Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chagigah Sonnets


Yosey ben Durmaskeet went out one day
To greet sage Rabbi Elazar in Lode
"What novelty was taught?" the teacher'd say
"Amone and Moav's pauper tithes are owed."

"Yosey!" cried Elazar as if aghast.
"Hold out your hands and let your eyes fall in."
The teacher wept for teachings of the past
For that which, billed as new, had long since been.

When Yosey's eyes fell out, the sage exlained:
"The slaves who fled from Egypt conquered land.
On Sinai, we learned holiness was gained
Then lost, so poor could reap – that was God's plan."

"Now may it be God's will that your eyes go
Back to your head, dear pupil." It was so.


Rav Bay-vee bar Abaye sat beside
Death Angel, who said, "Mir-yam who braids hair
Please bring to me." And later still he cried:
"Mir-yam the teacher! What's she doing there?!"

The messenger had goofed – he'd seen the wrong
One standing by the stove, to tend the flame
She dropped a coal, and did not live for long
The messenger had not first learned her name.

Rav Bay-vee gasped, "That's quite a grave faux pas!"
"Death without justice," Death replied, "can be."
"But does it not say "Dor holech, dor ba?"
Said Death: "Yes, but I store their years, you see."

"I do kill people much before their prime
Then add to Torah scholars extra time."

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Chagigah (Perek 1)

All are obliged to appear
Before He-Who-Instills-In-Us-Fear
Unless you are not
Let me tell you, we've got
A long list of exceptions. Come, hear!

A person half-slave and half-free
Says, "I serve both my master and me."
But he hasn't a mate
So he can't procreate
Thus says Shammai, "It simply can't be!"

Can a mute learn? Well, it came to pass
Two mutes started attending a class
And when Rabi beseeched
That God heal those he'd teach
They gained speech, and their learning proved vast.

Words of Torah are like cattle goads
That prevent cows from veering off roads
Thus with Torah we stay
On God's path, and don't stray,
Bringing life (not death) to our abodes.

How to detect the insane?
Those who wander on dark lonely lanes,
Lie atop graveyard dirt,
Or start ripping a shirt.
Otherwise, you can trust he is sane.

A smelter need not show his face
In the Temple, that most holy place
Nor a man who tans skins
Or who puts trash in bins
They are stinky, thus lack social grace.

Those who cannot ascend to come greet
God, and eat of the sacrifice meat--
Include snobs who would then
Say they won't condescend
To come stand before God in bare feet.

Rabbi Yochanan happened to see
One who picked unripe dates from a tree
He said, "You'll have to wait
Before eating that date."
Said the man, "They're for later, you see."

There are sins we commit then forget:
Picking lice near a friend we just met;
Spewing forth lots of spit
Or things likewise unfit
God will punish us 'til we regret.

If you speak in sign language, take care:
Understand what is said, or beware!
A Jew-hating geezer
Who signed before Ceasar
Could not explain; he was not spared.

Rav Kahane hid under the bed
To watch Rav and the one he had wed.
He said, "Rav's not discreet
You'd think he's eating meat –"
Rav got angry: "Kahane, you're dead!"

For three people, God cries: those who yearn
To spend time in yeshiva and learn
And the one in a crowd
Who stands out 'cause he's proud
And the student who really must earn.

Rabi used to read Eicha and sigh
With the book on his lap, he would cry
He could bear it no more—
The book fell to the floor
He cried, "We who sink low were once high."

The blind student said, "You've come to see
One who cannot see you, that is, me.
Hence the Seer Unseen
(It is God that I mean)
With see you and judge mercifully.

Rav Idi would walk ninety days
To learn one day; and he said, "It pays."
He who learns once a year
(The text says) is as dear
As the one who learns always. Give praise.

Little Shmuel did not ride the shoulder
Of his father until he was older
He was not to be seen
At the Temple, 'til weaned
"He's weak" Chana said, "Let him grow bolder."

What did we get on the mount?
All of Torah? Ten laws? Which amount?
Said Akiva: "The tent
Of Moed was just meant
For review." (Not by Yishmael's count.)

These are things that have got no fixed measure:
You may do them as much as gives pleasure
Leaving corners of fields
Bringing God your first yield
Learning Torah – that act we most treasure.\

The sacrifice brought is to function
For God, not for human consumption.
Your table should not
Be filled, when your Rav's got
One that's empty – Yes, that's the assumption.

