Monday, November 28, 2005

Eruvin: Enigmatic Speech

In the several weeks since my last posting, I have continued to study the text. The disadvantage of not having the time to articulate a response to the text is self-evident (although beautifully articulated on 54b, where Rava teaches in the name of Rav Sechorah, in the name of Rav Huna: "If a person makes his learning into bundles . . . then his learning will diminish"). And if I lived in a place with clear boundaries where eruvim kept the secular out and drew the Jewish wagons into a circle around a Jewish campfire, it would be inconceivable that several weeks could pass without an opportunity to formally respond to the text.

Nevertheless, there is one advantage to having to account for a larger sweep in a single posting, and that is the perspective afforded by seeing how themes introduced early in the tractate are revisited, turned and turned and turned again. Thus, I come to this post not only with a healthy appreciation of the isolation and vulnerability of Jewish settlements in exile, but also with a heightened awareness that the theme that spoke to me several weeks ago-- the importance of choosing a teacher-- plays out throughout this tractate.

The two themes (the roles of the eruv and the scholar in sustaining the integrity of the community) converge on folio 36 where one teaching may not have had the support of its teacher but may have been offered "merely reporting the opinion of his teacher" but with no evidence that he personally concurred." (So much for picking one teacher and adhering to his judgment!) But the principle issue on this folio is the notion of establishing a conditional eruv: "A person may attach a condition to his eruv . . . if the gentiles come from the east; my eruv is to the west . . ." or "if a scholar comes . . ." Who can resist asking, but what if two scholars come, one from the east and one from the west? "If one of them was his teacher, he must go to his teacher; but if both scholars were his teachers . . ." he must chose which way he will go. Unless (be prepared for the punchline!) one follows R'Yitzchak who permits going toward the gentiles to flee from the scholar.

We've come a long way from picking one teacher and following all his rulings! It is more than humorous to suggest fleeing from scholars rather than learning from them! Perhaps it goes back to the dispute between Ishmael and Akiva on folio 13 where Ishmael warns that one mistake in transcribing the Torah could destroy the world. Some of the best Torah scholars are the most dangerous teachers: ArtScroll reports that "R'Akiva was such a brilliant logician, that he could cogently defend either side of a question." And his student, R'Meir, who was forced to find a different teacher, eventually also developed the same deadly brilliance. R'Meir could argue for either Hillel or Shammai . . . and did. But what gave Hillel the strength to prevail over Shammai was that, unlike Shammai, he studied his antagonist's arguments; Shammai apparently did not return the favor.

Even so, we should not assume we can determine whose opinion will prevail without studying the dispute: “Rav Mesharshiya said: these rules for establishing halachah are not valid. Rather, each case must be decided on its particular merits” (46b).

The student may have many fine teachers to chose from, but who will help him separate out the ones who are so intoxicated with their own brilliance that they will teach anything just because they can? And who will help him separate out the ones who have no sense of proportion, like Rav Adda bar Masna, who would not be drawn away from the study house by his wife's plea: "Your little children-- what shall I do for them to feed them?" Hundreds of years before Dickens and Scrooge ('tis the season), Rav Adda bar Masna replied, "Are there no more wild vegetables in the marsh?" (22a).

Perhaps these are not the right questions. Perhaps this Talmud, which only came to be written down when memories proved insufficient to preserve it, which only survived as the rough notes of teachers preparing their lessons, perhaps this Talmud is not directed at students at all; perhaps this is the Talmud for teachers-- the cautionary tales to keep them vigilent against a temptation to teach too freely the ways of reasoning before first teaching the reasons!

The teachers in this tractate are sometimes more concerned about their reputations than the integrity of their teaching. For example, Rav Sheishess said to Rabbah bar Shmuel, “If you meet Nachman and Rav Chisda, do not say anything to them about this Baraisa which refutes my view: it would be an embarrassment to me” (39b). And Aneimar told Rav Ashi that Rav Sheishess held differently but it isn’t clear whether this is because another teacher cited the case incorrectly or because the incident “never happened.

All the laws taught in this tractate are the “new ones”— the laws derived by the rabbis from tenuous prooftexts, none of them explicitly spelled out in the Torah (21b). And throughout this tractate, the limits of reason are constantly tested. If a Baraisa assumes that “the Messiah will not come on the Sabbath or Yom Tov” (43b), there needs to be a reason. Could it be “because of the difficulties this would impose on people who would have to complete their preparations for the Sabbath or Yom Tov while taking out time to greet Elijah?” No, because if Elijah did indeed come, then “all the world will recognize Israel as the chosen people and they all will be servants to Israel . . . available to help complete the preparations.

But as long as we’re waiting for the messiah, let us consider that the residents of Judea, who learned from only one teacher, retained their Torah knowledge, but the residents of Galilee, who did not learn from only one teacher, did not retain their Torah knowledge (53a). (Do I really have to tell you who the “extra” teacher in Galilee was?) The Galileans were known for using language “imprecisely” (talking in parables?). In one case, “a certain woman . . . came before a judge . . . to report the theft of a large tablet; however, her speech was indistinct and what she actually said to him sounded like . . . ‘I had a beam and . . . when they hang you on it your feet do not reach the ground.” ArtScroll never suggests that the rabbis are disparaging Christianity in a story of one who stole a tablet (from Moses?) and was hung from a beam (by the Romans?), but the editor does note that the text next “presents some examples of enigmatic speech employed for diplomatic purposes.” If these associations are my own personal delusions, then this text is far less interesting than it needs to be!