Gamliel is my My Least Favorite Scholar

Wait, wrong Sephiroth

Gamliel is probably my least favorite scholar.


We’re coming up on the end of Tractate Shabbat – or at least I am; I’m not sure that I know anyone else who is still doing Daf Yomi (SO I WIN) and my experiences with broader Jewish communities have been… mixed… so I’m not exactly in a rush to go try to find some other daf yomi group online to hang out with. As I’ve mentioned before Shabbat has been much more of a slog for me than Berachos was, and I’m going to use recent stuff in it as a naked opportunity to riff on some other things that I’ve been thinking about re: Judaism recently.


So anyway, on Shabbat 154b the Gemara is discussing rules related to resting animals on Shabbat, and tells a story about Gamliel. Gamliel had a donkey that was still laden with jugs of honey on Shabbat, and he refused to unload it until after Shabbat, by which time the animal had died of exhaustion. After going through a variety of ways that Gamliel might have gotten the burden off of his donkey without violating Shabbat, that Gamliel rejects (e.g., if he unties the load and lets it fall of its own accord, the jugs might break, if he puts blankets down so they don’t break, he might get the blankets dirty), the story concludes with:

Rabban Gamliel holds that causing a living creature to suffer is prohibited not by Torah law but rather by rabbinic law. Therefore, he need not suffer monetary loss due to the rabbinic prohibition.

Yeah. This charmer is the same guy who didn’t realize some of the other Rabbis had to work for a living back on Berachos 28a.

There’s a kind of legalism-in-the-pejorative-sense at work here: not only are the rules important, but the idea that if one follows the rules there are no further important moral considerations. Gamliel’s defense isn’t that none of the proposed solutions for relieving his donkey’s burden will work – it’s that he doesn’t want to lose money by breaking his jugs or soiling his blankets, and the rules don’t say he has to.

This dovetails with some stuff in the Torah I’ve been struggling with recently as well. In the past couple of parsha, covering the beginning sections of Deuteronomy, we see several times when G!d commands genocide. Not just victory in warfare, but extermination of enemy peoples (such as at Deut. 2:34), even those who are in hiding from the Israelites (Deut. 7:20). One of the most infamous discussions comes at Deut. 20:10-18 (a parsha that hasn’t come up yet this year). The Israelites are commanded to give most towns terms of surrender, and if they refuse to kill all the men and take the women and children as slaves. However, in towns of Canaanite tribes, everyone is to be killed, including women and children.

This isn’t just a kind of theoretical worry, either. Lots of people, Jewish and otherwise, take moral cues from the Torah. While it’s certainly, certainly not true of all Jews, there are people who read these sections of the Torah and interpret them as applying to, e.g., the Palestinians. Maybe those are just bad people! But, if I’m on a spiritual journey to find my relationship to my Jewish roots then I worry about the moral cues in this text. To give a Jewish paraphrase of “American Jesus,” if the Torah is the “nuclear bombs and the kids with no moms,” then “I’m fearful that [it’s] inside me.”

I’ve heard a few different ways to try to “soften” this. There are apparently a few variations on the theme of “those rules only applied in that time, not today.” Apparently later in the Talmud there’s a ruling that the nations have become scattered and mixed, and so since no one can tell who’s a Canaanite anymore, the genocide commandment is no longer in force. I mean, OK, but that’s like you telling me that you think it’s totally fine to murder babies, but since you don’t know where any babies are right now, I shouldn’t worry.

Though the plain meaning of the text seems to imply that the offer of quarter only applies to non-Canaanite groups, apparently some later sages argued that it applied to everyone, and the genocidal commandment only “kicked in” for groups that refused subjection to the Israelites. That’s a little better, but it still implies that the penalty for resisting conquest should be massacre, which seems wrong (this is, by the way, basically Michael Walzer’s – bad – defense of siege warfare – so long as they leave a way for civilians to escape the siege, the besieging army does not bear moral responsibility for the deaths of civilians. This is often discussed as applying in the modern world to things like economic sanctions).

