Friday, January 23, 2009

The Tears of Agrippa

IN today's aggadah, the passage on the king's passage is one I found a bit troubling: When Agrippa stands to receive the Torah scroll, he rad the passage " You may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother," he begins to cry. Agrippa was apparently Jewish only on his mother's side (in other words, by any modern standard he is Jewish!) and Israel comforted him by telling him not to fear because "you are our brother."

In Mishnah Sotah, the passage ends there, with the comforting of Agrippa, but by the tie we reach the era of the gemara, the rabbis have added to this, making Israel's response not an act of grace, but a wicked act of flattery, and say that Israel made themselves liable to extermination for this act of flattery. In the (bavli) gemara the full passage reads:

A Tanna taught in the name of R. Nathan: At that moment the enemies of Israel made themselves liable to extermination, because they flattered Agrippa. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: From the day the fist of flattery prevailed, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated, and nobody could say to his neighbour, 'My conduct is better than yours'. R. Judah the Palestinian — another version, R. Simeon b. Pazzi — expounded: It is permitted to flatter the wicked in this world, as it is said: The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountifu — consequently it is allowed in this world. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: [It may be derived] from this text: As one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. On this point he is at variance with R. Levi; for R. Levi said: A parable of Jacob and Esau: To what is the matter like? To a man who invited his neighbour to a meal, and the latter perceived that he wished to kill him. So he said to him, 'The taste of this dish of which I am partaking is like the dish I tasted in the king's palace'. The other said [to himself]. 'He is acquainted with the king!' So he became afraid and did not kill him. R. Eleazar said: Every man in whom is flattery brings anger upon the world: as it is said: But they that are flatterers at heart lay up anger. Not only that, but their prayer remains unheard; as it continues, They cry not for help when He chasteneth them. (BT Sotah 41b)

As we see, the rabbis take this act and turn it into an argument over whether flattery is evil or not. Now, this is all of a piece with the gemara's general trend towards xenophobia. It is unfortunate that there are more than a few passages in which the commentary by the Bavli adds to earlier commentary which was neutral or even favorable towards non-Jews and turns it into very strong denunciation (a notable example occurs in the first few pages of tractate Avodah Zara, in which the rabbis from the earlier Palestinia n talmud take the part of the non-Jews in objecting to their being punished for not accepting and obeying the Torah, and give voice to the nations saying at least we didn't accept it and the not obey it like Israel - a moment of some real bite, which the babylonian rabbis turn into an anti-Jewish screed)

One of my teachers pointed out that this likely came from a difference of surroundings: the rabbis in the West (Israel) largely lived in an environment in which they did not mix with non-Jews, while the Babylonian rabbis had to deal with non-Jews all the time. I find that an interesting comment only because it is so the reverse of what we find today. Like us,t he Babylonians lived in a place where Jews flourished and mixed with their non-Jewish neighbors quite a bit. Howeer, today, it is those of us who don't mix with our neighbors who are most likely to to talk trash about non-Jews. NO, but let's take another step back: in fact, perhaps it was parallel: for the rabbis were part of a relatively rarified society- the elite amongst the Jews of that era, and there weren't all the many of them, and they spent their time segregated with their studies, as opposed to out an about among non-Jews, whereas the common folk were the ones who mixed more? Well, it's an imperfect metaphor, since in those days the rabbis felt strongly that even scholars ought to work for a living and they did, so they must have had some commerce with locals. Still, overall, it gives one pause for thought.

The tendency for those among us to look around and see only enemies surrounding us, and read everyone who isn't perfect even inside our community as outside should squelched. Instead, let us give honor to the earlier thought: let us say to those among us who drip tears because they wish to be ours, "Fear not, you are our brother." We may well avoid much pain not only to them, but to ourselves.

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