On the festival day, when we greet
The divine, have a festival treat:
Chicken in every pot
(Not just one, but a lot!)
There is no happiness save with meat.

From where do we know that to wed
Is forbidden? (Eat chicken instead)
As the Torah will say:
Go "delight in the day!"
"In the day" – that is, not in your bed!

"The crooked cannot be made straight"
Said Kohelet the king (how he'd prate!)
Thus an off'ring forgotten
Or one misbegotten
May not be made up or brought late.

A person who learns and reviews
A full hundred times – still he will lose
Out on what he'd have learned
Had he once more returned,
Said Bar Hey Hey. For knowledge accrues.

When studying texts it behooves
He who studies to get in a groove
One who's learning Torah
Should not switch to Mishnah
Or vice versa. Stay put and don't move.

There are laws that are truly "out there"
It's as if they have bloomed in midair.
Vows and fests and Shabbat
And a stolen priest's pot
Are suspended by something threadbare.

Shmuel took every Tanna to task
Though he did not live then. But a bask-
Et of pumpkins, they say,
Is far worse, if you may
Than a pepper. So do let him bask.

There are laws that are not in the text
Though we cite it as if in pretext:
To avoid, as one ought to,
Your forced woman's daughter
Please trust us. She's not fit for sex.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Fish Pond (Taanit 24a)

My translation from Ruth Calderon's
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

We were twenty-five students sitting before the teacher during that parched summer. He was young, still wet behind the ears, and he taught us using melodies. Sometimes he would sing a tune slightly differently than we were used to, adding pleasant trills. He was thin and tall as a stalk, and his beard was still not full. I loved his school room, where we sat in groups of four, crowding around the scroll. The teacher's house was a home for me.

One after another, my friends began reading letters, and soon some could combine words to form sentences with sense and meaning. But I, no matter how hard I tried, saw only lines – stripes and shapes like the moon in its waxing or waning, in black ink atop a scroll that smelled heavenly. Whenever the teacher wasn't looking, I would lean towards the scroll to sniff it. I sang the melodies we learned along with everyone else, but the names of the letters escaped me. I tried not to let others notice my weakness – that I couldn't read.

One day one of the children made fun of me by imitating my stuttering. Tears trembled in my eyes, and a cold paralysis gripped me. I forgot the teacher's rules of decorum, and before the tears fell I lunged across to the offending boy and hit him. The bench collapsed forwards on him and together both boy and bench fell to the ground, accompanied by the tittering of the class. I felt relieved: the threat of tears had been averted, and my friends had delighted in my mischief.

Suddenly I heard the teacher coming towards me and my shoulders shrank, fearing the pinch that would follow. I was surprised to feel a gentle palm resting on my shoulder. Long fingers spread out over the length of my back. The teacher called me by name and asked that I get up and follow him out of the room. The other students looked at me, excited about my banishment. I was terrified, convinced that my schoolboy days were over, and that now my father would turn me over to the cobbler. All my friends would wake up to go study at the time when kings arise, but I would be up from the crack of dawn working with cold hands on disgusting leather.

We went out. The teacher told the other students to review their letters. The sun fell behind the hills. The sky hung over the city as if giving it a once-over. The chirping voices of the children could be heard, singing the "Aleph-Bet" as instructed. We walked over to the yard behind the teacher's house, where a garden was hidden with a path running its length. I walked slowly beside him, a flutter of pleasantness at my side. At the end of the path I made out a pond of fish, round as an eye, like a piece of sky. The teacher stood still and encouraged me to move closer to the pond. I approached with caution and caught a glimpse of the sky reflected in the water. A small cloud that looked like nothingness in the sky appeared as a portentous rain cloud on the surface of the water. My own thin face, when reflected in the water, looked like the face of an older boy with full, rounded cheeks. A light wind came and scattered the surface of the water to thousands of little circles, and my face broke into thousands of tiny parts that were all me. Life was pleasant there in the upside-down double world. The sun sent golds and oranges and pinks that blended in the blue water, and I saw a beauty that I had not known before. From time to time the fish would come up to draw in air. The teacher cast out a net that was tied to a great stick, skillfully drew out a fish and placed it in my hand. "Take it," said the teacher. The fluttering of the smooth back between my fingers sent shudders through my whole being. A moment later the teacher held out a jar filled with water, and the fish leapt into it. In looking at the water that had calmed I saw my own face in its surface, as if it were brand new.

