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Monday, November 18, 2019

#148: Destiny or Mitzvot? (Part 2) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


From [what happened to] Shmuel, [we can conclude] there is also no constellation for Israel (i.e., the Jewish people). Shmuel and Avlet were sitting together and [saw] some people going to a lake. Avlet said to Shmuel, “This person will go but he will not return. A snake will bite him and he will die.” Shmuel said to him, “If he is a Jew, he will go and return.” While they were sitting, [the person under discussion] went and returned. Avlet arose and threw down [the man’s] pack, and found within a snake severed in two. Shmuel said to [the man], “What did you do?” He said to [Shmuel], “Every day we all take bread and eat [together]. Today, one of us did not have bread. He was embarrassed. I said to [the others], ‘I will go and collect [bread from everyone].’ When I came to him, I made it appear as if I were taking [bread] from him so he would not be embarrassed.” [Shmuel] said to him, “You performed a mitzvah.” Shmuel went and taught: Charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2; also 11:4)—not only from an unusual death, but from death itself.  (BT Shabbat 156b)

INTRODUCTION
TMT 147 featured a disagreement between R. Chanina, and R. Yochanan and Rav concerning astrology. Astrology was a serious science in Babylonia during the period of the Talmud. Some rabbis, including R. Chanina, claimed stars had the power to determine one’s destiny and the  ability of the astrologer to decipher it. R. Yochanan and Rav allowed this may be true for Gentiles, but categorically rejected the notion that constellations determine the destiny of Jews, individually or as a nation. Legitimizing astrology suggests that God is not wholly in charge, or that God outsources a vitally important matter to elements of creation. R. Yochanan and Rav drew their proofs from scriptural verses. Talmud then offers a proof based on an event witnessed by Shmuel, the scholar and astronomer who headed the academy in Nehardea in Babylonia. The Rabbis tell a story that places a Jewish astronomer who rejects astrology together with a Gentile astrologer to show the illegitimacy of astrology.


COMMENTARY
The sage Shmuel is sitting with a Gentile named Avlet. We know little about Avlet, but given the situation and conversation, it is reasonable to surmise that a shared fascination with the stars brings them together in conversation. Shmuel is an astronomer. Avlet is an astrologer. As they sit together, they see a group of people heading out for a hike to a lake. Avlet, who claims to be able to decipher people’s destinies by the alignment of the stars, informs Shmuel that one particular member of the party (let’s call him Reuven) will be bitten by a poisonous snake during the hike. As a result, Avlet says, Reuven will die and not return with the rest of his companions. Shmuel, who rejects the validity of astrology in the lives of Jews, accordingly rejects Avlet’s prediction. He responds that if Reuven is a Jew, Avlet’s prediction will come to naught and Reuven will return safely. And indeed, Reuven returns very much alive, proving Avlet wrong and Shmuel right. (This is either a very long conversation, or one that occurs in installments, because the hiker returns several days later.)

But couldn’t Shmuel be correct and Reuven not die from some other cause? It’s one thing to predict Reuven’s from a poisonous snake bite, but quite another to claim he will return alive. All confident predictions of events we would consider otherwise unforeseeable (like a snake bite) presume predestination. On what can such a prediction be based?

Surprised to see Reuven return alive, Avlet rises, takes hold of Reuven’s backpack, and examines its contents. He finds inside a dead snake cut through—the very snake Avlet had predicted would kill the hiker. Shmuel asks Reuven what he did, the implication being that he must have done something so meritorious that God intervened and protected him from the poisonous snake—proving that constellations do not determine destiny because a person can influence their future by performing mitzvot. Reuven explains that each day he and his comrades pooled and shared their food supplies. On the last day of their outing, one person had nothing left to contribute and therefore would feel embarrassed. To prevent his embarrassment, Reuven took it on himself to make the food collection. He make it appear to everyone that the person without bread had, in fact, contributed to the food collection, thereby performing the mitzvah of saving the man from public embarrassment. This act of charity, Shmuel concludes, is what determined his fate. Quoting Proverbs 10:2, Shmuel extends the scope of his claim: Not only do the stars not determine or predict our future, and not only can acts of charity protect one from an unusual death (e.g., the snake crawling into Reuven’s backpack) but all the more so, charity can protect  the giver from death in general.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Why do you think some people would choose to believe that personality traits or one’s future are determined by astrological signs?
  2. What do you think Shmuel means by "not only from an unusual death, but from death itself?” On the basis of “Charity saves from death,” some Jews carry tzedakah onboard an airplane to disburse in Israel, believing God will protect them while engaged in an act of tzedakah. Do you agree with this interpretation-application of Shmuel’s teaching? Or does this make tzedakah a talisman?
  3. Mo’ed Katan 28a (below) seems to contradict the claims here and in TMT 147 that constellations have no bearing on destiny. How do you understand this passage? Can you reconcile the two?
Rava said: Lifespan, children, and income are not contingent on merit; rather, they depend on mazel (“constellation”). Consider two righteous rabbis: Rabbah and Rav Chisda. When one would pray, rain would fall, and when the other would pray, rain would fall. Rav Chisda lived 92 years; Rabbah lived 40 years. The house of Rav Chisda [celebrated] 60 wedding feasts; the house of Rabbah [experienced] 60 calamities. (Mo’ed Katan 28a)

