-126 (Jerusalem)
  • Wednesday - 3:3:1-9 (The Sacred Tongue)
  • Thursday - 3:3:10-23 (The Sacred Tongue and Other Languages; Exactness in the Use of Language)
  • Friday - 3:4:1-14 (The Hardship of Exile and the Enslavement by Kingdoms)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:4:15-24 (The Hardship of Exile and the Enslavement by Kingdoms)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

3:2:49 Distorting the Law in Order to Save It?

This text says that, when Hanina the nephew of R' Yehoshua went to Babylonia (apparently after the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion), he made decisions regarding declaring Rosh Hodesh and intercalating the year, and that the authorities in the Land of Israel sent two scholars after him. They told Hanina, disingenuously, that they were coming to learn Torah from him. He then extolled them to the Jewish community in Babylonia, calling them great scholars. Then they began contradicting him -- he would declare an object impure and they would declare it pure; he would forbid an action and they would permit it. Frustrated, and embarrassed, he proclaimed that they were good-for-nothings, but they pointed out that he had already vouched for them and could not undo that. He then asked why they kept contradicting his rulings.

Their response is that it is because he had been making calendrical decisions outside the Land of Israel. This response is fascinating -- they do not indicate in any way that his decisions about ritual purity, or on prohibited actions, were wrong. They apparently set about systematically overruling all of his decisions on all sorts of halachic questions, even though, it seems, he was right in those decisions. Preserving the central authority to set the calendar was considered so important that it not only warranted sending two scholars on a trip to Babylonia, and not only warranted threatening Hanina and the entire Babylonian Jewish community with excommunication if they didn't fall in line. It also warranted actually making wrong legal decisions, telling people that they could use objects that were really impure, and telling people that they could perform actions that were really forbidden, just in order to undermine Hanina's authority.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

3:2:24 Planting and the M'shiah

"Rabban Yohanan b. Zakai used to say, 'If there was a planting [seedling] in your hand and they told you, "Here's the M'shiah [Messiah]," plant the seedling and afterwards go and greet him.'" I recognized this famous saying, but then I did a double-take. This chapter is "The Land of Israel," and this section is "The Land and its Settlement." What is this saying doing here? I've always understood this statement as a caution about over-eagerness for the M'shiah, perhaps a warning to be suspicious of a purported but possibly-false M'shiah, and a prioritization of small accomplishments in this world over focusing on the next world. None of this has anything to do specifically with the Land of Israel.

My guess is that B&R understood "planting" in light of text 3:2:22, about planting being the first activity the people is to undertake upon entering the Land. But then Rabban Yohanan b. Zakai's statement means something a bit different from what I thought it meant: now it's a statement about how important it is to plant in the Land of Israel -- it's so important that one even delays greeting the M'shiah in order to finish planting. Instead of an attempt to hold in check possible over-enthusiasm for the M'shiah, the statement accepts that enthusiasm and elevates planting in (and, it follows, settlement in) the Land even higher.

I wondered whether commentators on the original text might have explained the text in ways that would support B&R's apparent reading or my reading. Unfortunately, B&R cite the statement only to Avot d'Rabbi Natan version B. Schechter's text does not have any explanatory comment on this statement, and the version that appears in a standard set of Talmud is version A. (Likewise, Goldin's book on Avot d'Rabbi Natan uses version A.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 43

More on the land of Israel. Remember, while reading all the denigration of the Diaspora, that Sefer Ha-Aggadah was published in Odessa.

  • Monday - 3:2:20-32 (The Land and Its Settlement)
  • Tuesday - 3:2:33-46 (Love for the Land; The Holiness of the Land)
  • Wednesday - 3:2:47-64 (Torah of the Land; The Dimensions of the Land)
  • Thursday - 3:2:65-69 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)
  • Friday - 3:2:70-80 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:2:81-91 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 42

How can the content of "Those Who Became Proselytes Because of Lions" possibly live up to the title? This week we look beyond the Jews to the other nations, and then start the section on the land of Israel.
  • Monday - 3:1:143-149 (Those Who Became Proselytes Because of Lions)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:150-162 (The Nations of the World)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:163-173 (The Nations of the World)
  • Thursday - 3:1:174-183 (The Nations of the World)
  • Friday - 3:2:1-7 (The Land and Israel)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:2:8-19 (The Land and Its Settlement)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jewish Continuity

The material in "Israel Endure Forever" is a somewhat different take on Jewish Continuity. I think the Rabbis probably "knew" what actions were needed, keeping halachah and doing Jewish study. But they needed reassurance that if the Jewish people didn't meet those demands, Judaism would continue. They showed great imagination in finding Biblical sources of support for Jewish Continuity.

We, on the other hand, fight over what we should do and have much less faith that it will work.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 42

Born or made?

  • Monday - 3:1:101-104 (Constellations Have No Power over Israel)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:105-114 (Israel Endure Forever)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:115-120 (The Purity of Families in Israel)
  • Thursday - 3:1:121-126 (Proselytes in Israel)
  • Friday - 3:1:127-137 (Proselytes in Israel)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:1:138-142 (Proselytes in Israel)

Friday, June 12, 2009

3:86 -- Four species

This familiar midrash analogizes each of the four species in the lulav to a segment of the Jewish people -- the etrog, having taste and aroma, is like those Jews with both Torah learning and actual performance of mitzvot; the willow, having neither taste nor aroma, is like those Jews with neither Torah nor mitzvot, etc.

I'm puzzled by the assignment of the elements in the midrash. It says that the palm has taste but not aroma (the date doesn't have much aroma), and is like those Jews with Torah but no deeds, and the myrtle has aroma but no taste and is like those Jews with deeds but no Torah. I would have thought that aroma would be parallel to Torah (the spirit that pervades the physical but isn't physical), and taste would be parallel to deeds (the more apparently physical sense paralleling the physical deeds). Yet both in Leviticus Rabba and in Yalkut Shim'oni (the sources cited by Sefer HaAggada), it's the other way -- taste paralleling Torah, and aroma paralleling deeds. Why?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 41

Who is this nation of Israel really?

  • Monday - 3:1:35-43 (The Character of Israel)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:44-51 (The Character of Israel)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:52-66 (Israel's Afflictions; The Characteristics of Israel)
  • Thursday - 3:1:67-84 (Transgressors in Israel)
  • Friday - 3:1:85-94 (Israel--One Cluster)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:1:95-100 (The Enemies and Friends of Israel)

Friday, June 5, 2009

2:705; 3:19 - Question on Bialik; The Concern for the Persecuted

A note about this week's reading, and a note from my efforts to catch up.

The text at 3:19 is an impressively long and adamant assertion that God is on the side of the persecuted. Yes, it's part of our culture, secular as well as religious, but it's encouraging to see this statement with so many examples adduced, including examples where the same character, Shaul, is on both sides, as the victim of the Philistines and as the persecutor of David. That combination conveys the important lesson that the divine sympathy that one has through being persecuted can be forfeited if one then turns into the persecutor.

It's interesting to see 3:23 at the same time as 3:19. 3:23 contrasts the Jewish and non-Jewish calendrical systems, the former a lunar calendar (actually a combination lunar-solar, but let's go with the midrash) and the latter a solar one. The midrash draws the parallel to Esav and Ya'akov -- Esav as the prototypical Gentile is seen as large in stature and having a calendar focusing on the large celestial body (the sun), while the supposedly-slight Ya'akov follows the smaller celestial body (the moon). Then the midrash sticks in the homiletic knife -- the sun rules only by day, but the moon rules by night and by day; in the same way, the Gentiles will have life in this world (the visible one, corresponding to the day), but the Jews will have life in this world and in the next world (the hidden one, corresponding to the night). The "first one now will later be last" theme of this midrash reinforces the message of 3:19.

And a note about 2:705, or actually about a footnote on 2:705. This recounts a poem that Rava commissioned when he was about to cross the turbulent Tigris River. The last two lines of the poem say, "Ta'inu me'aharecha k'isha miba'alah/ Al taznihehu k'ot mei marah." The first of these is something like "We have strayed from you like a wife from her husband." The second begins, "Do not reject him [Rava] like ...." The question is what is meant by "ot mei marah." B&R have a footnote connecting this to the waters of Marah (Ex. 15:22-25), and saying something connecting the divine rejection to the disappearance of bitterness from the waters in that story. However, the reference of "ot mei marah" would seem clearly to be to the Sotah ritual in this week's parasha, where the ink from the written curses dissolves into the "waters of bitterness" (mei hamarim). That's why this line of the poem follows the line about the straying wife, and it explains the word "ot" (letter). Rashi makes this clear, explaining "k'ot mei marah" as "with which the Sotah wife was examined." Why did B&R explain this with reference to the Exodus passage?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Section 790 When the disciples left the school of R. Ammi, they used to say to him: During your life, may you see your worldly needs provided, But may your ultimate reward be in the world-to-come, And may hope for it endure through the generations that spring from you. May your heart meditate understanding, Your mouth speak wisdom, And your tongue be moved to song. May your gaze scan what lies ahead, Your eyes shine with light of Torah, Your face be radiant as the brightness of the firmament. May your lips utter knowledge, Your reins rejoice in uprightness, And your steps hurry to hear the words of the Ancient of Days.
I love the reference to song, even those who study all the time should sing.

I don't understand "Your reins rejoice in uprightness,". Is the Hebrew or the original clearer or don't I just get it? What does reins refer to?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

2:1:765-771 - The merits of the sages

Around midnight on the Hadar Shavuot Retreat, EAR led a session in which we studied and discussed that day's section of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. It was attended by some people who have been participating in Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, including General Anna and feygele, as well as others who were new to the whole thing.

