Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shabbos: Heavenly Torah

A friend suggested that we study Heavenly Torah (Torah min Hashamayim) by Abraham Joshua Heschel (and recently published in a translation by Gordon Tucker). I've been glancing through this book today and can't wait to study it. Where has this work been hiding! Why hasn't it been announced with great fanfare? This is Heschel's synthesis of the theology of Rabbinic Judaism! Who better to make sense of the sea of Talmud!

I love the idea behind this book, which at first glance appears to examine major aspects of Jewish theology through the schools of Akiva and Ishmael. I know little about Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha but he sounds like the guy I'd be most likely to like in a personal Tanna. Plus I'm a great appreciator of serendipitous juxtapositions and, having just read Abaye on 106b of Tractate Shabbos ask: "Are you telling me to learn the tradition for no purpose, that it should be like a song?", I perked up reading the quote of the unnamed Mormon philosopher on p xxv of Heavenly Torah that "Heschel sings rather than argues." It brings home again the divide between those who denigrate and those who value song.

More later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Shabbos: Acting Destructively

"And all who act destructively are exempt." (106a).

On Shabbos, constructive activities that mirror the labors that went into the construction of the Temple are forbidden. One who does them deliberately has committed a capital offense; one who does them inadvertently would be obliged to offer a sacrifice in atonement for the transgression. However, destructive actions are exempt, at least in principle.

One very compelling example of a destructive act that is exempt from a penalty is the act of rending a garment as an expression of grief. Today's daf includes a dispute as to whether this exemption applies equally to those whose grief overwhelms them and to those who rend the garment to fulfill the mitzvah of mourning a close relative. (It is suggested that the latter is a destructive act with a constructive intent.)

Reading this daf on a day when many Jews are resisting the evacuation of Gaza, I am compelled to reflect on the passionate mourning of the dispossessed, both Arab and Jew, and how they each find ways to characterize their destructive acts as exempt from atonement offerings. The Talmud also recognizes this human tendency and retreats from its initial, apparantly global "all who act destructively . . ." to eventually add "except for one who wounds a person or burns something."

May I be allowed to apply the Talmud in these contemporary situations, or will I be left with the question Abaye raises on 102b: "Are you telling me to learn the tradition for no purpose, that it should be like a song?" Of course, songs have propelled people to rise up, too. If we hold to the tradition, we will find the purpose.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Shabbos: The Sticky Fig Cake

Amidst all the possible Shabbos violations, the byzantine plots to transport one thing or another from private domain to private domain when a public domain separates them is the one most likely to lead to pie throwing. When the sticky fig cake adheres to the wall and doesn't bounce back (100a), I want to page Rabbi Moe, Rabbi Larry, and Rabbi Curley!

Likewise when someone inadvertently throws an object (that is, he threw it before he realized it was Shabbos) and then remembers it is Shabbos after it leaves his hand, he is exempt from the obligation of a chatas offering if a dog catches it in midair or it burns in flight (102a). This is a production worthy of Rabbis Barnum & Bailey!

Flights of imagination, like flights of pies and dog biscuits, abound. On 104a we are reminded that "a prophet is not permitted to introduce anything new," but we are told that prophets "reinstitute" ordinances that have been "forgotten." Here, as in many other places in this text, a strict boundary is balanced by a broad mandate.