Friday, October 29, 2010

Running Commentary

On my 28th birthday my parents gave me an Ipod. At the time I was a student living in Jerusalem, and I used to spend every morning jogging the streets of my city. In Jerusalem the street names are organized thematically, so that each neighborhood depicts a particular period in Jewish history, set of characters, or field of scholarship. The streets in leafy Rehavia are named for medieval parshanim—Rashi, Radak, Ibn Ezra; the narrow streets of Baka are named for the twelve tribes; and in the German Colony, where I live now, the streets are named for nineteenth century European rabbis. Jogging in Jerusalem is not just a form of exercise; it is a lesson in Jewish history.

And so I was already used to learning while jogging when I received the gift of an Ipod. At the time I was jogging about 45 minutes each day, which offered me a fair amount of listening time. This was just about a year after the internationally televised Siyum in Madison Square Garden, where Jews from around the world gathered to celebrate their completion of Daf Yomi – a program involving the study of a page of Talmud a day, completing the entire corpus in seven and a half years. And so I decided – that’s what I’ll do with my IPod! I decided to download daf yomi classes, and listen to a lecture each morning on that day’s page of Talmud. I didn’t know it then, but my life would never be the same again.

I started with Masechet Yoma, because that is what the international daf yomi community was up to when I began. One of the first passages I learned was about two priests who race one another up a ramp to the Temple altar because whoever gets there first will get to do Trumat HaDeshen, that is, to clear off the ashes from the previous day's sacrifices. Just as one priest begins to gain on his fellow, he stabs him with the knife used for slaughtering animals, and the lagging priest falls to his death. I thought this was an appropriate passage to learn while jogging, even if I’ve never been quite that competitive.

For the past four and a half years I have learned a page of Talmud every day. I don’t always learn while jogging, because usually I want to have the book open before me. Often I go to a class held at a local synagogue at 6:15am, in which a rabbi teaches the daf to a group of about a dozen middle-aged men, and myself. Other days I learn over dinner, careful not to drip tomato sauce over discussions about the sprinkling of blood on the altar. And sometimes I learn just before bed, falling asleep with the rabbis still arguing in my head about just how late a person can recite the bedtime Shema.

I have never missed a day of daf yomi, including the day of my wedding – and incidentally, I married a man from my daf yomi shiur, and now we learn together. Learning Torah has been a constant in my life, giving structure and meaning to my days. During particularly tough periods, on days when I found it hard to remember why I bother to get up in the morning, I found that my daily Talmud study was an anchor, if not a liferaft. I love the notion that with every day that passes, you are not merely one day older – you are one day wiser. What a healthier relationship to time, viewing time not as a mark of age but as an opportunity to grow in wisdom. This is in fact the Jewish view of time: The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that five is the age for studying Torah; ten is the age of studying Mishnah; fifteen is the age for studying Talmud, and the list goes on.

I often feel that my life unfolds against the backdrop of the Daf I am learning. My learning is a source of inspiration -- I write poetry based on the Talmud I learn, and have a blog devoted to poetic reactions to the daily daf. It has changed the way I see the world, and what my interests are: I’ve become fascinated by Jewish life in the early centuries of the common era, when the Talmud was compiled – a time when Jewish life was struggling to regain its foothold after the calamitous destruction of the Temple. The key players in this period have become as familiar to me as dear friends: Ben Azzai, who loved learning Torah so much that he couldn’t be bothered to get married and sacrifice precious learning time to raise a family; Rabbi Eliezer, who left his family’s huge farming estate to go learn Torah in Jerusalem, against his father’s will; Rabbi Joshua, who developed his love of Torah in the womb, because his mother used to pass by the Beit Midrash when she was pregnant with him; Rabbi Akiva’s son, who spent his entire wedding night studying Torah with his bride, and then lied to his father about what they had not done. In my eagerness to get to know these individuals better, I began translating a series of biographies of the sages of the Talmud, which should be available in English in within the next two years. Every time I sit down to translate, I marvel at my good fortune that in translating these books, I am essentially being paid to study Torah – it’s better than Kollel!