This is an assortment of various thoughts expressed in the discussion:

  • Are the middle three (especially "he made his mother happy") damning with faint praise?
  • On the other hand, "he made his mother happy" is the only one that has anything to do with relationships with other people.
  • The first and last are clearly the highlighted ones, and they're both about water. Retaining everything is great, but not as great as flowing forth with creativity.
  • Or maybe retaining everything isn't so great, if it means you always hold a grudge and never move on.
  • R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was also the protagonist of the oven of Akhnai story, and the description of him here fits the events of that story. In the story, R. Eliezer had the correct answer (confirmed by a bat kol) - he had the most faithful version of the truth, like a cemented cistern that never loses a drop. But he had a truth that resides underground, not a truth above ground on the surface that comes from exposure to real life. And the story involved all the sages on one side and R. Eliezer on the other.
  • Which of these is the best model for a teacher to emulate? It depends on the student.
  • What's the difference between walnuts and stones? Walnuts are edible, though also bitter.
  • R. Yochanan ben Nuri gets the short end of the stick (he's also the least famous of the five).
  • 765 was R. Yochanan ben Zakkai praising his students; this one is R. Yehudah haNasi praising his teachers and predecessors. Praise for students seems to be less common (both in rabbinic literature and in our culture).
  • Perhaps a better teacher isn't someone who (like R. Elazar ben Azaryah) just gives students (only) whatever they ask for, but someone who (like R. Tarfon) gives them other things to put it in context.
  • Clearly R. Akiva and Ben Azzai are old friends, and I thought this was a cool model for interpersonal relationships, that Ben Azzai had a deep respect for R. Akiva such that he considered him to be greater than all the sages of Israel, yet a close enough familiarity that he could refer to him jokingly as "this bald guy".
If you were there and remember more (or if you have your own thoughts to add), please post it here!

Hadran alach!

Congratulations to everyone who finished Part Two! (And of course Bialik, the poet, made sure it ended with poetry.) Onward to Part Three!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 40

This week we finish Book Two!!! The other four books of Sefer Ha-Aggadah are not chronological, but thematic. Book Three is about Israel (the land and the people), and begins this week with Israel the nation.

  • Monday - 2:1:780-787 (The Sages of the Land of Israel and the Sages of Babylonia)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:788-791 (Sages at Their Going In and Their Coming Out of the House of Study)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:792-795 (The Death of Sages and Their Eulogies)
  • Thursday - 3:1:1-16 (God's Love for Israel)
  • Friday - 3:1:17-25 (Between Israel and the Nations)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:1:26-34 (Between Israel and the Nations)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 39

The end is near! We complete the individual amoraim with Rav Ashi (traditionally, one of the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud), and then move on to general topics to conclude Book II, which we will finish next week. This week's schedule is partially abbreviated due to Shavuot.

  • Monday - 2:1:721-734 (R. Papa)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:735-747 (R. Ashi)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:748-764 (Patriarch and Exilarch)
  • Thursday/Friday - 2:1:765-771 (The Merit of the Sages)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:772-779 (The Former and the Latter Generations)

Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue

Section 709 Rava said: May the merit of what I used to do stand by me. Whenever a disciple of the wise came before me in a lawsuit, I did not lay my head on the pillow [to sleep] before I considered what might be said in his favor.

This is self serving junk. The Torah is clear that judges should not show favoritism. Connected with much of the material we have read about the Rabbis, it shows very extreme elitism.

Section 706 Thieves broke in and stole a few rams owned by Rava. Presently the thieves returned the rams, but he refused to accept them, saying, "Rav has ruled: If a thief breaks into a house, steals some items, and gets away, he is exempt from punishment. Why? Because he acquired them with his blood."

This is a strong statement, It makes me wonder about the amount of violence in that country. Would this mean that in states with no gun laws, theft should never be punished?

Also, did they keep their rams in the house or did this mean the courtyard?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dressing to Kill at Services

Section 699 [As a mark of humility], Rava used to remove his [costly] upper cloak, clasp his hands, and pray, explaining what he did: [I pray] like a slave in the presence of his master.
So much for getting dressed up for services. What a lovely idea. We don't try to show off for G!d, we act contrite and like G!d's slaves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Touchy Aren't We

I fell a little behind in my reading and as I caught up, I kept noticing stories about hurt feelings and how the Sage whose feelings were hurt got even. Often, by excommunicating the offender. It is a clear pattern. Since most of the stories were after the destruction, I thought of the Bar Kamma story as the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem. Getting even for being embarrassed destroyed so much. But the stories we have don't seem to be critical of this attitude, even though being forgiving is shown as a virtue in some cases.

What is the purpose for telling all these stories?

R. Huna: Rich or Poor?

Section 593 R. Huna once came before Rav with reed grass tied around his waist. Rav: "What is the meaning of this attire?" R. Huna: "I had no wine for Kiddush. So I pledged my girdle, and with the money got wine for Kiddush."

Section 602 Once four hundred jars of wine belonging to R. Huna turned sour.

I find it interesting that there are no stories about how R. Huna became rich. Even the wine which turned to vinegar did not result in any financial losses.

Torah Study

Section 627 [During the reading of Scripture], R. Sheshet used to turn his back to the reader and, reviewing [interpretations of the text], would say: We are busy with ours [advanced study], while they are busy with theirs [cursory perusal].
This is a third case where the Rabbis seem to be going against what we consider Halachah today. Many tend to think that Judaism is all a fully established tradition and anything that suggests change is dangerous and bad for Judaism. Did the pre-code Rabbis have the same position?

Lighting Shabbos Candles

Section 597 R. Huna frequently passed the door of R. Avin The Carpenter. Seeing that R. Avin was scrupulous in kindling [Sabbath] lights, he said, "Two great men will issue from this household." And indeed, R. Idda bar Avin and R. Hiyya bar Avin did issue from there.
Interesting, it is a man who is being praised for lighting the Shabbos candles. Is this an indication that it became a women's mitzvah at a later time?

Prayer vs. Study (Sect. 590)

R. Jeremiah was seated before R. Zera, and both were engaged in Halakhah. Evening drew near, the time for prayer arrived, and R. Jeremiah insisted on reciting it. R. Zera then applied to him the verse "He that turneth away his ear from hearing Torah, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9).
Does this indicate that the requirement for prayer was late in developing?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 38

The debates of Rava and Abbaye, fourth-generation Babylonian amoraim, span the whole Talmud. Now we get to see their personal sides.

  • Monday - 2:1:652-668 (R. Joseph)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:669-680 (Abbaye)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:681-691 (Abbaye)
  • Thursday - 2:1:692-705 (Rava)
  • Friday - 2:1:706-714 (Rava)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:715-720 (Rava)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 37

An assortment of second- and third-generation Babylonian amoraim. We'll finish the amoraim right around Shavuot!

  • Monday - 2:1:585-592 (R. Jeremiah)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:593-606 (R. Huna)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:607-624 (R. Hisda)
  • Thursday - 2:1:625-634 (R. Sheshet)
  • Friday - 2:1:635-640 (R. Nahman)
  • Saturday - 2:1:641-651 (Rabbah)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Communications after death

Then Samuel asked his father, "Where is the orphans' money?" He replied, "You will find it in the rack of millstones. The money on the upper and lower millstones is ours; that on the middle one is the orphans'." Samuel: "Why did you put the orphans' money on the middle millstone?" He replied, "So that if thieves got at it [from the top], ours would be stolen; and if the earth eroded it [from below] ours would be eroded."
This provides a very practical lesson. Unless you expect to be able to communicate with this world after death, make sure someone knows about your finances. Even more so with the finances of other people who depend on you.

Of course, we would not have this problem we could leave the money with a trustworthy person, e.g. Mr. Madoff, and everything would be fine.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 36

We've moved east, and we're covering the early Babylonian amoraim.

  • Monday - 2:1:540-549 (Rav)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:550-556 (Samuel)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:557-566 (Samuel)
  • Thursday - 2:1:567-572 (R. Judah)
  • Friday - 2:1:573-578 (R. Judah)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:579-584 (R. Judah)

Friday, May 1, 2009

I've been AWOL for several weeks. As I try to resume my reading and writing, I was very much struck by the stories of R' Zeira, and came to think that this was a sage that I would have liked to know.

He could hear a (possibly fatuous) aggadic midrash on a verse and respond that exactly the opposite interpretation was equally plausible. (text 496)

He combined great humility and great intensity -- when he made aliya from Babylonia, he crossed the river at the flood rather than await a fordable shallows, lest he commit some sin in the interim that would deprive him of the merit needed to make aliya. (text 502)

Upon making aliya, he consciously obliterated from his mind the Torah of Babylonia and re-educated himself in the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. (text 504). Was this because he thought the latter inherently superior? If so, wouldn't he have opted for the latter even while still in Babylonia? Perhaps it was rather that he perceived that a system or approach to Torah must depend to some extent on the circumstances, and the Torah of Eretz Yisrael was somehow more appropriate to living in that place. Still, the commitment to a re-programming is impressive. (Something of a piece with this is his willingness to reverse his position, as shown in text 495 on running to hear the sermon on Shabbat.)

Another incident showing his impressive ability and willingness to reverse course, and the nimbleness of his mind, as well as his humility and intensity, is the story (text 506) that he first said he wished his parents were still alive so that he could honor them, and that he then expressed relief that they were no longer alive, because he was convinced that he could not honor them as much as he should.

I'm inclined to think that he was too dismissive of aggada and too trusting in the solidity of halacha (texts 496-497), but there's something to be said for the groundedness that comes when decisions have to be put into actual practice. Still, this was an intriguing guy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It is Very Quiet Here

I have been off the bloggadah for many many weeks and resolved to jump back on this week. I succeeded in making it my daily practice to study the assigned reading every day and did so with my ears open for the slightest whisper of the still small voice of inspiration, which I am only beginning to hear. I am pondering R. Ze'era, who stayed obscure to remain alive (avoiding ordination!).

