Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reading Torah through a Greco-Roman lens in Persia—in San Francisco.


We met at the JCCSF on November 19, 2017. Rabbi Peretz dedicated our learning to his teacher Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995). See American Jewish Archives.  Jacob Marcus was the Dean of American Jewish history working closely (with his colleague, Dr. Ellis Rivkin). Marcus wrote an influential book that looked at Jews in the medieval world: Jews in the Medieval World: a Sourcebook 315-1791 (1938). Ellis Rivkin took it a step  further, looking specifically at the economics of the Babylonian empire and its effects on the Talmud. He also explored the effects of the collapse of the Sasanian empire (224 CE- 651 CE) on Judaism. Rivkin’s book was called The Shaping of Jewish History (1971).


We last left the rabbis discussing the call-and-response, sing-song zimmun which starts the blessing after meals, the Birkat Hamazon. The rabbis explored when do we say the zimmun (when there are three eaters), who counts for a zimmun, and then who gets to recite the blessing after meals. There is he who breaks bread, the host, the guest of honor, the greatest in the bunch . . . so many possibilities. The rabbis continue their discussion focusing on whether Grace after meals consists of “two and three blessings” or “three and four blessings,” what is optional, and what is not, how far the zimmun blessing extends, what happens to the blessing after meals when one interrupts a meal, the order in which diners are to recline on a divan during a festive meal, the order in which they are to wash their hands (both before and after the meal), who gets to cross a bridge first on a donkey, who gets  to enter doorways marked with a mezuza first, and the order in which we are to eat when three dine from a single dish. [Berakhot 46a (p299) to 46b (p. 302)] 

Scant Direction in Proof Text

We recalled how the blessing after meal is one of the few blessings mandated by Torah-- Deuteronomy 8:10: “And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.”

But Deuteronomy 8:10 provides us with no direction of how to do this blessing. By the time the Babylonian Talmud is closed in 500 CE the rabbis have put considerable flesh on this skeleton. But the blessing after meal has never been truly fixed. Rabbi Zeira said, any mitzvah we should do (like reciting the blessing after meal), we should spend one-third more on it to do it aesthetically. We should make it beautiful. Over time ornaments are added.

The addition of the zimmun to the blessing after meals is an aesthetic move. We sing. It is reminiscent of the Levites who sang in the temple.  It evokes the shores of the Red Sea where we sang. By singing together we evoke continuity. It makes the ceremony flow.

The discussion of aesthetics, said Peretz, over time, goes to the balance point between spending on aesthetics and spending on the poor: spending on a meal and spending on feeding people. It’s the age-old conversation of where we put our resources. We’re involved in it at a national level, and on a personal level.

Four Parts of Birkat HaMazon

After the introductory zimmun (three or more eaters), the Birkat Hamazon has four parts: (1) we bless the food we just ate; (2) we bless the good earth and the food it provides; (3) we bless (the hope of) rebuilding Jerusalem; and (optionally) (4) we bless God who is good and does good.

The third blessing (rebuild Jerusalem) is in the Birkat hamazon because we’re serious: “we want Jerusalem rebuilt!” The blessing after meals is a way to negotiate our deepest held wants. The wish to see Jerusalem rebuilt shows up also, for example, at the end of the Passover Seder, at the end of Yom Kippur (Nehila service), and in the seven blessings of the marriage ceremony. We want to end the need for all this rabbinic negotiation, to end exile. In Jerusalem, no acculturation is needed, and there is no need to accommodate anyone else—or thus went the fantasy.

Aside One. Political Zionism vs. aspirational Zionism:  aspirational Zionism starts in 70 CE upon destruction of the temple; political Zionism starts after 1880, when there is a political possibility (colonial period).

The DOS of Siddur Hebrew

“Translation of a text,” says Deborah Cook, “involves . . . a coherent deformation of that text. As deforming a text, the translation will call its very significance into question.”  It’s a universal problem of translation. But as the snippet that is available to us from Cook’s article suggests, reading an original text also involves an act of translation. That is especially true when we read a 2500 year-old text. Whether we know Hebrew and Aramaic, or not, we don’t read the words of Torah with the same cultural connotations and referents with which the temple priests would have read them, or with which Judah HaNasi would have read them, or with which rabbi Hunan in Persia would have read them. Whether we read these texts in English or in Hebrew or in Aramaic, we are reading them in translation.