Monday, November 4, 2019

#147: It’s All in the Stars (part 1) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Subscribe at: http://tenminutesoftalmud.blogspot.com/ 
It was stated: R. Chanina says: A constellation makes one wise, a constellation makes one wealthy, and there is a constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan said: There is no constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan reasoned: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, Thus said Adonai: Do not learn to go the way of the nations and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them! (Jeremiah 10:2) The nations will be dismayed, but not the Jewish people. And Rav also holds there is no constellation for the Jewish people, as Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, [God] took [Abraham] outside [and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them. And [God] added, “So shall your offspring be.”] (Genesis 15:5) Abraham said to the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the universe, [since You have granted me no offspring,] my steward [Eliezer] will be my heir (Genesis 15:3).” [God] said to [Abraham], “No. None but your very own issue shall be your heir (Genesis 15:4).” [Abraham] said before [God], “Master of the universe, I looked into my astrological map and I am not fit to have a son.” [God] said to  him, “Emerge from your astrology because there is no constellation for Israel. Are you thinking that because Tzedek (Jupiter) is in the west? I will restore and establish it in the east.” Thus it is written, Who has roused a victor from the East, and will call justice to his steps, [has delivered up nations to him, and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords like dust, their bows like wind-blown straw?] (Isaiah 41:2).
(BT Shabbat 156a,b)

INTRODUCTION
In ancient times, the movement of constellations across the night sky was foundational to the development of calendrical systems, but also presumed to have influence far beyond. The Persian culture of Babylonia in which the Rabbis were immersed considered astrology a serious science, key to predicting the future and discerning the meaning of events in the terrestrial world. Just as individuals were born “under a constellation,” so each nation was presumed to be influenced by its own constellation. One who knew how to interpret its movement might be able to discern the future. 

The Rabbis, like all of us, wanted to know what the future holds and why things unfold as they do. Are events the result of inevitable fate? Do the stars determine Israel’s destiny, or an individual’s destiny, as the people around them believed? Here and elsewhere in the Talmud, the Sages debate the truth and efficacy of astrology.

COMMENTARY
R. Chanina asserts that an individual’s constellation determines whether they will be wise and affluent. The implication of R. Chanina’s claim is that if constellations determine one’s attributes and future, virtue and righteous deeds influence neither. Of equal import, if Israel has its own  constellation, and that constellation determines its destiny, God is left out of the equation. This amounts to predetermination without God.

R. Yochanan and Rav categorically reject R. Chanina’s assertion that astrology determines Israel’s destiny. Citing Jeremiah 10:2, R. Yochanan declares that the stars (“portents of the sky”) might influence the destinies of other nations, but not those of individual Jews or the people Israel. Only God does. As further proof, Rav cites God’s covenantal promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. As Abraham gazes at the constellations in the night sky, God asserts divine dominion and the power to determine Abraham’s future. In Rav’s midrashic explication of the verse, a conversation ensues in which Abraham expresses a measure of doubt, pointing out that God promised Abraham progeny yet he remains childless, with only his steward, Eliezer to inherit from him. Abraham, presuming that constellations determine destiny, tells God he has consulted his astrological map and concluded from it that he is unworthy to have a child. God pointedly instructs Abraham and thereby all Jews to come, “Emerge from your astrology,” i.e., “Forget astrology.” In Rav’s midrashic expansion of Genesis 15:5, God tells Abraham: You can look at the stars, but they mean only what I tell you they mean—that your progeny will be exceedingly numerous. You cannot decipher your future from them because it is I who determines what will be. In Rav’s telling, God continues: Do you think this is because Jupiter (called “Tzedek” at this time) appears in the western sky rather than the east? No problem, I’ll move it to the east. I control the movement of the heavenly bodies you believe determine destiny. I am the sole sovereign of the universe. The stars are My servants; they  possess no independent power.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. The Rabbis’ ambivalence concerning astrology is mirrored in the contrast between R. Chanina’s claim here with the opinion ascribed to him in BT Berakhot 33b: "R. Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven." What do you believe God’s role is in future events? Do people possess free will? Is there a contradiction between free will and God’s intervention in human affairs? What is the meaning of personal moral responsibility and adherence to mitzvot if constellations control destiny? if all is under God’s control? Is there a parallel between the claim of astrology and notions of biological determination we see today?
  2. Although the implications of astrology would seem clearly at odds with most contemporary Jewish beliefs and values, the Rabbis had difficulty unequivocally rejecting what the dominant culture “knew” and accepted as truth. What ideas widely accepted by the dominant culture today do you think are at odds with Judaism or which you, yourself, reject? Does this present a difficulty for you? If so, how?
  3. If it were possible to know your personal future, would you want that knowledge? Why or why not? Would it help or hinder you?

Friday, October 25, 2019

#146: Spit in My Eye! — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


R. Meir regularly preached in the synagogue of Hammata every Sabbath eve, and there was a woman there who regularly came to listen. Once he spoke for a long time, and the woman went home to find that the lamps burned out. Her husband said to her, “Where have you been?” She said to him, “I was listening to the lesson.” He said to her, “I swear that this woman (i.e., you) shall not enter this house until she (i.e., you) spits in the face of the teacher.” R. Meir perceived [what happened] through the Holy Spirit, and pretended to have an eye ailment. He said, “Any woman who knows how to whisper an incantation over an eye, let her come and do so.” The woman’s neighbors said to her, “Here is an opportunity for you to return home. Pretend to whisper an incantation and spit in his eye.” She went to R. Meir. He said to her, “Do you know how to whisper an incantation for an eye ailment?” Out of reverence for him, she said, “No.” He said, “If one spits in it seven times, it is good for it.” After she spat he said, “Go and say to your husband, ‘You told me to spit once but this woman (i.e., I) spat seven times.’” His students said to him, “Should one disgrace the Torah in this way? Had you told us, we would have brought [her husband] here, lashed him to a bench, and forced him to make up with his wife.” He said to them, “Should Meir’s honor be greater than the honor of his Creator? For if Scripture says that the Holy Name, which is written in holiness, should be erased in the waters [the ritual of the sotah, Numbers 5:11–31] in order to restore peace between a husband and his wife, how much more Meir’s honor?”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:4, 16d) 

INTRODUCTION
In TMT #145, we met a discordant couple. The husband came dangerously close to uttering a vow against his wife that would have carried legal weight, which may explain why the story is found in tractate Nedarim (Vows). The husband rashly and uncivilly demanded that his wife publicly harm a sage and, in doing so, embarrass herself. The sage, recognizing the situation, resolved the situation in defense of the woman. 

Here, a jealous husband does not hold back: he utters a legally binding dreadful vow. This story, however, is in tractate Sotah (Suspected Adulteress), which concerns the ritual Torah prescribes when a husband is wrought with jealousy because he suspects his wife has committed adultery, but there is neither evidence nor witnesses to confirm his suspicion. The public ritual, as Numbers 5:11-31 describes in detail, is held in the Tabernacle  (later, the Temple) and presided over by the priests. It seems clear that the Bible’s presumption is that the ritual will exonerate the woman, but in publicly embarrassing her, it will assuage the husband’s overwrought jealousy and restore some semblance of peace between husband and wife.

COMMENTARY
A woman who regularly attends R. Meir’s lessons returns home late one Shabbat evening because his address ran particularly long, so long that the shabbat lamps she lit before sundown have burned down entirely. Her husband, who did not attend the lesson, is angry and jealous. Given that the story is in tractate Sotah, it is reasonable to think he suspects her interest in R. Meir extends beyond Torah learning. Minimally, he is jealous of how much time she devotes to listening to R. Meir rather than attending to him. The husband utters a drastic vow: she is banned from his house until she spits in the face of R. Meir—an unthinkable act that would dishonor the great sage. Jealousy, which launches the sotah ritual, sparks the events here.

Aware of the woman’s predicament, R. Meir devises a clever plan to ameliorate the situation. He contrives a way for the woman to carry out the literal requirement of the husband’s vow without causing harm or insult to himself. As in the TMT #145 story, a sage finds a path for fulfilling the “letter of the law” while avoiding the objectionable “spirit of the law.” R. Meir claims to be afflicted with an eye ailment that can be cured by someone whispering an incantation over it. Although the wife does not immediately recognize the opportunity being offering her to fulfill the demand conditioned by the husband’s vow,  her savvy friend does and convinces her to seize it.  Yet when the wife approaches R. Meir and he makes a show of asking her if she knows the proper incantation for his eye, she feels compelled to answer honestly out of regard for the sage and her sense honesty. Without missing a beat, R. Meir asks her to spit in his eye seven times. She can hardly say no to the great sage’s direct request. R. Meir then tells her that she has more than fulfilled the husband’s requirement and can now return home. Everyone’s needs have been met and R. Meir has transformed the insulting act demanded by the husband into a “healing” act.

R. Meir’s stodgy students object that, in inviting a woman to spit in his eye (quite different from uttering an incantation), he demeaned himself and thereby the Torah he represents. He points out that God did no less in prescribing that the Holy Name to be washed off the scroll on which the curse of the sotah, which contained God’s Name, was written (Numbers 5:23). God permitted dishonoring the Name for the sake of shalom bayit, to restore peace between husband with wife.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Many people understand the ritual of the Sotah as a “trial by ordeal” reflecting God’s judgment of guilt or innocence. R. Meir understands it differently. Which understanding do you think is correct and why?
  2. R. Meir draws a parallel between himself and God: as God willingly sustains dishonor to restore peace between a husband and wife, so, too, R. Meir willingly sustains dishonor in pursuit of the same end. Is comparing himself to God blasphemous? Is there another way to understand the parallel he draws?
  3. The wife is unwilling to lie, but R. Meir justifies his deception in order to restore marital peace as a higher good. When do the ends justify the means? Have you ever made the determination that you must commit a “wrong” in order to effect a greater good?

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ten Minutes of Talmud #145: A Contentious Marriage — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


A man from Babylonia went up to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and married a woman [from there]. He said to her, “Cook תרי טלפי [lit. two lentils] for me.” She cooked two lentils for him. He became angry with her. The next day, he said to her, “Cook a גריוא [geriva, a very large quantity] for me.” She cooked a גריוא (geriva) for him. He said to her, “Go, bring me two בוציני (butzinei).” She went and brought him two lamps. He said to her, “Go break them on the head of the בבא (bava, gate).” Bava b. Buta was sitting as a judge at the [city] gate. She went and broke them on [or: over] his head. He said to her, “Why did you do this?” She said to him, “Thus my husband commanded me.” He said, “You have fulfilled your husband’s desire. May the Omnipresent bring forth from you two sons like Bava b. Buta.”
(BT Nedarim 66b) 


INTRODUCTION
Our focus here will be three salient themes in a multi-faceted story about a husband and wife dangerously out of synch with one another. Its location in tractate Nedarim (“Vows”) likely gives rise to the first theme. Torah’s prohibition of “swearing falsely in the name of God” (Ex. 20:7, Lv. 19:12, Dt. 5:11) inspired considerable discussion in the Talmud of dozens of situations in which people bind themselves by uttering ill-considered vows and oaths. One such  situation is the sadly all-too-common phenomenon of an angry spouse uttering a rash, threatening vow (e.g., “I swear I’ll never speak to you again!”) that is legally binding—as the husband here comes dangerously close to doing. A second theme is the dangerous dynamic of a contentious marriage lacking good will and constructive communication and marked by escalating animosity and retribution. A third theme arises from a question lurking beneath the first two: What is the proper behavior of the two parties embroiled in a contentious marital relationship? What can outsiders do if they are drawn into the fray when a couples’ treatment of one another sparks pain and insult, which in turn ignites flames of resentment and anger, which in turn begets sizzling revenge? How might this uncontrolled conflagration be avoided? Is there a way to lower the temperature? What salve might be applied to the wounds? The next edition of TMT (#146) will present a companion tale.