R. Ze'era used to say, "We are not required to give heed to the traditions of R. Sheshet, since he is blind." R. Sheshet who taught both Rava and Abaye is to be disregarded and for such a reason! Sheshet, who called Ze'era a great man (gabra rabba"; 'Er. 66a) is to be disregarded! Is it perhaps because he called Ze'era. who strived to be obscure, a great man. Is it Ze'era's fear of recognition that leads him to insist that one who recognizes him must be blind? I hope so.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 35

This week we complete the amoraim of the land of Israel (somehow appropriate for the week of Yom Ha'atzma'ut / Israeli Independence Day), and (with Rav) begin the Babylonian amoraim!

  • Monday - 2:1:477-483 (R. Abbahu)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:483-491 (R. Abbahu)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:492-503 (R. Zera)
  • Thursday - 2:1:504-515 (R. Zera)
  • Friday - 2:1:516-529 (Rav)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:530-539 (Rav)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The good, the bad, and the beautiful

I find the write ups on the Rabbis fascinating. They range over a wide range of human emotions. From total devotion to G!d and various forms of caring for humanity to pettiness and super competitiveness that becomes physically destructive.

One day the sages in the house of study were divided on the following question: At what stage [in their manufacture] are a sword, a knife, a dagger, a spear, a handsaw, and a scythe deemed to be [finished] utensils and susceptible to uncleanness? The answer first suggested was: when their manufacture is finished. But when is their manufacture finished? R. Yohanan stated, "After they have been tempered in a furnace." Resh Lakish maintained, "Only after they have been quenched in water." R. Yohanan: "A robber is an expert in his trade." Resh Lakish [resentful]: "What special benefit have you bestowed upon me? There [as a robber] I was called master, and here I am called master." R. Yohanan: "I bestowed upon you the benefit of bringing you under the wings of the Presence." Nevertheless, R. Yohanan was mortified [by the sharpness of the exchange], while Resh Lakish [was so overcome by remorse that he] fell ill. Thereupon his wife came and wept before R. Yohanan, plead ing: "Forgive him for the sake of my sons." He replied: "Scripture says, 'Leave thy fatherless children with Me. I will rear them' " (Jer. 49:11). "For the sake of my widowhood then!" He replied: "Scripture says, 'And let thy widows rely on Me' " (ibid.). [Soon afer that], Resh Lakish died.

R. Yohanan grieved so much for Resh Lakish that he no longer came down to the scholars' assembly. And so the sages deliberated: "Who is to go and ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar ben Pedat go, since his knowledge of Halakhot is acute." R. Eleazar went and sat down before him; and whatever R. Yohanan said, R. Eleazar observed, "There is a Baraita that supports you." R. Yohanan finally exclaimed, "Do you think you are at all like Ben Lakish? When I would state a matter, Ben Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, which I responded to with twenty-four rebuttals, forming a debate that led to a fuller comprehension of the tradition. But all you say is, 'There is a Baraita that supports you,' as though I do not know on my own that what I said was right." Then R. Yohanan stood up, rent his garments, and, bursting into tears, cried out, "Where are you, Ben Lakish? Where are you, Ben Lakish?" He kept crying in anguish until he went out of his mind. Then the sages besought mercy in his behalf, and he died.

Despite the deep love between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish, their exceedingly thin skins allow them to almost literally kill one another. This is a short story which describes how humans are often unable to deal with one another and explains why so many marriages go bad, for example. The Rabbi's are not depicted as saints but as humans a much better teaching lesson for the rest of us.

It is also interesting that the relationship between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish's wife (they were sister and brother is never explicitly stated in this story or the ones which deal with R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish's son.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 34

We continue with the amoraim of the land of Israel.

  • Monday - 2:1:421-430 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Tuesday - 2:1:431-440 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Wednesday - 2:1:441-445 (R. Judah [II] the Patriarch)
  • Thursday - 2:1:446-450 (R. Judah [II] the Patriarch)
  • Friday - 2:1:451-464 (R. Eleazar ben Pedat)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:465-476 (R. Abbahu)

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Grandson is an Honor Student at Yeshivah of Lydda

I was charmed and intrigued by the aggadah about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his custom of listening to his grandson chant a portion of scripture every Friday afternoon. One Friday he forgets and goes straight to the bath house. On his way in, he remembers and runs back out of the bath (although the rabbis disagree about whether he is clothed or naked at this point, it is amusing to imagine him running down the street in a towel or robe) to listen to his grandchild. When his student questions his decision to halt in the midst of his washing (something he had expressly forbidden in the past), Rabbi Joshua explains that hearing one's grandchild recite Torah is like "listening to it at Mount Sinai." He quotes Devarim 4:9-10, punctuating the verses differently from the verse divisions we have, to prove his opinion.
At first, I expected Rabbi Joshua to cite the educational benefits to his grandson as the reason he takes this tradition so seriously; it was a surprise to me to discover that Rabbi Joshua sees this mostly as a benefit to himself. Then, it made me feel guilty about all of those shabbatot I have grumbled through the stumbling leyning of b'nei mitzvah boys and girls. Clearly, there is some important element here about continuity, about how satisfying it feels to pass on one's heritage, knowledge, and values to the next generation. That isn't really what Rabbi Joshua is saying, either, though. To him, listening to his grandson read is like actually experiencing the establishment of the covenant at Mount Sinai. What could that mean?
This aggadah reminded me of Pesach and one of the unique aspects of the Exodus story as related in Shemot. Even while God is giving the Israelites instructions about how to ready themselves for leaving Egypt, the text also discusses the events as a holiday in the future. The laws and rules about how the story should be retold and commemorated in the future are given simultaneously with the more immediately applicable instructions about the Exodus. It is almost as if the telling and retelling of the story, the act of passing the story on to the next generation, overshadows the actual events even as they are taking place. The actual liberation is less important than the fact that it becomes a road map, metaphor, and blueprint for future liberations.
The text of the Haggadah emphasizes the act of transmitting this story to the next generations so that they actually re-experience the Exodus themselves. "B'chol dor vador..." we say-- "In every generation, a person should look upon him/herself as if he/she went out from Egypt." And although Rabbi Joshua quotes Devarim chapter 4, this story made me think of 5:3 -- "It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with the living, every one of us who is here today." In essence, the covenant is not only transmitted through teaching, but it actually re-established with each successive generation through the act of the retelling.
In his book "Exodus and Liberation," Michael Walzer discusses the covenant made at Sinai as a kind of proto social contract, in which a cycle of "public committment, instruction, prophetic complaint, and public recommitment" (p.95) results in a covenant that is truly renewed in each generation. It is this renewal that Rabbi Joshua hears in his grandson's recitation each Friday afternoon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 33

Happy Pesach! We're still on an abbreviated schedule this week due to the holiday. We continue with the early amoraim of the land of Israel.
  • Monday - 2:1:385-392 (R. Joshua ben Levi)
  • Tuesday/Wednesday - 2:1:393-397 (R. Joshua ben Levi)
  • Thursday/Friday - 2:1:398-410 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:411-420 (R. Yochanan ben ha-Nappah and R. Simeon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish])

Monday, April 6, 2009

This World versus the World to Come

Once, on the eve of Passover (some say on the eve of Yom Kippur), while R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Simeon ben Halafta were seated studying Torah in the great house of study in Tiberias, they heard the sound of people running about in excitement. When R. Simeon asked R. Hiyya, "What are these people doing?" R. Hiyya answered, "He who has money is purchasing [what he needs for the festival], and he who has no money is running to his employer, who gives it to him." R. Simeon said, "If so, I too will run to my Master and He will give it to me." He went out and prayed in a cave in Tiberias, and beheld a hand holding out a pearl to him. So R. Simeon took it to our Rabbi, who asked him, "Where did you get this? It is priceless. Take these three denars--go and prepare food in honor of the day, and after the festival we shall advertise it, and you will take whatever money it brings in." R. Simeon took the three denars, went to make his purchases, and then came home. His wife said to him, "Simeon, have you turned thief? All your possessions amount to no more than a hundred meah. How were you able to make all these purchases?" He replied, "They were made out of what the Holy One provided." At that, she said, "If you won't tell me where you got the money, I will taste nothing at all." He told her, "This is what I prayed to Heaven for and what was given me from Heaven." She said, "Do you wish that your canopy in heaven should have one pearl less than that of your colleagues?" When he asked, "What shall I do?" she replied, "Go and return your purchases to their owners, the denars to their owner, and the pearl to its Owner." When our Rabbi heard that R. Simeon was grieved, he sent for his wife and said to her, "You have caused much anguish to this righteous man!" She replied sharply, "What do you want--that his canopy should have one pearl less than yours in the world-to-come?" He said to her, "And even if it should, will not one among us make it up to you?" She answered him, "Rabbi, how do we know that we will be privileged to see your face in the world-to-come? Will not each and every righteous man have his own chamber?" Rabbi admitted that she was right. As soon as R. Simeon heard what Rabbi had said, he went and returned the pearl.
Here is another bothersome story. There are two issues:
First, The idea that any good things that we use on earth, will not be available to us in heaven. Therefore being poor is good. In a very poor society such a theory can provide hope and justification for those who are very poor. We in a currently rich society take having things for granted and tend not to think that being very poor is good. However Rabbi is included in the story and he was exceedingly rich yet he would also have his own chamber in the world to come.
Second, the gift of the pearl would not mean that R. Simeon ben Halafta would be poor or miserable in Olam Ha-ba but that his canopy would have one less pearl. It sounds more like a status thing than a real loss. Since he seemed to be one of the poorest of the scholars shouldn't he have had much more to start with?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 32

With the passing of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the period of the Mishnah has come to an end, and we move on to the amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara). As far as I can tell, we now depart from strict chronological order; we'll first do the amoraim of the land of Israel chronologically, and then the Babylonian amoraim chronologically.

