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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.

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.

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.

  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.

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.

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.

  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.

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.

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).

  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)

Friday, August 30, 2019

Should Judges Be Independent? — BT Niddah 20b — #135

It was related that Yalta brought blood before Rabbah bar bar Chanah. He declared it made her tamei (impure). [She brought it] before Rav Yitzhak the son of Rav Yehudah and he declared it made her tahor (pure). How could he do this? Did we not learn in a baraita: “If a sage declared tamei, his colleague is not permitted to declare tahor”? We said: [Rav Yitzhak originally] declared it tamei, but then she told him that [Rabbah bar bar Chanah] always declared [blood that looked like this] tahor because today his eyes were ailing, [Rav Yitzhak] retracted and declared tahor. 
Rav Yitzhak the son of Rav Yehudah relied on his own knowledge. Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] saw blood at night and declared it tamei. He saw it during the day and declared it tahor. He waited another hour and again declared it tamei. He said, “Woe to me! Perhaps I was mistaken!” Certainly he erred, for it was taught in a baraita: “A sage should not say, ‘Had this [blood] been moist, it would certainly have been tamei. Rather, he should say, ‘A judge has only what their eyes see.’”

In the passage above, we dive into waters that are uncomfortable for many. While we need to understand this background to read the passage, it it actually concerns an altogether different issue: the criterion for a judge to render judgment.

Here is the background: Leviticus 15:19-29 stipulates that while a woman discharges uterine blood, she is called a niddah, meaning she is ritually impure (tamei). When the flow ceases, she undergoes ritual purification by immersing in a mikveh and bringing a sacrifice to the Temple and is restored to a state of purity (tahor). There are numerous restrictions that pertain to being tamei, as described in the Leviticus passage, and therefore a topic of importance to the Rabbis. Talmud explores it at length and discusses scores of details including: how one can tell if the particular blood in question makes her tamei and who is qualified to examine the evidence and make a declaration that she is either tamei or tahor. 

Yalta, a highly educated, self-confident woman, comes before Rabbah bar bar Chanah, who examines a sample of blood she brings him (on a cloth). He declares: tamei (impure). She then takes the same sample to Rav Yitzhak, who renders the opposite opinion: tahor. The Gemara now reveals its underlying concern: If one sage declares A, may another sage declare B in the very same case? Shouldn’t sages evaluating the same evidence come to the same judgment? Does rendering a different judgment undercut one’s colleague?

An anonymous voice seeks to resolve this particular case by retelling the story that presumably fills in details missing from the first account: Yalta had pointed out to Rav Yitzhak that Rabbah bar bar Chanah would normally have declared a blood sample like this tahor. However, on that particular day, he was experiencing an eye problem that obscured his vision. Instead he declared the blood tamei. Knowing this, Rav Yitzhak retracted his initial determination of tahor and declared the blood tamei, presumably to comport with—and not contradict—his colleague. 

A different anonymous voice expresses discomfort with this retelling of the story because it strips R. Yitzhak of his independence, authority, and judgement, rendering him a puppet of his colleague. It therefore asserts he acted properly as a judge, deciding according to his own knowledge. To bolster this point, we are told a story concerning no less than Rabbi (R. Yehudah ha-Nasi), who deliberated over a similar cases and changed his judgment twice, not in consideration of another colleague’s opinion based on his own observation and his own knowledge. Rabbi expresses deep concern that he erred and the Gemara concurs. But the source of his error is surprising: the Gemara says that Rabbi should not have changed his mind. His initial determination was based on the “facts at hand” and not speculation. He should have trusted what he saw and and held to his original decision.

This passage attests to the premium the Rabbis place on independent thought, careful observation, and expertly assessing facts, but also the inherent value of remaining flexible and open-minded. In the initial recounting of Yalta’s story—before it is massaged to suggest there was no real disagreement between the two sages (a claim subsequently discarded), the two sages arrive at different judgments, both of which are considered valid because each made a determination based on the “facts” he observed. Gemara understands that there is no absolute truth; different people operate from differing legitimate perspectives. Judging with integrity, it is possible to arrive at differing truths.

