Sunday, October 02, 2005

Shabbos: It's Not Over Yet

The last comment to my previous posting congratulated me on completing Tractate Shabbos. However, it ain't over. Shabbos is, I believe, the longest tractate, and the daf yomi is still on Shabbos until October 6. Even so, anyone might have asssumed that I was done with the tractate, since I haven't posted in over two weeks. The fact is that I've been busy and have not had time to put thoughts out into the ether, but I have kept up with the reading and will here and now put out some of the observations that I scribbled down since last posting.

The Deeds of the Judges
If you see a generation upon which many troubles come, go and examine the deeds of the judges of Israel in that generation, for all misfortune that comes to the world comes only on account of the judges of Israel. (139a).
Often, when I encounter the phrase of Israel in the Talmud, I measure the effect of the text both with and without the phrase. It is easier for me to understand the phrase in the context of its time, when the exiled Jews were an unassimilated people in a hostile land. In such circumstances, Jews had no influence on how others judged us, but when we could choose to judge ourselves by a different (higher?) standard than the Romans (or Greeks or whoever is in charge at the time), rather than internalizing the judgment of the dominant power, then we may have transcended the literal definition of misfortune and seen our chosen-ness as a long-term advantage.

In times like these, however, when assimilation competes with standing apart as options for American Jews-- when chosen-ness is not a concept embraced by all practicing Jews-- the phrase of Israel interferes with my ability to apply the text. Seeing myself first of all as a participant in an American political sphere, but as not simply an American but as an American Jew or a Jewish American, I take the text to other places.

The deeds of the Judges are at the root of all the misfortune in the world, if there is indeed misfortune. And, of course, there always is. So, who are these judges? Do they include a president who can't coordinate a reconstruction effort in a foreign country or a storm-ravaged region of our own country without squandering resources and leaving chaos and wreckage wherever he goes? Do they include those who deliberate on who will be the new Supreme Court Justices. (They certainly include the judges themselves!)

The Talmud text is a powerful parable that inspires a worthwhile meditation.

Halakhah vs Aggadah

In my last post I began by examining "One may employ a subterfuge." (117b1). More than twenty folios later (139a) a legitimate leniency is hidden because those who are not Torah scholars "would likely adopt other groundless leniencies if they were informed of this legitimate leniency."

Thus, even as there are many examples of Torah scholars performing any manner of subterfuge to circumvent a Rabbinic ordinance, the rabbis use subterfuge to conceal leniencies from am haaretz like me. But I can't help but believe that I would be a "better" Jew if I was taught the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Very early in Heavenly Torah Heschel makes a critical distinction: "Halakhah presents the letter of the law; aggadah brings us the spirit of the law." Moreover, a few pages later, he declares that "the idea that Judaism is not a religion but a legal system . . . courses through the body of modern thought like venom."

As I have mentioned before, Tractate Shabbos is very challenging to me. Earlier, I guessed that it was because, unlike many other tractates I have studied, this one is principally concerned with rules that I choose not to follow. (For example, portions of these notes were written on Shabbos.) But as I read Heschel I begin to realize that my antipathy with this text is more about what is missing from it rather than what is present: there is nothing here about the pleasures of Shabbos, it is all about the restrictions.

Bathing in a stream, one must dry off before leaving the stream "lest he come to carry the water upon his body four amos in a karmelis" (141a). Why can't I come running from the water, kicking up sand, playing tag with my buddies or tossing a vollyball back and forth? In what way do such actions resemble work? How are they not tastes of a world without care? How do they differ from rest in the best sense of what it means to let go of cares and relax? Rabbinic laxity on Shabbos is administered in small doses: "A person may take his son in his arms even when there is a stone in the son's hand" (141b).

Heschel suggests that it didn't have to turn out this way. He describes the tension between the Jerusalem and Babylonian schools: "In the eyes of the scholars of the land of Israel, the Sages of Babylonia did not appear adequately prepared to study the fineness of Aggadah" (p. 16). As it happens, Tractate Shabbos (of the Babylonian Talmud) contains rich evidence of the tension between these two schools. For example, R'Abba (of Israel) cooked a chicken that Rav Safra (of Babylonia) would "have been compelled to vomit in disgust at eating it" if R'abba had not served a three-year-old wine with it; and R'Yochanan (of Israel) "would spit upon remembering the revolting flavorof Babylonian kutach" (145b). There is no love lost between these two schools; plus the food sucks.

However, the Babylonian Talmud contains enough of R'Yochanan's aggadah to suggest the depth of it: While R'Yochanan dozes, R'Chiyah bar Abba and R'Assi contemplate the differences between Babylonia and Israel, crediting the wealth of knowledge of the Jerusalem scholars. Nevertheless, when R'Yochanan awakens, he rebukes them for teaching matters that they do not properly understand. His interpretations generally suggest that "exile undermines the existence of those who suffer it," but that the responsibility of being in Eretz Yisrael is a burden that the Babylonians do not appreciate.

What do we lose when the "wisdom" of Eretz Yisrael is filtered through the school of Babylonia? What do the Babylonians imply when they portray R'Yochanan as dozing? Or when they report (148a) that Rabbah bar bar Chanah came there from Eretz Yisrael but did not attend Rav Yehudah's lecture (Rav Yehudah was the head of the local academy) until Rav Yehudah confiscated his cloak? Or when they report that Rav Yehudah lectured incorrectly but was surely right to confiscate Rabbah bar bar Chanah's cloak, for how else would he have drawn him to the hall to correct his teaching?

Does Babylonia embody a school suffering from an inferiority complex that is so embarrassed by their ability to comprehend aggadah that they dismiss it as not worth studying? R'Chanin warns, "Do not turn to that which comes from your minds" (149a), which might be applied only to secular literature and art, but also might apply to the aggadah that attempts to contextualize any Torah whose plain meaning is impossible to turn into halakhah.

Heschel writes that "The Torah itself can be acquired in two different ways: via the road of reason or the road of vision" (p 32). Reason leads to a strict interpretation that may discourage more than it inspires. In Tractate Shabbos(153a), Rav Yehudah teaches aggadah in the name of Rav: "From a person's eulogy and the affect it has on those assembled at his funeral, it can be discerned whether or not the deceased is destined to enter the World to Come." Two other Babylonians, Abaye and Rabbah, consider this statement as if it is halakhah:
Abaye said to Rabbah: In the case of someone such as master [i.e. such as yourself], who is hated by all the citizens of Pumbedisa, who will deliver a suitably moving eulogy over you when you pass away? [Rabbah] replied to [Abaye]: It would be sufficient if you and Rabbah bar Rav Chanan delivered eulogies at my funeral."
How do we interpret this? That a teacher who has alienated all the people in his town dismisses the aggadic promise as nonsense; that as long as the scholars who he respects deliver his eulogy, it does not matter to him how it is received?

Do comparable stories exist in the Jerusalem Talmud and, if so, are they resolevd differently? Heschel writes, "Various circumstances contributed to the victory of the Babylonian Talmud over that of the Land of Israel, to a point where the latter was almost forgotten" (p 17). Now, forty years later, it seems possible that our memory of Jerusalem may be revived: ArtScroll has embarked on a project to translate the Jerusalem Talmud with the same attention that it has devoted to the Babylonian Talmud. We live in interesting times.


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Welcome back!

You are about to be disappointed if you're waiting for the Jerusalem Talmud translation. The Babylonian Talmud is 60% aggadic material and 40% halakhic, while the Jerusalem Talmud is only 10% aggadic material and 90% halakhic.

What, then, was Heschel muttering about in his beard when he spoke of Palestinian Aggadah?

The reason there's so little Aggadah in the Jerusalem Talmud is that the Jews in Israel gathered their Aggadic teachings into special collections, like the Midrash Rabbah. That's why the JT is mostly halakha.

imho, the division between halakha and aggadah is not as clear as one might think. Some aggadot masquerade as halakhot (e.g. the dispute over whether one can use a stolen lulav).

Finally, the first issue you dealt with is clear and consistent: There's a two-tier system, and what we (scholars) know to be true can't be entrusted to ordinary folk. ArtScroll subscribes to that idea, and that's my principle objection to it.

3:51 PM  

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