Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flawed but Real History

The Gemara on Bava Batra 131a has a convoluted legal discussion I'm not going to try to unravel here - something about the legal status of wills, which are problematic tools since once you're dead you're dead and it's not clear how your opinion matters anymore - or rather, once you're dead, you can't have an opinion anymore, so how can it be binding on anyone?

At one point in the discussion Rabbi Natan sardonically rebukes Rebbi for not being consistent; his formulation is "shanitem bemishnatchem", "you wrote in that Mishna of yours". Given that the codification of the Mishna in the 2nd century CE is easily near the top of any shortlist of crucial turnpoints in Jewish history, and Rebbi was the editor in chief while also being the political leader of the diminished Jewish community in post-Hadrianic Israel, this is a startling formulation. If you know that Rabbi Natan was one of the most important Jewish leaders of his day in the large and flourishing Babylonian community, the statement gets even more interesting. Clearly, this is an expression of a growing determination of the Babylonian Jews to flex their religious, cultural and even political muscle towards parity or beyond in their relationship with the sinking, war-ravaged and at times persecuted community in the ancestral homeland.

The teacher of our study group, however, then went off to look at a different discussion on page 13b of the Horayot tractate, a minor tractate often overlooked. Horayot offers a juicy and detailled description of a fracas between Raban Shimon ben Gamliel (Rashbag) on the one side and Rabbi Natan and Rabbi Meir on the other. The fracas was purely a matter of honor and powerjockying, and at the end of it Rashbag was firmly on top; part of the punishment of the two rebels was that henceforth their positions wouldn't be attributed to them anymore; rather, they'd be attributed to "Others say" in the case of Rabbi Meir, and "Some say" in the case of Rabbi Natan. Rashbag was Rebbi's father, so Rabbi Natan's harsh criticism is not only inter-communal politics, it's also part of an intergenerational feud.

Years after the altercation in Bava Batra, however, Rebbi publicly regretted his swift response to Rabbi Natan's attack on him. "I was young and unthinking and shouldn't have responded as I did", he said. Rabbi Meir, in the meantime, seems to have had the final laugh, since as a result of the decree not to name his attributes, all cases throught the Mishna which don't specify an author are now attributed to him, surely not what Rashbag intended.

Confused? Sorry. I tried to make it accessible, and cut out most of the details. Anyways, my point lies elsewhere. The whole description is a bit sordid; telling of the human weaknesses of some of the most illustrious rabbinical figures ever. Yet that's a very Jewish trait, to dwell on the flaws in our most illustrious figures; even to write it all up where anyone can see it.

This insistence on presenting warts and all is ultimately a source of strength, aggravating as it is at the time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


no, fascinated -
if religious instruction during my school time would have offered anything remotely as brain teasing, I certainly would have never turned to agnosticism (there were a couple of other reasons of course) - what a pity you Jews do not proselytize (especially if it is true*) that one does not have to profess belief)
*) learned by reading Harry Kemelmann's Rabbi-series