Due to Pesach, we'll be on a lighter schedule this week. For those who have some time off, the holiday will be a great time to catch up!

  • Monday - 2:1:340-347 (Bar Kappara)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:348-359 (R. Simeon ben Halafta)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 2:1:360-373 (R. Hanina bar Hama)
  • Friday/Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:374-384 (R. Oshaia the Elder ben R. Hama)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 31

This entire week is on Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi (also known as just "Rabbi"), redactor of the Mishnah. After that we'll move on to the Gemara.
  • Monday - 2:1:286-292
  • Tuesday - 2:1:293-299
  • Wednesday - 2:1:300-307
  • Thursday - 2:1:308-317
  • Friday - 2:1:318-327
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:328-339

2:1:277: Trouble in Paradise

Today's aggadot cover Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel II. No. 277 is a long and somewhat odd story, too long to quote, but short enough to summarize. \

R. Simeon ben Gamliel was the patriarch of the Sanhedrin, R. Meir was "counselor sage" and R. Nathan was president. (I infer from the story that these three positions were in descending order of importance.) People stood whenever any of the three entered. R. Simeon ben Gamliel thought that people should respect his position more, and so he changed the protocol (in a slightly complex way) so that when people still stood, but indicated greater respect for the more important positions. R. Meir and R. Nathan were not there when the change was made, and when they learned of this, they decided to depose R. Simeon ben Gamliel. They agreed to ask him to lecture on an unfamiliar topic, and when he was unable to do so, they would claim he was unfit for the office.

However, another rabbi overheard this plot, sat near R. Simeon ben Gamliel's chambers, and studied the topic loudly and frequently. R. Simeon ben Gamliel realized something was up, paid careful attention, and when R. Meir and R. Nathan sprung their trap, he was able to lecture on the topic.

R. Simeon ben Gamliel then ordered R. Meir and R. Nathan expelled, and could only communicate by throwing written tablets into the building. No halachic rulings were repeated in their names.

Later, R. Meir --- but not R. Nathan --- made peace with R. Simeon ben Gamliel.

* * *

There is a tendency to romanticize the great leaders of the past. Many of the aggadot explain how each tanna and amorah was extraordinary pious, knowledgeable, wise, learned, etc. But this one is the opposite. This story involves jealousy, plots and counterplots, and all sorts of petty behavior.

As such, it is a little bit like the book of Numbers. Once the Jews have left Egypt, received the Torah, built the miskan, and received instruction on the details of the sacrifices, the ordinary business or ordinary life takes over. And there we have stories about malicious gossip, cowardice, open rebellion, and the breakdown of civil order.

This story, like the book of Numbers, is a reminder that we do not all exist on some lofty spiritual plane where we and everyone else are perfect. We life in a much more complex world where much is broken. The goal for all of us is to take some of the lofty ideals that we have, apply them in the real world, and make things better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seeing and being seen

R. Yose said: All my life I have been perplexed by the verse "And thou shalt grope at noonday as the blind gropeth in darkness" (Deut. 28:29). What difference [I asked], does it make to a blind man whether it be dark or light? [Nor did I find the answer] until the following incident occurred. I was once walking at the darkest time of the night when I saw a blind man walking on the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, "My son, what need have you for this torch?" He replied, "As long as I have this torch in my hand, people see me and save me from holes, thorns, and briers."
This suggests how important being seen is. Today, when driving at night we are often dependent on those walking or biking be visible. The same is true of drivers, if you are driving a car at night without the headlights on, you risk being hit by another car or hitting a biker or pedestrian or biker. The blind man depends on others seeing him to get necessary help. All of us are blind in some way and when and if we allow others to realize it, they can help us.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 30

The fourth generation continues, and the era of the Mishnah starts to draw to a close.

  • Monday - 2:1:233 (R. Simeon ben Yohai and His Son R. Eleazar)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:234-243 (R. Yose ben Halafta and His Son R. Ishmael)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:244-254 (R. Yose ben Halafta and His Son R. Ishmael)
  • Thursday - 2:1:255-267 (R. Judah bar Ilai)
  • Friday - 2:1:268-275 (R. Eleazar ben Shammua and His Son R. Simeon)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:276-285 (Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel II; R. Phinehas ben Yair)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Folk Tales of the Talmud

Midrash #224, the last of today's aggadot, actually is found in various versions throughout the world: It is the story of a wisewoman who for some reason (usually unjustified, in our case, Jewish law makes it justified) is forced to separate from her husband. The husband is persuaded to have one last meal with her, during which he attempts to give her a final choice of gift to take with her. She plies him with alcohol, he falls asleep, and she takes him home with her. When he awakens, he has no idea where heis or what's going on, and so she explains to him that he was the most precious thing in the house, and all that she wanted. He then realizes what a fool he's been and takes her back. IN our version, the rabbis then reward them for this fidelity with a child - the thing originally lacking and causing the split to begin with.

Whether this story was originated by or borrowed by the rabbis isn't ultimately important. I sometimes really love this midrash, and sometimes am cynical: keep in mind that this is a world in which a woman divorced is often damaged goods. Her earning potential is low. It is in her interest to stay married. BUt I actually am not cynical about her - the part I find myself most cynical about is him: ifhe could have (in the rabbi's world) gone to a rabbi to begin with to pray for child, why hadn't they done so before? Why does R. Simon ben Yochai advise this roundabout means of keeping them together? Perhaps that's the non-cynical part - is it his doubt of her that prevents them from having a child?
I often think that the entire ritual of Sotah comes from a rabbinic attempt to get a serious lockdown on the overly jealous husband - after all, once he accuses her, if she drinks the water and survives, the reward for him is a child within a ear, and hers is that he can't divorce her. While I'm not content to dismiss miracles, I also don't think that miracles would be likely to happen with the regularity of men accusing their wives of infidelity (and when I think of all the honor killings that go on in some parts of the world, I think that it's rather likely that Sotah happened with some regularity back then) and drinking that particular recipe of ink and dust isn't really likely to kill you, so some small percentage of those women who were rewarded with children certainly were having children that probably didn't look like their fathers.
SO perhaps this whole story is really a meditation on love for the wife of one's youth and an attempt to rekindle his affection for her. Who knows but that Rabbi Simon ben Yochai didn't actually advise the woman of Sidon to do exactly what she did? Well, either way, more power to her - a woman's lot back then was a pretty awful one; I respect whatever tools they had to make themselves secure.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 29

Adventures of the fourth-generation tannaim!

  • Monday - 2:1:193-199 (R. Meir, Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher), Beruriah)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:200-206 (R. Meir, Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher), Beruriah)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:207-216 (R. Meir, Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher), Beruriah)
  • Thursday - 2:1:217-221 (R. Simeon ben Yohai and His Son R. Eleazar)
  • Friday - 2:1:222-224 (R. Simeon ben Yohai and His Son R. Eleazar)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:225-232 (R. Simeon ben Yohai and His Son R. Eleazar)

R. Yohanan

R. Yohanan said: What a mighty deed [of R. Meir's] to burn his master with fire! Only one such sinner was in our midst, and we could not save him! If Elisha had been in my care, who would have dared snatch him from me? So he said: When I die, I shall extinguish the smoke from Elisha's grave. When R. Yohanan died, the smoke ceased from Aher's grave. Then the public mourner began [his oration] concerning R. Yohanan thus: Even Gehenna's gatekeeper could not stand up to you, O master!
Here is a beautiful example of a Rabbi having the power to overturn G!d's ruling. Earlier, Aher hears a Bat Kol telling him that he cannot do Teshuvah and be saved from Gehenna. But after Aher's death R' Yohanan saves him from Gehenna by his prayers.

Section 193 Rabbah bar R. Shila once met the prophet Elijah and asked him, "What is the Holy One doing?" Elijah answered, "He is reciting traditions concerning law in the name of all the sages, but He is not reciting them in the name of R. Meir." Rabbah: "Why not?" "Because he learned Torah from the mouth of Aher." Rabbah: "What does that matter? R. Meir found a pomegranate, ate the pulp within it, and threw away the rind!" Elijah: "Henceforth God will begin to say, 'My son Meir says.' "

This is another example of G!d learning from people. G!d is corrected by R. Shila and now accepts the teachings of R. Meir. While the tradition has accepted the idea of G!d's perfection, it also accepts the idea of G!d's development. The later is certainly consistent with the G!d of the TaNaCh.
A G!d who is testing out Her ability to relate to humanity, is sometimes surprised, and tries different techniques for moving humanity forward. Cabbalah also shows a G!d that needs humanity to help Him bring the world to perfection.
I find this G!d much easier to worship than a perfect G!d who places demands without considering humanity as any more than robots who must do what G!d wants. The perfect G!d comes from Greek philosphy not the Torah. The tradition has, theorectically, accepted the Greek reading but also can't give up the learning and growing G!d.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gabriel: "Because of the sale of Joseph. Every day the measure of justice has been speaking in accusation before the throne of glory, saying, 'Did You write in vain a single letter in the Torah?' You said, 'He that stealeth a man, and selleth him . . . shall surely be put to death' [Exod. 21:16]. Yet the ten tribe fathers sold Joseph, and until now You did not requite them or their progeny. Therefore a decree was issued against ten sages of Israel." R. Ishmael: "Has the Holy One been unable to find anyone but us to requite until now?" Gabriel: "As you live, Ishmael, my son, since the day the tribe fathers sold Joseph, the Holy One has not found in any generation men as righteous and pious as the tribe fathers, save only you. Hence He will requite through you."

I found this disturbing. It goes back to the punishing of the children for the sins of the parents. A theological position which was reversed in the prophets. This is a particularly nasty example. First, it is much more than the 3rd and 4th generations as stated in the 10 commandments. Second, those punished are the best of the best. Why does it matter who is executed? How many were descendants of Joseph or Benjamin?

