Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Talmud Circle 6: A Separation from the Land

Rashi (1040-1105)/artist unknown to me
We met on a rainy Sunday morning, March 11, 2016. Daylight savings. The bagel to talmudist ratio was 5:1 on this day. There was great homemade coffeecake too!  But the coffee didn't last.

Peretz lead us in an extended discussion on the creation of Talmud and how it has been assembled, supplemented and revised over the centuries. The Talmud reading, starting with the mnemonic that appears in the middle of page 215, through to the middle of p. 216 of the Steinsaltz Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, entailed three compact stories from rabbi Elazar that illustrate the separation of the people of Israel from the city of Jerusalem and the land. These three stories are at the heart of the transition from Israelite to Jew, as Michael Satlow puts it in his podcast series. No longer is God accessed through sacrificial offerings in the city of Jerusalem: in creating Judaism the rabbis have placed the emphasis on private direct dialogue between individual Jews and God, using Hannah as a model.

A Brief History of Manuscripts 

Peretz asked us to envision the desk of Maimonedes (1135-1204). A big wooden table, covered with many manuscripts. Candelabra, perhaps? Maimonides lived two and a half centuries before Gutenberg developed his printing press.  In Maimonedes's time all manuscripts were painstakingly copied by hand. This is a slow process. They say it takes a sofer (scribe) 18 months to handcopy a Sefer Torah (the five books of Moses). It's as labor intensive as creating a Persian carpet, and as expensive. 

Most manuscripts used by Jewish scholars through the centuries have been lost. In addition to the vagaries of time, many were burnt by the Catholic church, by crusades, by the inquisition. Others were lost during pogroms in the East, during the Shoa, and in unrest in the Middle East following the end of French and British colonial rule. Some beautiful manuscripts made their way to the Vatican library. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. has one. 

The Aleppo Codex  was considered the oldest complete manuscript of the Tanakh (Hebrew bible) created by Jewish scribe scholars (Masoretes) working in Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Babylonia in the sixth through 10th centuries C.E. The Masoretes developed a common system of pronunciation, grammatical guides, diacritical notations, including a vowel notation system.  The ben Asher family was largely responsible for the preservation of the Masoretic texts. Aharon Moshe ben Asher in around 930 CE produced a full manuscript of the entire bible which was preserved for a thousand years in various centers of Jewish learning in the Middle East: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Alexandria, and Aleppo. Maimonedes examined it and pronounced it good and helped establish its authority. 

In 1947, in the wake of the UN declaration of the division of Mandate Palestine, the Aleppo Codex was damaged in rioting that took place in the city of Aleppo. Much of the manuscript was hidden and, in 1958, smuggled out of Syria to Jerusalem. But not all of it. The first part of the manuscript (the Pentateuch) was heavily damaged with only the last eleven pages surviving. According to Aleppocodex.org: "The final pages of the Aleppo Codex are also missing, including part of the Song of Songs, and all of Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. In the rest of the books of the prophets, some pages are missing. In all, the Aleppo Codex originally had 487 pages." According the a lengthy New York Times article in July 2012, more than 200 pages (40% of the total) are missing. 

We make do with what manuscripts we have and the tradition carries on....

The oldest known complete Torah scroll is a sheepskin manuscript created in 1155-1225 according to carbon dating, and is kept in a library at the University of Bologna. 
Prof. Mauro Perani, University of Bologna
w/. oldest Sheepskin Torah scroll, created in late 12th cent. 
Mishna, as we know, is a collection of manuscripts that forms the foundation of Talmud. To recap from our class on November 1, 2015, it was the first major book of Rabbinic literature redacted by the school of Rabbi Judah HaNasi before his death in ~217 C.E., and it reflects the views and works of a group of rabbis called the Tannaim. (Tannaim, we recall, is an Aramaic word related to Hebrew "Shana", meaning to "repeat" or "recite"; the Tannaim were active approximately 10-210 C.E.) 

