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Monday, October 7, 2019

The Power of Reframing — BT Berakhot 10a — #143 / Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


There were hooligans in R. Meir’s neighborhood who vexed him exceedingly. R Meir prayed for mercy for them—that they should die. Beruriah, R. Meir’s wife, said to him, “How can you think this way, inasmuch as it is written, Let חטאים (sins) cease from the land (Psalm 104:35). Is it written ‘Let חוטאים (sinners) cease from the land’? Rather, it is written [i.e., should be read], ‘חטאים (sins).’ Moreover, go to the end of the verse: And the wicked will be no more [meaning]. [If] transgressions cease, there will no longer be wicked people. Rather, pray for mercy on them that they should repent.” [R. Meir] prayed for mercy for them and they repented.
A certain heretic said to Beruriah, “It is written, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth (Isaiah 54:1).” “She should sing because she has not given birth?! Fool! Go to the end of the verse, where it is written, For the children of the desolate shall be more numerous than the children of the married woman, says Adonai. Rather, what is the meaning of, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth? It means: Sing, Congregation of Israel, which is like a barren woman who did not give birth to children like you who are [destined] for Gehenna.”
INTRODUCTION
Beruriah is a fascinating figure. She is the daughter of sage, married to the prominent sage R. Meir, and a scholar in her own right: Beruriah is said to be capable of learning every day 300 laws from 300 scholars (BT Pesachim 62b). In her interactions with her husband, his students, their neighbors, and heretics, she variously shows herself to be intellectually brilliant, compassionate, patient, sarcastic, and quick witted. We see this range of attributes in the two stories above.

On the previous daf (9b), R. Yehudah b. R Shimon b Pazi says that King David would utter a full-throated “Hallelujah” only when he witnessed the downfall of the wicked. In support, he cites Psalm 104:35, a verse that Beruriah also references: Let sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more… Beruriah, however uses the verse to transform revenge into something understanding that leads to reconciliation.

COMMENTARY
The first story exhibits both Beruriah’s intellectual acumen, as well as her emotional intelligence. Her husband, R. Meir, is harassed by neighborhood hooligans. We don’t know if these are local punks and petty thieves or (as some have suggested) heretics who challenge his most deeply cherished beliefs. Whoever they are, their behavior so disturbs R. Meir that he prays for their demise. Beruriah’s response to his anger and pain is both clever and compassionate. She affirms his emotional experience, but appeals to his religious values and identity as a sage as the proper response. She further provides a compelling and reframing scriptural argument to steer R. Meir toward a more appropriate ethical response. Beruriah’s argument hinges on an original reading of the first half of Psalm 104:35, commonly translated, May sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more. The word חטאים was written without vowels at this period in history, allowing Beruriah to legitimately parse it as “sins.” She tells her husband that the proper way to read the verse is: May sins disappear from the earth, and [then] the wicked be no more, teaching us that the proper goal is to seek the demise of sins (not sinners) so that there will no longer be wicked people. Therefore, R. Meir should pray for “sins” to disappear, not for “sinners” to die. R. Meir accepts the moral force of her reframing interpretation of Psalm 104:35; he instead prays (a second time) for mercy for the hooligans. Perhaps seeing R. Meir’s dramatically altered approach to them inspired their repentance and, as a result, they stopped sinning. Curiously, the phrase “R. Meir prayed for mercy for them” appears twice. It appears that the first iteration is might be sarcastic. Mercy is the opposite of what R. Meir initially wished for.  Alternatively, the first iteration of “mercy” might be euphemistic, a reflection of how deeply distasteful the Rabbis found R. Meir’s prayer. The second iteration of “prayed for mercy for them” is, in dramatic contrast, genuine. Unlike the first instance, the second is happily effective.

The second story presents another side of Beruriah. Here we taste her sharp tongue and quick wit. The heretic quotes the first half of a verse from the prophet Isaiah that says the Jewish people’s suffering at the hands of Babylonia following the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.) is metaphorically like the situation of a woman unable to have children. Yet, shockingly she should sing for joy. In her laser-guided retort, Beruriah points out that the remainder of the verse (that the heretic did not quote) upends his argument by assuring Israel that God, the “husband” who seems to have “divorced” his “wife” Israel will, in time, reverse Israel’s present situation. This likely reflects the historical expectation of liberation and restoration that the Persian Empire afforded Israel after it conquered the Babylonian Empire (539 B.C.E.). Once again, Beruriah’s clever interpretation proves its power to reframe, here transforming the heretic’s ridicule and condemnation into God’s hopeful promise to Israel. 

