It’s a Mess

Eiruvin 19a returns to one of my least favorite themes in the Talmud: non-Jews are polluted and immoral.

It starts off sort of OK! The Gemara has taken a detour from talking about what kind of fence you need around a well in order to be able to draw water from it on Shabbat in order to discuss the nature of Gehenna and punishment in the afterlife (as you do).

We learn that Jews who have sinned are saved from the worst punishments, because even Jews who sin still have done many good things in their lives – in a nice image, even Jews who sin are “filled with good deeds like [the seeds of] a pomegranate.”

I would like to believe this as a general principle of everyone! Even people who have done terrible things are redeemable, and while I may be skeptical that some folks have mitzvot like pomegranate seeds inside them, surely even the worst of the folks coming out of the woodwork right now have some redeeming qualities.

But the Talmud is very quick to make sure that you know that this leniency applies only to Jews. And, in fact, we learn in the next paragraph that a Jew who has sexual relations with a gentile woman – regardless of their other pomegranate-seed-like good deeds – is exempted from this leniency, and Abraham treats them like they’re not a Jew at all.

Besides hating on this passage, a couple things strike me.

First, there’s a weird counterpoint of purity/impurity here. The same discussion that recognizes that individual people are messy mixtures of good and bad deeds demands a bright line between Jew and gentile. I get that part of the context is folks who were very anxious about assimilation into Babylonian culture. But I maintain my position that there’s got to be a better way to think about diaspora.

Second, it’s interesting to read this focus in the Talmud while simultaneously picking up the Zohar. The Zohar (like many mystical texts) is pretty mixture- and ambiguity-friendly. This is maybe especially striking in the light of this week’s parsha, which contains Deuteronomy 22:5’s prohibition against dressing in garments of the opposite gender. Meanwhile, over in the Zohar, Shekhinah is feminine, but also King David, and also all of Israel, and also the world, but also Gevurah, judgment (masculine), and is the mystical wife of Tif’eret who is also Jacob and Moses, and all of them are contained in Binah, who is both G!d’s palace and the womb from which different aspects of G!d are born and by the way all of these things are G!d.

I am curious, as I continue catching up with Zohar Ammud Yomi, whether or not, like the Talmud, it permits this impurity and bricolage only within the Jewish people, or whether it extends that permeability to the rest of the world. The Zohar is also a diasporic text, but its context was very different. It was probably written in southern Spain in the 13th Century (even if some of the materials it draws on were earlier). Though Christian Iberia was never as accepting of Jews as Muslim Iberia, there were established and mostly tolerated communities, and the destruction of the Second Temple was another 800 years or so in the rear-view mirror than it was for the Babylonian sages – nearly an additional millenium of experience with being a community in diaspora.