Saturday, May 14, 2005

Shabbos: Destruction from Within

Height Matters
Rava bar Mechasya said in the name of Rav Chama bar Gurya who said in the name of Rav: Any city whose roofs are higher than its synagogue will ultimately be destroyed. (11a1).
For those who believe that there are no coincidences, consider that I read the above Gemara on the same day that I read Ben Dreyfus’s article, Profile of An ‘Uniaffiliated’ Jew, (published in the Spring 2005 issue of CAJE's Jewish Education News), wherein he begins by writing,
When Jewish organizations talk about "unaffiliated Jews" in their 20s and 30s, who do not belong to synagogues, they often equate this lack of affiliation with being secular, Jewishly uneducated, and finding Judaism to be irrelevant.
Is this merely a simple proof that there is nothing new under the sun? Has the Jewish establishment been insisting for 2000 years that the roof of the synagogue must overshadow all other sanctuaries of Jewish consciousness?

Maybe so. But back in the day, the Sages knew how to put their earnestness in perspecctive:
Rav Ashi said: I made sure that Masa Mechasya would not be destroyed, for I prevented its citizens from building their houses taller than the synagogue.

The Gemara exclaims: But Masa Mechasya was destroyed!

The Gemara answers: It was not destroyed on account of that sin.
Meanwhile, Ben reports,
On Shabbat I don't do any work or spend money. Typically, I will go to Friday and Saturday services at one of the new independent minyanim that meet once or twice a month, or pray with a group of people in someone's apartment, then share a Shabbat meal in that apartment. . . . Oh, and I don't belong to a synagogue, nor do most of the young adults crowded into those apartments on Friday nights.
Read Ben’s article. Consider the young man who feels that the only options for a committed Reform Jew of a certain age are to go to Rabbinical school or become orthodox. It seems to me that, as the Gemara suggests, it has always been a struggle to keep this situation from becoming frozen; that keeping all other houses lower than the synagogue was never a satisfactory solution.

The Code of Mechasya

The teaching of Rava bar Mechasya regarding synagogue roofs is but the first of several to be presented on this folio. Most are aphorisms (e.g., “Any evil and not an evil woman!”). However, three stand out for their obscurity.

The first is the one already cited. Its obscurity derives from the perspective of Rav Ashi’s experience: even if the teaching is true by its own terms, Rav Ashi’s experience clearly demonstrates that it is far from being the primary danger facing any Jewish town in Talmudic times. We need strong character, not strong buildings! Rava bar Mechasya seems to be teaching one thing and is in reality teaching another.

Likewise, when he teaches “Work under an Ishmaeliete and not under a stranger; under a stranger and not under a Chabar; under a Chabar and not under a Torah scholar; under a Torah scholar and not under an orphan or widow,” what are we left with beyond the impression that all potential employers will destroy the worker in this world or the next? It is an indirect but compelling argument that each of us must strive to become our own masters.

Finally, there is this one:
If all the seas were black ink, and the marshes were quills, and the heavens were parchments, and all the people were scribes, they would not suffice to record the depth of the mind of the government.
ArtScroll’s review of the commentaries on this teaching reflect its potential to be read along the entire continuum between patriotism and treason. This is indeed a prime example of the Jewish code of irony and ambiguity. We often mean what we say without exactly saying what we mean. [Insert 'wink' here.]

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shabbos: Beginning of the New Order

Master of Your Semi-Private Domain

I started the practice of reading the daf several years ago in midcycle, so I have had the experience of reading many tractates that are concerned with processes that are no longer in effect. However, I have never been as directly challenged to reconcile the doctrines described in the text with my own practice as I am with Tractate Shabbos, because here, for the first time, I must deal with practices that are not dependent on the existence of the nonexistent Temple.

It is one thing to read as an academic exercise about practices that one would not follow when no one is called to follow these practices. It is an imaginative leap to read such a text as a literary product. But when the text reflects practices that remain part of the baseline of traditional observance, such a reading will likely appear to be blasphemous to some, and the reader himself may become self-conscious or even feel threatened by the alienation of his own practice from the practice that the text mandates. As a true am haaretz, this is the dilemma I now face, and the reason why my first post on this tractate has been so many days overdue.

Discussing this with Mike, I found myself agreeing with his basic (and unorthodox) reading: Rabbinic Judaism surely begins here. Most of the Shabbos restrictions are Rabbinic constructs.

Even so, there are distinct differences to our readings and I hope that he will post a response to this entry that expands on his notion that the eruv is the Rabbinic mechanism for releasing the people from a set of restrictions in exchange for their acceptance of the Rabbi's authority to create the restrictions in the first place. It is an interesting thesis, suggesting yet another reason for Jewish families to live clustered around common courtyards (as if a reason were needed, given the frequent manifestations of hostility in the diaspora from locally dominent cultures) .

My touchstone to the Rabbinic stamp on Shabbas, however, is not the eruv, but the karmelis-- the Rabbinic invention that ArtScroll calls "a semi-public domain." This "gray area" that has no Biblical foundation is too public to be private but only in the sense that it is sufficiently visible that the acts that might be permitted there are prohibited Rabbinically lest someone in a public domain see them and mistakenly conclude that these acts are permitted in public.

The restrictions built up to make Shabbas at least appear to be a day of rest are exhausting to observe. With no Biblical prohibitions against commercial transactions in a walled city, ArtScroll concedes that "people, prohibited from many other activities, would find the Sabbath a convenient day to shop." But when you add all the Rabbinic restrictions that have accrued to this "day of rest," rest may become a straightjacket.

For example, how do I rest when I know that a poor man needs nourishment and I am "forbidden" to carry it to him?

This is a very lengthy tractate, so I don't doubt we will have ample opportunity to unpack this and many similar questions. God only knows where this will lead!