When I asked about discussions of this in a Judaism-study FB group, one response was, “well, G!d knew that literally every one of the people living there was evil – even the kids were basically thousands of baby Hitlers.” Which… uh… no. I mean, I guess it’s a theoretical possibility and well within the bounds of rabbinic interpretation (“Oh, that Mishna? They don’t mention it, but they must be talking about only the case of a baby donkey who eats mustard seeds on Wednesdays.”). I guess at the end of the day I’m not much happier with a foundational text whose worldview includes absolutely irredeemably evil children than I am with one that includes the view that there are some groups that merit genocide. If anything, they feel like two sides of the same debased coin.

This discussion of genocide commandments, unfortunately, fits in with lots of other militarism in the Torah that makes me deeply uncomfortable – like the organization of the entire nation as a military camp at the beginning of Numbers.

There are a few options for dealing with this stuff (besides the semi-limiting interpretations that I find unsatisfying, above). I’m trained as an analytic philosopher, so you better believe I’m gonna run through them in order.

The most tempting one for me is what you might call the SHJ solution. Gamliel’s epic assholery doesn’t keep me up nights because even if we were to grant that all of the rabbis whose opinions are recorded in the Talmud were great sages (Gamliel’s a good argument not to do that, you guys), the whole point of the Talmud is that these are just people. Smart people, but people, who lived about 1500-2000 years ago in a different culture. So it’s relatively easy to say some version of “product of his times” and call it a day. I mean, there are questions about the right way to read such things, but they share that with lots of texts one might find other value in: Aristotle hated women, Heidegger was a literal Nazi, Hannah Arendt may well have been part of the #AllLivesMatter crowd based on her comments in On Violence. Similarly, we might say of the Torah, it was written by human beings about 2500 years ago based on sources older than that, they weren’t literally conveying the word of G!d, so take what you find interesting/useful and ignore the rest of it.

However, I’m personally searching for a different approach. I spent a lot of time in an SHJ congregation, and loved a lot about it. I miss being part of Machar. But part of this deep dive into the Talmud and the Torah (and I might add the Zohar soon – anyone feeling irrationally generous?) is to try to think about whether I might be able to reclaim for myself a relationship to my Jewish heritage that’s more than just the relationship I might have to Aristotle.

A different direction is to read it as metaphor. I’ve seen some suggestions (I can’t remember where now, but I think from Christian theology) that the tribes against which genocide is commanded should not be understood as literal tribes, but as the seven deadly sins that must be extirpated in the soul. That’s certainly more palatable, and there are long traditions that argue that the Torah cannot be understood from its plain meaning alone, and hence you need to be taught proper interpretation. That said, I still find this tactic unsatisfying. For one thing, I’m not a fan of military metaphors for non-violent struggles in general. It also just seems pat, in a way similar to the solution of throwing out what we don’t like by reference to historical difference.

What else is there?

Someone shared with me a pre-publication version of a journal article applying ideas from the Lurianic Kabbalah to this question (part of the reason I’m considering getting that massive copy of the Zohar is that I’m learning that many of the ideas I find congenial in Judaism actually have roots in the kabbalistic tradition, though they have been incorporated into “mainstream” Judaism since).

In a nutshell, the paper plays with an idea in the Kabbalah that the Torah we have, while the “real” Torah, is a projection of it into a particular era of the universe. The Torah in its full form and all aspects cannot be comprehended from within time. And the projection of the Torah (and G!d) into our limited universe brings into being dark or evil parts of the divine nature. So, for instance, for Kabbalists, not only is G!d understood as not just a male father-figure, but as having other feminine aspects of personality – but demonic figures like Lilith are also understood as part of G!d or in some way expressions of the divine. Depending on which bit of the Kabbalah you’re looking at, either projection of the divine into our world caused a kind of breakage and overflowing, or it required that the divine be protected with a kind of outer spiritual shell (or both).