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Beruriah imaginatively interprets two verses that are key to resolving two difficult situations. Do you find her technique helpful? Have you encountered interpretations of people’s words or deeds that reframed a painful or contentious situation, helping to foster reconciliation? 
  2. Beruriah refocuses R. Meir’s animosity toward the hooligans themselves to a larger concern about the effect of sins in the world. How might you use refocusing constructively in your life? We often experience the words and behavior of others as insults and slights. Consider an example from your own life and how you might reframe it as Beruriah teaches us to do.
  3. How do you imagine R. Meir’s behavior and communication with the hooligans changed as a result of Beruriah’s teaching? Can you imagine a conversation between them before and after Beruriah’s reframing? Have you ever noted a time when your change in attitude toward someone resulted in a change in their behavior?


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

R. Yehoshua, the Riddler — BT Eruvin 53b — #142


R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah said, “In all my days, no person defeated me [verbally] except for a woman, a young boy, and a young girl.” What is [the incident concerning] a woman? “Once I was staying at an inn. [The innkeeper] prepared beans for me. The first day I ate them and left nothing over. The second [day] I left nothing over. The third day she over-salted them. As soon as I tasted, I withdrew my hands from them. She said to me, ‘Rabbi, why aren’t you eating?’ I said to her, ‘I already ate today.’ She said to me, ‘You should have withdrawn your hand from bread.’ She said to me, ‘Rabbi, perhaps you did not leave a remainder on the first [days]. Is this not what the Sages said: One need not leave a remainder in the pot, but one must leave a remainder on the plate.’” 
 What is [the incident concerning] a young girl? “One time I was walking along the way. The path crossed through a field, and I was walking on it. A young girl said to me, ‘Rabbi, isn’t this a [privately-owned] field?’ I said to her, ‘Isn’t it a well-trodden path?’ She said to me, ‘Robbers like you have trodden it.’” 
What is [the incident concerning] a young boy? “One time I was walking along the way, and I saw a young boy sitting at the crossroads. I said to him, ‘Which road should I take to the city?’ He said to me, ‘This [route] is short and long, and that [route] is long and short.’ I walked on the [route that was] short and long. As I approached the city I found that gardens and orchards surrounded it. I went back and said to [the boy], ‘My son, didn’t you tell me [this route is] short?’ ‘He said to me, ‘And didn’t I tell you [it is also] long?’ I kissed him on his head and said to him, ‘Happy are you, O Israel, for you are all exceedingly wise, from your old to your young.’”

INTRODUCTION
R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a beloved sage and important leader among the rabbis who shaped post-Temple Judaism and created the oral tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple. Tradition holds that R. Yehoshua was a diplomat between Israel and the Roman Empire

COMMENTARY
Verbal sparring was a central feature of the highly intellectually competitive Talmudic academies of Eretz Yisrael—and even more so, the academies of Babylonia. R. Yehoshua’s three riddles are presented as narrative stories of his personal experience. The solutions involve a combination of irony, misconception, and misinterpretation, with intellectual sparring at the root of each. R. Yehoshua tells us that these were the only occasions on which he was bested, but the winners—a peasant innkeeper and two children, types more than identifiable individuals—suggest that something more is intended than three entertaining riddles. And, indeed, the riddles are open to a wide variety of interpretations—including yours, so find a friend and try your hand at it! 

On his third day at her inn, through a clever ruse the innkeeper traps R. Yehoshua into effectively admitting to impolite behavior  during the first two days of his stay. He should have left uneaten a small amount of the beans uneaten on his plate. On the third day, she serves over-salted, inedible beans. R. Yehoshua recoils, claiming that he has little appetite because he ate so much the previous two days. Countering that he nonetheless ate bread that day, the innkeeper cleverly undercuts his untrue claim.
Is the innkeeper more concerned with R. Yehoshua's
impolite behavior, or his lying to her?
    When R. Yehoshua takes a shortcut across a field, a young girl calls him out for trespassing on private land. He defends his action by pointing out that the path is well-trodden, implying that his action is morally acceptable because many others have used the same shortcut. The girl demolishes his justification by asserting that the path was cut by thieves. How, then, can R. Yehoshua be distinguished from them?