There is a struggle underway to bring back Hebrew as the operative language of the Jewish people, says Peretz. It’s a battle between no Hebrew vs. modern (Israeli) Hebrew vs. prayer book Hebrew. The combatants are orthodox and nationalist Israelis on the one hand (e.g. Sharansky), and Diaspora Jews with their (mostly) English vernacular on the other. And at the heart of this battle for Judaism, is the siddur, not the bible, suggests Peretz. When they arrived at Ellis Island, most Jews had a siddur in hand, not the bible. The siddur is full of blessings. It’s the connection between the people.

“Can we teach values Hebrew? That’s the party I belong to,” says Peretz.

The Hebrew of the siddur has an operative language, suggests Peretz. The DOS of siddur Hebrew is about 15 key Hebrew terms. You don’t have to know Hebrew, but you do have to know the key terms. If you know: Kodesh, bracha, tefillah, you are empowered. Literacy in this sense does not mean fluency, suggests Peretz. See Judaism 101 on tefilah (prayer). English only may not be enough, but with English and the DOS of siddur Hebrew we can get by.

First there is a contract with God, and we say “You are our hero,” “we are so grateful!” Then there is a dialogue inside these texts, says Peretz: in the siddur, in the Birkhat Hamazon, in everything. It’s a dialogue of exile and the wish to end exile; a dialogue of communitarianism (the need to gather as communities), and then to figure out how to do things so everyone doesn’t leave the room. That is what the Talmud is struggling with, says Peretz.

In English the term “bless” connotes both to make holy (to hallow or consecrate, to set aside for holy use), and to praise and glorify. But in biblical Hebrew, says Peretz, the word “baruch” conveys more an attitude of thanksgiving. Every move is a thanksgiving. “Baruch” means to lower yourself. It is to humble ourselves before God, suggested Cliff Detz.

Aside Two. Animals eat without humbling, without gratitude.  It’s the one attribute that separates us from animals.  To act beastly is, above all, to be “ungrateful.” 

Talmud is trying to give us these core values of gratitude and humility and community.  That’s what Mishna and Talmud are trying to do in the Birkat Hamazon, says Peretz.

Quoting Torah through a Greco Roman Lens, in Persia

Canaanite/Israelite                 Judean/Greco Roman                      Persia/Sasanian
[lots of female presence]           [gender tension]                           [male patriarchy]

Rabbi Zeira, who appears on p. 298 of our Berakhot 46a, was a third generation Amoraim (~290-320 CE). He was born and schooled in Babylon but then moved back to Israel. Like rabbi Zeira, the text keeps bouncing between the Mishnaic level (Judah HaNasi) and the Talmudic level. Judah HaNasi (the redactor of the Mishna, which closes in 200 CE in Zippori) is quoted a lot, as is Rav Huna who is in Persia. Talmud is quoting Torah through the lens of the Mishna, in Persia. 

This process does not end. Later commentators, e.g. Rashi, living in France in a time of the crusades, is trying to navigate for his community at that time. We are trying to navigate this material for our community today.

1. Canaanite Period

Torah, writings, songs, proverbs, prophets were all written during the Canaanite time period. The poetics, the imagery, the Hebrew language, are all Canaanite. This period has a powerful female presence. The women in Torah: Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Rebecca, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, are dominant and powerful literary figures. This is all consistent with Canaanite culture, which is heavily feminine. E.g. Ashera, the goddess of the north, which becomes the tribe of Asher—retrospectively.

Proverbs (and some psalms) are written down during the bronze age; when we get to David and the Monarchy we are in the iron age. There are better weapons.  In first and second Samuel, the people were really aware that the Phoenicians have chariots, and chariots are really terrifying.  We move from kingdoms to empires. 

Debra is the only woman judge who is named, but she is a major figure, also a military leader. The Davidic period follows. “Give us a king.” Deborah emerges and David is anointed. We have a religious system in the land of Israel, we are Israelites.

2. Judean Greco/Roman Period

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE we have Mishna and the start of the rabbinic period. Mishna is an organizational period.  With its four children, four sons—it strives to create order out of chaos.

The Mishna means we can now travel anywhere in this world and integrate and join another community: their Shema and Baruch Hu will be like mine; their Passover Seder will be like mine; their Shabbat table will look pretty much like my Shabbat table. That’s the mission of the Mishna: to create a civilization without land.

There is tension between the genders in Mishna.  You have the Matrona and other figures in the Roman world as icons in Mishna, but it is moving towards patriarchy.

3. Babylon

When we get to Persia, patriarchy is in full bloom. Genders are extremely controlled. Tensions built as we dragged Canaanite (Israelite) religion through Greco-Roman lands into Persia. Tova Hartman speaks of the anxiety of the Talmud trying to deal with all these elements. 

There may be separation in Babylon, yet at the Passover Seder, they still needed men, women, and children all together because at Exodus we were all together. The rabbis are rowing hard with this tension because in Persia women don’t sit with men, and children don’t eat together with adults. The rabbis expend a lot of effort in Talmud to defend this move of “being together.”

Mishna still has consciousness of fluidity of gender. It mentions androginos, it mentions children born without clear sexual identity. There are ponderings in Mishna about relationship between Jonathan and David. In Persia this is all shut down.

4. Later Effects

In Europe, Judaism was extremely affected by Catholicism, and in the Middle East and North Africa by Islam. For example, said Peretz, at a wedding last week he was challenged whether a ketubah can have any representations on it.  The Islamic tradition, of course, is no representative figures. Many Jewish communities adopted this taboo. “I sent him back an image of a Florentine ketubah, with big chubby cherubs, and on the sides scenes from the bible with men and women in it.  If we were still living in Darmstadt, or Isfahan, then yes . . . no representations. But in Florence it was not true, and since this wedding was in Sonoma, it’s really, really not true,” said Peretz.

We are affected by the culture we live in, especially about gender. No one knows about the division of gender in sanctuaries in the biblical period, or in the Mishnaic period. There is no record whatsoever about separation of men and women in the land of Israel. It is not mentioned.  Separation is a Persian influence. It’s an Islamic import. This somehow carried over into Poland, where the women were extremely suppressed and everyone is wearing black!

Segregation of the sexes applied to sanctuaries. The Kotel (Western Wall) was not a synagogue, pre-state. At tombs, for example, men and women could always pray together. Talmud does not deal with that. 

Aside Three.  Maimonides had a problem with fetishes—I don’t know what he would think about the wall right now,” says Peretz. Separation at the wall today is a political move by Netanyahu’s government to appease the Orthodox.  “And where do Orthodox find their authority, (for gender separation at the Kotel)” asks Alicia Lieberman. “It’s reframing,” says Peretz.  “You take a holy site and make it a synagogue and now all the rules applicable to medieval synagogue behavior apply. In the 1920’s nobody considered the Kotel a synagogue.” 

Aside 4. Kippot. Moses Isserles wrote a responsa on kippot. He wrote clearly: “I don’t know where this is coming from, Jews wearing head coverings.” It’s not in Torah, not in Mishna. “We know where it comes from,” says Peretz. “This comes from Islam.”  Isserles, says “I can’t find it anywhere, but the people want it.”  So we’ll do it, we’ll wear kippot.

Cliff Detz suggested, other scholars said it goes back very far. Gods were up in the mountains, and it was not prudent to bear one’s head to the Gods.

Aside Five. Ripples of time.  There is half-wheeling going on all the time. The requirement for 100 blessings is amped up from anything that can be found in Torah. “He’s such a tzadik, he wears a kippa at night!” And it’s not long before someone gets the idea. Grandparents can be seen placing a kippa on a baby at it’s briss, even though the kippa won’t stay on . . . . Part of this comes from our migrations, suggests Peretz. We have elements of the past colliding with the present. There are ripples of the present, and ripples from the past . . . and we wait for them to collide.

Aside Six. Teiku. When the discussion gets too esoteric, there is always the option to punt: teiku.  Not all questions must be resolved right now. “We’re just going to leave it,” can be a good response. For example, all those additions to the Birkat Hamazon: “It doesn’t matter.” It’s O.K. to do it differently. We do the basic three paragraphs together, then the workers go about their business; the kids head for the pool. If you want to stay and expand on the blessing, it’s O.K. Another example: how many days before Passover does one change the dishes, three days? One day? The Talmud says teiku. You’ll all arrive at the Seder, so we won’t legislate this, say the rabbis. Teiku leaves things unfinished. Like bursa, teiku allows for some movement and flexibility.

Aside Seven. In the Persian period (200-600 CE) we had the exilarch, the leader of the Jewish Community in Babylon. The exilarch was a primary contact person for Persian officials. Persian officials come to his house, and so the exilarch served as a conduit of Persian customs to the Jewish community.  What happens in the house of the exilarch becomes a microcosm of how we behaved in Persia.  Today we have Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC’s) whose mission is to be interlocutors to greater world.  We need someone to explain ourselves. Recently, Jewish Federations that had dissolved local JCRC’s are rebuilding them. We need a group of people who have the phone numbers of  people in power.

Freeing up One’s Time for what Matters

What’s really important to remember when we look at Talmud, says Peretz, is that we are looking at a working document. It’s the work of a committee. In the flow of Jewish law, as we move through time, the next great move after the Babylonian Talmud is the Mishne Torah by Maimonides (1135-1204). It was conceived as a concise guide to the entire system of Jewish law.