So the story goes, our age is currently ruled by the Gevurah, the aspect of G!d as justice, judgment, and punishment. The idea is that the Torah of Gevurah, the one we see in the printed pages we have in this world, is not only one angle on the Torah, but is potentially distorted, or mixed with the shards of the broken spiritual shell through which the divine entered the world. This makes a kind of sense, and lets us interpret things like the commandments to genocide as Gevurah-based excesses: you recognize the conflict between Israel and another culture, even see ideas you find immoral in that culture, and as a result declare that it must be destroyed. All of us have had moments of anger where we lash out – most of us just aren’t deities who can command thousands of years of followers to think of genocide as a good solution to intercultural conflict. In this story, the hope is that the same way that the boundaries imposed by Gevurah sophisticate the boundless but agency-sapping kindness and support of Chesed, we will eventually pass from the age of Gevurah into that of Tiferet (beauty/compassion), which will integrate the two perspectives and in which a new physical Torah will become relevant – presumably one without genocide commandments in it. But still a partial perspective on the true “cosmic” Torah, until the universal cycle is completed.

Alright, so what does this buy us? It might seem like just a version of the SHJ story dressed up in mysticism – I don’t ignore the genocide commandments because they’re in a really old book written by problematic dudes, I ignore them because they are shards of kelipot. Much better!

Well, a little. I’m fascinated by the mysticism, though I’m far from fully bought-in (I’m pretty hard-headed about many things, but I also did read the entire occult section of my local library as a kid – stopping at Dianetics – and taught myself basic Tarot reading in college, so I’m not completely not bought in). But what this approach got me thinking about is some things that don’t necessarily rely on 7,000-year sefirotic aeons. Hat tip: I was helped in this contemplation by a conversation with a friend who is a magickal practitioner, but who encouraged me to think about what the true intention of any mystical thing is. So, right, what do I get from contemplation of the cosmic cycle – just “permission” to do the SHJ thing?

Not quite, I think. This got me thinking about the relationship aspect of things. I just pitch elements of Aristotle I don’t like – it’s not like I know the guy. But taking that attitude towards a relationship with a person – or personalized entity, like G!d – as opposed to a body of work, is a very Gevurah thing to do.

Draped around the genocidal commands in the Torah is also a lot about “love.” But a lot of it is pretty toxic – it’s G!d commanding you to love Them and threatening you with all sorts of horrors if you don’t… and of course promising to always be ready to take you back if you repent and agree to do everything They say without question. There’s a charitable reading of this stuff, where it’s all about the value of mercy even for people who have done great wrong… but it’s hard for me to read it without it conjuring images of toxic, gaslighting relationships. Not exactly an ideal. However, there might be something there. Hold that thought.

Another important strand in the Torah, and that founds elements in Jewish theology beyond it, is that G!d gets things wrong. One of the most famous examples of this is related in this week’s parsha at Deut. 9:15-19, and in expanded form in Ex. 32. After Moses spends a long time up on Sinai, the Israelites build the golden calf, and G!d is pretty mad about that. So at Ex. 32:9-14 we get this interesting passage:

The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” But Moses impolred the Lord his G!d… And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon his people.”

I’m not a gigantic fan of Moses’ reasoning – he basically appeals to G!d’s self-interest in glory, that if They destroy the Israelites people will claim that They don’t keep their promises. But it still keeps the basic point that just because G!d is for it does not make it right (so picking a horn of the Euthyphro dilemma and running with it). We see this in lots of places – G!d makes a covenant after the deluge – beings who always do the right thing don’t need to make promises. In the Talmud, at Berakhot 6a-b, we get a nifty midrash on the subject of G!d wearing phylacteries that contain biblical verses talking about how great Israel is, and that continues (after some digressions) on 7a-b with a discussion of how G!d prays (intentionally paralleled – part of the same discussion of how G!d is like humans), and that what They pray for is for Their anger not to overwhelm them. So we have plenty of precedent for thinking that G!d is not a perfect moral guide, and can in fact be overcome by anger (Gevurah).