When we returned to the class, the teacher did not say a word. I left my gift in the hallway, sat in my place, squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, and opened them again. I read the letters as if effortlessly.

From that day on, I never withdrew my hand from his. I made myself into his shadow. Wherever he went, I went too. I immersed with him in the bathhouse on the eve of Shabbat, I stood by the windows to eavesdrop on the lessons he taught between the afternoon and evening prayers. I woke up before everyone else to honor the school room with my promptness. And he, in turn, was kind to me – he would praise my studies and would sometimes send me to run an errand for him in the market.

The month of Adar came upon us, and still no rain had fallen. The village lowered its head as if it had been chastised by God. Business slowed to a trickle and people avoided each others' eyes in the streets. A swirling dust whistled in the alleys. Passersby hovered close to the walls of the buildings, either seeking shade or hiding from an unknown terror. I woke up thirsty, and I went to bed thirsty.

That morning, at the height of the draught, I followed my teacher to the synagogue for the Torah reading, as was my wont. I overheard the older boys saying that Rav, the great rabbi, was on his way to our town. It was considered a sign. From house to house, the rumor spread that Rav, one of the leaders of the generation, the head of a great Yeshiva, would decree a fast and his merit would protect us, Amen.

Exhausted from thirst, the community came en masse to the synagogue – women with their skin hanging over their bodies like a loose and dusty garment, children hoping for a miracle, and men beset by worry. Rav, in a nobleman's cloak and a foreign accent, appeared to the local population like a great father. He found our rustic look charming – women in old-style dresses, innocent children. He decreed a one-day fast, and the entire community answered Amen in fervor and devotion. Every man headed home hungry but high in spirit.

The next day passed like a mini Yom Kippur. Fasting improves the way people feel about themselves, and when the townspeople gathered for the afternoon prayer in the synagogue, they came as a chorus of angels and not as ordinary merchants, workers, and idlers. The stood at attention while Rav chastened them – they held their breaths and focused their thoughts. Rav stopped his plea to the heavens. A silence fell. Nothing happened.

Embarrassed, hoping for a delayed miracle, the people continued in prayer, and the young teacher was asked to lead the congregation.

I looked at him, I focused my thoughts, and I closed my eyes with all my might, following with him letter by letter: "He Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall."

The teacher read, "He Who causes the wind to blow," and from the windows the branches of the trees began to rustle. A wind washed over the open synagogue and fluttered gowns and kerchiefs. He cried "He Who causes the rain to fall" and the strong smell of the first rains of the season took hold in the synagogue, a smell so sweet it was almost painful.

This story is based on a sugya from Taanit 24a, translated here:

Rav visited a certain town
He decreed a fast, but the rain did not come.
The prayer leader came before him
He said, "He Who makes the wind blow" – and the wind blew.
He said, "He Who makes the rain fall" – and the rain fell.
He said to him, "What do you do?"
He said to him, "I teach children.
I teach the poor as I teach the rich,
And if anyone cannot afford to pay,
I teach him free of charge.
And for any child who is struggling
I have a pond with a school of fish.
I win the student over with my fish:
I call to him, and appeal to him, until he learns to read."

Reflections on the story (also translated from Ruth Calderon):

What causes the rain to fall? What brings the abundance of the sky down to the thirsty ground? What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a God who withholds rain?

In the stories of the Talmudic tractate Ta'anit, which deals with requests for rain, God appears in the form of a punitive father whose face is hidden from his thirsty children by sealed-up skies. The storytellers of the Talmud look for a man who will be able to break through the magical cycle of drought and teach the God of dryness to be gentle. They seek a man who can bring down rain and redeem God. A competition sets in between the simple kindergarten teacher and Rav, a spiritual leader held in highest esteem. The local scholars know Rav's limitations all too well: the splendor of his name and reputation stand in the way of any possibility for real efficacy. A preoccupation with such thoughts as "who could be greater than I am" and "how do I compare to others" cloud his understanding. Only failure will release him once and for all from these honor wars. In contrast, the kindergarten teacher is utterly anonymous. His work is simple. The battlefield where he proves his strength is entirely internal. His manliness does not limit him in any way. He keeps fish in a small pond behind his house even in times of drought, against all the odds. He is a hero because he sees the pain of a troubled little boy and doesn't fear him, and doesn't label him as a deviant beyond help. Rather, he leads him to the water, instructing him all the way, like a true teacher.

