Talmud. Enraged and Loved.

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Talmud. Enraged and Loved.

 

 

Didn’t see it coming

 

I’m three classes from the end of my tenure as the substitute rabbi for a local, weekly Talmud class. I’m at the kitchen table preparing for tomorrow and excited to see that this tractate (chapter) of Berakhot (blessings) includes reference to one of my spiritual fathers—the iconoclast Rav Sheshet. 

 

My other favorite rabbi of the Talmud is Elisha ben Abuya—who was such a badass that his name was stricken from almost all editions of the Talmud and replaced with the pseudonym Acher (the other). Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you stories about him.

 

Three reasons I like Sheshet:

  1. Sheshet flaunts that he is going to study what he wants, and not what the group is engaged in:

    Rav Sheshet would turn his face and study his study and said: We are ours, and they are engaged in theirs. (Berakhot 8a)

  2. He doesn’t face east in prayer, like all Jews do:

    I do not wish to face east not because it does not contain the Divine Presence, but because the minim (heretics) instruct people to pray in that direction. (Bava Batra 25a)

  3. How he handles a local who teases him for watching the parade of an earthly king:

    Rav Sheshet fixed his gaze upon him, and the heretic became a pile of bones. (Berakhot 58a)

I first learned about Sheshet in rabbinical school, before the internet. So, as it’s 2020, I take the opportunity to Google this hero of mine.

 

And I’m shocked.

 

According to the web, Sheshet was blind!

 

 

 

History  

 

The Temple—center of the Israelite cultic worship—is destroyed in the year 70 CE. This leaves a few questions: 

 

Why was the Temple destroyed?

While historians posit that Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its temple because of the region’s near constant rebellion against Pax Romana, religious folk know it was really because people weren’t following God’s laws closely enough. Let’s go with that. 

 

Why would God, if we weren’t heeding God’s commands well enough, cut our primary means of communication with the divine?

As any answer would either be illogical or make God look bad, I pass on answering this.

 
How is worship to continue without a temple?

Worship will continue with something called prayer. Different schools of thought will spring up with different instructions as to how we do this.

 
What do we do with all those laws that used to rule our lives, now that they are clearly not applicable?

Two options: “toss them” or “reinterpret them”. 

 

Toss

Followers of Jesus provide a seemingly simple solution as to what to do with laws that made sense when the temple was still standing: toss out those restrictive laws. 

 

As long as one attunes one’s heart with the will of the creator, there is no need to follow the letter of the law.

 

There are two possible problems with this:

 
How do you deal with the historical Jesus being a ritually observant Jew? In Matthew 5:17, without a stutter in beautiful King James English he says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
  • Solution: Pretend that fulfill means something other than to do or complete.
 
How can people eat pork (forbidden in Leviticus) while insisting male homosexuality (also forbidden in Leviticus) is ritually unclean?
  • Solution: Avoid people who bring up that topic

 

Reinterpret

The reinterpret option involves legal footwork. A group of rabbis recorded in a giant compendium called Talmud (learning instructions) many of these “solutions.”

 
So how to not follow laws from when rogue was rogue, like: “an eye-for-an-eye”?
  • Solution: Issue an interpretation that lex talionis can only be legally observed if the two eyes are of the exact same size and shape. As they never are, declare that it is obvious the text Moses handed down meant monetary compensation. (Bava Kamma, 83b–84a) 

 

 

 

Blindsided

 

I know that Sheset wasn’t blind.

 

I never met the man, but it just doesn’t make sense; after all, he turned a guy into a pile of bones by looking at him.

 

Most blind people can’t do that. And, if they could and they did, you’d probably have heard it mentioned.

 

Moreover no other passage (and there are 100’s, I looked) make reference to any accommodations for his sightlessness.

 

It’s fishy. Something is going on here.

 

But what? Why? What could anyone gain from claiming my beautiful Sheshet was blind? 

 

I research. 

 

When Jane comes home, the kitchen table is covered with notes in English and Hebrew. Words written and encircled with different colors.

 

I realize I’ve been at it for hours.

 

Jane asks, “How far is it from here to you being John Nash in A Beautiful Mind?” 

  1. AYIN-VUV-VUV = Leviticus = Blind

  2. SAMECH-MEM-ALEPH = Bava Batra, Ketubot = Blind

  3. Shevout 41b, Berakhot 58a ?!?

A. SAGI = “of course, enough, sufficient” 

B. N’HOR = “Let’s go”

C. HAVEH = “Passion” 

D. BLIND?!

 

 

 

Who doesn’t like power?

 

My very loose, but accurate translation of the rabbis in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59) voting if an akhnai (snake) oven is kosher (suitable) for use. 

All of the rabbis vote: not kosher. Except for Eliezer, who proclaims, “It is kosher. And I am certain that the law agrees with me. Let this carob tree prove it.”

 

The tree uproots itself and moves 100 cubits; though some say 400 cubits.

I love that detail. Makes it much more believable.

 

The majority rebuff, “There is no proving the law by a carob tree.”

 

Then, a stream–which had been flowing in one direction–changes to flow in the other direction to prove Eliezer right. And a voice from Heaven says, “Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is in accordance with his opinion.”

 

Rabbi Joshua quips a Bible verse, “The laws are not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

 

Rabbi Yirmeya adds, “The Torah was written at Mount Sinai and we do not regard the Divine Voice.” And then he quotes the bible: “Laws should follow the majority.” (Exodus 23:2)

And, like that, the rabbis just took away God’s vote.

 

 

 

Ai-ya-yai

 

First let’s deal with the quote from Exodus 23:2.

Brace yourself.

Every translation I can find says something along the lines of:

  •  Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong
    NIV (New International Version)

The problem with this?

Yirmeya uses the passage to mean the opposite!

 

 

For the second passage, “The laws are not in heaven” let me give you the context and a soft translation of this passage in Deuteronomy.

Moses, who just climbed to the heavens to talk with God, comes down and says to the people, “God’s laws are neither in heaven nor across the sea but close at hand. You should not have to send someone to the top of the mountain or across the sea to know God’s will. Because the commandments of God are very near. In your heart.”

 

“It is not in heaven” meant that the path to God is close at hand. 

 

Not that God doesn’t get a vote. 

Let me give you the context and a soft translation of the passage in Deuteronomy: “The laws are not in heaven.”

Moses, who just climbed to the heavens to talk with God, comes down and says to the people, “God’s laws are neither in heaven nor across the sea but close at hand. You should not have to send someone to the top of the mountain or across the sea to know God’s will. Because the commandments of God are very near. In your heart.”

“It is not in heaven” until this horrible misuse of it meant that the path to God is close at hand. 

 

Not that God doesn’t get a vote. 

 

People like power. And rabbis are people, too.  

 

 

 

Blinded

 

I find the initial reference to Rav Sheshet being blind.

 

In the commentary to Sheshet studying what he liked to study and not what the group was studying, a commentator in the Middle Ages declared that the phrase “Sheshet went forth with passion”—which heretofore never means anything other than “Sheshet went forth with passion”—to be an idiom to mean “Sheshet was blind.”

 

From that moment on, Rav Sheshet was blind.

 

By why? Why would someone blind my beautiful Rav Sheshet for future readers throughout history?

 

Because Rav Sheshet dared to study what he liked.

“Teacher, why must I study what you are assigning when I find something else much more exciting to explore?”

 

“It is what we are studying.”

 

“But Rav Sheshet studied what he liked.”

 

“That was because he was blind. Sagi n’hor haveh means blind. Don’t pay attention to what the words actually say. Study and learn what we tell you to. Conform.” 

 

 

 

Seen

 

I bring all of my notes with me the next day to what will be the last in-person Talmud study before COVID-19 breaks out. 

I show this portion of Talmud: 

Rav Sheshet sagi n’hor haveh. Everyone was going to greet the king and Rav Sheshet stood up and went along with them…

They can clearly see how sagi n’hor haveh isn’t an idiom for blind because in context the literal —“went forth with passion”—makes sense. And, blind does not.

 

They listen as I start a monologue about hegemony and freedom.

 

When my words meander back to my beloved Rav Sheshet, the room starts to get a bit blurry. My eyes start to well with tears. 

 

Out of my mouth come unspoken truths:

I hate this stuff. I just hate it.

 

It’s wrong to deliberately change the meaning of words to suit one’s agenda.

 

Every modern edition of Talmud published says “Sheshet was blind.”

 

Why? Could they not have the inkling that the phrase, “Sheshet went forth with passion” might actually mean “Sheshet went forth with passion” and not “Sheshet was blind”?

Or are they also afraid people might want to study something else?

 

Well, I want to study something else!

 

Talmud is interesting, but how much time are we going to devote to the study clever legal loopholes, tales of moving trees and blind rabbis turning people to dust!

 

I only have so much time! I want to live a more examined life.

How do I even wrap my mind around the ethics of a book that we claim is about ethics that has authors who claim to know God’s will better than and to have fired God?

 

I’m with Sheshet.

I’m going to study other things.

I notice a tear had fallen on open page of Talmud. I pull up my sweater’s cuff and dab it with the sleeve of my button-down. I wonder if a flower spouted from it would it mean a miracle happened? And, what would that mean? 

 

I wonder if anyone would believe it more if Robbie said it was one flower and Lew said it was four.

 

I continued and concluded.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t do this any more.

 

I mean, I’m going to be with you the next two weeks. Of course. We will finish this up. But, I just needed to be honest, to come clean. 

I said much more than I intended to. But, no matter, I have no regrets. I was honest. I was not unkind.

 

I dab my eyes in the crook of my elbow and look up. 

 

Pairs of eyes around the table hold me, a truth-telling rabbi.

 

This is what love is—to be seen.

Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box oldrotb.wpengine.com, an internet-based, global group of 3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.

 

Talmud. Enraged and Loved.

 

 

Didn’t see it coming

 

I’m three classes from the end of my tenure as the substitute rabbi for a local, weekly Talmud class. I’m at the kitchen table preparing for tomorrow and excited to see that this tractate (chapter) of Berakhot (blessings) includes reference to one of my spiritual fathers—the iconoclast Rav Sheshet. 

 

My other favorite rabbi of the Talmud is Elisha ben Abuya—who was such a badass that his name was stricken from almost all editions of the Talmud and replaced with the pseudonym Acher (the other). Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you stories about him.

 

Three reasons I like Sheshet:

  1. Sheshet flaunts that he is going to study what he wants, and not what the group is engaged in:

    Rav Sheshet would turn his face and study his study and said: We are ours, and they are engaged in theirs. (Berakhot 8a)

  2. He doesn’t face east in prayer, like all Jews do:

    I do not wish to face east not because it does not contain the Divine Presence, but because the minim (heretics) instruct people to pray in that direction. (Bava Batra 25a)

  3. How he handles a local who teases him for watching the parade of an earthly king:

    Rav Sheshet fixed his gaze upon him, and the heretic became a pile of bones. (Berakhot 58a)

I first learned about Sheshet in rabbinical school, before the internet. So, as it’s 2020, I take the opportunity to Google this hero of mine.

 

And I’m shocked.

 

According to the web, Sheshet was blind!

 

 

 

History  

 

The Temple—center of the Israelite cultic worship—is destroyed in the year 70 CE. This leaves a few questions: 

 

Why was the Temple destroyed?

While historians posit that Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its temple because of the region’s near constant rebellion against Pax Romana, religious folk know it was really because people weren’t following God’s laws closely enough. Let’s go with that. 

 

Why would God, if we weren’t heeding God’s commands well enough, cut our primary means of communication with the divine?

As any answer would either be illogical or make God look bad, I pass on answering this.

 

How is worship to continue without a temple?

Worship will continue with something called prayer. Different schools of thought will spring up with different instructions as to how we do this.

 

What do we do with all those laws that used to rule our lives, now that they are clearly not applicable?

Two options: “toss them” or “reinterpret them”. 

 

Toss

Followers of Jesus provide a seemingly simple solution as to what to do with laws that made sense when the temple was still standing: toss out those restrictive laws. 

 

As long as one attunes one’s heart with the will of the creator, there is no need to follow the letter of the law.

 

There are two possible problems with this:

 

How do you deal with the historical Jesus being a ritually observant Jew? In Matthew 5:17, without a stutter in beautiful King James English he says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”

  • Solution: Pretend that fulfill means something other than to do or complete.

 

How can people eat pork (forbidden in Leviticus) while insisting male homosexuality (also forbidden in Leviticus) is ritually unclean?

  • Solution: Avoid people who bring up that topic

 

Reinterpret

The reinterpret option involves legal footwork. A group of rabbis recorded in a giant com
pendium called Talmud (learning instructions) many of these “solutions.”

 

So how to not follow laws from when rogue was rogue, like: “an eye-for-an-eye”?

  • Solution: Issue an interpretation that lex talionis can only be legally observed if the two eyes are of the exact same size and shape. As they never are, declare that it is obvious the text Moses handed down meant monetary compensation. (Bava Kamma, 83b–84a) 

 

 

 

Blindsided

 

I know that Sheset wasn’t blind.

 

I never met the man, but it just doesn’t make sense; after all, he turned a guy into a pile of bones by looking at him.

 

Most blind people can’t do that. And, if they could and they did, you’d probably have heard it mentioned.

 

Moreover no other passage (and there are 100’s, I looked) make reference to any accommodations for his sightlessness.

 

It’s fishy. Something is going on here.

 

But what? Why? What could anyone gain from claiming my beautiful Sheshet was blind? 

 

I research. 

 

When Jane comes home, the kitchen table is covered with notes in English and Hebrew. Words written and encircled with different colors.

 

I realize I’ve been at it for hours.

 

Jane asks, “How far is it from here to you being John Nash in A Beautiful Mind?” 

  1. AYIN-VUV-VUV = Leviticus = Blind

  2. SAMECH-MEM-ALEPH = Bava Batra, Ketubot = Blind

  3. Shevout 41b, Berakhot 58a ?!?

A. SAGI = “of course, enough, sufficient” 

B. N’HOR = “Let’s go”

C. HAVEH = “Passion” 

D. BLIND?!

 

 

 

Who doesn’t like power?

 

My very loose, but accurate translation of the rabbis in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59) voting if an akhnai (snake) oven is kosher (suitable) for use. 

All of the rabbis vote: not kosher. Except for Eliezer, who proclaims, “It is kosher. And I am certain that the law agrees with me. Let this carob tree prove it.”

 

The tree uproots itself and moves 100 cubits; though some say 400 cubits.

I love that detail. Makes it much more believable.

 

The majority rebuff, “There is no proving the law by a carob tree.”

 

Then, a stream–which had been flowing in one direction–changes to flow in the other direction to prove Eliezer right. And a voice from Heaven says, “Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is in accordance with his opinion.”

 

Rabbi Joshua quips a Bible verse, “The laws are not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

 

Rabbi Yirmeya adds, “The Torah was written at Mount Sinai and we do not regard the Divine Voice.” And then he quotes the bible: “Laws should follow the majority.” (Exodus 23:2)

And, like that, the rabbis just took away God’s vote.

 

 

 

Ai-ya-yai

 

First let’s deal with the quote from Exodus 23:2.

Brace yourself.

Every translation I can find says something along the lines of:

  •  Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong
    NIV (New International Version)

The problem with this?

Yirmeya uses the passage to mean the opposite!

 

 

For the second passage, “The laws are not in heaven” let me give you the context and a soft translation of this passage in Deuteronomy.