How do love and the imperfection of G!d come together? First, well, I just love the tradition of G!d’s imperfection – as my rabbi once said, “perfection is not a Jewish value.” I find this idea very profound, that the ideal is itself non-ideal, and that we’re not trying to attain some state where we’re free of our flaws – which, after all, are expressions of our individuality. (Besides it just being a hint that the Gevurah-heavy bits of the Torah might not to be taken as unproblematic moral and spiritual guides – after all, Gevurah is all about utter annihilation of that which fails to meet standards. Like all totalitarian worldviews, I suspect that that would end with the annihilation of G!d Themself!)

More deeply, it points to a different way of looking at the problematic aspects of the Torah, like the genocide commands. G!d’s version of “love” there can be Gevurah-based and toxic (agree with me about everything or be destroyed, if you loved me, you’d always support me), but still point us in a better direction.

If you love someone – not just in the erotic sense – you don’t just kick them to the curb because they’re not perfect. Of course, there are boundaries that you can set – I’m not saying not, and I’m not going to try to say where they should be. But in many cases the reaction to someone you love acting in a way that you don’t agree with is to draw them in, try to understand them, and try to help them become better. To redeem my references to Aristotle, there’s a nifty bit in the Nicomachean Ethics where he discusses the role of true friendship as being one where you spur each other to greater virtue. I imagine that will be a combination of supporting someone as they try to improve and sometimes calling them on their shit without cutting them off.

So two things. A perspective where the Torah represents a – being? tradition? idea? culture? something – with which contemporary Jews are in a relationship points to a different attitude towards problematic elements than just cutting them off to save the parts we like. In a relationship, I may not agree with you, but I strive to at least understand where you’re coming from. Maybe that reveals an idea or perspective that I didn’t have before. Maybe it just reveals a way in which you need support.

What can we learn from understanding the commands to genocide? I’m not 100% sure. Maybe we can learn that the coming age of Tiferet will need the boundaries set by Gevurah, and can’t just be the boundless support and kindness of Chesed. Bland and agency-denying Chesed is certainly a temptation for me sometimes – I don’t like confrontation, and would rather find ways to support everyone than take a stand. Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes it’s not helpful – I lost a colleague I really liked in part due to not doing my part to confront other people in our workplace who were making the environment toxic for her. Maybe being shocked by a command to commit genocide is a way to crack complacency about everyone getting along. Maybe its juxtaposition with the exile and the destruction of the Temple by forces that also tried to impose cultural hegemony is an evolving lesson in the futility of the impulse to destroy things we hate, a lesson that can only be learned in the diaspora. I’m spitballing. But just like you don’t see someone you love angry and decide they’re dumb and you’re going to ignore it, maybe there’s something we can learn from contemplating these awful commands. In the Kabbalistic story, this is a way of saying that the kelipot are also part of G!d, but you don’t necessarily need the mysticism.

The other aspect, and to go back to another concept with roots in Lurianic thought, is the notion of tikkun olam, healing the world. In contemporary Jewish thought, tikkun olam is understood as a general obligation to fight for “social justice” – against racism, for economic equity, etc. It’s maybe my favorite Jewish concept!

Its original Kabbalistic sense was more literal, however. There’s a Lurianic creation story that holds that G!d created the Universe by pouring Their infinite divine essence into a finite world, and that this led to a breaking of the cosmic vessels designed to contain G!d and make a finite universe possible (at least as I understand it). It’s also a sort of theodicy, or story of the origin and nature of evil – the “evil” that the world contains is the broken parts of the divine vessels. In Kabbalah, by performing acts of righteousness you are literally gathering-in the scattered divine light and helping repair its vessels, in a mystical sense.

