The Torah contemplates something parallel to the national leadership dynamics situation we are judging right now, about the relationship between the president’s words and acts and the actions of the rioters. Thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for directing my attention to a source on this. I’m linking his shiur (lesson) on the text, but I haven’t listened to it yet (I will, but it’s an hour!). So the take on the text here is mine and we’ll see how it tracks Rav Klapper’s.
This week’s Torah reading in Jewish communities is the beginning of the book of Exodus. Chapters 1-2 are about the progression from Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites to slavery to the murder of baby boys, and then about resistance. Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (medieval Spanish commentator) lays out an interpretation of what the Torah text presents us.
Nachamides taught that Pharaoh had the whole project of enslavement and murder in mind at the start. But he did not begin that way specifically because his people would have recoiled at that, and Pharaoh was constrained by the willingness of his people at a given moment. So first he proposed a corvee, a small forced-labor tax, because his people would have regarded that as common and acceptable behavior toward foreigners.
Then according to Nachmanides, Pharaoh approached the midwives serving Israelite mothers behind closed doors about killing newborn boys, so that even mothers giving birth and arranging for a midwife wouldn’t know what might happen. When that didn’t work, Pharaoh next move was to say to his whole people that they should throw baby boys into the Nile. The Torah says Pharaoh commanded, and Nachmanides says Pharaoh spoke in a more common way, because he didn’t want to assign the task to any specific official. He did not want the act to be associated with his regime specifically, but with the people as a whole. By now they were willing to do things publicly they were not willing to do at first. Nachmanides posits that Pharaoh was also preserving his right to disavow any specific act. If an Israelite father would come to a local official about his own baby, Pharaoh would invite the father to offer proof and then punish the killer himself.
But Nachmanides says that eventually this set of winks became impossible and Egyptian mobs began to storm Israelite homes in search of babies. That was the situation in which Moses’ mother Yocheved knew to give birth in secret and hide the birth and the child, and that’s what led eventually to the acts of resistance involving midwives, Moses’ sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Nachmanides is pointing out that there is more to leadership responsibility than accountability for explicit orders. There is more than what is said out loud, clearly, or publicly. There is a complex feedback dynamic between the leader and the group. The group sometimes constrains the leader; the group can amplify the leader’s general direction in ways of its own that are sometimes predictable and sometimes not; the group has its own reality that is not the same as the regime; there are resisters both inside and outside. It’s worth sitting with the Torah’s story and this kind of interpretation on its own, and then thinking and talking about how it might speak to us right now.
What is the moral responsibility of the leader? Is the group responsible only for its own actions, or for anything about its leader as well? These moral responsibilities of leader and group aren’t identifical but overlap in some way. These are what we should be thinking about, from each of our positions as Americans, partial or substantial supporters or opponents of the president, citizen-judges of what happened this week and what ought to happen going forward.
A Facebook post by a congregant highlighted a controversy around an initiative called #DisruptTexts, and my response to it was going to be much longer than a typical FB comment. #DisruptTexts as a specific project isn't something I had heard of, but as I skimmed the website the other day it certainly doesn't seem brand new. This is an initiative for literature education in schools that aims to "challenge the traditional canon" both by bringing in more representative texts and by putting new texts and perspectives into dialogue with "traditional" ones. I'm posting partly because the congregant said she wanted all her child's teachers to be involved in this kind of pedagogy, and I am/hope to be one of those teachers.
I don't know why this approach would be controversial at all. I mean I do, of course. But I would think even people with suspicion ought to be cheered by the idea of critical thinking about texts and literature, and by the idea of pairings and conversations centered around both traditional and new literary texts.
Anyway my mind went immediately to an experience I had as a first-year rabbinical student in just this kind of pedagogy at an adult level. As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had access to the Protestant institution across the street, Union Theological Seminary. I enrolled there in a course about the book of Hosea taught by Professor Phyllis Trible, one of the pioneering feminist critics of the Hebrew Bible. I had read from a couple of Professor Trible's books. One of them was called Texts of Terror, to give you a sense of her work. Her scholarship there was about women such as Hagar, Tamar, and the brutalized concubine of Gibeah in the book of Judges. Professor Trible was looking both to document the treatment of women by the (male) authors and editors of the Bible and to listen for women's voices somehow in the same texts.
I had studied the opening chapters of Hosea in religious school during high school with my terrific teacher Earl Schwartz. Hosea takes to heart the prophetic metaphor that images Israel's straying from God as an unfaithful wife. So he marries a prostitute and his book opens with a graphic revenge fantasy put in God's mouth/mind, leading to reconciliation. It's pretty horrifying.
That's where Professor Trible opened the course. I figured, based on what I knew of her, that the course would critique Hosea and unearth all the factors behind taking an already-problematic metaphor too far back in his time. Instead, she opened by saying even so, she wanted to see whether there was a way to reclaim Hosea and to have his book in the canon. It was a generous and tentative opening -- Professor Trible presented this as an open question. We would work through the text of the book and see.
The students were paired off and each group had to prepare a particular section in depth to present to the class -- to translate, analyze, and suggest issues and interpretations. I asked for or ended up with a passage that is read traditionally in the synagogue as a haftarah, a section of the prophets paired with the week's Torah reading. My partner was a Southern female Protestant seminarian who was also lesbian and married (this was the first half of 1991).
I am sure we compared Hosea to other places in the Torah and prophets that talk about Israel's unfaithfulness or betrayals, straight up or in metaphor. Hosea was also an innovator in the idea of teshuvah or "repentance"/personal change in Jewish thought. How do we hold both sets of his words?
My engagement with Hosea continued. A number of years ago, I was in the synagogue and listening to the chanting of the first couple chapters of Hosea by a thirteen-year-old girl on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah. I was horrified. How had I let that happen? Somewhere in between that moment and Professor Trible, I had sat in horror while the students in the Jewish day high school I worked at presented "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" as the school play. So much leering at women in the play, being staged by young girls being watched by young guys, and we the faculty had somehow let that happen. Here it was again, and just as bad even though I'm sure relatively few people were paying close attention to the English translation of Hosea in front of us in the synagogue.
I resolved that one way or another, no girl would chant this passage in the synagogue again. I thought about this for a few months and learned that the haftarah readings were not as fixed as our Bibles in the pews would lead us to think. Then I remembered too a section of the Mishnah, the early code of Jewish law that is the foundation of the Talmud, that lays out a series of texts that are not to be publicly read and/or not to be publicly translated in the synagogue, even though they can be encountered in a process of Torah study. (Before print, during services biblical readings were in some places translated out loud into the vernacular.)
I proposed not just that young girls would not read this for Bat Mitzvah, but that no one should hear this passage read out loud in the synagogue. We would substitute another reading for the opening of Hosea. The first year, I took time the week before to explain what I was doing and why. I taught a bit about Hosea, and both Earl Schwartz and Professor Trible. The next week I gave out xeroxes of an alternative text. In succeeding years, I make note of what we are doing and why. This is how I keep Hosea in the canon. He's there, not as loud as he once was, and always now framed by and along with other voices including new ones, including my own.
This is hardly the only example of its kind in my own life of texts and canons and teaching literatures. A whole section of my very first education course at the Seminary was about "difficult texts." But I describe all of this about Hosea to say that there are many dimensions to encountering texts, and all kinds of ways of staging or framing those encounters. We read privately or with others; we listen or we debate; we study intimately or we share ritually. There is more than canon-or-cancel. #DisruptTexts is about the classroom, the place where students and teachers read together and learn how to read. It's part of what we should be doing as teachers and parents, sharing stories and literature with our students and children.
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Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.
I am almost up-to-date in my studies, but a bit behind in posting reflections. The first chapter of Massechet Berachot ends with a discussion of two kinds of things that are linked despite being experienced or named differently. One is the series of persecutions and exiles of the Jews. The other is the names of biblical figures.
The Talmud discusses the issue that new experiences of persecution might drive older ones from Jewish memory or salience -- the exile to Babylonia might replace the slavery in Egypt as the focal point of memory, mourning, or even inspiration. There is a sense in the text that we have to integrate all of them, possibly into the original Exodus consciousness.
The rabbis look for insight into that by noticing that some of the renamed people in the Torah have their names permanently changed, but some like Yaakov/Yisrael seem to keep both names. Even for someone like Avraham, the name Avram is remembered later, which the Talmud says is to remind us of the moments that occasioned the spiritual transformation that made him into Avraham and Sarai into Sarah.
I wonder if this is meant to be the final comment on the Sh'ma itself, the foundation of the whole chapter -- oneness of the divine. Transformations in the world, transformations of us spiritually, historical progress and setback and backsliding, personal progress and backsliding -- these all have to be integrated. When we recite Sh'ma, it's to remind us to bring all of these things together, or to guard against burying some of them or forgetting. Or it's just to remind us of the mystery that someone all of these are one in the mystery of the workings of divine energy in our human universe.
A reflection on myself the Talmud student, after a chapter: When I began, I would have said and still say that I'm not really a Talmud person. For years I hardly cracked a volume, and only recently have I found myself doing so more often. I'd have assumed that I had learned maybe 1 percent of the Talmud ever. Now I realize that before I started this, I probably already had, I don't know, 3 percent, which isn't a lot but almost 1/30th!