COMMENTARY
This is a deeply troubled marriage, no “match made in heaven.” The husband is from Babylonia; the wife is from Eretz Yisrael. They come from two Jewish communities separated by a vast geographical distance and hence aspects of culture, religious practice, custom, and linguistic  dialect—this last plays a lead role in the drama. The marriage was not the woman’s choice. Her father would have arranged it, as was universally the custom. While the man, a foreigner whose parents remained in Babylonia, may have made the match for himself, it is unlikely the couple knew one another before they married. The animosity between them hangs thick in the air. The story turns on way the wife responds to four demands the husband makes of her. She employs literalism and seeming intensional misinterpretation that wreak of passive aggressive retaliation.

The husband demands (not requests) his wife prepare “two lentils” for his dinner. While it is clear that he means “a small portion,” she interprets his words literally and cooks precisely two lentils. Unsurprisingly, he is angry. The following day, he demands (not requests) that she prepare a geriva of lentils. Geriva is far more than one person could possibly consume. Again, she fulfills his demand to the letter, rather than the spirit. He next demands two botzinei. In Babylonia Aramaic botzinei are pumpkins, but in the Aramaic of the Eretz Yisrael the term can connote clay lamps such as one lights for shabbat. Finally, enraged, the husband demands that the wife smash the lamps “on the head of the [city] gates.” We can imagine him stopping just short of uttering the vow, “or I will have nothing further to do with you!” or “or don’t come back!” His demand seems designed to publicly humiliate her. She proceeds to the city gates where the sage and judge Bava (lit. “gate”) b. Buta is presiding. Certainly she cannot smash the lamps into his head, but she smashes them over his head; the word her husband used meaning “on” can also mean “over.” Yet again she has found a way to meticulously follow his instructions while subverting his intentions. Bava b. Buta—unlike her husband—asks her why she has done this. Her “honest” response does not portray him in a positive light, yet upon hearing that her husband commanded this, the sage (publicly) praises her.

The wife’s intentional misinterpretations through literalism and pun inspire an observation in kind: she revolts against her revolting husband by undermining his overbearing exercise of authority over her. Each act amps up his anger. The lamps hold symbolical significance. They evoke the two shabbat lamps lit to welcome shabbat, a time (we hope) when shalom beit (“peace at home”) prevails. The shattered lamps reflect the state of the couple’s marriage. Recognizing this, Bava b. Buta chooses his words carefully and deploys them to transform her violent act into a good deed, her public humiliation into public praise. He blesses her with two sons—replacements for the lamps?—who will be like him and bring her joy.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Given that the couple is nameless and generic, the Rabbis meant the story to serve as a warning tale.  What do you think their message is? Can you imagine a completely different interpretation of the story from the one suggested here?
  2. The story, through the person of Bava b Buta, conveys a powerful message about at least three characteristics of a good marital relationship: dan l’khaf zechut (judge people for good, as the sages does the wife), open communication, and kindness. Had the husband and wife demonstrated these qualities, how would things have been different?
  3. What else might the lamps symbolize? What message might they encode?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Ten Minutes of Talmud #144: Everyone Hates Taxes — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Rav Nachman bar Rav Chisda imposed a head tax on the Rabbis. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said to him, “You have violated the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.” 
 Torah: As it is written, Lover, indeed, of the people, their holy ones are all in Your hand (Deuteronomy 33:3). Moses said to the Holy Blessed One, ‘Master of the universe, when You cherish the peoples, all the holy ones will be in Your hand.’” [The verse continues] They followed in Your steps. Rav Yosef taught: These are the disciples of the scholars [i.e., Torah scholars] who pound their feet from city to city and from country to country to study Torah: Accepting Your pronouncements — [means] debating the words of the Omnipresent. 
Prophets: As it is written, And while they are courting among the nations, there I will hold them fast; and they shall begin to diminish in number from the burden of king [and] officers (Hosea 8:10). Ulla said, “This verse includes Aramaic, [hence it means:] If everyone studies, I [God] will gather them now, and if few [study, the Torah scholars who do] will be released from the burdens [i.e., taxation] of kings and officers. 
Writings: As it is written, It is not permissible to impose tribute, poll tax, or land tax (Ezra 7:24). Rav Yehudah said: “tribute” is the king’s portion; “poll tax” is the head tax; “land tax” is the arnona (a tax on crops and cattle paid in kind).
(BT Baba Batra 8a) 