    Arriving at a crossroad, R. Yehoshua finds a young boy sitting there. He inquires which of two available routes to the city is best. The boy responds enigmatically, terming one route “short and long” and the other “long and short.” R. Yehoshua does not know how to interpret the mysterious options and chooses the wrong path: sometimes the seemingly longer path has fewer unseen impediments and the overall trip is therefore quicker. Consider this connection between the second and third stories: having learned (or been reminded) by the girl that trespassing is tantamount to theft, encountering the gardens and and fields he cannot cross without committing a violation becomes “long” although it initially seemed “short.” Sometimes the moral path is longer, but a far shorter path to integrity.


    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. These three riddles are among eleven recounted in Eichah (Lamentations) Rabbah, midrashim on the destruction of the Temple. How might these riddles mirror the life-upending, massive trauma the destruction wrought on the Jewish people’s understanding of their world?
    2. In many jurisdictions in America, trespass is a criminal offense dependent on intent: One who knowingly and without permission enters another’s property without permission (or remains after learning they don’t have permission) commits a crime. However, accidentally wandering  onto another’s property without intent to trespass is generally not considered criminal trespass. What clues are there for which category R. Yehoshua falls into? Why doesn’t R. Yehoshua argue with the girl’s interpretation of his act?
    3. “Short and long” and “long and short” can apply to many experiences and facets of life. How does the distinction apply to your experiences and how you have made decisions, both either beneficially and not?
    (c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

    Wednesday, September 25, 2019

    Group Punishment — BT Sanhedrin 43b-44a — #140


    R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon [bar Yochai]: These dots appear above “for us and for our children” because [God] did not punish [the entire nation] for hidden sins until the Jewish people crossed the Jordan River. The tanna’im [scholars of the first two centuries C.E.] differed concerning this. Concealed acts concern Adonai our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children forever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching (Deuteronomy 29:28). Why are there dots over “for us and for our children” and over “forever?” To teach that [God] did not punish [Israel] for hidden sins until the Jewish people crossed the Jordan River. These are the words of R. Yehudah. 
    R. Nechemya said to him: And does [God] ever punish [all Israel] for hidden sins [of an individual]? Is it not stated, [The hidden matters belong to Adonai our God] forever? Rather, just as [God] did not punish [all Israel] for hidden sins [of an individual], so too, [God] did not punish [all Israel] for sins committed publicly [by an individual] until the Jewish people crossed the Jordan River. 
    But if so, [44a] why were [the Jewish people] punished in the case of Achan? Because his wife and children knew about it [and did not protest].

    INTRODUCTION
    The Talmud (43b) has been discussing a potentially troubling incident that occurred when the Israelites, having crossed the Jordan River after wandering 40 years in the wilderness, attacked Jericho. Joshua charged the people not to collect the spoils of war, specifically gold and silver,  objects of copper and iron, which were to be consecrated to Adonai; they must go into the treasury of Adonai (Joshua 6:19). Achan, from the tribe of Judah, nonetheless took booty for himself. The Tana”kh reports: The Israelites, however, violated the proscription: Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of that which was proscribed, and Adonai was incensed with the Israelites (7:1). If Achan alone violated the proscription, why was God angry with all Israel and held the entire nation accountable? How are we to understand God’s willingness to punish the entire nation for the sins of one person?

    COMMENTARY
    In a sefer Torah there is an unusual set of dots in Deuteronomy 19:28 over the words “for us and our children forever.” 

    The full verse reads: Concealed acts concern  Adonai our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children forever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. Private sins of an individual are between that person alone and God. Overt (which is to say, public) sins are punished according to the procedures stipulated in the Torah; that is, through human courts and their legitimate means of punishment. R. Yochanan bar Nappacha learned from R. Elazar, the son of R. Shimon bar Yochai, that these dots, in a manner of speaking, masked or suppressed the full application of “concealed acts” until after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, which they did before laying siege to Jericho. Once across, the rules changed and the full brunt of Deuteronomy 19:28 went into effect. This interpretation of the Deuteronomy verse and the implications flowing from it is a matter of dispute among the early rabbis, in particulate R. Yehudah bar Ilai and R. Nechemya, who both lived in the second century C.E. R. Yehudah agrees with R. Yochanan. R. Nechemya offers an alternative, more nuanced interpretation, questionsing whether God ever punishes the entire nation for the sins of one individual. The very claim that God engages in a sort of group punishment whereby an individual commits a sin in private (“concealed acts”) yet everyone is held accountable for what they did not do and did not see done, is problematic for R. Nechemya—and perhaps to many of us, as well.