This story sets the stage for a tete-a-tete between the established rabbinic authority of Babylon and the home-grown holiness of Israel. In the cycle of stories in the Babylonian tractate Taanit, it is possible to sense a sharp criticism leveled at the great rabbinic authorities of Babylon. They are presented as individuals who make grand proclamations about fast days, but don't actually succeed in bringing rain. The skies are locked in their faces; their God is dissatisfied with their piety.

In Babylon, where people make their living on the rivers and an excess of rain means the risk of fatal flooding, rain underwent a symbolic transformation, shifting from a basic need to a sign of plenitude and divine good will. Once again the sages of Babylon are depicted as impotent in the Talmud. The rain comes down only in their downfall, in their renunciation of honor, and in their despair. In contrast, the storytellers of Israel create a gallery of alternative heroes who succeed in bringing down the rain: simple anonymous men ranging from the kind-hearted owner of a whorehouse or a kindergarten teacher to religious anarchists whose deeds speak louder than their words. These are people who live outside of the study house, outside of the academy – and it is they who merit an answer from heaven.

Masechet Taanit, whose subject is ostensibly the rain, deals primarily with discussions about drought. The withholding of rain is seen as punishment. What did we do to deserve the closing of the gates of heaven? Sometimes drought symbolizes the existential state of the religious man whose face, and by extension the face of all Jews, is turned always towards heaven. Maybe a cloud will come, a sign. Maybe the heavens will open. Rain falls out of love. One who holds back rain is holding back his love out of fear, or anger, or despair. The story depicts a multiple mirroring effect: a boy who has trouble reading and a teacher; a congregation and a rabbi; Israel and God; a parched land and the heavens above. The whole system is dammed, stopped up, closed off.

A kind hand on a child's shoulder and the gift of a fish realign the universe. It's the Jewish "butterly effect." A teacher opens his heart to an unruly child in a classroom somewhere, and a community leader assured of his own greatness finds himself gradually disillusioned, his limitations made known publicly. The censured leader is brought down, as so is the rain. The heavens look at their reflection in the waters of a small fish pond. God sees Himself, lines of justice furrowing his wizened face. He collects Himself, like a man who smiles at his reflection in a mirror. The regular order of things is subverted when hand touches fin. Suddenly it happens: kindness overspills the bounds of justice. The rain bursts forth. God's plenitude showers us. How pleasant it is in the emptying lofts of heaven. Wet. Perhaps even God is crying.

The story of the fish pond is a story about masculinity. A boy struggling with his letters and a parched land teach about the limits of male power. A rabbi who proclaims a fast is up against a God who withholds rain, and the two are locked in a cycle of draught. With this story, the Talmud presents an alternative form of masculinity that also knows how to caress, to cross bounds and go beyond the letter of the law to win over a child by means of a fish. The Talmud suggests a model of gentle masculinity that ministers to young children without violence, reacting with a gentle touch to a blow struck in the classroom, offering closeness (between teacher and child) instead of distancing (of the child from his studies and his community). This is an open form of masculinity, one that opens the heavens. This is the kind of man who is able to cause the winds to blow and the rains to fall.

Book review: Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg

Ilana M. Blumberg's Houses of Study (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) is a love affair with books––both those that open from left to right, and those that open from right to left. In this memoir, which spans two continents and nearly four decades, Blumberg describes the words and texts that shaped her as a feminist, a Jew, a professor of literature, and the mother of a young daughter for whom she now delights, not surprisingly, in selecting books.

Blumberg moves back and forth in time, beginning with the year she spent studying Jewish texts in an Orthodox seminary in Israel when she was 18. She contrasts the feminine form of wisdom that was expected of the young women, Binah, with the more serious and rigorous Hokhmah to which their male counterparts aspired. For Blumberg, Binah was never enough; secretly she prayed, "Teach me more than I need to know. Help me find hokhmah, Widsom, acquired knowledge. And let the reward for my combined Binah and Hokhmah be something other than a good match."

Blumberg devotes herself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of knowledge, beginning with her childhood years in Ann Arbor of the 1970s, where "the dictionary held down our house." She learned to chant from the Torah not at the Orthodox day school she attended, but from her father. Her Hebrew comes to her from her fervent Zionist grandfather, author of one of the first modern Hebrew textbooks, who writes her letters from his home on Rehov Beit HaKerem in Jerusalem. Blumberg's studies continue at Barnard, where she describes negotiating the space between Butler Library and the beit midrash–– a passage that recalls Virginia Woolf, whom she invokes along with Donne, Yeats, and her beloved George Eliot.