R. Simeon ben Gamaliel and R. Ishmael the High Priest were seized to be executed. R. Simeon burst into tears. R. Ishmael said to him, "Avrekh you are but two steps away from being put in the bosom of the righteous, yet you weep!" R. Simeon: "My heart fails me, because I do not know why I am to be killed." R. Ishmael: "In your lifetime, did a man ever come to you for judgment or with a question, and you kept him waiting while you drank your cup or tied your sandal or donned your cloak, even though the Torah says, 'If thou delayest at all' [Exod. 22:22] whether the delay be long or short?" At that, R. Ishmael said, "You have comforted me, my master."

Even R. Ishmael doesn't accept that reason, he has to be given a different reason.

The death penalty is a penalty for humans to implement, G!d has his own mode of punishment, caret.

Finally, it shows a G!d who is completely controlled by justice with no mercy allowed.

The need to explain theodicy has always been a problem, but I found this one especially bothersome since it makes G!d look very bad. She is controlled by Samael and forced to kill His greatest disciples.

This introduction trivializes the martyrdom stories it leads into. Rather than suffering because they love G!d and try to do Her will, they suffer for no good reason.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 28

This week's tragic story has more connection to the scary parts of Purim than the joyful parts. In order not to have the whole long tale on one day, it has been split up. The Hebrew edition makes divisions in the text, but the English edition does not, so I have indicated each section by the name of the martyr. May the decree be turned upside down.

  • Monday - 2:1:174-179 (R. Akiva)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:180 (The Ten Martyrs) - R. Ishmael, R. Shimon ben Gamliel, R. Akiva
  • Wednesday - 2:1:180 (The Ten Martyrs) - R. Hanina ben Teradyon, R. Yehudah ben Bava
  • Thursday - 2:1:180 (The Ten Martyrs) - R. Yehudah ben Dama through the end
  • Friday - 2:1:181-190 (R. Meir, Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher), Beruriah)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:191-192 (R. Meir, Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher), Beruriah)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rabbi Akiba midrashim 158-168

The midrash about Rabbi Akiba is so rich its hard to know quite where to begin.IN this section is one of the most famous midrashim - about the four who go to paradise, buthtat one requires so much exposition just to get to the beginning, I think I'll skip it for now. Maybe I'll come back to it later.
So let's look at one tiny midrash... our masters taught that Rabbi Akiba gave seven charges to his son:
What is the content of these seven things that he thought his son should know. Don't live and study in the business district of a city. Commentators say that this is so that noise won't disturb your study - this is possible since the rabbis were wont to study in the marketplace, but then why warn against living there? I think that actually he may have had something else in mind, which is not simply that studying in the business district will disturb his son's study, but rather that he's warning his son not to absorb the transactional nature of the marketplace too much. Don't make it a habit to be around places where everything is for sale, because you will come to view every action as a transaction.
I think that this is borne out by the remainder of his advice : don't enter your own - or anyone else's- house unexpectedly- that is, don't forget to be polite - announce yourself and don't barge in, not even to your own family. Be practical - don't neglect your health by not eating properly or skipping shoes, know that people go through periods of good fortune and that they can help you when they do, so don't make enemies of them, and not final in the list, but final here - work on shabbat rather than take charity - this last is quite astonishing - violate shabbat rather than take charity!
From the turn of the last century to about the middle of it, this was often the case with Jews in the US. Immigrants, often ran their stores on shabbat or were obliged to keep working lest they lose their jobs. It was, of course, the liberal movements who chose to look the other way and make allowance for this. Many people got into the habit (and unfortunately many still are in the habit) of doing business on shabbat, of working, shopping, using money. My own movement wrote tshuvot to deal with this and gave over the leniency. When I read this, I started considering exactly how that fit into our tradition- it's aggadic material, certainly, not halakhic, and but clearly Rabbi Akiva felt that circumstances sometimes required such action. And yet, giving permission as a movement, has not served the Jewish people well. The drift away from shabbat observance in the home and the shul, the lack of distancing oneself from the world from one day of the week (or at least the distancing oneself from the business world)has made of us a people who, I think, are vulnerable to Madoff's and ethical lapses, because in refusing to ever walk away from money, we come to believe that money is most important - even when we can afford to spend a day less not buying, not selling. Perhaps this is the real reason rabbi Akiba didn't want his son to live too near the marketplace - even if he was obliged to work to avoid charity, he shouldn't come to believe that all life is the marketplace, and that there is nothing else, but rather, he should spend shabbat knowing that when he walks away from the market at last, there is another world out there, one in which the human is not primary,a nd over which we do not have power or sway.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

2:11:98 - More on the oven of Akhnai

(Sorry this is so belated.)

The halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim (sages) that kicks off the famous story of the oven of Akhnai is often painted as "They were having a dispute about some obscure point in halacha", without regard to the substance of the dispute, but if we look more closely at what they were arguing about, it provides a mirror for the rest of the story.

An object that has the status of keli (human-made vessel/tool/utensil) and meets certain other requirements is mekabeil tum'ah (susceptible to receive ritual impurity). In the context of the mishnah (Kelim 5:10) that records the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim, "tamei" (ritually impure) means "mekabeil tum'ah / having the capacity to become tamei", and "tahor" means "lacking the capacity to become tamei".

In general, a clay oven is mekabeil tum'ah. If it is broken into pieces, it is no longer mekabeil tum'ah. In the oven of Akhnai, the pieces have been put back together, with sand in between. Rabbi Eliezer holds that putting the pieces together has no effect -- it's still just a bunch of oven fragments, and retains the corresponding status. The chachamim hold that putting the pieces together changes its status into a keli.

In other words, the chachamim believe that human tikkun/takanah (repair/legislation) has the power to alter the fundamental reality of the world, and Rabbi Eliezer believes that it doesn't. This is the background to their dispute about whether to listen to a bat kol (divine voice) or to a human majority vote.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's All Good

Today we read the story of Nachum "Ish Gamzo," a sort of Tannaitic Candide. His nickname comes from his slogan, "Gam zo letovah," "This also is for the good," which is his customary response to misfortune and misery. I had conflicting responses to his philosophy as presented in these aggadot. On the one hand, I was very interested in the fact that the Jews pick him to bring their gift to Caesar because "melumad b'nisim hu": "he was accustomed to miracles" or "miracles always happened to him" (as Braude has it). This struck me as perhaps a statement with some psychological truth. For a guy who sees everything as positive, who is able to see the best in every situation, many experiences must seem like miracles. It's not necessarily that miracles actually happen to Nachum more often, but rather that since he has the ultimate faith that everything happens for the best, he sees miracles in situations in which others would see only suffering. In one sense, this seems like a great idea-- have an optimistic attitude, and you'll experience the miracles of life more fully.
There's another side to Nachum's perspective, though, and it is more problematic for me. In the first aggadah, Nachum relates to his disciples the story of how he became crippled, and they say, "Woe unto us that we see you in such a state!" He responds, "Greater woe unto me if you did not see me in such a state." Presumably, his response reflects his belief that he would have to suffer for his sin in the world to come unless he suffers in this life. He is happier to have brought his suffering on himself now rather than having to sacrifice his place in the next world. Nachum's optimism is predicated upon an idea of cosmic justice that valorizes suffering and asserts that suffering can be a positive end in itself. While I can imagine that this outlook might help victims of suffering to bear their fates, it could also be used to justify passive acceptance of suffering. Especially for those of us who don't necessarily believe that divine justice will eventually be meted out fairly in a way human beings can comprehend (either before or after death), this approach is difficult to swallow. Any opinions about whether "gam zo letovah" is best understood as a helpful way of seeing the best in the world or a dangerous rationalization of suffering?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 27

This week we move into the third generation of tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah), and one tanna stands out in particular.

  • Monday - 2:1:126-127 (Nahum the Man of Gamzo)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:128-138 (R. Tarfon)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:139-146 (R. Akiva)
  • Thursday - 2:1:147-157 (R. Akiva)
  • Friday - 2:1:158-168 (R. Akiva)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:169-173 (R. Akiva)

2:11:87-103 R' Eliezer b. Hyrcanus

Unlike Howard, I found the stories of R' Eliezer b. Hyrcanus compelling. He leaves an affluent, even wealthy father who has no sympathy with his desire to study Torah, and he devotes himself to study even though he does not have enough money to feed himself. He goes hungry and hides his plight from the other members of the yeshiva community. (This is reminiscent of the story of Hillel endangering his life by listening at the yeshiva skylight when he lacks the money to participate directly.)

The attribute of study in which he excels is his retention of what he's learned. He's the "plastered cistern that loses not a drop" (text 84), and he is extraordinarily reluctant to state any halacha that he has not learned from his predecessors (texts 92-93). This is a difficult attribute for us, as we are more inclined to value creativity than massive memory. (Indeed, the tradition seems biased in the direction of creativity also -- see the comparison of R' Eliezer with R' Elazar b. Arach in chapter 2 of Avot, at about mishnayot 10-12.) But even we should be able to acknowledge the value of the retentive memory, and of the dedication to his teachers. (What's puzzling in the texts is that R' Eliezer himself is described as giving a highly creative drash in the presence of his father -- he said things that none of his listeners had ever heard before. Was his creativity purely the aggadic realm, and, if not, how do we reconcile this creativity with the halachic hesitancy described in texts 92-93?)

Yes, he's impatient with those who are less dedicated to study (text 94), but Hillel himself, usually thought of as the model of patience and forebearance, had a highly demanding side -- see most of the mishnayot about Hillel in Avot ch. 1-2.