    R. Nechemya says that “forever” in Deuteronomy 19:28 applies not only to “overt acts” but also to the preceding phrase, “concealed acts concern God.” On this basis, he asserts that God never did, nor ever will, punish the Jewish people for the secret (“concealed”) sins of one individual. The distinction R. Yochanan learned from R. Elazar b. R. Shimon between “before crossing the Jordan” and “after crossing the Jordan” rather applies to overt sins—those committed in public, in the sight of all: prior to crossing the Jordan, Israel was not punished for the overt sins of a single person, but after crossing the Jordan, as a national in their own land, responsible for administering a system of justice, God held them responsible.

    Gemara raises the question of Achan again. Would his violation not have been “concealed?” After all, he would not have wanted anyone to see him take booty, essentially stealing it from God. R. Nechemya explains: it was not secret. His wife and children, who were recipients of his theft,  knew about it. They did nothing. Further, we can conjecture that the family’s sudden wealth would have been visible.

    Might the obligation to rebuke be on R. Nechemya’s mind? Leviticus 19:17 says, You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsfolk but incur no guilt because of them.

    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. Many of us recall incidents of group punishment we endured in elementary school. For example, one child misbehaves and the entire class loses recess that day. How did you feel about the justice of this practice? If you considered it unjust, what was your reasoning? Can you see another side to the practice, even if you disagree with it?
    2. In determining guilt and administering punishment, on what grounds might there be a distinction between” before” and “after" crossing the Jordan?
    3. If people know of serious wrongdoing, but do nothing, what might be the consequences? What are the consequences of a society that does not sanction and punish overt wrongdoing that becomes publicly known? How does seeing an individual “get away with it” influence others? How does society’s failure to take action affect its system of justice and the people’s trust in the system of justice?

    Tuesday, September 24, 2019

    Converts & Their Descendants — BT Gittin 57b — #139


    At that moment, [Nebuzaradan] contemplated  repentance. He said [to himself]: If, for one soul, [the Jewish people are punished in] this [way], then that man [i.e., me], who has killed all those souls, all the more so [will I be punished]. He fled, sent a document to his house [explaining the disposition of his property], and converted [to Judaism]. It was taught in a baraita: Naaman was a ger toshav. Nebuzaradan was a convert. [Some of] Haman’s descendants studied Torah in B’nai B’rak. [Some of] Sisera’s descendants taught children in Jerusalem. [Some of] Sennacherib’s descendants taught Torah in public. Who are they? Shemaia and Avtalyon.

    INTRODUCTION
    As is clear from the opening words, we are entering amidst a complex and grisly story. The  backstory, recounted by R. Chiyya b. Avin, concerns Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia responsible for conquering Judea and destroying the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. Nebuzaradan razed the Temple and the walls of the city, set fire to Jerusalem, and deported thousands of Jews of Jerusalem and Judah into exile in Babylon. It is difficult to imagine someone the Rabbis reviled more. Leading up to this passage, the Rabbis recount that Nebuzaradan executed three million Jews. The river of blood from this massacre flowed over the very spot where Jews had murdered their own prophet, Zechariah, provoking Zechariah’s blood to come bubbling up from the ground. As he died, 2 Chronicles 24:22 recounts that he proclaimed, “May Adonai see and demand [retribution for my blood]!” Understanding the massacre he engineered as God’s means of punishing the Jewish people for having killed their own prophet, Nebuzaradan realized that God would punish him for massacring millions. In a frantic effort to appease Zechariah and mitigate God’s wrath toward him, Nebuzaradan murdered the members of the Sanhedrin, young people, and even schoolchildren in a vain attempt to avenge Zechariah, to no avail. Finally, he threatened the total annihilation of the Jewish people and the prophet’s blood ceased bubbling up from the ground.

    COMMENTARY
    Nebuzaradan realizes that God has used him to punish the Jewish people for having killed their own prophet. He reasons that if God requires this many lives in recompense for just one, his punishment will be far greater for his having massacred millions. This terrifying thought inspires him to repentance, which the Rabbis understand as conversion to Judaism. The notion that someone as wicked as Nebuzaradan became a Jew inspires the Rabbis to recount an earlier teaching (a baraita) that says Nebuzaradan was not the only reviled enemy of the Jewish people to convert to Judaism, and in five remarkable cases, the outcome for the Jewish people was a blessing. The first two cases are Naaman and Nebucharazan. Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram, fought against Israel (see 2 Kings 5). Although he did not convert, he becomes a get toshav, a foreign resident who accepts the Seven Mitzvot of the Children of Noah living peacefully among the Jewish people. Nebuzaradan fully converts: he becomes a Jew. 