For Blumberg, the pleasure of knowledge is always meant to be shared, and she is not to be stopped by barriers to her full engagement: "Praying at my bubbi's side, I have imagined jumping or falling over the railing of the balcony, wondering what a falling female body might look like from above, from below, surprised that no girl has yet had the courage or the decency or the fear to fall." Blumberg allows herself to fall freely––first for the non-Jewish boyfriend she lives with during her graduate school years (much to her mother's consternation), and then for the idea of a Jewish family, which she cannot have with him. And so while all her friends are "simply, untroubledly married," she finds herself neither here nor there, lamenting "how not having a family of my own makes Jewish life impossible, how faith seems stupid without children, husbands, mothers-in-law. How there is no joy, comfort, or pleasure in banding together with other single Jews my own age, pretending we are a family, assigning the postures we learned in our earliest childhood games of playing Shabbat."

Ultimately, Blumberg finds her match, but the true moments of passion in this book, as in the Donne poem she quotes in full, "care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss." Her prose soars to a breathless lyricism when she enacts for us the pleasures and perils of conquering an uncharted page of Gemara; and the complicated, fascinating laws governing the treatment of holy books, which must be kissed when they fall to the ground; and the significance of her name, Ilana, spelled out in Hebrew on a gold necklace, with the letters lamed and nun "restraining the attraction of the magnetic characters [yood and hey, a name for God], whose union is believed sufficient to spark the divine fire." This book is a union of letters and texts no less magnetic; to enter Ilana Blumberg's houses of study is, invariably, to become ignited.

(review published in LILITH Magazine, Spring 2007)

EXCERPT from Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg:

“Reread the words of the Gemara. You cannot read slowly enough to allow your brain to travel vertically through all the information encoded in these words. Nuances of language lick like flames at your head, conflicts between two statements made by the same rabbi impress heavily upon your brain, possible resolutions tease your burdened min, the words of a later scholar insinuate themselves into that crowded space, the context of that verse from the Bible, the reason for that commandments, a case where the punishment is not inflicted, a pun, animosity between rabbis, historical discrepancy, turn forward a page, turn back a page….

All this while you are reading aloud! Sort, sort, classify, oppose, compare, contrast, infer, deduce; you are on your way. You and your partner struggle, you pull and you tug, you tease out meaning. You sit on the hard wooden chair, elbows on the table, hands at the sides of your face, fingers at temples. You work your brain trying to reconstruct. You lean back in your chair, rest for a moment, hoping that the contents of your brain will shift into a pattern you will be able to decipher.

Quick! You know you must move on, but at this moment it seems to you that no page to come will be as puzzling, as suggestive, as much your own as this one that you have just finished studying. But you discipline your sliding, yearning mind; you force yourself on into a wilderness of a page, a whole new scape in which you wander gingerly, seeking to learn the terrain, the trees that grow here, the sand beneath your feet, seeing a tall gourd to shade you from the heat. This new place is hostile to you in the way that all new places are; silently they allow your entrance but offer no welcome. You have little time to learn the place; in one hour, two hours, you will be expected to appear before the monarch of this place, and he will want you to report to him on the terrain of his home, its trees, sand, shapes, and shadows; the way the sun falls at all hours of the day, the way the river feels upon your toes. All this you will have to offer him, in his language.

This is what it is to prepare one page in two hours, anticipating your teacher’s lesson. The fear of it, the hurry; the anxious joy of guessing at meaning; the slow, deliberate search for sense; the way you learn a new place until it seems impossible that it was ever unknown, untouchable, and mysterious as being grown up seemed when you were a child. ‘Welcome,’ you hear, ‘now you may stay and rest. Now you may walk as if you have a place here; you are one of us, if an enemy should come, we would defend you.’ Slowly you are traversing the world, stopping now in one country, now in another, hoping to see all, hoping to learn each one. This is what it is to study day after day an endless book, a book with as many pages as grains of sand, a book that great minds have finished and finished again and finished again. All you want, God, is to finish it once and begin again. Is that so much to ask? Help me finish it once, so that I may know your laws, love them, and observe them.”

[end of EXCERPT from Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg]