10 June 2009


Well, I’ve got a couple of things relative to Judaism that I’d like to post, and no good excuse for posting any of them by themselves or apropos of anything else, so I’m lumping them together as 'Judaica' (it's what the bookstores do anyway, isn't it?). First of all, last week I read with great enjoyment a lecture by the Jewish scholar Martin S. Jaffee of the University of Washington called Inner-Worldly Monasticism: Towards a Model of Rabbinic-Halakhic Spirituality (Etna, CA: Center for Orthodox Traditionalist Studies, 2006). Yes, it seems Professor Jaffee is a good friend of Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, and thus this piece, being ‘free of the superficies of ecumenism and religious relativism’, has found its way into the CTOS catalogue (Archbishop Chrysostomos, Preface, p. 7).

Apart from Jaffee’s thesis itself, I am quite taken with his bibliography (as given in the footnotes), and especially in the opening parts of the lecture where the primary focus is on presuppositions in the field of religious studies. I fully intend to track down some of these materials, as well as to purchase my own copy of this book (I read it on loan from a friend). Anyway, what I wanted to post, aside from a mention and general opinion of the book, was an interesting story from the Talmud that Jaffee tells quite briefly. It is told as an illustration of the way sex was treated ascetically by the Babylonian Sages, despite their being married:

The Babylonian Talmud, therefore, records stories of Sages who regularly left their wives for their Masters, taking up a life that Boyarin labels as that of the ‘married monk’ (Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture [Berkeley, et al.: U of California, 1993], p. 165). Some would return home every week to fulfill their Torah obligation to satisfy their wives (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot [‘Marriage Contracts’], folio 61b); others would return annually, and others, notably Rabbi Akiva, whom we met in the above-cited Tosefta—stayed away for thirteen years. Upon entering his village to reacquaint himself with his wife, he heard a villager taunting her: ‘That husband of yours seems to have left you a widow!’ Akiva heard also her reply: ‘Let him stay away another thirteen years, if Torah is his preoccupation!’ With his wife’s explicit wish clearly stated, Akiva wordlessly turned around and did just that (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim [‘Vows’], folio 50a). (Jaffee, p. 48)

The second thing I wanted to post was my favourite passage from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (NY: Fawcett Columbine, 1995), a tale of two friends and their fathers. I saw the movie years ago, bought the book in college, and finally read it at some point three years ago or so (after my own son was born). The scene is at the end, when Reb Saunders is explaining to Reuven why he quit speaking to his son Daniel outside of his Talmud lessons when he was still a boy:

Reuven, the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son! Not a smart son, Reuven, but a brilliant son, a Daniel, a boy with a mind like a jewel. Ah, what a curse it is, what an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, like a sun. Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four-year-old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story in a Yiddish book about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Daniel enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’ (pp. 276-7)

I’m sure one has to read it in its full context, as the powerful explanation of an ongoing source of pain in these characters’ lives, but I actually shed tears when I read those words the first time.

Lastly, another book—this, one I have not read and am not certain that I shall. It’s called The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year, by Scott-Martin Kosofsky (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), and, as the cover tells us, it was ‘inspired’ by a Yiddish work called the Minhogimbukh, published in Venice in 1593. Following the Jewish liturgical year, it contains explanations and details of the prayers and rituals, and even minor customs, appropriate at various times, including such modern observances as the Yom Hashoah on the twenty-seventh of Nisan. It is filled with interesting marginal notes, many of them only tangentially related to the text, as well as woodcuts reproduced from the 1593 Minhogimbukh (such as the illustration of a Havdalah ceremony above). It is a fascinating, beautiful book, which Lawrence Kushner in his Foreword calls ‘an example of graphic art at its finest’ (p. ix), and I really wish we Orthodox Christians also had something like it in English.

I say that I’m not certain I’ll read it, but this is only because it’s a big commitment for something that I have no practical use for, nor even a point of reference for (it’s hard to understand a description of a ritual that you’ve never seen and never will see). In fact, although I saw it at a Barnes & Noble or Borders a few years ago and thought it was really neat, a cover price of $29.95 was far too much to pay for something like that. I wouldn’t have bought it at all if I hadn’t found it at Aladdin for $14.95 and if it hadn’t been so beautiful. So, for any Jews that come across this, I highly recommend it, but for Orthodox (or other Christians), unless you really want to learn about all of the details of the Jewish liturgical calendar or you just love beautifully printed books no matter what they’re about, I suppose this may not hold much interest for you.

I will, however, post something from it that I find interesting per se. As Kosofsky writes in a prefatory note entitled ‘A Welcome from 1593’:

The longtime custom of the prefatory poem has mostly died out, except in books that are entirely poetic. Since ancient times, such poems were the means by which the reader was enticed to buy the work. . . .

The ‘improved, expanded, and illustrated’ Minhogimbukh of 1593, the old Book of Customs, which inspired this book, included a delightful prefatory poem that describes, commends, and celebrates the book’s contents; one can’t imagine a more concise rendering. The poem comprises thirty-five long lines (seventy lines written in the standard English form), each a rhymed couplet. . . .

The following translation of the original Minhogimbukh poem was rendered into rhyming English especially for this book by the British poet Arthur Boyars, the son of a noted cantor. It is faithful to both the substance and spirit of the Yiddish original. (pp. xxxi-xxxii)

I shall give the beginning and end, omitting the lengthy summary of many of the customs and facts found in the middle (pp. xxxii, xxxiv):

All praise be to the Lord our God
Who brought us to this present road
With laws and customs fit for printing
And lovely pictures fit for minting.
Near and distant are their sources,
From starters to those who’ve done their courses.
Even those who cannot lift or read it
Will soon find out they really need it.
All will be pros alike and know the ruling
For every possible occasion, and no fooling!
Just like Rabbi Ḥutzpis, on one leg standing
Learned the whole Torah—a thing demanding!
As if he’d spent a lifetime learning
And got the answers right, simply by yearning!
. . .

Therefore buy our Book of Customs and don’t delay,
And then make sure you use it night and day.
On Tishah b’Av as well as Purim.
On Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurim;
Whatever joy or pain’s your measure
This book will prove your greatest treasure.
Our God of blessed name guard us from all that’s vile,
Return Your people Israel from long Exile!


As many Logismoi readers will no doubt have guessed, I for one am fully convinced that the custom of the prefatory poem must be revived. I don’t know how serious critics would rate my powers as a poet, but I would be willing to take commissions for prefatory poems. After all, I’m not sure what ‘serious critics’ would make of the Minhogimbukh’s preface either!


Unknown said...

Probably something like a decade ago, a friend introduced me to Chaim Potok's novels, and I quickly became a fan. It was arguably my first real exposure to the beauty of a deep, rooted, traditional faith. One of the lines that stuck for me was after Reuven and his father attended a Hasidic celebration (Simhat Torah, I think). They were discussing how backward Hasidic culture seemed, and the father observed, "at the same time, we cannot sing and dance as they do." Ironically, though, it took a long time for me to get past a basically intellectual fascination with the life of a talmudic scholar.

I don't recall if it was specifically the work cited by Daniel Boyarin that I read a few years later (it was my postmodern phase, and one of my profs recommended his work), but I still recall him discussing Talmudic passages in which the great Rabbis were compared in terms of physical size. Standard English translations tended to render them as referring to bellies, but he seemed convinced that the focus was a bit lower on the body. I don't recall what his point was.

Aaron Taylor said...

Interesting. Too bad Jaffee didn't comment on these 'comparisons'.

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

It's been many, many years since I last read a book by Potok. I think it was "My Name is Asher Lev," a novel whose eponymous narrator is an artist ostracized by his Jewish family and community for depicting his long-suffering mother in a painting as if crucified. I remember being moved by it.

Pintradex said...

I wouldn't be surprised if your bevy of Judaic goodness continues to grow. I bet you'll have to post an update soon thanks to your kolboynik friends.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Here's the relevant passage from Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 50a, in Jacob Neusner's translation, using his versification. The "R." stands for "Rabbi" of course.:

[50a] 6:1 III.13A. R. Aqiba became betrothed to the daughter of Kalba Sabua. Her father heard and drove her out of his house and forbade her by vow from enjoying his property.
B. They went and married him in winter. He would have to pick the straw out of his hair. He said to her, “If I had the money, I would give you a tiara of Jerusalem made out of gold.”
C. Elijah came. He appeared to them in the form of a man, crying at the door, “Give me some straw, for my wife is in labor, and I don’t have anything for her to lie on.”
D. R. Aqiba said to his wife, “See, here is a man who doesn’t even have straw.”
E. She said to him, “Go into the household of a master.”
F. He went and spent twelve years before R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. At the end of this time, he came home. From the back of the house, he heard a wicked man ridiculing his wife, “Your father did right by you, first, that he is not equivalent to you in standing, second, he has left you a living widow all these years.”
G. She said to him, “If he should pay attention to me, he will spend another twelve years in study.”
H. He said, “So what I’m doing is with permission.” He went back and stayed in session another twelve years at the schoolhouse.
I. When he came back, he brought with him twenty-four thousand pairs of disciples. Everybody went out to greet him, and she, too, went out to meet him.
J. The same wicked man said to her, “Where are you going?” Her neighbors said to her, “Borrow some nice clothes and put them on.”
L. She said to him, “‘A righteous man will recognize the soul of his cattle’ (Pro. 12:10).”
M. Then she came to him, but his attendants were going to push her away. He said to them, “Leave her alone! What is mine and what is yours is hers.”
N. When her father heard of it, he came before him to seek release from his vow. He released his vow.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Kevin Edgecomb! I actually looked to see if this story was in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of Talmud selections, but hadn't had time to look any further. It's cool to get the whole story!

Aaron Taylor said...

Justin> See the second post for today, if you haven't already!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're very welcome, Aaron Taylor!
"Nedarim" means "vows" so that's why this story ended up in that tractate. That's the "hook" in this story.

It needs to be said that these kinds of stories are almost certainly not historical, but written for their current context. Rabbi Akiva lived during the Bar Kokhba revolt, but the Babylonian Talmud was compiled 400 years later, and there's no trace of the numerous stories in which he features (as the ideal rabbi) between those two times.

The incidental point that men would stay away from their wives when studying Torah is so widespread, it's certainly true. But to stay away for 12 years is the kind of legendary exaggeration that accretes around the names of the more exemplary rabbis.

The best that can be done (and this has become the accepted academic stance in rabbinics) is, in dispute narratives (which this is not) to isolate them to a particular generation, though not to the named individuals involved.

I very much recommend the H. L. Strack and Günter Stemberger title Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Fortress, 1992). Not only does he describe all the documents of the Rabbinic Canon (dates, composition, textual issues, etc), but he has a chapter on classical rabbinic exegesis, has short biographies of the various rabbis, and briefly discusses issues of historicity and so on, as I touched on above. The rabbinic literature is such a complicated corpus, but this book is an excellent introduction. It's a fascinating read.