  1. We live in a society in which many claim to possess the objective, factual, natural “Truth” and define contradictory claims as false. Yet facts, and knowledge change with time because we are always learning more. Personal values often determine which facts one finds crucial and persuasive, and context matters. If you have experienced people who claim a monopoly on truth, how did you respond? What do you consider true despite contradictory claims?
  2. Are Jewish law and tradition stronger or weaker for acknowledging and respecting contradictory opinions of different experts and judges? Why or why not?
  3. In his Ted Talk, Devdutt Pattanaik, scholar of mythology and its implications for resource management, compellingly explains the message and value of human subjectivity implicit in Hindu myths, raising interesting questions. In consideration of the messages of Hindu myths, how might we think of the meaning of Jewish myths? What can Creation, the Exodus, Sinai, wandering in the wilderness, and entering the Land of Israel mean to you?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

To Tell the Truth — BT Yevamot 65b — #134

R. Il'a said in the name of R. Elazar, son of R. Shimon [concerning rebuke]: Just as it is a mitzvah for one to say what will be heeded, so it is a mitzvah for one to not say something that will not be heeded. R. Abba says: it is obligatory [to refrain from speaking if the listener will not heed], as it says, Do not rebuke a scorner lest he hate you; rebuke a wise person and that person will love you (Proverbs 9:8). 
 R. Il'a said in the name of R. Elazar, son of R. Shimon: One is permitted to deviate [from telling the precise truth] in the interest of peace, as it says: Your father [Jacob, before his death] commanded: “So you shall say to Joseph: Please forgive” (Genesis 50:16–17). R. Natan says: It is a mitzvah [to deviate from the truth in order to preserve peace], as it says: And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2). The school of R. Yishmael taught: Great is peace, for even the Holy Blessed One departed [from the truth] for its sake. For first it is written [that Sarah said of Abraham], “My lord [Abraham] is old” (Genesis 18:12), and afterward it is written [that God reported to Abraham that Sarah had said], “And I am old” (Genesis 18:13).

Talmud presents two beautiful teachings of R. Elazar, the son of Shimon bar Yochai, back-to-back. They are conveyed to us by R. Il’a. Both concern tricky issues. The first concerns Torah’s uncomfortable requirement to rebuke someone who has committed a sin: You shall not hate  your kinsfolk in  your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account (Leviticus 19:17). The purpose is to inspire the sinner’s teshuvah (repentance) and a change in behavior. When Torah refers to “kinsfolk” it assumes the sinner is someone close to you—a friend, neighbor, or relative—and that you witnessed the sin. If you do nothing, the person is likely to repeat the sin; you will bear some guilt because you did nothing to prevent it. The second concern revolves around telling the truth. Torah does not demand that we always tell the truth, but we know intuitively that social relationships (not only justice in legal proceedings) depend upon truth-telling. Yet is it always right and kind to tell the truth?

When considering rebuke, an important consideration is whether or not the person will heed our reproof. While not always predictable, sometimes it is clear that the person who committed the violation is unprepared to listen. In such a case, rebuke accomplishes little, and risks damaging our relationship. We are not obligated to tilt at windmills. R. Abba goes further than R. Il'a. As he reads Proverbs 9:8, we may not reprove in cases where the likely outcome will only be animus. 

Il’a’s second concern is lying and shading the truth. While we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is 100% truthful 100% of the time, we generally consider intentional lying willful deceit and outright dishonesty as sinful. R. Il'a asserts that lying is permissible, however, in the interest of peace, and supplies a textual example: When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers, fearing he will seek revenge against them, tell Joseph that prior to his death, Jacob requested that Joseph forgive them. By this outright lie; the brothers hope to shield themselves from physical harm. R. Natan ramps it up a notch, claiming it is not merely permissible, but a mitzvah to lie in the interest of peace. He, too, supplies an example from Scripture. Disgusted with Saul, God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint David king of Israel while Saul is yet alive and reigning as king. If Saul were to get wind of Samuel’s mission, he would surely kill Samuel to prevent David’s anointment. God proposes to Samuel a lie that serves as plausible deniability to protect himself, as the remainder of the verse cited makes clear: Adonai answered, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to Adonai. The School of R. Yishmael turns up the burner to high, claiming that even God lies to preserve peace. Their example is drawn from Genesis 18. Three strangers inform Abraham that Sarah will conceive and bear him a son. Sarah, eavesdropping, laughs at what sounds like a preposterous idea. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12). She finds it humorously unfathomable that she should conceive at 90 or that Abraham—at age 100—should have the potency to impregnate her. God conveys this to Abraham, but does not report Sarah’s words accurately because doing so would hurt or insult Abraham. Instead, God tells Abraham that Sarah’s skepticism centers on her own advanced age and fertility, not Abraham’s potency. The School of Ishmael thus maximizes the extent of lying permitted in the interest of peace: even God does it!

  1. Have you ever rebuked someone? Did it feel risky? How did it turn out?
  2. The first two examples of lying in the interest of peace are understandable: people are at risk of physical harm (e.g., Samuel). Notice that God is not involved in the first, but suggests the second. The third example, however, is quite different. God hears Sarah laugh (Genesis 18:12) but there is no indication that Abraham hears her. Therefore, there is no necessity for God to raise with Abraham the issue of Sarah’s laughing nor her concern about age—either Abraham’s or her own. Was God’s intervention here truly in the interest of peace, or to cover God’s mistake in revealing what Sarah had overheard and how she had reacted? Have you ever said too much and felt the need to lie to cover it up? Was your lie justifiable? 
  3. In the midrash Sifra (89a-89b), R. Elazar b. Azariah comments, “In this generation there is no one capable of receiving rebuke.” R. Akiba answers him, “In this generation there is no one who knows how to deliver a rebuke.” Do these observations pertain to our time? How should we phrase rebuke? How should we receive it?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Action-Reaction — BT Gittin 57a — #133

The city of Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft of a litter. [How did this happen?] [In Beitar] it was customary that when a boy was born they would plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born they would plant a cypress tree. When they married, they would cut down [the two trees] and build a chupah (wedding canopy). One day the emperor’s daughter passed by. The shaft of the litter broke. They [her servants] chopped down a cedar [to fashion a replacement shaft] and brought it to her. [The people of Beitar] came, fell upon them, and beat them. [The servants] went and told the emperor: the Jews have rebelled against you. He went against them [in war].

The story above begins by recounting a charming tradition practiced in the city of Beitar and ends with a horrific account of the massacre of the Jews of Beitar by the Romans. How did a small matter mushroom into a massive catastrophe? Rabbis often tell the first part of the story (and only the first part!) when a bride and groom stand beneath their chupah. The image of planting trees for each child and combining them to construct their chupah is lovely. Unsurprisingly, the remainder of the story is not recounted under the chupah. 

To understand this story, it is helpful to know the history of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) and the significance of Beitar. Although the rebellion against Rome in the first century (66-70 C.E.) resulted in  the destruction of the Second Temple and most of Jerusalem, and the devastation of the countryside, the hope of throwing off the Roman overlords persisted. Shimon bar Kokhba spearheaded a renewed attempt in the first half of the second century. Initially the revolt met with success. The spiritual mentor of the movement was no less than R. Akiba, the greatest scholar of his day. R. Akiba went so far as to declare Bar Kokhba the longed-for Jewish messiah. Prophecy had promised the messiah would restore Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Ultimately, the Roman forces crushed the revolt and both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds provide accounts of the massacre in Beitar in exquisitely gory detail.

The story suggests that the lovely tradition of planting trees when a child is born was a local custom, unique to Beitar. Therefore, the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who happened to be passing by, could not be expected to be aware of local custom. As befitting royalty, she traveled with an entourage of servants to bear her litter on two long shafts hoisted onto their shoulders. When one of the shafts broke, her servants sought a tree suitable to replace the broken shaft. 

The people of Beitar took umbrage at this act, interpreting it as Roman hubris—or far worse. They responded with hostility and violence, setting on the entourage and beating the servants. The story is replete with potent symbolism. Perhaps the very presence of the Emperor’s daughter in the holy Land of Israel, inflamed the residents. Perhaps Romans chopping down a tree bespoke yet another Roman attempt to uproot Jews from their sacred land. Perhaps chopping down a tree designated for a child’s marriage canopy was seen as a Roman effort to destroy the next generation of Jews, the future of the Jewish people.

The Romans interpreted the response of the Jews to what for the Romans was undoubtedly an insignificant event as yet another attempt to revolt against Rome. Accordingly, they reported to  the Roman emperor that the Jews were rebelling against Rome. The response was unsurprising: he launched a massive attack. Beitar was obliterated and, according to tradition, everyone was killed except one young boy: Shimon b. Gamliel, a direct descendant of Hillel, who grew up to be the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. Therein lies enormous symbolism: the Roman attempt to eradicate Judaism was undermined by the survival of the line of Hillel.

Jewish tradition has not been kind to Shimon bar Kokhba, who led a segment of the Jewish people down the road of disaster, bringing death to those in Beitar and widespread suffering to Jews throughout Judea. The Jerusalem Talmud dubbed him Bar Koziba, “son of a lie.”