And I also realized that even though I hadn't studied this chapter in sequence as a single chapter, a lot of it was familiar. It was thrilling to see things in their original composition and order, and to share knowing virtual glances with other people doing the same. I actually didn't have to rely nearly as much as I thought on translations, and the basic argumentation structure was fairly familiar to me. I know when we get into other technical areas beyond theology and prayer I'll need the study aids much more.
My goal right now is just to know what's where. I'm not a great memorizer -- but so far, I could probably without much effort rattle off a lot about what's in the first chapter of Berachot. We'll see if it sticks. But if it does, it's because of the genius of the rabbis and editors, and the community who are subtly learning in sync.
When I was studying Berachot 12, I had a mini-experience that is exactly what Torah study should be.
On 12b, Rabbah bar Chinana Sava taught in the name of Rav that anyone who could have prayed for compassion/mercy (rachamim) for another but didn't is called a sinner. I was thinking about this for some reason while I was standing on the curb outside Logan Airport waiting for about 15 minutes for a van to pick me up. I started thinking that this teaching is a kind of logical impossibility. How is it even possible that there is such a thing as a person who can't pray for another person? Also, how is it even possible for me to pray for every person who might need a prayer for mercy? The teaching seemed either over- or under-inclusive.
So I was looking around at all the people getting out of the airport, getting into cars or buses, and thinking, "Okay, I pray for that one and I pray for that one and I pray for that one..." and as I was walking back and forth for about the third time, I passed a young woman who looked like she was of college age sitting on a bench. And I happened to look down and see that she had an immobilizing boot on one of her feet.
So I said to myself, "Wow, the exact moment I'm reflecting on this teaching and here is someone who could really use a prayer for mercy and healing. I pray for her." Of course she was sitting right there, and saying that prayer to myself felt a little silly and a lot incomplete. Maybe she needs help with her suitcase! But that would be weird, she is just sitting there. Anyway, it turned out we were getting on the same van, so here was a random person I was connected to -- in that moment, the exact quarter-hour I was thinking about this particular teaching.
I offered to help her with the suitcase. Which she didn't need, but appreciated that. We chatted a little bit on the van.
I still am not sure what the teaching means. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad asks: In what situation would a person be unable to pray for someone else? He muses that a person might be so overcome with concern for another that he can't compose himself to pray. Or he might be in so much of his own suffering that he can't pray for someone else. But he wonders why the Talmud itself doesn't suggest these, and leaves the category of "unable to pray for another" undefined and possibly empty on purpose.
My teacher Rabbi Joseph Lukinsky z"l taught us that when we study the week's Torah reading, there are two approaches. The usual one is to look for something in it that is relevant to our lives or our world. The other way, he said, is to make whatever happens to be in that week's Torah relevant -- to look for some connection. In this case, Daf Yomi brought me a teaching, and made me realize that something I would have usually seen as an empty experience -- waiting for a pickup at the airport -- was a spiritual prompt.
I'm not necessarily going to have something to write about every daf (page), but here is something from a couple days ago.
Daf 7 opens with a discussion of God's own prayer. The Talmud says that God prays that God's own mercy will overcome God's anger. It's a fascinating depiction of God -- as a being who prays and who needs to pray, who needs to summon will to direct God's own energies. Who would have thought?
I don't find it useful at all to think of God literally the way the Talmud describes. Instead, I take this teaching to be talking about a spiritual experience a person might have. The divine is describe here as not static, but with energies that are expressed differently in response to human actions. A person might experience affirmation or support, or judgment or suffering, as energies of God and not only as personal, internal emotions. These basic experiences of approval or judgment can be experienced as aspects of divine energy. Indeed, to believe that the divine is "one" means that all of these must be rooted in the same divinity.
The Talmud reminds us that what the Torah calls God's anger is a response to wrongdoing; it's not gratuitous or random. I'd say then that the Talmud is describing the anger of our conscience or our spiritual aspect when we recognize or are helped (forced?) to recognize when we have done something that is very wrong.
But the prayer of God is that this emotion or experience not be the end of the matter. The Talmud says here that divine anger is very short. Infinitesimal in time from the divine point of view. The prayer attributed here to God is that when we experience divine judgment, we move quickly from that, toward an equally dramatic perception of divine energy helping us toward righting ourselves, toward teshuvah.
I have to say that I have a bias in my own Talmud study toward passages that seem to be structured a certain way. That seem quilted, where you can make out some kind of logic to the patterning. This page does not have that. It's a skip from one topic to another.
There is a section about demons, and the desire to perceive them (or not!) -- there are certain magical-ish things you can do to see the footprints of them. The rabbis caution against this, because the perception of demons can cause spiritual harm or physical harm. They do posit that demons outnumber humans by a large margin and we are constantly bumping into them.