Then there's the story of Akhnai's oven and its aftermath (text 98). R' Eliezer's ruling is endorsed by all of the miraculous signs, and by the bat kol, which is understood as God's own ruling. Yet the other sages all reject his position. In other words, he is, objectively, absolutely, right, but no one listens to him. The rejection of his position on this particular issue of ritual purity/impurity (tahor - tamei) is so through that the Sages then declare ritually impure (tamei) everything that he has previously ruled pure (tahor). Further, they excommunicate him. In his excommunication, God Himself continues to be on R' Eliezer's side -- that's why the crops are struck, wherever R' Eliezer glances is burnt, and even Rabban Gamliel has to rebuke the waves that threaten his boat. How can there not be pathos in the story of the person who's right, but is ignored and rejected?

When he takes sick, his students visit him, but they have to maintain their 4-cubit distance because of his excommunication (text 102). When R' Akiva says (text 101) that sufferings are dear (to God), we sense that the story is endorsing this view, and we must be moved even if we're uncomfortable with this theology. At R' Eliezer's death, he cries that he had so much Torah to teach and did not have the opportunity to do so, and this anguish evokes our pathos. That pathos is also evoked by the anguish of R' Akiva, who mourns him with Elisha's words upon the departure of Elijah.

True, his strength was in an area that is less in favor in our time. But the stories here are profoundly saddening, by showing us someone who was loved, but who was right and was rejected.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

R. Joshua ben Hananiah

What was the incident with the little boy? I was once on a journey when I noticed a little boy sitting at a crossroads. I asked him, "My son, by what road do we go to the town?" "This one," he replied, "is short but long, and that one is long but short." I proceeded along the "short but long" road. When I approached the town, I discovered that [the road became a dead end] because gardens and orchards blocked access to the town. I turned back and said to him, "My son, did you not tell me that this road was short?" He replied, "Did I not also tell you, 'But long'?" I kissed him on his head and said to him, "Happy are you, O Israel, for all of you, from the oldest to the youngest among you, are wise."
I am confused by this story. What is the point? A wise person would have answered the question civilly by saying this road goes there but it is long. This road leads to a dead end. Yet the boy is praised. Why?
Also , it raises questions about R. Joshua ben Hananiah. Why doesn't he ask for an explanation of the conundrum? He was willing to ask directions but not willing to admit he didn't understand a response.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

R. Eliezer [the Elder] ben Hyrcanus

I am not sure I understand the purpose of many of these stories. I must admit, I came to dislike Rabbi Eliezer more and more as I read them. He seemed like a self centered know-it-all. He insults people freely and beyond what is needed. He represents the worst in contemporary Haredi thought, he is against all change. He claims to only teach what he learned from his teachers. But he had G!d's ear and was very influential. Rabbi Akiva who went far beyond his teachers in developing creative interpretations shows him total respect in these stories. Yet Eliezer is excommunicated and Akiva is the one to tell him at least partly out of fear.

I wonder if the writers of these stories are trying to capture his influence to give the impression that their changes were not really changes but came from his teachings and were very old.

At least Bialek and Ravnitsky didn't hide the nasty ending of the Aknai's oven story the way many modern writers do.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 26

This week: the two most outstanding second-generation tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah).

  • Monday - 2:1:87-91 (R. Eliezer [the Elder] ben Hyrcanus)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:92-98 (R. Eliezer [the Elder] ben Hyrcanus)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:99-103 (R. Eliezer [the Elder] ben Hyrcanus)
  • Thursday - 2:1:104-113 (R. Joshua ben Hananiah)
  • Friday - 2:1:114-119 (R. Joshua ben Hananiah)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:120-125 (R. Joshua ben Hananiah)

Friday, February 20, 2009

2:1:73 in Iraq

This blog post from a couple years ago addresses the story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua... and Saddam Hussein.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2:1:75 Editing of Sefer HaAggada - Did Bialik & Ravnitzky Reverse the Conclusion of the Gemara?

This long account, or series of incidents, involving Rabban Gamliel and, particularly, his disputes with R' Yehoshua is fascinating in many ways.

One involves the editing of Sefer HaAggada. In the middle of this account, the text mentions the liberalization of Rabban Gamliel's rule that scholars would not be allowed to enter the bet midrash unless their internal character was consistent with their outward appearance. Then the account mentions a dream that Rabban Gamliel had. Our text says, roughly, as follows: "Rabban Gamliel had second thoughts. He said, 'Perhaps, God forbid, I have withheld Torah from Israel. [At this point, the Hebrew text has an ellipsis, though there is no break in the text as it appears in b. Brachot 28a.] They showed him in a dream white jugs filled with ashes." In Sefer HaAggada, there's an ellipsis here, and the text then moves on to another incident.

The image of white jugs filled with ashes is understood as a metaphor for students whose appealing exterior (white ceramic) was belied by their inside character (gray ash). It seems that Rabban Gamliel is being told that his stringent admissions criteria were justified, and that people being admitted under the new rules really were not appropriate -- he had not withheld Torah from Israel.

The problem is that, what follows in the Gemara, where the Sefer HaAggada has an ellipsis, is the following: "No, that's not the case; it was just to settle his mind that they showed him this." (Soncino: "This, however, really meant nothing; he was only shown this to appease him.") It seems that the Gemara's conclusion is that Rabban Gamliel was unjustified, and the liberalization was proper. Bialik and Ravnitsky could easily have included this extra line in their text; why did they omit it?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 25

The Yavneh generation, immediately following the destruction.

  • Monday - 2:1:51-54 (Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:55-60 (R. Dosa ben Harkinas; R. Hanina ben Dosa)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:61-68 (R. Hanina ben Dosa)
  • Thursday -2:1:69-74 (Rabban Gamliel II)
  • Friday - 2:1:75-76 (Rabban Gamliel II)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:77-86 (Rabban Gamliel II)

2:1:50 - The Benefits of a Good Fight

R. Ulla said: Rabban Yochanan ben Zekkai spent eighteen years in Arav and only two inquiries on matters of law came before him. So he said: 'Galilee, O Galilee, you have no sue for the Torah. In the end you will have to cope with malfeasants.

One might have thought the opposite. Arav was such a peaceful place, where all its residents were so wise and learned, that they just never had disputes. They worked everything out, only needing to consult R. Yochana ben Zakkai about once a decade to resolve problems.

But this aggadah does not go in that direction. It takes the lack of disputes as a bad thing, not a good thing. The reason, I think, is that the rabbis presupposed that any serious engagement with Judaism results in conflicts. There is no way around it. And so the lack of conflict does not mean wisdom and peacefulness; it means people are not engaging in Judaism.

The same is true in politics. When President Bush was campaigning in 2000, he argued that he would be bipartisan. When President Obama was campaigning in 2008, he argued the same thing. I think R. YBZ would have disapproved of both messages. There certainly are bi-partisan laws, but most of those are easy. Everyone agrees that murder and stealing should be illegal. Those easily pass.

The challenge of governing is finding the laws that not everyone agrees with, making the case they are good ideas, and moving society in that direction. Politicians are partisan because that have different visions of how to govern and what they would like to accomplish. And that flows from the complexity of life, not from being mean or petty.

In contemporary Judaism, we have the same thing. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and serious non-denominational or post-denominational Jews have
very different visions of Judaism. But that is because they take it seriously, and Judaism and modernity are complicated and interact is complicated ways. The fact that we have these ideological divides is a good sign, not a bad sign.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dissention in the ranks

In two of the midrashim about Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, and in one of the midrashim about Jonathan ben Uzziel, we are directed to consider the role of disagreement among the learned in matters of halachah.

Today, it is usual in the rightward end of the Jewish community to brook no disagreement, to ignore the great tradition we have of multiple views and multiple voices. The rabbis were not unaware of such tendencies in our community. Although the oven of Achnai is often trotted out as a parable of how we have the power to write the Torah in our ow image and God laughs, in fact, if read properly from the very beginning to the very end of the sugiya, it becomes clear that the point is actually a critique of the tyranny of the majority.
Here the tack is slightly different. While the first of the beit hillel and beit shammai midrashim clearly criticizes those who are not sufficiently learned interpreting Torah (because it creates multiple opinions, and thus "two Torahs" - which is problematic because one cannot live by two non-consonant sets of rules) the following two midrashim are also clear in their criticism of those who allow the disagreements between the learned who study for the sake of heaven to separate the community. in one, beit Hillel is preferred because in teaching, they preserve both sets of rulings, presenting the opponent's rulings first, and doing so in a pleasant manner. In the second, the fact that they continued to marry one another, a point which might be well taken by certain factions who go out of their way to annul conversions of Jews they don't care for (anyone other than themselves, mostly) and judge their children not Jewish - completely contrary to halacha. The entire point of mentioning that beit Shammai and Beit hillel continued to marry each other is to point out that in the one most clear example of where differences must come to the fore, they found ways to make their community one.
This fits well with the second of the midrashim about Jonathan ben Uzziel, in which he teaches the deepest secrets of the Torah, to the extent that God protests - and Jonathan ben Uzziel answers that he did it so that dissention would not increase in Israel. Ben Uzziel wants to say that by revealing the deepest secrets of the Torah, Jews will know "the truth" and so will not have multiple opinions, nor be wrong in their interpretation, but God stops him, saying that humans may not know all that is in the Torah - we cannot know the time of the messiah's forecoming. I suggest that this is actually a hint from God that in fat, while dissension is not to be valued, disagreement is. If we know all, then we are not longer engaged in relationship with God - we have lost something precious. Pure knowledge i not always, in itself, the most valuable thing - and unity of thought is not necessarily what God wishes from us - even when it is unity in pursuit of God's desire that drives us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's them

In the course of his remarks, he was moved to chide the people of Jerusalem, saying, "Who brought it about that I have come from Babylonia and have been made patriarch over you? It was your own indolence--you did not minister to the two notables of the generation, Shemaiah and Avtalion, who dwelled in your very midst." No sooner did he rebuke them than the answer to a question in Halakhah was hidden from him, so that when they asked him, "Master, what is the rule if a man forgot to bring in a knife on the eve of the Sabbath?" he had to reply, "I have heard the answer to this question but forgotten it. But depend on the people of Israel: if they themselves are not prophets, they are the children of prophets!" Indeed, the next day, one whose Passover offering was a lamb stuck the knife in its wool; one whose Passover offering was a goat tied the knife between its horns. When Hillel saw what was being done, he recollected the Halakhah and said, "What these men are doing is in line with the tradition I received from the mouths of Shemaiah and Avtalion."

