This week in Talmud class, we read a debate among rabbis about who has a bigger penis. Well, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the subtext. It was a debate in the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) about who had more power and authority, the rabbis of Babylon, or the rabbis of Israel. To be fair, the debate took place somewhere around the fourth century CE, during the period when Jews were still getting used to not having their own autonomous country in Israel. There were now two centers of Jewish life rather than one, and much of this segment is about adjusting to this reality, and deciding which center is the one that really counts.
There is more at stake here than masculinity, although I posit that an exclusively male tug-of-war about absolute authority has a lot of Freudian dynamics beneath the surface. Still, there is actually a lot at stake in this debate over which group of Jewish leaders are really the ones in charge. You can argue that it was not so much about their own power as much as it was about the future of the Jewish people, or belief about when there would be a Third Temple – if ever. You can say that the argument is not about the rabbis themselves or the sway of their words but something deeper with more genuine integrity and concern for the People of Israel. I get that. A less cynical view than mine is likely just as legitimate.
Interestingly, this power struggle between Israeli and Diaspora leaders over who represents true Jewishness is not that different from the than the state of the Jewish people today. Today, too, the Jewish people are rife with internal debates about whether communal resources and funding around the world should go to Israel or to their own local communities, about which communities are more important and deserving, over who is living out the more authentic Judaism. And today, too, there is a lot at stake in this tug of war.
The Reform movement has a very important role to play in this struggle. Representing around half of American Jews, people whose rights are trampled on with ease and a complete absence of consciousness by the State of Israel, this is a group that wears on its sleeve the power play between Jewish leaders here and Jewish leaders there. The average American Jew who likely belongs to a liberal community pays the price of this tug of war in real terms. Who is allowed to get married in Israel, who is considered Jewish, who is allowed to officially represent religion in Israel, who gets state funding, who is allowed to pray the way they want wherever they want – these are all places where liberal Jews suffer because of power games among leaders. It is about men asserting their power by trying to keep others powerless. We are all little pawns in the penis game.
This week, we discussed the text about the battle for religious authority in a class with David Levine, a brilliant Talmud scholar who has a very particular message that he wants to share with us. He wants to make sure we understand the editing process of the Talmud. It sounds so boring and trivial when we put it that way, but in fact it might just be the most important thing I have learned so far in my studies at Hebrew Union College.
The Talmud is generally known for its shakla v’tarya, its back and forth appearance of dialogue. When you first read the Talmud, you imagine a bunch of rabbis sitting in a room arguing and debating, a cross between the stock market floor and an animated game of poker – this one says “I’ve got something here, and it’s definitive,” and another one says, “No, it’s the other way, and I’ll prove it”, and the third says, “No, no, my proof is better,” and the fourth says, “I see your proof and raise you by two other proofs! Hah!” It can be charming even in discussions that seem so irrelevant at times. It’s like a game of logic, beloved by those who enjoy argument for the sake of argument.
Of course, all of it is fake. The rabbis in these dialogues never actually sat in the same room together. The men cited on a typical page, or sugya, were usually far away from each other, sometimes in different generations, different cities or even different centuries. The text is not an actual script. It is a series of quotes that are woven together around issues. The codes and keywords that are placed in between each citation are used to weave a narrative. Come and learn….Why does the Torah say this?.... It means to say….. But there is still a question….. Could it be that….That it why it says….These are like paragraph headings. Taken alone, these codes tell you the direction that the text is taking. And there is always a direction. There is a bottom line to every sugya. And it is known from the beginning.
The Talmud is full of these codes. They are a bit like arrows, directing you to the bottom line. But perhaps a better metaphor is that they are like stitches. The Talmud is like a massive quilt sewn together. By someone. Who? Nobody knows for sure. When? Nobody knows for sure. Was it one person at one time or many people at one time or many people at different times? All are possibilities. The only thing that is certain is that someone did it. Someone chose the quotes and did the weaving. And that person also chose how each section would end. The editor/s crafted each segment in order to come to a certain conclusion.
This is a groundbreaking idea for me. When I learned Gemara in school, we would simply hear, “The Gemara says,” or “The Gemara teaches us.” We never asked who “The Gemara” was. It was just some kind of omniscient presence. God. I think we all just assumed that it was somehow God talking.
In this sugya in Sanhedrin, for example, that we learned this week, the Gemara (that is, the editor, who was sitting somewhere in Babylon), asked about whether an Israeli rabbi had any authority in Babylon. “The Gemara”, meaning the editor, pasted together a few citations, most of which sided with the Israelis. Each one was disproved with all kinds of different arguments. The bottom line, we learn, is that the Babylonian rabbis win. Despite the other texts that say the opposite, “The Gemara” clearly wants us to conclude that the Babylonian rabbis have ultimate power.