    The last three example are far more interesting and significant, because not only did three of Israel’s bitterest enemies—Haman, Sisera, and Sennacherib—convert to Judaism, but their descendants became teachers and scholars of Mishnah and Talmud. The line of Haman, the archvillain in the Book of Esther, who plotted the annihilation of the Jewish people, includes talmidei chakhamim (rabbinic scholars) in B’nei B’rak, a famous school founded by students of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. During the time of Deborah, the Canaanite general Sisera battled Israel for two decades(Judges 4, 5). While he did not convert, some of his descendants did and taught Torah to children in Jerusalem. R. Akiba, whom the Rabbis considered a “second Moses,” was said to be a descendant of Sisera. Sennacherib was the king of Assyria who attacked dozens of cities in  Judah and unsuccessfully laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. Although Sennacherib did not convert, his descendants Shemaiah and Avtalyon—esteemed rabbinic leaders of their day and Hillel’s teacher—did.

    The Bible holds that some of the greatest figures were converts, or descendants of converts, including: Ruth and her descendant,  King David, and the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as many Sages of the Oral Tradition. Our passage affirms the blessing converts are to the Jewish people. In the historical landscape, and outside the issue of conversion, it reminds us that both as a people and in our personal lives, those who are today our enemies may some day be allies and friends. Therefore it is wise to never give up on people.

    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. Talmud variously speaks of converts in glowing terms and expresses trepidation about them. Given Talmud's historical context, why do you think this was so?
    2. According to the Rabbis, Nebuzaradan is motivated to convert by fear of punishment. This is not what inspires converts today. If you, or relatives, or friends converted to Judaism, what was the motivation?
    3. Why do you think Midrash Tanchuma (below) makes the striking claim that converts are more precious to God than those who stood at Mount Sinai? What does this say about the power of teshuvah (repentance)? Today, is conversion an act of repentance or a choice of religious identity and spiritual values?
    R. Shimon b. Lakish said: A proselyte is more precious to the Holy Blessed One than those who stood at Mount Sinai. Why? Had those who stood at Mount Sinai not experienced thunder, fire, lighting, the quaking of the mountain, and the sound of shofarot, they would not have accepted Torah. But proselytes do not experience any of these, yet are accepted by the Holy Blessed One, and take on the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Is there anyone more precious than that? (Tanchuma, Lekh Lekha 6)

    Friday, September 20, 2019

    Who Gets to Meet God? — BT Sotah 42a — #138


    R. Elazar says: Any community in which there is flattery will be exiled in the end. It is written here, For the company of flatterers is desolate (galmud), etc. (Job 15:34), and it written there, You will say to yourself, “Who bore these for me, when I was bereaved and lonely (galmud), exiled and disdained (Isaiah 49:21).
     R. Yirmiya bar Abba says: Four categories of people will not greet the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence): the cynics, the flatterers, the liars, and the slanderers. The cynics, as it written, [God] withdrew [God’s] hand from the cynics (Hosea 7:5). The flatterers, as it is written, That a flatterer will not come before [God] (Job 13:16). Liars, as it is written, One who speaks falsehood will not dwell before My eyes (Psalm 101:7). Slanderers, as it is written, For You are not a God who has pleasure in wickedness; evil will not dwell with You (Psalm 5:5), meaning: You, Adonai, are righteous; evil will not dwell in Your dwelling place.

    INTRODUCTION
    The Musar Movement (Jewish ethical study) of the nineteenth century focused intensely on moral conduct by inculcating specific middot (character traits; sing. middah) conducive to ethical  behavior. Among these virtues are compassion, loyalty to God and community, respect for learning and authority, wisdom, rationality, and patience. The study of Musar has been renewed and reinvigorated in our time because so many people find it profoundly valuable.  

    The middot advocated in Musar are grounded in virtues the Sages of the Talmud consider praiseworthy. The Rabbis held people exhibiting these traits as possessing the spiritual power and potential to strengthen family and community bonds and influence the behavior of others, thereby improving the world. The Rabbis’ therefore discussed, taught, and encouraged the development of these virtues. The Sages also condemned middot they believed lead to wicked behavior and are therefore destructive of both self and the community. Accordingly, they didn’t hesitate to expound on them, as they do in this passage.