I am fascinated, too, by the possibilities that are open to me as a woman studying a text that for 1500 years has been analyzed primarily by men. What does it mean for me as a Jewish woman to read Talmud, a text whose heroes are primarily men – not to mention men who considered themselves experts in women’s psychology and anatomy? I am exhilarated by the notion of reading these texts through a woman’s eyes, especially as someone who regards herself as an independent self-sufficient adult, a role the Talmud could not imagine for women. I am intrigued by how the rabbis struggle to balance leaning Torah with making a living, which was the authentic form of being Jewish during the Talmudic era, very unlike the Haredi lifestyle of today. I am interested in the rabbis’ interactions with non-Jews, with aristocratic Roman matrons, with heretics and non-believers. And as an editor, I am fascinated by the organization of the Talmud, which is probably one of the most intensely edited books in all of world literature, its stories reworked again and again into tight literary units in which no detail is extraneous, and little is transparent. Any page of Talmud assumes that you know every other page – there is no clear beginning – so the only way to begin is already to know everything, which is why it’s difficult to begin, but once you have, it’s impossible to stop.

When finishing learning a tractate of Talmud, which I did just this past week, it is traditional recite a prayer known as the Hadran: Hadran alach v’hadrach alan. In classic Talmudic wordplay, the word Hadran, from Hadar, can have two meanings. And so the phrase can mean “may we return to you, and may you return to us:” may we have the opportunity to study this tractate again (because inevitably we’ll forget some of what we learn), and may it come back to us (because we hope that some of what we learn with stay with us). This speaks to me in terms of the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting – there is always more to learn, which means that there is always a reason to keep living. But Hadar also means “beauty and glory” as well as “return.” So the prayer can also mean: “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us,” which conveys the notion that we, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can enrich the study of Talmud; and that Talmud can enrich us.

The Hadran prayer goes on to contrast those who study Torah with those who are drawn to idle pursuits: “We are running and they are running. We are running to the World to Come, and they are running to the den of iniquity.” Whether jogging or learning, I don’t always know where I am heading; but I know that with every passing day, I am further along.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Avoda Zara: Perek Aleph לפני אידיהם

A Goy’s festival is called “Aid”
And three days before you can’t trade
Borrow, lend, buy or sell
Lest the Goyim feel well--
(Everybody feels well when they’re paid.)

The Holy One someday will place
His Torah out in public space
“All who learned it, come take
Your reward, for My sake.”
All the nations will think it’s a race.

First to come forward is Rome
Who made the whole wide world their home
“We built bathhouses, bridges
O’er perilous ridges.”
Said God: “Did you study my tome?”

‘Twas Persians who stepped forward next
Though Rome’s fate had left them perplexed.
“We built bridges and cities
Waged wars by committee."
Said God: "No!" And left them quite vexed.

God took Creation and said:
I am holding this over your head
If you study, you’ll gain
If not, chaos will reign
Without Torah, the planet is dead.

Said the nations to God: "Please allot
One commandment. We’ll keep it or rot.”
Sukkah! So they constructed
But then self-destructed
By kicking. “Dear God, it’s too hot!”

Twelve hours make up God’s day
Three he learns, three he judges away
And in spite of misdeed
The whole world still He feeds,
Then Leviathan sits down to play.

“Rav Safra knows all – he’s first rate,”
So Abahu to Romans would prate.
But when put to the test
He was far from the best--
“He’s from Babel, their Torah’s not great.”

God gets angry one minute each day:
When the coxcomb turns white, you should pray
For your foes quick to die
Rabbi Joshua tried
But he slept late, and said, “Not this way.”

There are four types regarded as dead:
One who’s blind with no eyes in his head,
One so poor he is thin
One with leprosy skin,
One with no sons to live in his stead.

Learning Torah should leave you quite broke
You should feel like an ox in a yoke
Like an ass with a load
As you set down the road
(Better metaphors could be invoked.)

Rebbe received once some cash
From a Min at his festival bash.
“I am stuck either way:
If I take it, he’ll pray
But he’ll hate if I throw it away.”

A woman may not remove hair
From her body on Moed. We care
That she ought not feel pain
On chag. Still, don’t refrain
If she’s happier without it there.

When Adam first saw the sun set
He began both to weep and to fret:
“I have sinned, I will rot
And this world’s gone to pot.”
Then the sun rose, averting that threat.

The Romans were fighting the Greeks
And losing, for quite a few weeks.
‘Til they joined with the Jews
Whom God wouldn’t let lose
This then led to a few winning streaks.

Antoninus to Rebbe would sneak
In a tunnel each day of the week.
He would keep Rebbe fed
He would lift him to bed
And plead: “Help, it’s the next world I seek.”

Onkeles converted. This Jew
Was wanted. So Rome sent a crew
Of soldiers to drag
Him to Rome, but they lagged
Because Onkeles converted them too!

There’s a thorn in my foot! Ouch and ow!
There’s an idol here. Am I allowed
To bend down to pick
Out the thorn? Though I’m quick,
You might think to the idol I’ve bowed.