The agenda is clear. It’s completely obvious and transparent. The aspects of the Talmud that so many people find charming – the twists and turns of logic, the reasoning that seems to come out of nowhere – are what David Levine calls “aggressive editing”. I call it purposeful manipulation.
“The Gemara” is not God. There is no omniscient “Gemara.” There is an editor. A guy with an agenda.
Meanwhile, in a fascinating twist, we also read a text from a book called “Sefer V’hizhir”, a midrashic text written by a 10th century scholar in Israel, which asks the same question as the Talmud – who has more authority, the Israeli rabbis or the Babylonian rabbis – and uses the same sources. But he reads them entirely differently and comes up with the completely opposite conclusion. He says that Israeli rabbis have authority over Babylonian rabbis. Hah! He actually writes the exact opposite of the Babylonian Talmud using the same sources. Incredible, really.
For me, this discussion changes everything. Coming out of Orthodoxy where every word and every phrase every written by a rabbi is considered a word of God, where we are taught that you cannot change anything because those who came before us were giants and we are nothing – well, it’s all a lie. When we say “The Gemara says”, we don’t mean God. We mean a guy, or guys, what’s called the Stama Gemara. The editor. Stama, like a cross between the Hebrew word “stam” for simple, or as is, and the tradition of “stam” like “sofer stam”, the writer of holy things. This editor is both simple and sacred. He is doing something that everyone will take to be representing the voice of God. But it’s just a guy. Stam. Stama.
This changes everything.
Some days, I feel like I was brought up on a series of lies. Sometimes I think, everything I think I knew is just lies, someone’s agenda, someone’s need for me to think and act a certain way in order for them to have power. I feel like a pawn in centuries of power plays among men.
I think back to how many times I heard, “The Gemara says,” as if this is some kind of sacred prophecy. This notion that everything is the word of God even when it is very human – this is a terribly manipulative tool of mind control. Mind control, yes.
I think about little kids sitting in school hearing an adult tell them something. Wear this shirt. Eat this food. Speak these words. Go here. Do this. Why? Because God says so. Of course the kid will listen! And the kid will grow up and continue to listen and obey. Why? Because you can’t argue with the word of God.
Framing everything as the word of God is a dangerous game. It pre-empts resistance. It prevents people from experiencing their own lives and thinking for themselves.
How can we expect kids to understand this? If you are taught from the age of zero that everything you hear is the word of God, how can you possibly unravel all that? It will take years or decades of adulthood to unpack those layers. If at all.
When I was in a post-high-school yeshiva program in Israel, we had a discussion about women’s hair covering after marriage. The teacher, a modern-Orthodox rebbetzin who herself wore a sheitel, a wig, told us that hair covering is a “chok”, an absolute rule, like the red heifer, that we don’t understand but we do anyway. She turned a social convention into the absolute unassailable word of God. Her purpose was clear: To get me and every other impressionable young woman to choose to cover our hair after marriage. It worked. I did it for a good few years. Until I stopped listening to what others told me is the word of God, and started listening to myself. It was a watershed moment for me, not because of my hair but because of the process of starting to talk back to my culture, questioning for myself what God wants from me.
The notion that everything which has been written down or said by rabbis is the word of God is a potent and dangerous tool of group mind control that is used with frightening ease and mendacity. This lie keeps lots of people doing strange things – from women covering our own real hair with someone else’s real hair, to people twirling chickens over their heads, to women staying in unwanted or abusive marriages because God doesn’t give them an exit.
I actually have no objection, on principle, to doing strange things. I do many strange things myself, some of which for spiritual or religious reasons and others for the sake of this notion called “tradition”. But I do have a very, very strong objection to people claiming that they have a monopoly on what God wants or thinks. And I have an even stronger objection to educating children using the language of God’s Will. Conflating social convention and the will of God is the big lie in many locations of Jewish education. Telling little girls, for example, to wear heavy stockings in the Middle East summer because this is what God wants – that is nothing less than child abuse. But also telling girls that God wants us to get married and be good mothers because that is how we were created – that is also a lie, the playing out of the agenda of men using the language of God’s will.
There are throngs of adults walking around today who think that they have to do everything they do because it’s “Torah” or “halakha” when really it is just someone’s opinion. It is this mind-numbing of entire populations – especially women – that is one of the gravest sins that Jewish educators can do.
Let’s remember the editors. It’s not always God. Sometimes it is just an editor. Stama.
When I think about David Levine’s lessons on the Stama, I think that this is the reason I came to the Reform movement. I am in a process of relearning Torah from scratch. Without the Big Lie that it is all the word of God. I want to embrace Torah and be part of my people. But I don’t want to have to suppress my entire mind in order to do it. It is about learning Torah from a place of freedom. Awake and alive.