Embracing Intellectual Dishonesty in the Jewish Tradition
If the man
who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his
fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will
sweep out evil from your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for
eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Imagine this is a
historical document from a society that lived around 2500 years ago, a
collection of stories, myths and laws. From just this one law: what does it
mean? What is its original intention?
Well, it's obvious. In this
ancient society, if you chopped off someone's leg, the appropriate punishment
was obviously for your leg to be chopped off without pity or mercy. And so on
for other body parts. This is not a difficult comprehension exercise: it's
just what the text says! A dispassionate historian would look at this text and
think about what its society's legal system would look like and of how it fit
within the wider historical context, what led to this idea and what it led to,
and so on. All very straightforward to us modern, educated people.
say that this is a passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy 19:18-21 if you must
know!). What changes? What difference does this knowledge make on your reading
of the text?
You might know, for example, that the rabbis of the Mishnah
understand this principle to be talking about monetary compensation: if I chop
off someone's leg, then I have to pay them the value their leg had to them,
etc. You could not at all argue that this is the plain meaning of the text nor
its original intention. Such a claim would be nonsense and totally unjustified
academically. The aforementioned historian, for example, would never come to the
conclusion from just this text that ancient Israelite society had to have a
detailed system of monetary compensation! *
What is the Talmud? (Kelim 2012)
Before I attempt to begin, I should be clear that this is
not the Wikipedia entry on the Talmud, it is more an explanation of my
experience of studying Mishna and Gemorrah as taught by Rabbi Joel Levy. Rabbi
Joel likened understanding Mishna to a score of music. It is an invitation to
play that must be brought to life, not the performance itself; it is an
esoteric code that few understand, where the text is secondary to the
performance itself. You could play the piece without ever reading the score, as
many people do with Judaism, but not to the highest possible level. Judaism is
by its very nature a performative canon.
The Mishna, the first layer of the Talmud, is the Rabbis
working out how to do Judaism without a Temple,
the former centre point of the religion. It even addresses fundamental issues
such as what timeframe to use – ritual or astronomical? However, the Mishna
appears to me to be interested in laying out arguments, and not always coming
to conclusions. It seems individualistic, even Reform at first as it is often
unclear how to deduct specific codes and rules to live by from the debate
presented. Perhaps it seems individualistic to me because I don’t understand it
properly, and it is just an extremely elitist text for the knowledgeable. I
certainly found that the text required a teacher to get much out of it.
The Mishna is a series of philosophical conversations, but
framed in pragmatic terms– which is indeed a bizarre way of doing literature
when you think about it. It is a coherent conversation, but framed in terms
that sometimes seem dry at first. For example, the long debate about high a
sukkah can be is actually a theological debate about how close God is to the
Rain Won't Stop Festival Kedem
Rain Won't Stop Festival Kedem
in Essex did not stop Marom from hosting its first annual Festival Kedem Weekend
on July 6 & 7. Originally conceived as a camping weekend, the bad weather
forced organisers to relocate to Finchley, postponing the residential
component. Nonetheless, participants gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat & dinner
on Friday night, followed by a full day of learning, discussion, and laughs
the young adult branch of Masorti Judaism and focuses on developing leadership
and building connections with Noam Alumni. “After Noam leaders take Tour or
camp, they meet different challenges as Jewish young adults at university or
after graduating,” says Marom Director Naomi Magnus. “Marom events like
Festival Kedem provide a space for these young adults to engage in meaningful
conversations about their Jewish life and community when they have outgrown a
youth movement which can no longer meet their needs.”
the principles of community organising, Ms. Magnus recruited six volunteers for
the organising committee, which hosted three preparatory Friday night dinners
aimed at community development, held at the studentsbeans.com headquarters in
Golders Green. Studentbeans.com founder James Eder, who grew up in Noam, was
happy to contribute the space and joined in as one of the participants over the
Kedem was inspired by connections to Marom Europe, specifically Marom Budapest
which runs the summer festival, Bankito, annually drawing in 3,000 attendees.
Marom’s student trip to Budapest in March 2012 met leaders of Bankito when
visiting Siraly, the Marom Budapest Community Centre, which was recently closed
by the Hungarian government.
Fleischmann, Head of Noam in 20008-2009, commented, “It was wonderful to
reconnect with old friends at Festival Kedem. We shared lots of laughs over
memories from our younger days, but also discussed how we can create a
community for ourselves now. Even though it had been years since some of us had
seen each other, it was striking how quickly we were comfortable with each
the weekend, volunteer participants ran sessions covering Israel, Judaism, and
community. A major emphasis was placed on volunteer contributions to the
programme, so participants were asked to bring their skill and present it at
the Festival. Student Rabbi Oliver Joseph, Noam alumnus, was flown from Israel
and ran text study learning, focused on connecting community and scripture.
are building on the enthusiasm of participants, rescheduling the camping aspect
of Festival Kedem for September. Furthermore, Ms. Magnus is working on putting
together the next organising committee to develop Festival Kedem 2, scheduled
for summer 2013.
Strange Mishna - Discovered by Jonathan and Jeremy
Kelimnikim 2012 at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem have been
studying Torah, Mishna and Talmud for a week now. And we came across a
rather interesting passage today.
didn’t quite make the Mishna, but it’s from the same time period.
Indeed, it is in a collection of Tannaitic material (i.e. stuff
contemporary to the Mishna, the first Jewish law code) called Fishna. It
is rather perplexing stuff but we’ll follow the journey of this quote
and show something about the halakhic process.
must wear a hat while eating cheese. Rabbi Yehudah says: green [hat].
Rav Yonatan says: peaked [hat]. The sages say: red [hat].
This has been derived from a Torah verse, “Do not eat milk unclothed. Remember always that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt and could not eat milk in freedom.”
But this seems like a huge jump. How did they go from discussing milk
to cheese? And what about from all clothing to specifically hats? And
really, what is going on here? What is the reason for this ruling from
This is explained by Rashi (11th century rabbi and commentator):
refers to the head covering, as we are never truly unclothed, as it is
written: “They knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:7).
And a later comment:
Why ‘eat’? Surely you should read ‘cheese’.
remains quite perplexing. The Tannaim (rabbis of the Tannaitic period)
had made several jumps between the Torah and Fishna, which Rashi picks
up on. Wearing a hat while drinking milk would be quite preposterous as
it might fall off when you tilted your head back to drink the beverage.
So the Fishna uses the fact that the Torah uses the word ‘eat’ to
explain that it is really talking about the milky product that is
the Gemara will explain further, which often picks up on so-called
‘b’raitas’, by which it means teachings contemporary with the Mishna. In
Babylonian Talmud Chalavim 41a, we find the following account:
a gentile came to Rabbi Abahu—a cheese merchant. In pity, he bought
some edam to fulfil [the mitzvah of eating cheese with a hat on]. Rava
rebuked him, saying: “Why do you open the doors to Edom? As it is
written, ‘Lo! Your sheep go unmilked and your heads are bare!’ (Isaiah
68:6)” From this, [the sages] derive [the concept of the] red [hat].
This is a triple pun put forward by Rava: edam, Edom and red (in Hebrew) are all written אדם (‘aleph dalet mem’)! And so he uses the example of edam to prove that the hat must be red, as asserted by the Fishna.
This clearly shows the rabbis had a very good sense of humour.
Jeremy Tabick & Jonathan Metzer
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