So all I've really got is the passage that opens and closes the page. The opening teaching, continued from the last page, is about a person who enters the place of prayer with another person. If you cut that person off, your prayer goes awry. At the end of the page, the situation is that you encounter a person who you know makes a real effort to ask about your welfare -- you ought to try hard to ask that person first, and not take their interest in you for granted.
Today I did my skimming while I was listening, at a meeting, to a presentation about "adverse childhood experiences" and their impact on mental and physical well-being throughout life. It was an interesting backdrop to what most of today's page, Berachot 5a-b, are about, which is: suffering.
The Talmud starts with a fairly traditional theology -- which I reject -- of suffering as punishment. It then moves to the different, but still difficult concept, of "sufferings of love" or yissurin shel ahavah. This is the idea that God brings suffering to those God loves, as a way of.... I'm not positive, haven't done enough theological reading in the area, to know if there's an original sense of the purpose of this kind of suffering. The Talmud seems to suggest that suffering not from punishment can teach; that suffering is a way of proving one's spiritual heights; that suffering is the necessary pathway for the most important spiritual gifts, including the Torah itself.
I can understand that the rabbis, living for centuries already under foreign domination of one or other imperium, might decide that the condition of national suffering must be some kind of sign of a special relation to God that is beyond the material and political. But especially sitting where I was while reading today, I could not find a way to make this concept of "sufferings of love" make sense. Some of us were talking about the randomness of suffering, the fact that people living similar lives in similar situations, whether of privilege or "adverse childhood experiences", suffer or develop resilience and joy.
Anyway, all of that is obvious. Sorry not to be adding anything.
What is interesting to me in the Talmud, though, are stories that follow the argumentation about categories of suffering. I heard a talk by Prof. Judith Hauptman, my Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which she noticed that in many places, when the Talmud follows an analysis with a story, the story often nuances or complicated or just contradicts the teaching.
So here, there are some interesting stories of rabbis who fall ill, and are visited by colleagues or teachers. In each vignette, the visitor asks "Is your suffering beloved to you?" and the answer is, "Neither the sufferings nor their rewards." Then the visitor offers a hand and the lifts up, perhaps heals, the one who is ill.
Again, there's an obvious thing -- touch and presence over theology, when someone is suffering in front of you. Don't be like the friends of Job. I like that the Talmud allows rabbis to contradict their own teachings in the face of real experience, even their own. I don't know if the Talmud is setting up its theologies to be debunked, or passing along the range of tools so we will do that if we see fit.
A lot on today's page is familiar, and shows just how much of the general structure of Jewish worship was already set by 500-600 C.E. The page mentions saying Ashrei (mostly Psalm 145) three times a day, praying in a synagogue and not just individually, saying the Sh'ma in a service as well as at bedtime. There are even discussions about verses that have been added to the essential prayers -- the beginnings of adornments or embellishments around an understood structure.
So I'll today just observe three things that caught my attention that aren't the usual.
One is a teaching about "midnight." One of the Torah references to midnight is Moshe telling Pharaoh that "around midnight" the final plague will take place. The Talmud wonders: Didn't Moshe know it would be exactly at midnight? The Talmud suggests that Moshe knew, but was afraid the Egyptian elite wouldn't calculate right, and that therefore they would claim that Moshe was lying or didn't know what he was talking about. From this the Talmud learns that a person should be very careful in speech on the basis of what other people might misunderstand -- you have to take that into account even when you think you are very clear.
The second is a tangent on the word "one", which is the key idea in the Sh'ma, the oneness of God. In a brief passage on the page, the Talmud discusses spiritual personages from the Bible who are one step from God vs. more than one step. I'm going to chew on this as a way to meditate on the word the next time I recite the Sh'ma, see what it's like to place one-step-ness in relation to divinity at the center, rather than some statement about the divine itself.
The other thing that struck me is a source that imagines David vouching for himself as a king unlike the fancy kings of other nations. He says that he engages with all manner of bloody things, gets his hands bloody, in order to prove that a woman is in a state of ritual purity so she can sleep with her husband. The Talmud talks about David using his own hands to determine if blood is menstrual or not, to investigate the gestational age of miscarried fetus, to touch placenta.
This is quite a subversion of the Bible's treatment of David with regard to both woman and blood. David's hands were bloody in war, and David went through all kinds of machinations to try to get Batsheva's husband Uriah to sleep with his wife after David had impregnated her, and in the end David had him set up to die in war. What chutzpah to turn around and say that his own bloody hands are testimony to his being a king who is a man of the people and a protector of women and/or marriages? I have no idea on first reading what the rabbis are trying to do here.