A high priest may not leave this land
That is, Israel. Though we lift the ban
If he’s leaving to head
To a teacher, or wed
Him a wife who lives on foreign sand.

You can buy market slaves from a Goy
Thus to bring them to Torah, with joy—
And also a cow
Though I do not know how
You’d convert cows to good Jewish boys.

This here tractate of Talmud was turned
To by Abraham, who was concerned
With gods. But it took
Him much longer, this book—
He had 400 chapters to learn!

A non-Jew should not be the teacher
Of our boys; for he may play the preacher.
Or bring into class
A big god made of brass
We Jews don’t like these decorative features.

Rabbi Eliezer was taken
As heretic. He was quite shaken:
He said: “What did I do?
I am just a poor Jew!”
Said the Roman: It seems I’m mistaken.

Ulla would come home and kiss
The soft hands of his beautiful sis
And others attest
Not her hands, but her breast--
Tell us sages, was Ulla remiss?

This story is rather obscene
But Rabbi Elazar had been
To every last whore
Then he heard of one more
On his way, though, the wind intervened.

Two sages were walking; they came
To a fork in the road. One said: “Dames!”
The other said worse—
“Idols”—They chose the first
But the harlots retreated in shame.

Chanina ben Teradion had
A daughter who did something bad:
She walked daintily
So the Romans would see
And admire, which troubled her dad.

Chanina ben Teradion was burned
With the Torah scroll he loved to learn.
As the parchment consumed
Still the black letters bloomed
In the world to come his place was earned.

Rabbi Meir, at behest of his wife
Went to save his poor wife sister’s life
She’d been locked up as whore
He got her out the door
But the Romans pursued him in strife.

Theaters and circuses? No!
These are places where Jews may not go!
Still you can’t fall asleep
Though you make not a peep
The whole point is through Torah to grow.

Words of Torah must oft be repeated
And don’t think that you’ve been defeated
If you don’t understand
That is part of the plan
You will get more the more you’ve completed.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, it’s told
Stood on Temple Mount, there to behold
A beautiful dame,
Not a Jew. He exclaimed:
O my Lord, Your works are manifold!

The Angel of Death is all eyes
Any sick person whom he espies
He will stand by her side
Til the person has cried
Then he spits in her mouth, and she dies.

In Israel, you can’t sell your home
To a non-Jew. Instead let them roam.
This isn’t their place
So we grant them no space
(You’re aghast? Don’t blame me. Check the tome.)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Disembarking from the Summer Ark

It happened as if on cue. The moment we finished reading Parashat Noach in shul this past Shabbat, just after the forty days of rain came to an end and God promised that “so long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease,” the floodgates of the sky opened and a heavy rain poured down over Jerusalem. Those who were early to shul came in summer clothes and stayed dry; those who were late walked in sopping wet; and those who were really late arrived in long-sleeves and raincoats. It was the first real rain of the season (other than a brief 7am drizzle a few weeks ago), and we could feel the ground thirsting to drink up every last drop after six months of parched dryness. By the afternoon the air was clean and crisp as if the whole atmosphere had just been laundered, and we went for a walk under the clear blue sky to mark that summer had ended and autumn had begun.

At kiddish after shul I told a friend that I don’t think women menstruated on the ark, because all natural processes ceased. There was no seedtime in the earth or in the human body. The ark was a place of stasis and suspended animation, with no birth or growth or death or rebirth. It was the opposite of the world we know, with its changing seasons, its days that grow longer and shorter, its waxing and waning moon. Although sometimes during hot August afternoons it may seem that “summer days will never cease,” as Keats said in his majestic “Ode to Autumn,” the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” always comes around. This year, when we sat sweating under the hot sun in the sukkah on account of the early holiday schedule, I found myself memorizing Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” a poem that captures the bittersweetness of summer’s end:

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

The first stanza captures the immensity of summer, whose hot days are as oppressive as its long evenings are liberating. In those last hot days we find ourselves entreating the Lord to rein in the long days and dispel the heat with autumn breezes. And yet as the second stanza indicates, we don’t really want summer to end quite yet:

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

We want just a bit more summer, enough to allow the final fruits to ripen and swell and sweeten. Like Chazal, Rilke distinguishes between all fruit and the heavy wine, which is worthy of its own mention and its own blessing: Let all fruits be full, but blessed and sweet be the fruit of the heavy vine. This stanza is clearly heavily influenced by Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” which the poet composed on a September afternoon while taking a walk through the fields:

Ode to Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Summer cannot end until all fruit is filled with ripeness to the core. We must have the last pomegranates and mangoes to seed and peel with sticky hands as the redness splatters the cabinets and the yellow juice trickles down to our elbows. It cannot rain before Sukkot because first we must gather in the gourds and the hazel shells and all the bounty of the harvest. Rilke invokes Keats’ powers of close observation and rich sensual language to describe the natural world at a particular moment in time. But Rilke is not a nature poet like Keats; he is, primarily, the poet of loneliness. And so for Rilke, the end of summer is about ripeness, but also resignation. As we see in the third and final stanza, the winds that are let loose are also stately sighs:

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Conjoining house and spouse, as the Talmud, too, is wont, Rilke asserts that to everything there is a season, and the time of building is over. Those who did not find someone to snuggle with during the cold winter nights ahead will have to wait until the next seedtime. Those who are alone—a state with which the poet is clearly intimately familiar—will find themselves staying up alone and wandering the avenues “restlessly,” a word that sounds (in this beautiful translation) like the rustling of the leaves with which the poem concludes. I imagine these solitary souls wandering with their chins up and their heads held high, and even as their jaws tremble with the enormity of the pain of loneliness, they do not cry. They have fixed their sights on the next corner, and the next, and they will acquaint themselves with the night until they are so tired that they are ready to collapse from exhaustion -- and only then, when they can be sure there is no danger of crying themselves to sleep, do they permit themselves to go inside again.

When I think of these night wanderers I am reminded of Steven Millhauser’s hypnotic novella “Enchanted Night,” about the lonely inhabitants of a small town in Connecticut who cannot sleep on a hot late summer night. Indeed, the first chapter is called “Restless,” and depicts someone who can't bear to stay inside anymore:

"A hot summer night in southern Connecticut, tide going out and the moon still rising. Laura Engstrom, fourteen years old, sits in bed and throws the covers off. Her forehead is damp, her hair feels wet. Through the screens of the two half-open windows she can hear a rasp of crickets and a dim rush of traffic on the distant thruway. Five past twelve. The room is so hot that the heat is gripping her throat. Got to move, got to do something. Moonlight is streaming in past the edges of the closed and slightly raised venetian blinds. She can’t breathe in this room, in this house. Oh man, do something. Do it… She can’t stay in this room, oh no. If she doesn’t do something right away, this second, she’ll scream. The inside of her skin itches. Her bones itch. So how do you scratch your bones? She has to get out there, she has to breathe. If you don’t breathe, you’re dead. The room is killing her."

When does the moment come when we accept that summer is over and the long, lonely coldness is beginning to set in? e.e. cummings takes a hard-nosed look at the cruelty of summer’s end, with the loss of any hope that blossoming friendships will ripen into mature love:

"summer is over
— it's no use demanding
that lending be giving;
it's no good pretending
befriending means loving"
(sighs mind:and he's clever)
"for all,yes for all
sweet things are until"

"spring follows winter
as clover knows,maybe"
(heart makes the suggestion)
"or even a daisy—
your thorniest question
my roses will answer"
"but dying's meanwhile" (mind murmurs;the fool)

"truth would prove truthless
and life a mere pastime
— each joy a deceiver,
and sorrow a system—
if now than forever
could never(by breathless
one breathing)be" soul
"more" cries;with a smile

The mind, ever clever, knows that summer is over, because experience has proven that nothing lasts forever: “all sweet things are until.” And yet while the mind has acknowledged the reality of the changing seasons, the soul is not ready to let go. As in Rilke’s second stanza, the soul cries out “more” in a final gasp for fresh air to breathe in a hot stuffy room, wishing for just a bit more ripeness and fruitfulness, and another chance for friendship to become love. The brain may be an expert in truth, but truth would have no point (“truth would prove truthless”) if the soul did not retain the hope that “now” could become “forever,” that is, that summer days might never cease. The stubborn soul will continue to write the poetry of summer in the lonely days of winter, to enclose those poems in long letters, and to memorize them while walking up and down the Connecticut avenues at night.

But summer is over. There's no use pretending. This week the creation and destruction stories will give way to the beginning of the saga of the Jewish people, starting with the charge to Abraham to get up, leave his home, and walk the streets from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. By the end of the week we will have begun praying for rain and dew, and Lord it is time. But I still want to carry with me some of the wonder and marvel of the first two parshiyot, those end of summer weeks when life remains full of ripeness and precarious potential. And I want to imagine that when the rain comes again, even the poet of loneliness will find himself seeking refuge in another’s arms, two by two.