INTRODUCTION
Paying taxes is anathema to most everyone and hence most everyone loves to hate the IRS, but objection to taxation is hardly a modern phenomenon. The Roman authorities would have justified their levying taxes by citing the need to pay and outfit armies, build and maintain public works (e.g., roads, aqueducts, arenas), and fund public administration. Many ordinary citizens, however, viewed tax collectors as greedy spawn, the minions of corrupt rulers because Roman officials responsible for collecting taxes often sold the collection right to unscrupulous individuals who employed force and extortion and were subject to few restrictions on seizing money and property. They routinely kept a sizable sum for themselves before transmitting funds to Rome. Unsurprisingly, people went to great lengths to evade paying taxes.

The discussion in Baba Batra comes amidst a larger discussion of taxations to improve and maintain a town’s infrastructure. While the Rabbis heavily approved their decision to levy taxes to assist poor people, Mishnah categorizes assets seized by tax collectors as stolen property and therefore permits one to make a false vow to evade Roman tax collectors. In the third century, R. Shmuel declared that the legal principle dina d’malchuta dina, which declares that the law of the non-Jewish governing authorities is binding on Jews, applies to paying taxes assessed by legitimate civil governments. This includes the IRS.

COMMENTARY
The first chapter of Mishnah Baba Batra discusses taxes the Rabbis imposed on the Jewish community to pay for civic projects, ranging from a gatehouse at the entrance to a courtyard shared by multiple homeowners, to a city wall with a locking gate and guards to protect the entire community. The Mishnah deems it appropriate for everyone to contribute to a project that will benefit many. Naturally, there are always individual exemptions, such as new or temporary residents, or poor people. Under consideration here is the poll tax (known also as a “head tax”), levied on every citizen, regardless of their ability to pay. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak objects to Rav Nachman bar Rav Chisda’s imposition of the head tax on rabbis, claiming they are exempted from paying it by no less than the Torah, Prophets, and Writings—that is, the entire Tana”kh.

How so? Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak draws support from Torah by interpreting Deuteronomy 33:3 to say that even when God permits foreign nations to dominate Israel and hence levy taxes, nonetheless the “holy ones,” meaning Torah scholars, are “in God’s hands.” Only God can impose the poll tax on them. Perhaps Rav Yosef’s addendum is meant to suggest that rabbis “pay their fair share” to the community through services they provide “pounding the pavement” to interpret Torah in order to discern God’s will, teach the people, and serve as community judges.

Building on the theme of rabbinic service and leadership to the broader Jewish community, support is drawn from the Prophets (Hosea 8:10) by Ulla’s reading of the Aramaic word yitnu as “learn.” If everyone becomes a Torah scholar, God will gather Israel (perhaps implying the messianic in-gathering). Until then, only the small slice of the community—Torah scholars engaged in an essential role needed by the entire community—are exempt from the poll tax.

Finally, proof from Writings: In expectation of the in-gathering inspired by the rebuilding of the first Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, the fifth century BCE scribe Ezra exempted priests and Levites from paying taxes. The tribe of Levi had not been given a land grant in Eretz Yisrael; hence priests and Levites did not possess land by which to earn income. Instead, they retained a small portion of some of the sacrifices they offered  not the altar in the Temple on behalf of the entire nation.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. The argument concerning who should pay taxes and who is exempt has raged since taxes were first imposed. How does the argument manifest itself today? How is Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak’s claim similar to, and different from, arguments made today?
  2. What are the pros and cons to exempting communal leaders (e.g., priests and scholars), or any other protected class, from a head tax? Are there parallels today? If you think there are, do you find the pros or the cons more convincing?
  3. The story addresses the propriety of leaders whose legislation serves their own interests. Are there parallels today? Can leaders do this objectively and avoid the optics of self-dealing?

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?