Friday, February 6, 2009

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.

No comments: