Monday, September 26, 2011

Fence-making is the only thing that stopped you from having a magic domesticated snake

We picked up right where we left off in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, in the middle of a discussion of making a “fence” around one’s words to avoid accidental wrongdoing. It turns out that we’re not done with Adam and Eve, but first, we have a digression about the Emperor Titus. The Adam and Eve part from last week ended with a story in which the Tree of Knowledge prays not to be touched by the evil snake by reciting a verse from Psalms: “Do not let the foot of pride overtake me, or the hand of the wicked shake me.” Another interpretation of that verse is that it refers to Titus, who, according to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, used to bang on the altar and challenge God to wage war against him, so he is the “prideful foot” and the wicked one who shakes the Temple.

After that, we’re back to Adam and Eve. First, it repeats the snake’s conversation with Chava, in which he points out to her that touching the tree is safe and asks her to extrapolate that everything Adam said is a lie. This time, we have the added detail that she thought to herself “Everything my teacher said was a lie” and that she originally always called Adam “my teacher.” It’s also very possible that rabbi means “my master.” Either way, there’s a pretty unpleasant power dynamic, since Adam does not know much at this point either, but if it’s “teacher” there are still other nice things to say about the story. If it means “teacher,” it highlights the special obligation of teachers to tell the truth: because students trust their teachers so completely, it is much worse for a teacher to lie than for someone else to lie. In a class where I do not trust the teacher, I can’t trust any of the information she says, or even his fairness, and I definitely would not want to reveal anything of myself to that kind of teacher, so even one small breach of trust can ruin an entire class.

Next, there’s a list of the ten curses Chava received as punishment, and then, exactly the statement we had been hoping for! “From here we learn—even though a person needs to make a fence around his words, he shouldn’t make the fence greater than the main point, for if he does, it will not be able to stand. Rabbi Yose says: A ten hand-breadth fence that stands up is better than a hundred-cubit one that falls down.” Maya’s post last week explained why we love this so much, so I’ll just add that I think the difference between these two statements of the same principle is interesting. The anonymous opinion asks for proportionality—the fence should be smaller than the main point, so a larger point calls for a larger fence—while Rabbi Yose’s opinion is more pragmatic: how big the fence should be relates to how big you can make it before it will fall down. I prefer the anonymous one—Rabbi Yose’s implies that we should want the biggest possible fence, and I think there are many situations where that is not true. I would rather give bigger fences to things that require them and smaller fences when there is more room for leniency.

After that, there are some odd details about the snake. It originally wanted to kill Adam and marry Chava so that he could rule the world, walk upright, and eat good food. The negation of each of those corresponds to a part of his punishment. Then, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia laments that such a good servant as the snake went out of the world, because if the snake had not been cursed, everyone in Israel could have had two snakes in her house, and they would bring us precious stones, and nothing could injure them. You could even use them instead of a camel or other beast of burden for farm work. I don’t know what this is about. It doesn’t seem consistent with the pre-expulsion snake, who was humanoid, not inclined to be anyone’s servant, and had no connection with gems. It also seems a little absurd to lament that, of all things, about the expulsion from Eden. Isn’t it worse that humans are banished from paradise and cursed to endure pain and hard labor? Comment if you have any interesting ideas!

We stopped in the middle of the next section, so I’ll leave it for Maya, but get excited for some analogies with scorpions next week. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Patience, Haste, and Fences

Our second Avot D’Rabbi Natan chevruta session started off with a bang, as we quickly delved into a very long discussion in the text about the first of three pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah (the members of the Great Assembly): “hevu metunim ba’din, Be cautious in judgment”. There is a short description of why one should be hesitant when judging, and then there is a short aside that relates some history about the books of Proverbs, Shir HaShirim, and Kohelet. Apparently, these books were not copied down until long after they were written. They wanted to wait for the text to grow old before copying it down so that they could appropriately bring Shlomo’s wisdom to light. (It is interesting to note a nice play on words here: The word atik means both “copy” and “old”.)

The text then goes on to explain that the same cautiousness one applies to judgment should also be applied to one's speech. “This teaches that a man should be careful with his words and shouldn’t be hasty with them, for whoever is hasty with his words, his words are forgotten.” A story is then related of a time in the book of Bamidbar when Moshe Rabbeinu was too hasty with his words and became angry and was unable to follow God’s command. “If this happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, the wisest of the wise, the greatest of the great, the father of the prophets, when he became too hasty with his words and forgot his words, then how much more for us!” Rabbi Natan explains.

Ben-Azzai then seems to try and bridge the first and third pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah. He says: “Be careful of putting obstacles in front of your words; make a fence around them”. (This third precept of the Great Assembly is “v’asu seyag la’Torah, make a fence around the Torah”.) Apparently, God, Adam, the Torah, Moshe, Job, and prophets, writers, and the wise ones all made fences around their words. It seems that the text tries to back up (at least part of) this statement by essentially saying that God made a fence around His words by predicting the future with appropriate caveats in a pretty specific example cited. (The purpose of the caveats being so that we won’t think God is wrong.)

A long story about Adam and Chava ensues that attempts to show how important it was that Adam made a fence around his words. However, I find several things very problematic with the story provided. The story begins with God telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam adds a seyag around his words when repeating these instructions to Chava. He tells her that it is forbidden to eat from the tree and it also forbidden to touch the tree. (Adam is so shomer negiyah he doesn’t even touch trees!) The evil serpent comes along to Chava later and insists that it is okay to touch the tree, demonstrating by rubbing his arms and legs all over it. (Yes, the nachash had limbs. Don’t ask.) Chava, seeing that the serpent has touched the tree and lived, does the same and is also fine. The snake then says to her: “Just like you touched it and didn’t die, so too if you eat from it, you will not die”. Chava thinks to herself that, thus far, everything Adam has said has been a lie. She has no reason to trust that she shouldn’t eat the fruit after it turned out that touching was okay, so she eats it.

I find this example quite problematic. Is the root cause of this notorious story of “Eve eating the forbidden fruit” all a product of Adam making a fence around Hashem’s word? I don’t see how this is evidence that supports our fence-building practices. Jews have historically been quite fond of fences. They are the reason that “not boiling a kid in its mothers milk” has turned into having separate sponges and that “not kindling a flame on Shabbat” has turned into not turning on and off lights on Shabbat. But what if, as this story seems to subliminally imply, these fences are actually taking us farther away from the intent of Hashem’s intent? What if we lose sight of the real mitzvah behind miles and miles of fences? Do we become “Worshippers of the Fence”? And what if, as in this story, we actually break a mitzvah because of a seyag that is added?

This reminded me of a poem we looked at this summer, Bimkom Shir Ahavah by Yehudah Amichai. I apologize for not being able to provide the Hebrew text here.

Instead of a Love Poem

To Chana

From “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mothre’s milk,”

they made the many laws of Kashrut,

but the kid is forgotten and the milk is forgotten and

the mother is forgotten

In this way from “I love you”

we made all our life together.

But I’ve not forgotten you

as you were then.

That’s it for now. Until next week!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Moshe recieved the Torah at Sinai and it ruined his friendships

This week was the beginning of Maya’s and my Avot d’Rabbi Natan chevruta. Avot D’Rabbi Natan is a commentary on Pirkei Avot, so it begins with the first mishna of Avot—“משה קיבל תורה מסיני” -- “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” It starts with a discussion of the choreography of Moshe’s interactions with God at Sinai—what happened before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments? What did the Divine Cloud do, exactly? And why did Moshe have to stay on the mountain for six days without being spoken to? All good questions with inconclusive answers. 

After that, there is a rabbinic anecdote about Rabbi Yoshia and Rabbi Matia the son of Charash who were sitting and learning Torah, when Rabbi Yoshia began talking about everyday matters— דרך ארץ—instead. Rabbi Matia the son of Charash, who was Rabbi Yoshia’s student, said “My teacher, why are you leaving the words of the Living God for everyday matters?! Even though you are my teacher and I am your student, it is not good to leave the words of the Living God for everyday matters.”  And an anonymous “they” replies, “The whole time that they were sitting and engaging in words of Torah, they were like people who are jealous of one another; when they stopped, they were like people who have loved each other since their youth.”

I don’t entirely know what to make of that story. For one thing, this is a book of Torah, so I would have expected its authors to be pro-Torah. And even more than that, I expect Jews to be pro-study. I’m used to that daily life needs to take precedence over Torah sometimes, and that’s absolutely a Jewish concept, but this story sounds as if Torah is inherently bad, not just less urgent. If we could be like people who have loved each other since our youth, why would we ever decide to be jealous? The best answer I’ve come up with is that maybe learning alone can’t make a real relationship; it’s too hard to really get to know people by talking about purely academic topics. It’s much easier to build relationships by talking about real life and things that are important to us. Still, there should be a good way for study and important real-life topics to not be mutually exclusive.

After that, there’s some more discussion of Moshe’s role in the revelation at Sinai and a little about the priestly tradition that has endured for generations. It looks like the writers of Avot d’Rabbi Natan may have had a different version of the Mishnah than we have, because the chain of transmission includes judges receiving the Torah from the Elders, and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi receiving it from the Prophets, which is odd, because I thought they were prophets. We ended our study session with the Torah getting to Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Great Assembly, and we’ll be back next week with more Banot d’Rabbi Natan.