Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jerusalem is Destined to Grow

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi is one of the most quoted scholars in the Talmud - assuming he was one scholar and not two, which he may have been. Whether one or two, he or they lived a very long time ago, in the 3rd century give or take a generation. (And either he, or they, or someone else of the same name, seems to be buried until this very day in Mitch Pilcer's back yard in Zippori).

In any case. Back in the 3rd century Jerusalem was a small town, roughly the size of today's Old City, which is one square kilometer. Yet the Talmud on page 50a of the Pessachim tractate cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi as foretelling that in the future the city will be so large that a galloping horse will need half a day, from dawn until noon, to get from the edge of town to its center, and this in all directions.

I'm not an expert in galloping horses, but assuming one can gallop without stopping for all those hours, I expect the Jerusalem of 2013 hasn't yet reached the dimensions Yehoshua ben Lvi had in mind. Give us another 10-20 years and we'll get there, only 1,800 after he said we would.

(The Daf Yomi series, I remind you, is presented and explained here).

How Many Jews Followed those Rabbis?

Menachem Ellon passed away a few months ago. He was 89. As a mark of respect I took upon myself to finally read his magisterial two-volume study of Jewish Law, which has been on my shelf for decades but which I never read cover-to-cover. Since it's more than 1,500 pages long and makes no pretensions of being a beach-book, I gave myself the entire year of mourning to get thru it. So far I'm behind schedule, but I have finally gotten the hang of it and it's fascinating, so I may yet stay on target. It may even be the case that I'm getting more out of the reading now, than I would have had I read it back when I bought it; important books can be like that.

One of the very first things I learned from the book is the importance of Jewish law as a living and developing legal system from 2nd temple era right up until the 18th century in Europe, and even into the 20th century in Arab lands. I hadn't given this much thought, but the claim that Jews are a nation, not only a religion, is strongly bolstered by the fact that until just yesterday in terms of history, Jews were running their own nation with their own laws and their own legal system, and the system was mostly common to them all while distinct from their surroundings.

Which then raises the question about the numbers: OK, so the elite studied the common literature throughout the millennia. But what about the broad public? Hundreds of thousands of us study Daf Yomi these days, but how common was such an education a thousand years ago? Two thousand?

Actually, just the other day we daf-yomi-folks passed a troubling section in Pessachim (page 49 a and b). The Gemara had been talking, in an idle sort of way, about how marrying into a family of Cohanim could be a smart move; then, suddenly, it veered into a discussion about how the scholars and the general public couldn't stand each other. One should spend as much as it takes, even one's entire fortune if need be, to have one's daughter marry a scholar. If that's not possible, then the son of a just man; Not that, then the son of a leader of the community. Not that, then the son of a philanthropist. If even the son of a philanthropist couldn't be found, one should marry off one's daughter to a teacher. But in no case should one ever have his daughter marry an Am Haaretz, a coarse "man of the land", probably best translated as an unschooled yokel. This then set off a string of invective against the Ami Aratzot. Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest of the scholars of his age, told how in his days as an Am Haaretz (he began learning only at 40) he wanted to bite the scholars like a donkey - and why a donkey rather than a dog? Because a donkey, unlike a dog, breaks the bone when he bites. His disciple, Rabbi Meir, then added that marrying one's daughter to an Am Haaretz is like binding her and laying her in the path of a lion, because the Ami Haaretz, like a hungry beast, tears apart his woman and has no shame. The Braita then continues: Ami Haaretz hate us scholars even more than the gentiles hate Jews; and worst of all are those who once learned with us and then left, since they know our opinion of all the others.

The sources for all these harsh sentiments are Mishnaic, i.e 1-2 century Tana'im in Israel; the Babylonian Amoraim of the following centuries who created the bulk of the Gemara seem simply to have passed on the story with no comment, which is unusual. On the other hand, no-one ever censored it, either. The section is still there, and as I said, we passed it last week.

This thread is presented and explained here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kushim and the "Nigger" Word

There's been a bit of excitement in the anti-Israeli twittersphere this week, following an unfortunate statement by the brand-new Chief Rabbi, David Lau, that yeshiva students ought to spend their time learning Torah and not watching basketball games, where "one bunch of kushis beats another bunch of kushis". Racism! shouted the badmouths. Jim Crow! Apartheid! If even the Chief Rabbi shamelessly uses the N-word in public, what better a demonstration of the profound rot of Israeli society!

But did he? The story of the word Kushi is actually more interesting than that.

First, it must be stressed, the word itself comes from the Bible, where it is used repeatedly, and so far as I know, exclusively, to describe people with black skin. The Bible doesn't seem to have anything against black people, and even the story where Miriam apparently made some derogatory statement about her kushi sister-in-law seems mostly to indicate the opposite: Moses himself was married to the black woman, and right after making the statement God himself struck her with a horrible skin affliction and she was publicly thrown out of camp for seven days.

As recently as the early 1970s, kushi was the perfectly innocuous word in the Hebrew language for black. Then the Americans began fiddling with their own language, renouncing the word Negro and replacing it first with Black, then with Afro-American. Those parts of Israeli society which are closely attuned to things American decreed that the ancient Hebrew word must also be expunged, because of the awful cultural baggage of Jim Crow and segregation.

But of course, Israel didn't have the awful cultural baggage of Jim Crow and segregation. For all its many warts and blemishes, Israel doesn't have the same historical complexes and traumas as the Americans do, just as the French Russians and Japanese don't have them. The way history works is that each group has its own story, its own radioactive themes, and its own indifference to the sensitivities of others. History makes a difference, but it makes a difference in different ways and different times and places.

The entire concept of Niggers is foreign to Israel. If one insists on attaching an ethnic slur to the word Kushi, it would probably be the Yiddish word Schwartze, which is indeed mildly derogatory, but in a belittling and condescending way, without any hatred attached. Indeed, given the Rav Lau's upbringing and cultural world, he was probably reprimanding the yeshiva students for admiring schwartze folks whose strength is in their brawn, rather than Jewish scholars whose strength was in their brain. I'd be very surprised if the Rav could formulate a coherent paragraph using the words Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education and Ralph Abernathy; on the other hand, if you're interested in the impact of 3rd century legal thought in Babylon on 13 century Jewish Metaphysics, I'll bet he can give you a fascinating lecture.

Someone needs to impress upon the new Chief Rabbi that his words now carry greater weight than they did last week, and he's got to be wise in choosing them. Demanding of him that he unlearn the language of the Bible because Israel-haters would have us believe that the word Kushi means Nigger is outlandish.

Anyone who tries to convince you that Rav lau is Bull Connor is shining a spotlight at themselves and proclaiming that their agenda isn't truth, it's to harm Israel no matter how much they need to distort.