    COMMENTARY
    We are entering an ongoing conversation about the evils of flattery. Flattery can be a kindness, a way to acknowledge goodness. R. Elazar, however, does not have that kind of flattery in mind. His strongly worded statement helps us realize he speaks not of benevolent flattery, but rather insincere, manipulative, gratuitous flattery. He tells us that a community in which such flattery is common fare will not survive intact: it will ultimately suffer the devastating fate of exile, here perhaps understood metaphorically: the communal bonds will dissolve. He quotes two verses, Job 15:34 and Isaiah 49:21, explaining them in terms of one another, employing a common rabbinic interpretive technique: the term galmud (desolate or lonely) in both verses links the term “flatterers” in the the Job verse with “exile” in the Isaiah verse. R. Elazar thereby concludes that flattery leads to exile.

    R. Yirmiya identifies four traits the define people who will not “greet the Shekhinah,” meaning that their way of being in the world distances them from God in this life and possibly in the world-to-come: cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanders. (It appears that R. Yirmiya’s teaching may be a separate teaching from the oral tradition, included here because its mention of flatterers fits  the discussion of overbearing flattery.) For each trait, R. Yirmiya supplies four powerful verses as proof texts to claim that God rejects cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers. As R. Yirmiya reads these verses, Hosea 7:5 says that God pulls away from cynics and they are therefore unable to draw close to God. Job 13:16 is often understood to say that a flatterer shall not be admitted into God’s presence. Similarly, Psalm 101:7 is often understood to say that a liar shall not be seen or acknowledged by God. Psalm 5:6 is understood to say that since God finds wickedness so displeasing that evil people are not permitted to “dwell with”—that is, draw near to God.

    I want to suggest another way to read R. Yirmiya’s proof texts and thereby a different way to interpret the passage. Rather than claiming that God pushes away or exiles cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers from the Divine Presence, rejecting them because these four character traits steer much of their behavior and relationships with others, consider the possibility that cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers push God out of their lives by rejecting godly virtues. An alternative way to understand the verses quoted by R. Yirmiya: God withdraws God’s hand from the cynic (Hosea 7:5) because, having held it out, the cynic refuses to accept God’s ethical priorities. Cynics publicly express negativity, rejecting much that is good in God’s world. Flatterers don’t bother approaching God (Job 13:16) because they know their insincerity can deceive people although it is useless in manipulating God. Similarly, liars cannot, in and of themselves, relate to God (Psalm 101:7) because, however you conceive God, truth is fundamental. Psalm 5:5 is simply saying that God is not evil, but R. Yirmiya reads it to say that slanderers, whose behavior marks them as evil, cannot draw close to God. While R. Yirmiya is generally understood as teaching that God rejects four types of people, perhaps we can understood the passage as a warning that cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers reject godliness.

    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. How do you understand “greeting the Shekhinah” or being in God’s presence? 
    2. What other character traits, incompatible with godliness, would you add to R. Yirmiya’s list?
    3. Can one change one’s character and nurture in themselves new middot? The Musar tradition holds this is possible through intense learning and practice. Have you ever tried to develop a specific desirable trait in yourself? If so, and if you succeeded, how did doing so contribute to your happiness?

    Monday, September 9, 2019

    How to Disagree — BT Eruvin 13b — #137


    R. Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel disputed, the former asserting, “The halakhah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “The halakhah is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol [heavenly voice] proclaimed, “Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah is in accordance with [the rulings of] Bet Hillel.” If both are “the words of the living God,” what entitled Bet Hillel to have the halakhah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kind and humble, they studied their own rulings and those of Bet Shammai, and even more they mentioned the opinions of Bet Shammai before their own… This teaches you that one who humbles themself, the Holy Blessed One exalts. And one who exalts themself, the Holy Blessed One humbles. One who seeks greatness, greatness flees from them, and one who flees greatness, greatness seeks them. One who forces the moment, the moment forces them. One who yields to the moment, the moment supports them.