Moses, who just climbed to the heavens to talk with God, comes down and says to the people, “God’s laws are neither in heaven nor across the sea but close at hand. You should not have to send someone to the top of the mountain or across the sea to know God’s will. Because the commandments of God are very near. In your heart.”

 

“It is not in heaven” meant that the path to God is close at hand. 

 

Not that God doesn’t get a vote. 

Let me give you the context and a soft translation of the passage in Deuteronomy: “The laws are not in heaven.”

Moses, who just climbed to the heavens to talk with God, comes down and says to the people, “God’s laws are neither in heaven nor across the sea but close at hand. You should not have to send someone to the top of the mountain or across the sea to know God’s will. Because the commandments of God are very near. In your heart.”

“It is not in heaven” until this horrible misuse of it meant that the path to God is close at hand. 

 

Not that God doesn’t get a vote. 

 

People like power. And rabbis are people, too.  

 

 

 

Blinded

 

I find the initial reference to Rav Sheshet being blind.

 

In the commentary to Sheshet studying what he liked to study and not what the group was studying, a commentator in the Middle Ages declared that the phrase “Sheshet went forth with passion”—which heretofore never means anything other than “Sheshet went forth with passion”—to be an idiom to mean “Sheshet was blind.”

 

From that moment on, Rav Sheshet was blind.

 

By why? Why would someone blind my beautiful Rav Sheshet for future readers throughout history?

 

Because Rav Sheshet dared to study what he liked.

“Teacher, why must I study what you are assigning when I find something else much more exciting to explore?”

 

“It is what we are studying.”

 

“But Rav Sheshet studied what he liked.”

 

“That was because he was blind. Sagi n’hor haveh means blind. Don’t pay attention to what the words actually say. Study and learn what we tell you to. Conform.” 

 

 

 

Seen

 

I bring all of my notes with me the next day to what will be the last in-person Talmud study before COVID-19 breaks out. 

I show this portion of Talmud: 

Rav Sheshet sagi n’hor haveh. Everyone was going to greet the king and Rav Sheshet stood up and went along with them…

They can clearly see how sagi n’hor haveh isn’t an idiom for blind because in context the literal —“went forth with passion”—makes sense. And, blind does not.

 

They listen as I start a monologue about hegemony and freedom.

 

When my words meander back to my beloved Rav Sheshet, the room starts to get a bit blurry. My eyes start to well with tears. 

 

Out of my mouth come unspoken truths:

I hate this stuff. I just hate it.

 

It’s wrong to deliberately change the meaning of words to suit one’s agenda.

 

Every modern edition of Talmud published says “Sheshet was blind.”

 

Why? Could they not have the inkling that the phrase, “Sheshet went forth with passion” might actually mean “Sheshet went forth with passion” and not “Sheshet was blind”?

Or are they also afraid people might want to study something else?

 

Well, I want to study something else!

 

Talmud is interesting, but how much time are we going to devote to the study clever legal loopholes, tales of moving trees and blind rabbis turning people to dust!

 

I only have so much time! I want to live a more examined life.

How do I even wrap my mind around the ethics of a book that we claim is about ethics that has authors who claim to know God’s will better than and to have fired God?

 

I’m with Sheshet.

I’m going to study other things.

I notice a tear had fallen on open page of Talmud. I pull up my sweater’s cuff and dab it with the sleeve of my button-down. I wonder if a flower spouted from it would it mean a miracle happened? And, what would that mean? 

 

I wonder if anyone would believe it more if Robbie said it was one flower and Lew said it was four.

 

I continued and concluded.

I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t do this any more.

 

I mean, I’m going to be with you the next two weeks. Of course. We will finish this up. But, I just needed to be honest, to come clean. 

I said much more than I intended to. But, no matter, I have no regrets. I was honest. I was not unkind.

 

I dab my eyes in the crook of my elbow and look up. 

 

Pairs of eyes around the table hold me, a truth-telling rabbi.

 

This is what love is—to be seen.

The 77% Weekly

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