I find this fascinating. It reminds me of the reason that Eliyahu must attend every bris and seder, he criticized the people Israel. It was a punishment not a blessing.

Here Hillel, the kind, the one renowned for not showing anger or annoyance, is the one punished for attacking the people of Jerusalem. Critiquing a group as if all are guilty of some sin is something we do all the time. It's the media, no it's the evangelicals, no it's the Jews, no it's the "other,", etc. This is much easier than arguing issues or trying to teach.

The result is fascinating, Hillel forgets some Torah and is taught the halachah by the very people he has criticized. Let the punishment fit the crime.

2:1:6-9: Like the Trees Need the Rain

9 February 2009

I knew there was a reason I procrastinated on writing this post. After an all-too-dry Tu Bishvat here in Jerusalem, I woke this morning to find that it had rained, none too soon for our sun-parched country. Pollsters and campaigners stand with their umbrellas here on Election Day, while the country observes a yom shabbaton (what Brits call a bank holiday) to allow everyone to vote. And I reread with fascination the story that every Israeli child knows: Honi Ha-Ma’agel (Honi the Circle Maker).

At first read, the two stories about Honi seem to have little to do with each other. In the first anecdote (2:1:6), Honi is the favored child of the king, the magician with the foolproof magic that brings rain when it’s most needed. The community calls on Honi when they need his special talents, whether bringing copious quantities of rain in the time of drought or stopping the deluge before it becomes a flood. His talent is both praised and disdained, as when Shimon ben Shetach admits that Honi would be excommunicated for his magic, were he not so clearly in God’s good graces. This Honi is articulate, arrogant, both an integral part of his community and an outlier among them.

The second story (2:1:7) gives us an entirely different image of this magical figure. After berating an old man for planting a carob tree that he’ll never live to see bloom, Honi falls into the quintessential Rip Van Winkle sleep, a seeming punishment for his cynicism. While the version of this story in Tu Bishvat sedarim often ends with his seeing the blooming tree, the story’s coda strikes me as much more poignant. Honi returns to his village seventy years hence to find his memory alive but his physical self nearly a specter, unrecognized and unappreciated by his family and by his comrades. The punchline of the story—“the fellowship of men or the fellowship of death”—is oft-quoted as a metaphorical platitude about forming community, but its meaning is literal here: Honi dies when he is superfluous, unknown to those who had found him so necessary before.

Honi’s particular talent is in bringing rain, causing a natural process to happen in a supernatural way. He is a figure beyond normal mortal constraints: God listens to his requests and changes the ways of the universe. It is fitting that Honi’s death comes as a consequence of his scoffing at the natural world: why plant a tree if you’ll not live to see it bloom? The Divine Source blesses Honi here, too, with the ability to move beyond the natural world, to outlive the people who are nourished by the rain he brings. But once he’s outlived them, he realizes that while his body may function beyond mortal bounds, his soul still craves this world of mortal community.

Living in Israel during this season of drought, I am struck again and again by how interdependent we are in our usage of water and other natural resources. While we may rely on the Holy One to bring us rain—and we’ve all been praying for it—we also know that our wasting of water and our emissions of greenhouse gases are contributing to our dire situation. And on this Election Day of hope and awe, I pray that we’re able to elect a government who will realize all the ways we are interconnected and not just appeal to divine laws to justify its rule. It rained today in Jerusalem: maybe God’s looking out for us indeed.

--Sara Meirowitz

Monday, February 9, 2009

2:1:5 - In popular culture

Shimon ben Shetach's tale of walking between the raindrops has apparently been preserved in modern Hebrew. Today on, there is a story about Hamad Amar, a Druze candidate for Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. The headline sums up his delicate situation: "Amar the Druze, #12 on the Yisrael Beiteinu list, walks between the raindrops."


I went to a class about Shimon ben Shetach a few years ago at the Hadar Shavuot Retreat. The part that stuck with me most was a methodological point. After reading various stories about Shimon ben Shetach, we concluded with his one line from Pirkei Avot (1:9):

שמעון בן שטח אומר, הוי מרבה לחקור את העדים; והוי זהיר בדבריך, שמא מתוכן ילמדו לשקר.

Shimon ben Shetach says: Be thorough in examining the witnesses, and be careful with your words, lest they learn from them to lie.

And it was suggested that we should read this not as a quotation, not as something that Shimon ben Shetach said, but as a capsule biography, as the message that we can take from his life. As we have seen from his stories, he encountered tragedy as a result of witnesses who were examined less than thoroughly, and he was less than careful with his words.

I haven't tested this method to see whether it works for the rest of Pirkei Avot, but perhaps it's worth trying out as we continue reading more stories about the rabbis.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 24

Mazal tov to everyone who completed Book I! We're now beginning Book II, which includes stories of the rabbis, going chronologically through the rabbinic generations, and which will take us through June 3 (right after Shavuot). But we're actually taking a small step back in time: we just got done with the destruction of the Second Temple and the land, but this week's rabbis (as is apparent from some of their stories) lived while the Temple still stood.

Happy Tu Bishvat! The story of Honi the Circle Maker is a perennial Tu Bishvat favorite, so it couldn't be timed better.

  • Monday - 2:1:6-9 (Honi the Circle Maker and His Progeny)
  • Tuesday - 2:1:10-14 (Hillel the Elder)
  • Wednesday - 2:1:15-23 (Hillel the Elder)
  • Thursday - 2:1:24-30 (Akavia ben Mahalalel; Rabban Gamliel the Elder; R. Zadok and His Son R. Eleazar)
  • Friday - 2:1:31-41 (The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel; Jonathan ben Uzziel; Samuel the Little)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:42-50 (Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hadran alach, chelek rishon!

Today we complete the first book of Sefer Ha-Aggadah! There will be festive siyyumim at the NHC Chesapeake Retreat, Kol Zimrah, and perhaps elsewhere as well.

My grandfather, Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus z"l (1921-2008) died shortly before we began Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. As I mentioned at the beginning, I have been reading from his copy of Sefer Ha-Aggadah every day, and dedicating my learning in his memory. When we started going through his extensive library, we found a bound collection of papers he had written as an undergrad at the Hebrew Union College and the University of Cincinnati. In addition to "Hamlet: Sane or Insane?", "Greek Religion in the Homeric Period", and "The Religious Message of the First Isaiah", the collection includes "A translation of the chapter The Destruction of the Second Temple and the Land in the Sefer Ha-Aggadah by Ravnitsky and Bialik". It is dated December 21, 1939, a month shy of my grandfather's 19th birthday, and many decades before any English translation had been published. It received a grade of "VG" and the comment "Well done". It is fortuitous that we have been reading this chapter over the past week, which included what would have been his 88th birthday.

In honor of our completion of Book I and in memory of my grandfather, I am posting the last section of his translation. It seems appropriate because aggadah is a tradition passed down through the generations. When my grandfather typed these words on his typewriter in 1939, he could not have fathomed this blog and our virtual learning community (and perhaps he would have had difficulty fathoming it even in 2008), and similarly we have no idea how what we say and do will be remembered in 70 years, but we continue to add our piece to the chain of Torah.



"He that kindled the fire shall indeed make restitution." (Exodus 22:5) The Holy One said: "I must put out the fire which I have kindled, for I set Zion on fire as it is said: "The Lord hath kindled a fire in Zion which hath devoured the foundations thereof (Lamentations 4:11). And I shall rebuild it with fire, as it is said: And I shall be to it, saith the Lord, a wall of fire round about and a glory in its midst."

Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Eleazar were walking on the way when they heard a din in the market place of Rome, a hundred and twenty miles distant. Rabbi Eleazar began to weep and Rabbi Gamliel to laugh. "Why do you weep?"

"Because those nations that serve idols abide in security and rule, and we -- even our Temple is burned; should we not weep?"

"That is why I laugh: If those who transgress God's world enjoy such happiness here, what shall we who keep His law enjoy in the world to come?"

Once Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiba returned to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Sofim they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple mount, they saw a fox come out of the ruins of the Temple. They wept, but Rabbi Akiba laughed. "Why do you laugh?" "Why do you weep?", he answered.

"Because Scripture says: The stranger that draws near to the Temple shall be put to death (Numbers 1:21), and now even foxes comehither. Why should we not weep?"

"That is why I laugh, for it is said: And I will take unto Me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest and Zecheriah the son of Jeberechiah (Isaiah 8:2). Why is Uriah linked with Zecheriah? Was not Uriah connected with the first Temple and Zecheriah with the second? But Scripture puts the prophecy of Uriah together with that of Zecheriah. In Uriah it is said: Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest (Micah 4:12). But in Zecheriah it says: And there shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem (Zecheriah 8:4). Now if Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is therefore certain that the prophecy of Zecheriah will be fulfilled." And with one tongue they said to him: "Akiba, you have made us change our minds, you have made us change our minds!"

1:10:21 Privations; 1:10:32 Consolations

1:10:21. The two midrashim in this section are a puzzling contrast. The first says that the people spontaneously wanted to foreswear meat and wine after the Destruction. R' Yehoshua showed through reductio ad absurdum that their logic would lead to foregoing even water. He concluded that there had to be some mourning and self-denial, because the decree (g'zeirah) had already been declared, but that extending the decree would violate the principle against rabbinic decrees that exceed what the people can tolerate. Thus, we must leave a part of our house unplastered, forego some foods, and forego some jewelry.

