It Is Not for Me to Finish the Text, Yet Neither Am I Free to Desist

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December 1, 2008
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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

I remember my first encounter with the Babylonian Talmud (BT) as a seminary student. It was during my second semester studying at a Protestant seminary in Berlin, with one semester of biblical Hebrew under my belt. A doctoral student taught a course on pereq heleq , the eleventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin that bundles the plenitude of messianic speculations and ideas of the rabbinic cross-generational and transgeographic collective into one long exposition. The didactic purpose of that course had been to explore the Jewish messianic expectations that supposedly produced Jesus of Nazareth, son of David, the anointed one.

At that time, I approached the talmudic text as a believer, as someone searching not just for historical knowledge, or merely out of crosscultural curiosity, but as someone who wanted to understand how the tradition I had grown up with (German Congregational Protestantism) could come to believe that this man from the hinterland region of the Galilee was the messiah, and even the son of God. Somewhere in those texts there had to be a secret that waited to be unlocked.

To this day, I am grappling with understanding the magic attraction that the talmudic text exerted on me in that first encounter. I have long since given up on the Christian myth, but my love of the talmudic text and, to a certain degree, even my naïve passion as a believer remain. And as with any magic — which is to say irrational or transrational attraction — it cannot be grasped in its totality lest it lose its hold.

But surely one aspect would be this: the willingness of the text to remain incomplete, to forsake authority, to leave the final word unsaid; and the insistence of the text that no one, neither Rabbi Akiva, nor Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi, nor Rav Ashi, and certainly no one of us — so many centuries later — will have the final word. And none of them, certainly not in pereq heleq , was granted the aspiration to or satisfaction of a magnum opus that says it all, not a City of God , no “life,” or “confession.” The truth does not abide with someone, with any one person; it is born from the principled discussion between two or more people. It is born from keeping the discussion going, restaging it. And this intuitive perception of the talmudic rhetoric, I experience as profoundly liberating. The Talmud gave me disagreement, dispute, and conversation where early Christian theologians gave me dogmatic claims to the truth.

Somewhere in that long eleventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, the talmudic text records (or constructs) the following dispute about redemption between Rav and Shmuel, the earliest Babylonian inheritors (or promoters) of the Mishnah; one is from Sura, the other from Nehardea.

Rav said: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter [now] depends only on repentance and good deeds. But Samuel maintained: it is sufficient for a mourner to keep his [period of] mourning. —BT Sanhedrin 97b

Here are two statements that express diametrically opposed views of the way of the world. Freely translating the language of redemption, ge’ulah , the Talmud remains committed to: either it matters what we do (repentance and good deeds), or it does not matter what we do (redemption will come about by itself, without human effort). In my first encounter with this passage, as a good Protestant seminary student, this dispute resonated deeply although not yet clearly, and I could easily read it as being born from profound theological sensibilities, potentially irreconcilable ones as we shall see in a minute.

But first this: the talmudic text, instead of lending authority to either Rav or Shmuel, proceeds to throw its weight behind the legitimacy of the disagreement itself, by underwriting it with an earlier, potentially more authoritative dispute, of which we will cite only a part.

A tradition from the time of the Mishnah taught:

Rabbi Eliezer said: “If Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it is written, ‘Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings’ (Jeremiah 3:22).” R. Joshua said to him: “But is it not written, ‘you have sold yourselves for nothing; and you shall be redeemed without money’? (Isaiah 52:3).” Meaning, you have sold yourselves for nothing, for idolatry; and you shall be redeemed without money — without repentance and good deeds.

The Talmud offers as proof an earlier tradition in which two sages again dispute whether human effort (as in repentance) will make a difference. For one (Rabbi Eliezer) it absolutely does: redemption is linked to repentance — the state of the world to human behavior — and he cites the biblical verse to prove it: God responds to human action rather than following God’s own design. For the other (Rabbi Yehoshua) it does not: redemption will come about but it will come about regardless of human behavior. He also has the biblical verse to back up his position. The citation of biblical verses adds another dynamic to the dispute: not only do the sages themselves differ, but so does the Tanakh, or at least the biblical prophets, as to the significance of human action. Therein is the dispute anchored. Subsequently, the dispute evolves as a contest over biblical verses, with both sages volleying individual verses:

Rabbi Eliezer retorted to Rabbi Joshua: “But is it not written, ‘Return unto me, and I will return unto you’ (Malachi 3:7)”?  Rabbi Joshua rejoined: “But is it not written, ‘For I am master over you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion’ (Jeremiah 3:14)”? Rabbi Eliezer replied: “But it is written, ‘in returning and rest shall ye be saved’ (Isaiah 30:15)”!  Rabbi Joshua replied: “But is it not written, ‘Thus says the Lord, The Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despises, to him whom the nations abhor, to a servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship’ (Isaiah 49:7)”? Rabbi Eliezer countered: “But is it not written, ‘if thou wilt return, O Israel, says the Lord, return unto me’ (Jeremiah 4:1)”? Rabbi Joshua answered, “But it is elsewhere written, ‘And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by him that lives forever that it shall be for a time, two times and a half, and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished’ (Daniel 12:7).” At this, Rabbi Eliezer remained silent.

This, then, is where we have been led: we enter the fundamental dispute through the conversation between the later Babylonian sages (Rav and Shmuel); and we are guided to the earlier dispute between the Galilean sages Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer who negotiate the message of the prophetic literature in the dispute. The dispute appears as one that is multilayered text- and chronology-wise, and it appears open-ended in a circular way, since even though Rabbi Eliezer, our proponent of the importance of ethics, loses in the contest over biblical verses, the later Babylonian sages continue to disagree. The text turns us and turns us again, as we seek to find everything within it.

Emerging from this guided path through the never ending yet principled dispute, a resonance emerges more clearly. The debate between our two positions on the question of redemption starts to appear as one between Judaism and Christianity in toto . Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer echo Paul’s dyad of faith versus works. Is it “faith” and faith alone — in Rabbi Joshua’s terms above, “you shall be redeemed without (good) works” — that will bring about one’s salvation (to use the term more familiar in Christian rhetoric)? Or, is it works, in this context, repentance? Rabbi Joshua appears in disguise as Paul, who argues vigorously and radically on behalf of faith, while Rabbi Eliezer upholds one of the deepest sensibilities underlying rabbinic Judaism (and to a certain degree, of course, the Torah), namely, the belief in the ultimate significance of good deeds and the moral fabric of the universe.

Cast in this light, the talmudic text appears as the condensation of a dispute that remains open even to this day, which more often than not we enter from a very different angle, but which the Talmud anchors in the deep folds of our textual heritage. Turning difference into discussion and debate that is to be carried on ad infinitum is one of the great gifts of the Talmud to our culture. After studying the talmudic exclusionary mechanisms (above all the principled exclusion of women) and its implicit dogmatics in all too many contexts, this profound humility of the Talmud in shaping the production of knowledge, of Torah, and ultimately of wisdom continues to exert its lasting hold on me.

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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, a member of the Sh'ma Advisory Board, is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, where she teaches rabbinic literature and culture. She is author of Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender and currently working on a study of the eruv in Jewish culture.

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