The Amoraim, the rabbis that followed Judah HaNasi issued more manuscripts. They built upon the foundation of the Mishna with a lot of manuscripts that by about 500 C.E.  were gathered in the Gemara. Today we have the closed product of Mishna and Gemara, the Babylonian Talmud--we don't have snapshots along the way. [Rabbinic notes and manuscripts from the Galilee area were bound into the less discussed and used Jerusalem Talmud, ca 350-400 CE]

Of course the Talmudic tradition of writing manuscripts and commentary did not end with the closing of the Gemara. Manuscripts continued to multiply apace. We especially know of famous Jewish scholars in the 12th to 14th centuries like Rashi (1040-1105) and Maimonides (1135-1204). But there were thousands of them, as the creators of the Aleppo Codex and the Bologna scroll (above) attest.  

Maimonedes attempted to impose some order with his Mishneh Torah. The Mishneh Torah, of course, as well as the later refinement of the Shulkhan Arukh (rabbi Joseph Caro 16th century) were intended as the guide for daily life. 
An old copy of the Mishneh Torah

From Manuscripts to Printed Talmud

Between 1520 and 1523 Daniel Bomberg (d. ~1549) took the manuscript commentaries of the Babylonian Talmud and printed them in a new edition of the Talmud as we know it today. Notably he included some manuscript commentaries generated in the 12th to 14th centuries. Bomberg was a Christian born and raised in Antwerp but he settled in Venice where he established his printing press and published two complete editions of the Babylonian Talmud. He prominently placed the Mishna and Gemara (as they were closed in the Babylonian Talmud) in the center (and dominant part) of the page, and surrounded this with commentaries (Tosafot) from prominent rabbis of the 12th to the 14th centuries (e.g. Rashi, Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel). 

Three and a half centuries later (in the 1870's-1880's) publishers in Vilna, Lithuania gleaned and improved the Bomberg. The Vilna edition of the Talmud became standard and was widely recognized as better than other competing editions (such as, e.g., the Vesheva, Kiev, Bialystock, and other editions....). 

A story: When a student, rabbi Peretz encountered Ben Zion Wacholder. Wacholder was born in 1924 in a shtetl south of Warsaw, studied in Yeshivot in Warsaw and Vilna, and was recognized as a promising young scholar before the outbreak of war in 1939. He survived the war in Poland by living under an assumed name. Moving to the U.S. after the war, he received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University (New York) in 1951, and a PhD in history from UCLA in 1960.  He became a renowned expert on the origins and development of Talmudic Judaism and played a key role in enhancing scholars’s access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Blessed with a photographic memory, Wacholder knew his sources by heart. By the time rabbi Peretz encountered him, he was blind from macular degeneration. Sharp as ever, lack of sight made him more imposing still. When he assigned a particular section of Talmud for discussion in class the next day one had better be prepared. Peretz recalled this one assignment. The students dutifully found the assigned section of Talmud in the library, made copies, and did their reading. But in class Wacholder was chagrined: "What are you reading?" he said. The students were taken aback. They cited the section they had so diligently prepared. "Which Talmud? " asked Wacholder. "Was it blue?" The blue Talmud in the library, it became apparent, was the Vesheva edition with a different lay-out and pagination.  "I don't like that one," said Wacholder, who knew the Vilna edition by heart. 

The point is, from manuscripts to printed volumes, there is no definitive edition of the Talmud.  The Vilna Talmud won out as the standard of the printed editions because it was recognized as an improvement on the Bomberg Talmud. After World War II it took on added significance by virtue of the fact that it survived the Holocaust.

Issues of Interpretation and Translation

When Steinsaltz began his project of reissuing the Talmud in modern Hebrew with punctuation and vowels and exposition in 1965, his project was greeted with skepticism in some circles. By imposing his view as to what the correct vowels might be for a word, where clauses end, and where sentences end, Steinsaltz is performing an interpretive act. When he goes further and tells us what assumed knowledge might be implied in the shorthand that is found in Talmudic manuscripts, this too is a matter of interpretation.... and hence debate. 

Steinsaltz makes the process transparent by including the "original text"--although there really is no truly original text--for comparison. Not that this helps those of us who are not fluent in both biblical and modern Hebrew. But still we get to follow along in class.

The format of the Talmud we see at the back of the Steinsaltz Talmud [e.g. Berakhot p. 64--which corresponds to where we are currently studying, pp. 215-216 for the English] derives from the Bomberg-Vilna editions. The traditional commentaries from the Bomberg and he Vilna are preserved in the right hand margins. Steinsaltz adds some of his own along the left margin. 

In our English translation, of course, the lay-out is significantly modified, and gaps in logic and "assumed knowledge" are filled in. The formatting is changed to make it readable and accessible to modern audiences who do not have decades of Yeshiva training. Like Tyndale's translation of the Vulgate bible, it stirred emotions. But so far--we think--no one has suggested Steinsaltz should be strangled at the stake and burned.  

The Steinsaltz makes no claim to perfection.  It is part and parcel of the living tradition. Just like the Vilna Talmud advanced the Bomberg edition, Steinsaltz and his team of translators (Dr. Sheldon Berger is the head of English translation) are carrying the tradition forward. And by engaging with the text, we are too. It is not fundamentally different from what happened when Maxwell House coffee tried to convert Eastern European Jewish immigrants to drink coffee by creating and giving away the "Maxwell House Haggadah." Ultimately, as David Hartman said per Peretz, the essence of Talmud is not the document in front of us but the community that surrounds the document. 

Take the mnemonic device before the break in the middle of p. 215 of the Steinsaltz Talmud Bavli, Berakhot (end of Perek V:32a): "Deeds, charity, offering, priest, fast, shoe, iron." The mnemonic introduces three teachings by rabbi Elazar. The mnemonic is not original to Rabbi Elazar (1st century CE, one of the second generation of Tannaim); it was inserted later as a memory aid. After all, not everyone has a photographic memory like Wacholder. The word "shoe" seems out of place here because it does not appear in the text that follows--the text to be memorized. The word that appears is "lock" ("Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked; though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer")  Is "shoe" a mistake, or is it intentional? What's going on? Peretz shared with us the sleuthing of Ron Sires, who participates in the Downtown Talmud Circle: the word for "shoe," but also for "lock," is Na'al. There is a connection between the two meanings of the word in that shoes in the first century CE were fastened ("locked") with a strap. Just like the velcro strap on Peretz's Tivas. Says Ron Sires: "It does appear that the double meaning of na'al as both 'shoe' and 'lock' is one that the rabbis knew and played around with. It may be that the mnemonic used a form with the meaning of 'shoe' while the cited passage used the meaning of 'lock.' Some of the references I've found indicates that, as you said, the common meaning of 'fastening' is the link between the two." So mistake? or playful use of the word "shoe." Reasonable minds can differ. 

More about this mnemonic on p. 215: Peretz directed us to the fact that, in the original (at the bottom of page 63), the mnemonic is in parenthesis. Why in parenthesis? Because the mnemonic does not appear in the Vilna Talmud. Apparently Steinsaltz saw it in some other Talmud (maybe in Peretz's blue edition?) and he added it here... but set it apart with parenthesis.  In the English translation on page 215, of course, the mnemonic is firmly ensconced: no parenthesis, and no notation of where it came from. 

Aside 1. Dispute and disagreement and interpretation is of the essence to the tradition, says Peretz. The Judaism of the Talmud is not about biblioidolatry.  A possible exception is the Sefer Torah, which is used as a performance object. It's not like when the Catholic church thought it owned the bible. Talmud belongs to all and all may engage in it.  For the uninitiated like me, of course, this is more true now that we have translations in English, with Steinsaltz filling in logic gaps and explaining underlying assumptions, and Lehrhaus Judaica providing expert guidance.  Even so...., I am always surprised in class how much is hidden below the surface...; we still need a guiding hand. Before Steinsaltz, however, it seems clear that Talmud was strictly for the initiate.  

Aside 2. Peretz also said Talmud is not like the Koran "where you take your life into your hands when you question any part of the text." That is true, of course, if we listen to political campaigns or to noises made by raping, murdering thugs in Syria, and Iraq...., but I don't think it's true in a theological sense.

Roberta Kwall in her book The Myth of the Cultural Jew observed (p. 21): 
"Sacred texts reveal a multiplicity of meanings on their face. There is no fixed meaning from the get go. There is a multiplicity of views as to God, sin, retribution, love, justice, etc. Language of the original has multivalent quality in that its verb roots often support multiple meanings through seven types of verb construction known as baynim. Hebrew lends itself to different ideas within a single expression or word. Different people bring different interpretations. Dispute is part of the tradition."
This holds true for Islam as well. In reading about Islamic law, e.g. Wael Hallaq's An Introduction to Islamic Law (free .pdf version) they have a legal tradition of interpretation very similar to Halakhah. 

