Sunday, April 18, 2010

Even the Greatest of Them

There's been a flurry of condemnation of some South African Jews who disapprove of Richard Goldstone to the extent that he won't be joining the synagogue services of his grandson's bar mitzva. JTA says he has been barred; the Jerusalem Post offers a fudged version of the story, in which some of the protagonists seem to be backing away from the appearance of their decision without changing it. J.J. Goldberg at The Forward notes the story, and many of his readers think it's disgraceful.

The story emphasizes an aspect of the story of the Goldstone report not often directly mentioned: that Jews are a community, and always have been; that the community has its own internal dynamics; and that Richard Goldstone dealt his community a grievous blow by adding his stature to a nasty defamation of it. (I'm not going into the issue of the report here, because I've already done so here, but having read the entire 575 pages of it I have no problem in calling it a nasty defamation).

The tool of nidui (roughly similar to the Greek practice of ostracism) has been one of the most powerful methods of sanction and censure in Jewish communal life. During the millennia in which the Jews had no state power to wield, it was perhaps the most powerful tool in their arsenal, but it predates even those times.

Perhaps the most famous nidui ever was the casting out of rabbi Eliezer in the 2nd century CE. Rabbi Eliezer was one of the greatest of the tanaim, the scholars who created the Mishna; indeed, he is one of fountainheads of the Mishna; he appears thousands of times in the Talmud and his impact was enormous. He also seems to have been a stubborn pedant, unwavering in his puristic interpretations, a fact that eventually led to his clash with the other scholars of his generation. In one of the most fascinating discussions in the history of religion (any religion), R. Eliezer took the side of God against the scholars but lost, and when he refused to accept this he was cast out.

As he lay on his deathbed a group of his disciples came to visit him, among them rabbis Akiva and Yehoshua. First they loitered outside his chamber, as R. Eliezer rebuked his son for putting care of him above preparations for the approaching Shabbat. The disciples then entered, while sitting across the room because of the nidui order.
- R. Eliezer: Why did you come?
- We came to learn.
- Where were you up till now?
- We were busy [they didn't want to pain him by saying they had been respecting the order]
- We'll see how you die
- R. Akiva: What will my death be like?
- Yours will be the worst of them all [R. Akiva was later tortured to death by the Romans, in an emblematic act of martyrdom]

R. Eliezer then crossed his arms across his chest: Oh, what will be lost when I go. I studied much Torah from my teachers, but what I took from them was like a dog lapping at the sea [so great was what I didn't have time to learn]; I taught much Torah to my students, but they didn't take more than a drop from a vessel. I have studied 300 rules about the affliction of leprosy that no-one ever asked me; I've studied 300 rules of the farming of squash that no-one ever asked me except R. Akiva once [These are arcane matters; his passing would mean the loss of such details that are not common knowledge].

The disciples and R. Eliezer got into a detailed discussion of holiness and impurity; to one of the questions he added that a leather item if treated in a particular manner is pure - and on the word Pure he died.
Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said The nidui is over, the nidui is over [otherwise it could also have affected the burial arrangements].

Richard Goldstone is not an important Jew, not in any Jewish context; ostracizing him may make him feel sorry for himself, but it's no great matter in a Jewish context.

Sanhedrin 68a; the Daf Yomi thread is presented and explained here.

1 comment:

AKUS said...

I agree with you that Richard Goldstone is not an important jew in any POSITIVE jewish context.

However, he has earned himself a place in the long Jewish memory alongside the ignoble list of those who helped bring down damage and danger to a Jewish community on order to further their own agendas by siding those who wanted to destroy a Jewish community.