    INTRODUCTION
    This may well rank among the ten most famous passages of Talmud. It is found on the same daf as the passage discussed in the previous issue of TMT. Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, named for eponymous sages, were the two primary schools of rabbinic thought in the first and second centuries. The image of the two schools, representing the two predominant and most defining approaches to reconstructing Judaism and forging halakhah after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., has become iconic. Talmud records hundreds of debates between the two schools. Bet Hillel is generally portrayed as flexible-and-lenient and Bet Shammai as rigid-and-strict, so much so that BT Sanhedrin 88b says the as the schools grew, “dispute proliferated among the Jewish people and the Torah became like two Torahs.” Although this characterization is not always supported by the Talmud, itself, it persists as the prevailing generalization and caricature of the two groups, and consequently reflects a vast over-simplification of history. Nonetheless, the passage is a magnificent teaching about the desirable and admirable values, behavior, and relationships the Sages aspired to (and teach us to aspire to) in the highly competitive and politically charged environment of the Bet Midrash, where scholarship and political prowess were inseparably intertwined.

    COMMENTARY
    Telescoping to a mere threes years a long-running (undoubtedly multi-generational) and complex history of raucous debate fueled by differences in interpretive methods and overall philosophy, we are told that each schools asserted the superiority of their halakhic opinions. How could this be resolved? If the vote is evenly split between the two schools, the deciding vote is cast by heaven. This is most often expressed by Talmud as a bat kol (heavenly voice) that bespeaks God’s viewpoint. The bat kol does not say one side or the other is wrong, as we might expect or wish, in order to resolve the problem. Rather, the bat kol (i.e., God) declares that both schools legitimately express God’s will. However, the rulings of Bet Hillel are those that should prevail as halakhah for the Jewish people.

    An obvious question is immediately raised: if both schools are promulgating equally legitimate expressions of God’s will, why does the bat kol affirm Bet Hillel’s view over that of Bet Shammai? While this seems illogical, the answer has nothing to do with knowledge of Torah, intellectual skill, or reasoning abilities. The answer is character: Bet Hillel treats others with kindness and humility. Their way of interacting, their way of treating others, their way of asserting their opinions counts as much as the opinion itself. If this seems a surprising response from heaven, recall we’re talking about discerning divine will. What does Bet Hillel's kindness and humility consist of? Talmud supplies two examples. First, they studied the opinions of Bet Shammai, which means they listened and considered fully the view of their opponents with a view to possibly changing their minds. Second, when discussing and teaching the halakhah, they not only acknowledged disagreement, but showed respect by citing the opinions of Bet Shammai before their own. This demonstrates the honor they accorded Bet Shammai: they treated them as colleagues, not enemies. This is followed by a warning: God so values humility over and above hubris and narcissism, that God intervenes to reward the one and diminish the other. What is more, those who “force time”—impatiently insisting on getting their way without due consideration to the views and needs of others—will in the end experience time forcing them.

    Arriving at halakhic decisions, which amount to leaders’ efforts to shape community norms and practices, depends on a community that respects its leaders and accepts their decisions as coming from a place of mutual respect. In the rabbinic period, the Rabbi’s legislation was not easily enforceable. The most powerful tool available were persuasion deriving from respect for the community’s leaders. Therefore, conveying that while leaders idealistically argue their cases but nonetheless listen respectfully to conflicting views and work with colleagues toward the common goal of community stability and love of God, Torah, and the people Israel, must have garnered greater cooperation by the people outside the academies. Achieving this requires more than stellar intellectual backgrounds and superb reasoning powers. It require specific character traits. Foremost among these are kindness and humility, which leads to respect for others.

    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. Do you recognize the characterizations of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai in venues familiar to you, such as home and work? How would the attitude and approach of Bet Hillel help the situation (or not)?
    2. Pirkei Avot 5:17 teaches that “a disagreement for the sake of Heaven will be preserved; one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not be preserved.” The example of the former is the debates between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai? Why do you think they were viewed so positively?
    3. In addition to kindness and humility, what other traits should communal leader possess?

    Friday, September 6, 2019

    More Than One Truth — BT Eruvin 13b — #136


    R. Acha b. Chanina said: It is revealed and known before the One who spoke and the world came into being that there was none in the generation of R. Meir equal to him. Then why did they not fix the halakhah according to his opinions? Because his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his mind, for he would declare that which was tamei (ritually impure) to be tahor (ritually pure) and supply a proof, and [he would declare] that which was tahor to be tamei and supply a proof. A tanna taught: R. Meir was not his name; rather R. Nehorai was his name. Then why was he called R. Meir? Because he enlightened the Sages concerning the halakhah. Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] said, “The reason I am sharper than my colleagues is that I saw the back of R. Meir. Had I seen the front of him, I would have been even sharper for it is written, And your eyes shall see your teacher (Isaiah 30:20). 
    R. Abbahu said that R. Yochanan said: R. Meir had a disciple named Sumakhus. With regard to each and every matter of ritual impurity, he would state forty-eight reasons [to declare] tamei and forty-eight reasons [to declare] tahor. 
     It was taught [in a baraita]: There was a distinguished disciple at Yavne who could [declare] a creeping animal tahor with one hundred fifty reasons.