I find this a powerful metaphor, even if you don’t take it literally. The G!d of the Torah can be read as a being in great pain at the world – as many of us are when we contemplate it. Maybe They lash out in annihilation and genocide because They can see all of the awfulness of our universe and it’s too much for even a divine being to bear. Maybe the problem with the G!d of the Torah isn’t that They’re morally wrong and disgusting, to be reviled. Maybe the problem is that They have been terribly wounded by presence in our world, and they need healing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t oppose the hurtful things They and Their followers command in turn, of course. Tiferet.

Ultimately, the mysticism is kind of cool, but can be seen as a scaffolding for a more mundane thing. I can, in the end, perfectly well decide to keep reading the Torah because it speaks to a meaningful relationship I want to rebuild between myself and my Jewish heritage without any sorcerous “permission.” But maybe I needed to at least try on that mindset to see the possibility.

Anyway, tl;dr Rabban Gamliel is all about Gevurah – he doesn’t care about people particularly, he doesn’t care about animals, he humiliates people who he disagrees with. But I guess we’ve gotta keep him in the Talmud and try to listen to him a little if we don’t want to become him.


Stray thoughts.

There’s a bit at Deut. 7:25 where Israelites are commanded not to take gold and silver from the idols of those they defeat. I’ve heard that some people read things like this and take the Torah to be progressive relative to prevailing norms of war at the time because it bars plunder. I mean, maybe – I don’t see a lot of great scholarship on concepts of warfare at the time. But also, this makes me think of criticisms of humanitarian intervention as leading to unrestricted warfare. If you’re fighting because you want someone’s stuff, the thinking goes, you stop when they give it to you. If you’re fighting because they’re evil you only stop when they’re completely submissive to you, or destroyed.

More Gevurah: Shabbat 155b relates Rav. Mari’s position that after you feed a stray dog, you should hit it with a stick so that it doesn’t get attached to you. Sure, you can’t feed infinite stray dogs, but this seems like a very explicit and cruel version of this idea threaded throughout that boundaries are to be enforced with violence.

Even more Gevurah(?): Sabbat 151b relates that the fortunes of people change over time, and so one should never despise those in poverty – if it’s not you, it will be one of your descendants. The Gemara replies that Torah scholars will never be in poverty, or at least never will have to beg for charity. One interpretation is based in community (see my next stray thought) – a Torah scholar in poverty will be supported by their community proactively and so will never have to experience poverty or beg for assistance (Tiferet – support but with an expectation of study and contribution to the community thereby). Another is that the Torah scholar will not have to beg because they will be so frugal and self-disciplined, not like those lazy and undisciplined poor people who beg (Gevurah).

Deuteronomy is big on how Israel is favored not because of its great accomplishments or rectitude, but because of its relationship with G!d (reinforcing some of my reflections, I think). I think in our world we often see a toxic variant of this idea – my personal relationship with G!d is in good shape, so I deserve good things that I get. And if you don’t get good things, you must not be right with G!d. Woe to the arvad! But I’ve been thinking about ideas of G!d as makom (place) or as eyeh (becoming). Place, especially in the diaspora, can also be community: on Shabbat 147b there is the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who forgets his learning when he goes to live in a place where there are not other scholars. Though the place he lived had lovely springs for bathing and delicious wine, the Talmud implies that it’s not that he was distracted from Torah study by the wine (or any other physical attribute of the place) – but by the lack of a community of learning. A “place of Torah” is where people come together to learn, not a particular patch of dirt. I’ve been toying with thinking about G!d as a kind of futural community – as I’ve often half-jokingly said, my higher power is the coming anarcho-communist utopia. Maybe its our continued participation – imperfectly – in the becoming of a kind of place that merits good things coming to us. Not as a reward from some divine judge, but as a natural effect of the world becoming more like that ideal.

Image from Francisco Vargas on Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0): https://www.flickr.com/photos/haripako/4406309913

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