Finishing Yoma

I’m still working on something about the scapegoat, etc. but I wanted to take a break to discuss today’s daf, as we come to the end of tractate Yoma.

As today’s daf yomi email from MyJewishLearning points out, it’s hard to resist making jokes about Yoma 88. There’s a line of logical discussion that gets us here, but what it boils down to is that the rabbis end 88 days of discussion of the holiest (arguably?) day in the Jewish ritual cycle with a discussion of what it means if a man accidentally has a seminal emission on Yom Kippur.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that, well, maybe you should be worried. In fact, that’s one position – if it happens, you should be anxious the entire year until next Yom Kippur, but if you survive, G!d has forgiven you (with a note from the commentary that it’s maybe the penitent worry that gets you off the hook). But other rabbis come in with other interpretations. Maybe, one suggests, since the rest of the world is suffering from being forbidden to have sex, G!d sent you this accidental orgasm to relieve your suffering.

In passing, this touches on one of my areas of interest, which is the treatment of sex and sexual desire throughout the Talmud (and Torah). While the rabbis are always concerned with a fairly strict sexual morality, it’s interesting to me here that they swing in the direction of recognizing that sexual activity can be for pleasure – in fact, G!d might have sent that pleasure to you! – and not just for reproduction (I’m thinking any seminal emission that could be reproductive is probably not going to fall into the “unintentional” category). Elsewhere, they take the more ascetic view that, at least for the righteous, sex is for procreation or to do your duty to your wife (though here also you’re probably not satisfying your wife’s sexual desires if your emission was accidental). Yoma doesn’t touch on what it means if a woman has an unintentional orgasm on Yom Kippur, natch.

But more importantly, I’m interested in the way that this juxtaposes with the discussion of transgression and repentance on 86b. There, we learn that repentance can, as Reish Lakish sees it, convert intentional wrongdoings into unintentional ones, or even into merits (of course, this means shifting the reaction to/consequences of them – an intentional wrongdoing was still intentional as a matter of the metaphysics of action, but it’s susceptible to atonement, the way an unintentional transgression is, if one repents). According to Rabbi Meir, even one person repenting can deflect G!d’s anger from the entire world.

I feel like there’s a lot packed in there, both in 86b and in the way it’s reflected at the end of 88a. I’m not sure I can organize it all.

According to the Gemara, the way to reconcile the reports that Reish Lakish said that intentional transgressions became (like) unintentional transgressions with reports that he said they became merits is to distinguish between the reasons for repentance. If you repent out of fear of divine or mortal punishment, even if the repentance is sincere, your transgressions become as if they were unintentional. If you repent out of love, though, they become like merits.

There’s an easy-ish gloss on the “transgressions become merits” idea: it’s plausible that we should laud someone who overcomes their flaws or impulses to do the right thing, because it was harder for them. I don’t enjoy gambling, so if I refrain from gambling, no big deal. But if someone who finds it very tempting to gamble refrains, we should respect that.

What has been on my mind is what this has to do with the merit-alchemy only happening when you repent out of love. The easy-ish gloss doesn’t clearly capture that. I think we could tell a story about it if we squint. Maybe we want to say that doing the right thing just because you fear the consequences of the wrong thing isn’t laudable. But I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe I don’t hit my kid because I’m afraid someone will call CPS, and we don’t want to give me a father of the year award for that. But if I don’t hit my kid because I hate knowing that it will damage our relationship and their psychological well-being, isn’t that also a kind of fear of consequences? But it seems clearly to be motivated by love – it may be consequences all the way down, to some extent. We could get cute with transgressions that might be without any external consequence – I fool around behind my wife’s back and she never finds out – but I feel like making Reish Lakish be talking about a corner case here misses something.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about for other reasons that this links into is what it means to accept people we love for who they are, especially when they may have “bad” characteristics. Like, my child has some executive function challenges. This causes them problems sometimes, and it certainly causes problems in our parent-child relationship, around things like chores, etc. Typical teenager stuff, mostly. Those are certainly not pleasant things! But at the same time, it feels queasy to me to respond to that with some variation on “I wish my kid didn’t have executive function challenges.” Like, I want us to find better, less conflictual ways to parent them. I want them to find ways of being that let them get fulfilling stuff done. Those are, in some sense, ways of solving the problem that their executive stuff causes. But would I want to wish the executive stuff away… I don’t know. I don’t think so?

So this brings us back to love. There are lots of aspects to love, I don’t want to boil it down. But it seems to me that at least one major piece of what a relationship of love is, is that you can’t separate out “the relationship” from working with whatever particular pattern of strengths and weaknesses and challenges and hopes both people have. It doesn’t mean that you just kind of passively accept whatever, but it does mean that there’s no “real” relationship “behind” whatever challenges people might have – the story of dealing with the challenges is the relationship. Like, as Aristotle pointed out, gods are perfect and hence don’t need friends (and most of what we call “love” would fall under the Aristotelian notion of “friendship”).

… if we were right in saying that a friend wishes good to friend for his sake, his friend must remain the sort of being he is, whatever that may be.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VIII(7)

I’ve often half-joked that my relationship to Judaism is like trying to get back together with someone after a bad breakup. And I’m feeling that now, reading through the end of Yoma at the same time as we’re starting to get into the heavy awfulness of the genocidal onslaught of Israelites into Canaan in the parashat cycle. I do often ask myself – what is the point? Literally no one is stopping me from just saying, “genocidal statist assholes wrote this, whatever.” Heck, I could even stay a member of my congregation. But weirdly, the wrestling with the challenges is part of the point. A belief system that I always agreed with would be solipsistic, just like a relationship with no flaws or conflict would be an extension of yourself, not a relationship.

I’m not sure I could defend that perspective with 100% philosophical rigor. But it feels right.

So, what does all this have to do with seminal emissions on Yoma 88? Maybe not a lot besides sparking the association. Or maybe it’s a nod towards the lived experience of repentance.

The Talmud also raises the specter of the person who, hearing that repentance brings forgiveness, just says to themself, “I will sin and then I will repent, I will sin and then I will repent.” As part of the response, the Talmud gets into the lived experience of repentance – what it means, in practice, to truly repent. Repentance isn’t an inner act of will – in fact, for many transgressions, inner words don’t suffice for repentance. You need to change behavior, recognize your challenges as challenges, make your life about how you respond to them, etc. If Yom Kippur were a check-box, where you’re in full control of your response to the ways you fell short in the year, it would risk being a kind of “thin” repentance – I did bad things, but it’s OK, I’ll fast, yadda yadda yadda, all my transgressions are forgiven.

That’s not how it works, though. There’s a long discussion of how, when harms are done between people, you need to repent to them on 87, and how even if they should forgive you, they might not. Even if 86b says that one way that G!d is unlike people is that They are always appeased, 88 points out ways in which our lived experience of repentance even when it’s just between us, living in bodies, and G!d, can be difficult and uncertain. And so I read it as maybe G!d recognizing the point Reish Lakish makes on 86b – if we’re approaching this day with an attitude of love, even if we mess it up, that just makes the effort more valuable rather than less.

(Incidentally, this read maybe encourages us to just throw out most of like the first 2/3 of Yoma, but oh well, onward to Sukkot!).