    INTRODUCTION
    Following on the tail of TMT #136 is another passage that addresses the role of reasoning in the process of determining halakhah, and challenges the notion that there is only one right answer to issues of ritual purity and, by extension, many other matters of Jewish law, practice, and morality.  Matters of ritual purity were important in the biblical period and to the Sages of the Talmud, as well. Although the Temple, by far the largest domain for exercise of the laws of purity, had been destroyed in 70 C.E., the Rabbis discussed purity at length, both in the hope that the Temple would be rebuilt and also because aspects of purity continued to apply to daily life (e.g., family purity laws and kashrut). The term tamei connotes a state of ritual impurity; tahor connotes a state of ritual purity.

    COMMENTARY
    Tradition holds that R. Meir was an unparalleled scholar in his generation and a halakhic decisor without peer (even God recognized this), so much so that he came to be known by the moniker “Meir” although his given name was “Nehorai.” “Nehorai” comes from the Aramaic for “light,” while “Meir” means “to enlighten” from the Hebrew root meaning “light.” The point seems to be that his name was changed from the noun “light” to the verb “enlighten” to emphasize on his capacity to teach and influence his sages. R. Meir was such a marvel of intellectual reasoning that he could convincingly argue both sides of an issue. Yet his decisions did not always prevail as the final determinations of what the halakhah would be because, despite his overwhelming intellect, his colleagues could not always comprehend his reasoning. This suggests that while he was a rabbinic genius, explaining himself in a manner that his colleagues could comprehend and evaluate was fundamental to the decision-making process in the beit midrash (house of study).

    R. Meir the marvel could argue that something that seemed self-evidently tamei was tahor and vice versa. No less than R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, the president of the Sanhedrin and the pre-eminent leader at the time, says that seeing R. Meir from the back was enough to impart intellectual acuity  above others, but had he seen R. Meir from the front, he would have been sharper still. This is a clear reference to Exodus 33: 18-23, in which Moses requests to see the face of God, but is permitted only to see God’s back.

    Yet it turns out that R. Meir does not have a monopoly on this extraordinary intellectual skill. His student, Sumakhus, exceeded him in his ability to cite not one reason to declare tamei to be tahor (and vice versa) but an astounding forty-eight reasons. And that is not all. An unnamed student at Yavne could supply one hundred fifty arguments to declare a creeping animal—unquestioningly and repeatedly deemed by Torah tamei (Leviticus 11).

    QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
    1. Do you think the passage suggests that there is no “true” or “accurate” decision on matters as fundamental as tum’ah (impurity) and taharah (purity)? Or are the Rabbis warning that  latching onto an absolute “truth” without sound reasoning and considering another perspective is not in consonance with the halakhic process, which welcomes all ideas and arguments?
    2. How should we balance the danger of someone clever enough to mount any argument with the danger of someone convinced with 100% certainly that there is only one legitimate viewpoint?
    3. The passage is a paean to human intellect and creativity, which the Rabbis admired and fostered. Yet, is there another side that arises from those who think themselves intellectually and therefore morally invincible? Torah forbids a king to possess excessive riches (horses, silver, gold, and wives) and requires him to acquire scroll of Torah to study regularly (Deuteronomy  17:16-20). Yet King Solomon—the wisest man ever to live—did precisely this, as the passage from tractate Sanhedrin explains.

    R. Yitzhak says: Why were the rationales or Torah[’s mitzvot] not revealed? Although the rationales of two verses were revealed, the great [king] in the world failed [to adhere to them]. It is written, [A king of Israel] shall not add many wives for himself [lest his heart turn away] (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon said: I will add many, but I will not turn away. And it is written, It came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart away (1 Kings 11:4). It is also written, [A king of Israel] shall not accumulate many horses for himself (Deuteronomy 17:16), yet Solomon said: I will accumulate many, but I will not return. And it is written, And a chariot went out of Egypt for [six hundred shekels of silver] (1 Kings 10:29) [thereby violating Torah’s restriction]. (BT Sanhedrin 21b)