Thursday, August 17, 2006

Just Remember This . . .

Lieberman Campaign Headquarters

The picture above this text was discovered during a simple Google search for images of Joe Lieberman. I copied it to display here for reasons that will become apparant as this entry unfolds. I am by no means certain whether the artist meant the image to be mean-spirited or not, nor am I certain whether my own observations on the Lieberman campaign will be taken in the spirit with which I offer them.

As regular readers of this blog well know, I strive to apply Talmud to the here and now. The text for today's entry was new to me when Jonah Steinberg distributed it for text study during his very worthwhile class at the National Havurah Summer Institute last week in Rindge, NH. Please do not hold Jonah responsible for how I come to interpret it here, since he never suggested that it be applied to the current circumstances in the state of Connecticut. [For more blogs on this Summer's NHC Institute, see Mah Rabu: Institute blog roundup.]

The text comes from Mishnah, Avodah Zarah, 2:5. It begins with Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Yehoshua walking on a path, and Rabbi Yishmael asking a question: "Why have they [the Sages] forbidden cheeses made by gentiles?' Most of the text is the back-and-forth between Yishmael and Yehoshua: Yehoshua explains how they reasoned their way toward the ruling and Ishmael offers reasons why they should have ruled differently. Eventually, Yehoshua tires of the argument and diverts Yishmael to the explication of a verse from the Song of Songs.

In the course of our hevruta study I came to understand that the context of this discussion was critical to unpacking it. Yishmael knew very well why the Sages had ruled as they had. And the Sages had likely taken all of Yishmael's arguments into account before making their ruling. Yishmael, however, was not willing to accept the decision of the majority.

In the NHC course that I taught this Summer, we studied that coiled serpent, the Akni oven, wherein Yehoshua declares that "it is not in Heaven" and Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated for offering Heavenly voices as proof that the majority is wrong. It seems likely that Yehoshua's role here and there as the defender of decrees is a sign; and that he uses the erotic Song of Songs to gently turn Yishmael away from rebellion is another sign.

The consensus in Jonah's class was that the text comes to teach that new decrees should at the very least be allowed to sit unchallenged until the community has had a chance to assess their effect. They may be revisited after a proper test if they prove to be excessively burdensome or have unanticipated and unintended consequences, but first they must be accepted and given the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings me to Joe Lieberman. The decree of his party was delivered last Tuesday. They chose another candidate. They heard all the arguments he had to offer and the majority voted against them. Yet, like Yishmael, he would repeat the arguments as if there had been no decree.

Of course, the Democratic Party is not the Sanhedrin, but Senator Lieberman must realize that his current actions are the moral equivalent of excommunicating himself from the Democratic Party. We don't have to wonder who's kissing him now; and it sure ain't Yehoshua!