Aside 3. The six orders of the Mishna (Zera'im, Mo'ed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, and Tohorot) or in English (Seeds, Festival, Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purities) also serve as a mnemonic to help sort the 63 tractate that are found there.  Similarly, the order of the Passover meal can be seen as a mnemonic device. 

Aside 4. "Mazel-tov" "Simen-tov" signifies all will be well. Used for celebration, as in marking life-stages: births, bar-mitzvahs, weddings. Something good is coming....

How great is Prayer? Let me count the ways: Deeds--Charity--Offering--Priest--Fast--Shoe--Iron

So, finally, we get to the text of this lecture: the three discourses of Rabbi Elazar (and friends) on pp. 215-216.

1. "Deeds."  Rabbi Elazar said "prayer is greater than good deeds without prayer." He cites as evidence that Moses, who performed many good deeds for his people, nevertheless had to pray for the privilege of seeing the promised land. "Only through prayer" did God permit him to climb the mountain and see the land. We can pile up good deeds, but to get what we want, we need to pray also. This harkens back to Hannah again. We don't know about Hannah's good deeds. We know of her tribulations. But good deeds or no, it was through direct appeal to God--through prayer--that she was granted her son. 

2. "Charity." Rabbi Elazar says further that "a fast is greater than charity." He cites as evidence that fasting involves the whole body, our entire being; charity only involves our money (which may be trivial depending on our circumstances). Again we harken back to Hannah who "looked drunk" because she was all in. By praying with her full attention she did more than charity (offering sacrifice?) 

3. "Offering." Rabbi Elazar also said that "prayer is greater than sacrifices."  As evidence he quotes from Isaiah 1:11 ["What good to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, of he goats."]  The northern kingdom has fallen and is occupied by the Assyrians. Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah is on dangerous ground. Isaiah rails against Judah's religious superficiality. A thousand years of sacrifice, "enough already!" says the Lord. Prayer is better. It is immaterial; it is from the essence of you, it is prolonged. I like it, says the Lord.

4. "Priest." Rabbi Elazar adds, citing Isaiah 1:15, "and when you (the priest) spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you, even though you make many prayers, I will not listen, your hands are full of blood." No more of this sacrifice!  Rabbi Yohanan chimes in: "just like a priest who kills a person may not lift his hands in offering; a priest may not lift his hands to God bloody from sacrifice. 

5. "Shoe" (Ha, ha; they mean "lock"). Rabbi Elazar also said: "Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked.... Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer. Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked... the gates of tears were not." And we recall that it was the tears that opened the gates of prayer for Hannah in Shiloh. Private prayer. Lips moving mute silent prayer.  Although our prayers are locked out, and God does not hear, He does hear if our prayer is accompanied by tears. Elazar refers to destruction of the First Temple here, in 586 BCE. [Lamentations 3:8--"Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked."] 

6. "Fast." And Rava cites to Lamentations 3:44: "Thou hast wrapped thyself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. Thou hast made us offscouring and refuse among the peoples." And Rava did not decree a fast on a cloudy day. Why fast if God's not going to listen to you anyway! 

7. "Iron." And Rabbi Elazar said: "Since the day the Temple was destroyed an iron wall separates Israel from their Father in heaven." He cites as evidence Ezekiel the prophet who is sent by God to speak to the people of Israel in exile, in God's voice. [Ezekiel 3:22-4:3] "And ... take a brick and lay it before you, and portray upon it... Jerusalem; and put siege works against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it round about. And take an iron plate, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel." 

So what are these three stories of rabbi Elazar? The first story ("Deeds/Charity") says prayer is essential; good deeds alone are not sufficient; it is superior to charity even. The second story ("Offering/Priest") establishes that the days of sacrifice are over. One thousand years was enough. From here on out it's prayer. The third story ("Shoe/Fast/Iron") deals with the destruction of the temple and the loss of Jerusalem. No longer are prayers heard through Jerusalem. An iron wall has descended between the people of Israel and the city. A cloud has descended over the city. No longer can prayers be heard through the clouds and the iron. 

Silent, fervent, private prayer.... like Hannah. With tears. That's the way to access God. 

We left off in the middle of page 216.  Our next class is on April 10, 2016.

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