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….)


Lactation Without Representation

Image: © GRACE/ZEFA/CORBISIt was late last night.  I passed by my son’s bedroom.

“Hey, Mom,” Erik said.  “Did you know that some men can breastfeed?”

“Naaah,” I said.  “Come on.

Erik pointed to his computer screen.  He was reading an article on male lactation.

“Good grief!” I said.  “Talmud was right!”


“There’s a story in Talmud about a man who breastfeeds,” I said.

Erik scanned the screen.  “Yes, it mentions that here.”  He began reading: ‘There have been countless literary descriptions of men miraculously breast-feeding, from The Talmud to Tolstoy, where, in Anna Karenina, there is a short anecdote of a baby suckling an Englishman…’”

“Nice!” I said.  “Talmud gets a passing mention and Tolstoy gets a whole paragraph!  Talmud is far more interesting than Tolstoy!”

At this point my husband, Ralf, turned round the corner and speculated on whether I had been drinking something I shouldn’t have.  I admit it: My congregation gives me grape juice for leading Kiddush, as I will get quite silly after consuming two tablespoons of Manischewitz.  And yes, I know that Manischewitz is not wine.  But it does count as alcohol.  Really.  Well, at least for small children and me.

The Talmudic text in question (Shabbat 53b) makes for interesting reading.  In it, a poor man’s wife dies, leaving him with a nursing child.  He can’t afford a wet nurse.  A miracle occurs and his breasts “open,” allowing him to nurse his own child.

The rabbis, as always, proceed to discuss the matter.  Rabbi Yosef exclaims that the poor man must be a great guy, a real mensch.  That explains the miracle.  Rabbi Abaye is of the contrary opinion.  The fellow must be a real schlemiel.   Otherwise, divine intervention would have focused on helping him find a job so he could afford to pay a wet nurse.  Instead, he got slammed with a solution that did the humane thing by keeping the kid alive but could only have afforded major embarrassment.  (Men are not encouraged to be women in the Talmud…).

Rabbi Yehuda insists that it’s pretty hard for heaven to change the fate of a man when it comes to job searches and a lousy economy.  Rabbi Nachman concludes the discussion by stating firmly that a miracle did occur no matter how you shake it, but that one must admit that the guy did not get gainfully employed.  Lack of employment isn’t so good in any age.

You gotta love Talmud.  You really do.

You can find more about male lactation in rabbinic texts.  Genesis Rabbah (30:8) features the rabbis speculating on the weaning of Queen Esther after both parents died.  Mordecai is a prime candidate for male lactation and the survival of his niece.  It’s good to have a loving family.

There is a scientific explanation for male lactation.  You can read all about the hormones that can cause men to get happy and produce milk.  I have also learned that extreme stress combined with strenuous physical activity and a shortage of food can cause male lactation.

Hmmm…. Poor guy + hungry baby = extreme stress.  Tada!!!  Male milk!  I mean, why not?  That’s exactly what happens to women!

“I kinda wish more men would lactate,” I told Erik and Ralf.  “Some of these rabbis seemed to approve of the idea – why didn’t they pray for more such miracles?  Then women could have gotten to do all those men things so much earlier in history.  Women rabbis in the Middle Ages! I can see it!”

“I am not sure there’s a direct correlation,” Erik said slowly.  “Lactating men doesn’t lead inevitably to women on the bima.  And we’ve had women in the pulpit for years and their menfolk have not been bursting out with milk.  At least I am sure I haven’t.  Dad?”

Ralf had left the room.  Probably, he had better things to do.

You learned something from all this, I am sure.  Put War and Peace away.  For entertainment, just read the Talmud.



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