  1. Given the migratory nature of our lives in the 21st century, the custom of planting trees when children are born and harvesting their wood to construct their chupah is charming but unrealistic. Many of us live far from where we were born. Do you know of another custom that merges the lives of a betrothed couple in a beautiful way, perhaps related to making the canopy of their chupah, or some other facet of the marriage ceremony? Can you imagine something you have not seen?
  2. The story, told concisely and simply, paints a profound picture of how even a small event can be magnified by misunderstanding and over-reaction, resulting in violence. The princess’s entourage felt entitled to make use of whatever they deemed necessary. Have you ever seen people misunderstand, misinterpret, and over-react to something said of done by another? Have you yourself ever done this? What was the result? How could this be avoided?
  3. R. Akiba’s identification of Bar Kokhba as the Messiah was an enormous contributing factor to the disaster. It legitimized and empowered Bar Kokhba, assuring him more influence and adherents. What is the responsibility of leaders in identifying whom to trust? How can we identify leaders we can rely on. What signs would suggest caution?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Four Children — Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 70b — #132

R. Chiyya taught: The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one stupid, and one who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 20:6) Accordingly you will say, “With great might, Adonai took us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:14).” What does the wicked child say? “What do you mean by this rite? (Exodus 12:26) What is this toil that you make us toil each and every year?” Since such children exclude themselves from the community, accordingly you say, “It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).” “For me” did God do it and not for “that person.” If “that person” had been there, they would not have been worthy of being saved. What does the stupid child say? “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14). Accordingly,  teach them the laws of the pesach offering—that we may not eat the afikoman after the pesach offering, so that a person should not get up from one eating group and go to another. The child who does not know how to ask, you will speak first. R. Yosa said: The Mishnah said, “If the child has no understanding, the parent teaches them.”

On four occasions and in four different ways, Torah speaks of parents who, in the future, will explain the celebration of Passover to their children. Three are inspired by questions the children ask; the fourth does not mention the child posing a question. From these differently worded passages, the Rabbis constructed the section of the Haggadah known as the “Four Children,” a seeming typology of children based on character and attitude. The four biblical passages are:
  • “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
  • “What do you mean by this rite?” (Exodus 12:26)
  • “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14)
  • [A fourth child seems unable to shape a question, yet receives an explanation:] You shall explain to your child on that day, “it is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8 )

The Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) uses the four biblical verses cited above to create a typology of sorts of children, delineating four categories: wise, wicked, stupid, and unable to ask. If you are familiar with the text of the Haggadah, you will immediately recognize that the Haggadah speaks not of a “stupid” child (tipesh), but rather of a simple, or innocent, child (tam). Apparently, the Yerushalmi interprets the unadorned question, “What is this?,” as the query of a stupid child. Further, the verse taken by the Yerushalmi to allude to a fourth type of child is used in the Haggadah to construct the response to the wicked child.

If not from the Yerushalmi, whence the label “tam” (innocent, or simple), found in the Haggadah? The source is Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, a compilation of rabbinic midrashim. There are two striking differences between this version and the Yerushalmi. First, Mekhilta reads “What is this?” as the question of an innocent child, not of a stupid child.  Second, Mekhilta offers an emendation to Deuteronomy 6:20: couching the “wise” child’s question in the first person plural (“What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon us?”) thereby heightening its contrast with the simpler question of the wicked child, which remains in the second person plural (“What do you mean by this rite?”).  Yet Torah couches both in the second person plural. This slight-of-hand allows the Mekhilta to continue with a far harsher parental retort to the wicked child than the Yerushalmi imagines. Borrowing and embellishing on the parental response to the fourth child and emphasizing “me” in the parent’s response, Mekhilta supplies this response to wicked children: “‘To you’ and not to them. Because they disassociate themselves from the community and deny the foundation [of the faith], you, likewise, blunt their teeth and tell them, Because of what Adonai did for me when I went out from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). For me and not for you, for had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

1. An aerial eye view of the two versions of the Four Children reveals:
Yerushalmi: wise, wicked, stupid, unable to askMekhilta: wise, wicked, simple, unable to ask
Tradition has voted with the Mekhilta, which identifies the third child as “simple” rather than stupid. This, along with its far harsher response to the wicked child, is included in standard texts of the Haggadah. Do you agree with this choice? Why or why not? Were you to add a fifth child, or even sixth child, how might they be described? What lesson would you wish to teach?

2. Considering four Torah verses that speak of parents teaching children, how would you characterize the children, and why? Do the labels depend upon the words alone, the tone in which they are asked, the listener’s sensitivities, or something else? 

3. The Yerushalmi presents wise and stupid as opposites. The wise and wicked children ask virtually the same question; the difference is located in their attitudes. The stupid child and the one unable to ask are likewise similar—both are assumed unable to learn as one would wish. This typology seems to suggest that knowledge and intellectual acumen are the most important determinate of how we see, evaluate, and respond to children. Do you agree? What is the danger of this perspective? Do you think this is why the Haggadah did not use this version?