Monday, May 23, 2005

Shabbos: Defying the Text

Rabbi Jim Diamond recommended a text by David Halivni called Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses. In the Foreword by Peter Ochs, Halivni's Holocaust memoir, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, is quoted. Within that quote, a particular passage begins, "Once I wrote . . ." How like and unlike the Talmud this is: while Talmud teachings are most certainly embedded within embedments, here it is Halivni quoted in Halivni quoting Halivni! In the context of studying the sly Rabbinic shift from a chapter of Rabbinic enactments about something Biblically mandated (Shabbos) to a chapter with an extended digression about a holiday that has no basis but Rabbinic decree (Hanukah), Halivni's embedded quote is most welcome:
How is one to explain the blatant contradiction between counting and upholding every word, every letter of the text, and at the same time boldly pronouncing, 'Chasora machasra vehacha ketanti' -- 'There is a lacuna in the text, and it should be read differently'?
Then Halivni expands on embedded Halivni:
The Rabbis had to lend divine power to the text to lend power to their defiance of it. A lacuna in a human text is of no religious significance. A lacuna in a divine text? That already smacks of heresy. The Rabbis of the Talmud tampered with the Biblical text, frequently offered interpretations that ran counter to the integrity of it, and openly said: There is a lacuna in the Mishnah . . .

This is heady stuff.


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

If you're not a pedant, please skip this first paragraph. HaLivni obviously wrote his comments in Hebrew and the English version was translated by somebody else. "Hacha" means "here" and "Hachi" means "thus." The phrase used by the Gemara when it essentially emends the text of the Mishnah is not "vehacha ketanti'" but "vehachi ketanay" (learn it thus).

Some years ago there was a Sunday New York Times article about David Weiss, and some frummies wrote in to the effect of "How dare he suggest changes in the holy text of the Talmud, not one letter of which has changed from time immemorial?" Every Yeshiva bochur knows that the margins of the Gemara is filled with "Girsaot" or variant versions of the text, which is very corrupt in places. They all know that Rashi frequently writes "Vehachi garsinan" ("the correct version of the text is thus") to help straighten things out. Were the authors of the frummie letters just ignorant, or were they just doing a job on other Jews? There is a tradition of a two-tiered system, where the upper tier, in "Grand Inquisitor" fashion just wants the lower tier to have a simpler version of things. That's why liberal Jews learning primary texts is so revolutionary and subversive.

Obviously, the Talmud doesn't mind playing fast and loose with the text of scripture, not just for Aggadic purposes, but also for halakhic ones (e.g. restrictive interpretation which gets rid of the entire rebellious son code). They do acknowledge that in some sense "Ayn mikrah yotzeh miday peshuto" -- "the text never entirely loses its plain meaning."

Similarly, the Gemara doesn't mind suggesting emendations to the Mishnah, but to be fair, it usually does it as a last resort.

There's an amazing story about Shaul Lieberman, which made his reputation. He took a really corrupt and incomprehensible section of the Jerusalem Talmud and reconstucted it by suggesting some 30 radical changes (e.g. the opinions of authorities X and Y are reversed, this word "not" should be deleted, the phrase Z should be inserted here, section 3 should precede section 1 etc.). All the difficulties were resolved, and it made perfect sense and had continuity with what came before and after. It was a tour-de-force and widely admired, but considered extremely speculative. Many years later, an old manuscript was discovered which had all 30 of his changes.

6:00 PM  

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