It is a Matter of Torah

TalmudIt has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. Babylonian Talmud Mas. Berachoth 62a

Perhaps you are feeling awkward just now. You may be feeling reminded of the many unpleasant things folks have had to say about the Talmud over the last, um, 1500 years.

Perhaps this text is making you wonder whether the neuroses described by Freud (after hearing the dreams of largely middle class Jewish women day in and day out) were a natural outcome of belonging to the tribe.

It’s not so much that figuring out appropriate directions, positions, or even which hands to use for what task is an unusual topic for human beings of any religion. It’s rather that idea that students are watching their teachers perform intimate functions because “it is a matter of Torah.”

Now you may argue (some will) that Torah is everything and Talmud Torah is the process of figuring out, labeling, and processing the everything of life. One can certainly make the argument that the purpose of scripture is to explain how it is that we should live our lives, and that living life involves all sorts of details that are human and personal. After all, the functions described in the above text are fairly universal in nature. You can’t survive without being able to perform the first set of functions described above, and though the heterosexual scene Kahana overhears is just one of many ways human beings engage in erotic play, sex itself is a pretty common occurrence among human beings.

(Recently, I learned things about the sex lives of fruit bats that were really quite interesting, but this is neither the time nor the place.)

But what intrigues me most about the passage above is not so much what the students were studying but what the text says about the claims their teachers were making. It is a fascinating example of the way the rabbis who composed Talmud maneuvered themselves into positions (yes, the pun is intended) of authority.

In this text, the direction that rabbis chose for food processing or the way they have sexual relations is now Torah. In this text, it isn’t scripture that has the last word, but the behavior of the teacher, the rav. Torah is now what the rabbis do, what the rabbis interpret, what the rabbis say.

I bring this up because it is common among today’s rabbis to valorize the way our Talmudic texts encode multivocality. Talmud, we happily observe, permits a range of opinions. Maybe one school (Hillel) will get most of the final accolades and approval from on high, but in the end, even the Holy One of Blessing will insist that the rabbis must agree to disagree: “It is taught, a heavenly voice went out and said, ‘These and these are the words of the Living God, but the Law is like the School of Hillel’” (Palestinian Talmud Yabmut (sic) 3b, chapter 1, halakha 6).

I can’t say that I don’t value the Talmudic practice of permitting – even encouraging — dissent. I do. But today’s rabbis need to acknowledge that the dissent they prize was happening among a small and elite group of Jews who managed, ca 500 C.E. and onward, to take upon themselves the right to be the religious authorities for all Israel (with a lot of assist from Christian authorities, by the by).

Judaism and Jewishness is a thing that is created and recreated by a diverse people, a people which, in many areas of the world, have rejected halakha. Most Jews are living lives that have little to do with Talmud. Most do not see what their rabbis do as a source of learning or practice.

So the question for our time is this: Who is a rabbi and what should she teach?

(To be continued….)

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Keeping the Ball in the Air

Balls in the airIn his book, Tales of a Dalai Lama, Pierre Delattre tells a story about rules, about games, and about life’s purpose.

Once, he writes, when the Dalai Lama was very young, he was invited to a volleyball game after an interview with a Swedish professor.  The players batted the ball over the net and whenever the ball hit the ground there were, of course, jubilant cheers from some fans.  Others looked on, distraught.

The young Dalai Lama asked the professor to explain why people were playing against each other.  He pointed out the obvious truth:  Every time the ball hit the ground someone needed to be consoled.

The professor explained that points were won when the opposing team missed the ball.

The Dalai Lama was distressed.  “But then the ball must hit the ground all the time. Such a way to play with the human spirit!”

Delattre describes the professor sitting, watching the game, thinking remembering his students batting ideas around, himself offering a concept only to find his student chomping at the bit for an opportunity to prove his argument flawed.

Suddenly, the professor yearned for a class discussion that would keep ideas in the air, allow the human spirit to take flight.  Ashamed, Delattre writes, he left for Sweden with one desire: To go home and to change the rules of the game.

I told this story during High Holy Days and asked my congregants: What if the rules of the game were to keep the ball in the air?

What if we did not wait for others to trip and fall, but actively held each other up?  What if we did not criticize what we felt were mistakes but simply asked others if they could rethink with us – and even consider that we ourselves might have rushed to judgment.  What if we decided that having an ax to grind is equivalent to wishing humiliation and pain on someone else?

WHAT OCCURRED?  The boulder left the mountain.
Who awakened?  You and I.
Language, language.  Co-earth.  Fellow planet.
Poorer.  Open.  Homelandly.

The course?  Towards the unsubsided.
Your course and mine was the boulder’s flight.
Heart and heavy. Adjudged too heavy.
Grow more heavy.  Be more light.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I read this poem by Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel.  Celan became one of the most well-known German – and Jewish — poets after the Holocaust.  He was the only member of his family to survive.

That night, I called the people Celan’s “unsubsided.” Class and gender-neutral, stranger in the camp and Israelite from way back, old and young, the unsubsided, I said, all these stood side by side to listen.  I imagined that the boulder’s flight must have been the truth expressed in that moment:  Torah is for us all.  We can stand together to receive truth, work together to understand it, and support each other in making our revelation real:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  1Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 30:11-14)

It is close to you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart.

On Kol Nidre I asked my congregants: Can we disavow clinging to agendas, our egos and their needs?  Could we vow to change the rules of the game, to keep the ball in the air?

Should this not be our life’s purpose?

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