Aside eight. Maimonides completed his Mishne Torah (“review of the Torah”) in 1180. The crusades were well underway. [200 years of crusades: first crusade 1095-1099; second crusade 1147-1149; third crusade 1189-1192; fourth Crusade 1202-1204; fifth crusade 1213-1221; the fall of Acre, the last crusader city in Israel, was in 1291; this marked the end of the crusades]

People couldn’t cope with the Talmud as a daily guide, says Peretz. It’s too voluminous, and not decisive. The goal of Mimonides was to make the law accessible to all. But at fourteen “books” and 463 pages in length (the copy at the Library of Congress), the Mishne Torah is still very complex.

In 1563 in Safed, rabbi Yoseph Caro (1488-1575) made his own compendium of Jewish law (the Shulkahn Aruch, or “set table”) in a further effort at making Jewish practice definitive and accessible. Caro took the Maimonides Mishneh Torah, and reduced it to a (relatively) compact book. For example, one version (Hebrew only) comes in at 362 pages. It was first published in Venice in 1565.

Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, which reflected Sephardic law, had four sections, each subdivided into many chapters and paragraphs: 1) Orach Chayim – laws of prayer and synagogue, Sabbath, holidays; 2) Yoreh De'ah – laws of kashrut; religious conversion; Mourning; Laws pertaining to Israel; Laws of family purity; 3) Even Ha'ezer – laws of marriage, divorce and related issues; and 4) Choshen Mishpat – laws of finance, financial responsibility, damages (personal and financial), and the rules of the Bet Din, as well as the laws of witnesses.

Moses Isserles (1530-1572) took Caro’s work and added notes where Ashkenazi tradition differed from the Sephardi tradition as noted by Caro. His interlined work, the HaMapah (“tablecloth”) became the definitive Shulchan Aruch since 1574. It became very popular.

“Why does a mystic want to write a book on manners?” queried Peretz. “It organizes your time for more important things.” We don’t want to waste time on this basic stuff. It frees up our time for what really matters.

Our table has moved, from Palestine to Persia, to Eastern Europe. And we are in San Francisco.


And we spent a cacophonous half hour studying the text on pp. 299-302. We  studied in pairs, and threes. It’s not nearly enough to understand. But perhaps sufficient for what we need here and now.

We read “Who is good and does good. . .” and we think of moments of communal gathering. We are gathered in havruta. We note we don’t need a minion: two is enough. We don’t need a rabbi, although we are very grateful for Peretz in the room. “We don’t need the professionals to dig into these texts,” suggests Peretz, but when it comes to Talmud, we are skeptical. Where would we be without him? Adrift in a sea of Talmud without engine, sail, or paddle. “We don’t need the performative,” says Peretz. It’s the community that conducts and sings these songs of the siddur.

Aside Nine. “Talmud is like a family album,” suggests Peretz. “We keep adding to it, and it’s very hard to edit things out of it.”

We note that mourners, halachically are not required to say the Birkat Hamazon. “It’s too hard, so they are excused,” says Peretz. The Kaddish has no blessing, we noted. Mourning is beyond all. We have nothing to say. “May you be consoled” is what we say to mourners.

We note the recurring formulation: “begin and end with blessed.” We note that a whole series of blessings have Baruch at the beginning and Baruch at the end: the Hamotzi, the Hamazon, the Amidah, the Kiddush, the Haftorah blessing. We start and end with blessings, it’s the formulation.

The rabbis are disputing and we wonder “Where does it end?” What’s the point?” “The reality is,” says Peretz, “the rabbis are not originating these moves, they are managing them. They never say they are making it up . . ., they are trying to follow the trend of the Mishnah and to organize it.”  The addition of the zimmun, for example, was not authored by Talmud (likely) but recorded and unified by Talmud.

And as they dispute, the rabbis see endless issues. For example, on p. 299 5th para. “Yosef said know that the blessing ‘who is good and does good, is not required by Torah law, as laborers eliminate it.” Rabbi Yosef is speaking of the fourth blessing of the Birkhat hamazon: the rabbis added it. Laborers and workers, they have to get back to work; kids have to go to the pool. We don’t all have time for every embellishment and ornament. The rabbis recognize there are limits to how long we can compel people to do this? People have to mourn, they have to be able to move on, they have to work; kids have to get to the pool. We are gathered in community and we have to figure out how to do things so everyone doesn’t leave the room. We have to keep the material relevant.

The baseline of the blessing after meals is “You ate, you are satisfied, you bless.”  Can we say all else is commentary, after Hillel. And so “We excuse laborers from length and mourners from depth,” says Peretz.  

Our next class at JCCSF is December 3, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

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