The second midrash has R' Yishma'el ben Elisha saying that, logically, we should have foresworn meat and wine, but for the principle against excessive decrees. And when the oppressors banned Torah, (observance of) mitzvot, and circumcision (or pidyon haben), logically, we should have foresworn marriage and childbearing. But (and here is the puzzler) leave Israel alone, as it's better that they should be sinners out of ignorance (shog'gim) than knowing sinners (m'zidim).

The first midrash makes sense -- logically, all sorts of pleasures should have been proscribed, but there's a countervailing principle, and thus, it's now permissible to eat meat, drink wine, and have most other pleasures. The second one (logically, we should have eliminated marriage and childbearing, but it's better to sin out of ignorance) has a disconnect. We expect the conclusion childbearing theoretically should have been banned, but is in fact permitted. However, the conclusion that we get is that childbearing is in fact prohibited, but we don't do anything to enforce that prohibition, since people will procreate anyway and it's better that they do so without realizing that it's prohibited. Of course, this just raises the question of why the sages and scholars procreate, as they should realize that it's prohibited.

Each of the two midrashim is an eloquent statement of the intellectual, moral, and existential dilemma of how to react when the world has been destroyed. Exile -- when our national existence has centered obsessively on being in the Land. Destruction of the Temple -- when our connection with God has been maintained through the sacrificial cult. Massive losses of population and of social institutions. Logically, it doesn't make any sense to continue, but (illogically?) we have to. (Beckett: "I can't go on, I'll go on." from The Unnameable (according to Wikipedia).)

Maybe the way to understand the disconnect in the second midrash is to see the second midrash as a corrective to the first. In the first, the Talmud has given us the Beckettian paradox. Then the Talmud, as it sometimes does, thinks that the paradox is just a bit too neat, and so it ratchets up the difficulty: Don't go away thinking smugly that severe privation should theoretically be required but is not actually required. Rather, go away worried, because privation is really required. The result is impossible (again, the sages can't conclude that procreation is really prohibited and then themselves procreate), but the purpose is not really to establish law; it's really to force us back into the existential doubt that prevailed after the Destruction.

(It may be like the discussion of the Ben Sorer U'Moreh (the stubborn and rebellious son), where a long explanation of all the narrowing interpretations of the law concludes that there never was such an instance and never will be, and it was included in the Torah so that people would study and derive merit. At that point, we are titillated -- we've been appalled at the prospect of such a child and at the prospect of executing him, we've followed the reasoning, and we're relieved to learn that it's all theoretical. And then the double-take punch line -- R' Yonatan says that there actually was such an instance -- "I saw it, and I sat on his grave." And we're thrown back into the horror.)

1:10:32. I can't resist adding an appreciation of these wonderful midrashim about R' Akiva. Sefer HaAggada cites to Makkot, Ein Yaakov, and Sifrei, but these midrashim are also near the very end of Eicha Rabba. I always read these midrashiim on Tish'a B'Av afternoon. They are an excellent comfort at the end of the fast.

Monday, February 2, 2009

narratives of trauma

For three years, I taught a class on narratives of genocide that explored genocide as a historical phenomenon and delved into the various ways human beings, both survivors and perpetrators, make sense of their experiences. In order to teach the class, I read many accounts of genocides in all parts of the world, from Lord Jeffrey Amherst and his smallpox-infested blankets to the Armenian genocide to Darfur.
This means that I've encountered more stories of trauma than your average person-- personal first-hand accounts, historical analyses, fictionalized versions, poems, films, etc. The aggadot of the past week or so, these horrible-- and horrifying-- narratives of the slaughter and starvation of a people, remind me of all of those other tales of slaughter and starvation I've read.
In my experience, genocide narratives tend to make sense of trauma in a few different ways:
1. They spend a great deal of time comparing life before and life after, in order to create some frame of reference and to establish that the victims had normal lives before the events
2. They valorize survival and survivors, describing in detail the exploits of those who lived, even though, as Art Spiegelman reminds us in Maus, it's not that those who survived were necessarily any smarter, better, or more moral than anyone else.
3. They also exalt the victims and position them as martyrs to assert that they died "for something" instead of in vain
4. They detail the horrors, rehearsing and retelling the trauma, so as to exorcise it and so as to share it with the reader and implicate the him/her in the experience
5. They emphasize strange coincidences and "fated" events in order to make sense of an experience that cannot actually be made sense of

All of these elements appear in the aggadot of the past week. The addition of the dynamic that the destruction of the Temple is seen as God's will, God's punishment of the people, is a different sort of wrinkle. I must confess that I experienced these aggadot from a very critical distance (perhaps because the destruction of the Temple is such a common trope in our liturgy and texts) until I began to see them as similar to all of those narratives about genocide that I have read. They became frighteningly real when I related to them the same way I would relate to a text by a Tutsi Rwandan genocide survivor or a Cambodian victim of Pol Pot.

I'll share with you one of my favorite texts in this vein. It describes the use of a technique called a Shibboleth, which comes from Judges 12:5-6 (a genocide perpetrated by the Israelites, I might add).
Parsley by Rita Dove

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 23

This week, with the end of the Second Temple period, we complete Book I! Hadran alach (we will return to you)! Those who are at the NHC Chesapeake Retreat will get to celebrate in person. Next we begin Book II, covering the rabbinic period.

  • Monday - 1:10:9-10 (The Wickedness of Hadrian)
  • Tuesday - 1:10:11-16 (Zion's Precious Children)
  • Wednesday - 1:10:17-20 (The Holy One Mourns; Menahem the Comforter)
  • Thursday - 1:10:21-28 (The Mourners for Zion)
  • Friday - 1:10:29-32 (Since the Temple Was Destroyed; Consolations)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 2:1:1-5 (R. Simeon ben Shetah)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Cleverness of the People of Jerusalem

I found two aspects of this section interesting.
First, that it had so little Jewish content. Until the last three stories, these could have been told about any people and, I suspect, probably were. They were nasty stories even when the person being tricked had done nothing to deserve it.
Second, these stories read like slave fantasies showing the slaves getting even with their masters. Or like the high school brain trying to get even with the bullying jock. I think it tells something of the attitudes of the Jews toward themselves at that point in time. Many of the stories were from Lamentations Rabbah which suggests that the desire for revenge was very strong.
We so often forget that for much of history, we were outsiders and looked down upon in many areas where we lived. We should never forget that we live in a fortunate era and in good places. Our problems pale in comparison to what many of our ancestors had to suffer with.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 22

All things must come to an end, including the Temple. (Also including Book I of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. If you'll be at the NHC Chesapeake Retreat, you can participate in the siyyum on the first book!)
  • Monday - 1:9:98-100 (The Cleverness of the People of Jerusalem)
  • Tuesday - 1:9:101-108 (The Cleverness of the People of Jerusalem)
  • Wednesday - 1:10:1-2 (The Years before the Destruction; Why the Land Was Destroyed)
  • Thursday - 1:10:3-5 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)
  • Friday - 1:10:6-7 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:10:8 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)

1:9:97 - Do We Pray or Act or Both?

There is a tension in traditional Jewish texts between people trying to directly solve their own problems and people praying for a divine solution. This midrash explores this tension.

The midrash explains that the Emperor Caligula had instructed that idols be placed in the Temple. The high priest Simeon the Mild told the people not to worry because God would perform a miracle and prevent this from happening. At that moment, they heard a voice from the temple saying that Caligula has been killed and the decree is nullified.

They midrash then tells about Caligula's soldiers traveling to Jerusalem with the idols. One (unnamed) Jewish leader instructs the people to meet the soldiers and try to stop them. The Jewish "notables" went out and told Caligula's emissary that they are ready to die to prevent the idols from being placed in the Temple. The notables kept "crying aloud and beseeching" the emissary, who apparently got quite annoyed, and asked why they didn't pray to their God in heaven rather than bugging him. As he went from city to city, people coming from the city to meet him. But when he went into the cities, he saw people in sackcloth and ashes in the marketplace. The then learned that Caligula had been killed and his decree nullified. The Jews dragged the idols through the streets.

The Jews employed two tactics to deal with this problem. The first was to ask God for a miracle. This was the approach of Simon the Mild as well as the Jews who put on sackcloth and ashes. The second was to confront the Roman emissary directly, as the notables and the people coming from the town were doing.

There is a nice parallel between this midrash and the Book of Esther. There, once the Jews learn of the kings decree, they took the same approach as the city people in our midrash: they put on ashes and sackcloth and wail.

And Mordecai knew all that had transpired, and Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he went out into the midst of the city and cried [with] a loud and bitter cry. . . . And in every province, wherever the king's orders and his edict reached, there was great mourning for the Jews, and fasting and weeping and lamenting; sackcloth and ashes were put on the most prominent.

(Esther 4:1-3.)

The problem is that this strategy did not look like it would work. So Mordecai convinced a somewhat reluctant Esther that she needed to intervene. And she does, and that saves the day.

One of my teachers, R. Edward Feinstein, has explained Esther as an argument against the ashes-and-sackcloth approach and in favor of direct action and power. Mordecai's wailing does not work; only Esther's direct and very human intervention with the king works. But I think the relationship may be more complicated that that. After all, it was Mordecai's embarrassing behavior that caused Esther to get involved. (See Esther 4:4-17.)

The tension between these two approaches has continued through Jewish history. The Jews in our midrash may have avoided idols being placed in the Temple, but 25 years later Romans destroyed the Temple itself. The unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt 65 years after that was the result of both poor political and religious thinking. The perceived Jewish passivity in response to pogroms and the Holocaust, the direct secular power approach of the early Zionists, the power of the modern Israeli military, and the current dispute over the Orthodox serving the Israeli military all center around the tension between how we respond to external threats: introspection, prayer, ashes-and-sackcloth on the one hand, or direct political or military power on the other. I cannot solve these problem (and am not even going to try), but I simply note that our midrash nicely captures the tension between these two approaches.