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.