A Sampler of Samplers, Part One

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

Two SVARA-niks sitting at a table in an indoor bet midrash are high-fiving. Their hands are moving so fast that they are blurry.

As I was preparing to start rabbinical school, my mother took me to our local Jewish bookstore and bought me my first tallis. She then sewed me a beautiful bag to carry it in. She constructed it of a luxurious powder blue velvet, lined it in silk, and on the front she needlepointed a cityscape of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

While anyone who sees it surely senses a rich texture in the picture, only someone who takes the time to look very, very closely, and carefully—practically studies—the scene in detail will realize that it is comprised of dozens of different kinds of needlepoint stitches, each devoted to a separate architectural component of the buildings or aspect of the landscape—the minarets, the roofs, the walls, the windows, the trees, the flowers. The common continental stitch of the sky is the first you see. But, on further inspection, an astonishing array of more complex stitches begins to jump out at you—the brick stitch, the basketweave, the wagon wheel, the bullion, the tent stitch, the Rhodes, the Hungarian, and so many more. 

While to the casual admirer the picture is simply a representation of the Old City, the more careful or sophisticated observer will understand what the piece really is—a sampler. In the shape of the Old City. Its message is not the image, but the stitches. 

Traditionally, samplers were embroidered, cross-stitched, or needlepointed pictures whose purpose was to teach, preserve, transmit, and demonstrate the needle worker’s mastery over the tradition of different stitches handed down to them. So what does all this have to do with Talmud? Maybe everything! It’s a hypothesis I’m working on. It’s very much in process, but here goes. 

This idea occurred to me as I was relearning this past summer’s text in preparation for our Elul Hardcore Talmud Intensive. Though I’d learned and taught this text many times before, something suddenly jumped into focus for me in a whole new way. I realized that the text--HaChovel, my all-time favorite sugya, from the eighth chapter of the Tractate Bava Kamma…is a sampler! And not just metaphorically. An actual sampler! OK, it’s obviously not a piece of needlework, but its function, I think, is—and was always meant to be—a sampler! A sampler of interpretive tools that were meant to be handed down from one generation of tradition-shapers to the next. The “stitches” are the talmudic techniques—the “moves”—the gezera shava, the diyuk, the miut, the kal vachomer, the hekesh, the semuchin, the kra yetera, and so many more. And, yes, svara, too! These are the tools the tradition is passing down to us to use as, and when, we need to, to upgrade Torah so that it will do a better job of creating the kinds of people who will make a more liberatory world. The stitches may be in the “shape” of a conversation about personal injuries here, or lost objects there, or eating on Yom Kippur somewhere else, but, h/t to Marshall McLuhan, the moves are the message. 

And HaChovel, of course, is not really unique at all, but is simply one of the most obvious representations of the sampler-y-ness of the entire Talmud. Which means that the whole Talmud—which is made up of hundreds of sampler-sugyas not at all substantively different from HaChovel in their obviously forced interpretations of biblical verses to ostensibly prove the legitimacy of a halachic innovation that ranges somewhere between biblically unfounded to outright biblically forbidden, each of which portrays a different surface “cityscape”—is a sampler of samplers! 

OK, let’s start with HaChovel and I’ll show you what I mean. HaChovel begins with a mishna that says directly, clearly, unapologetically, and without providing any support or justification for itself whatsoever (which is very characteristic of the very radical mishna generally), that the punishment for injuring a person is that the injurer should pay money, monetary compensation, to the injured party for any loss of earning potential over the victim’s lifetime as a result of the injury, for pain and suffering, for medical bills, for lost wages during recovery, and in compensation for the humiliation and embarrassment of having been injured—physically or emotionally. 

The gemara then begins with a simple question: What the F***??!! Hey, the gemara screams, doesn’t the Torah say, very clearly, that what God wants us to do is “an eye for an eye”—actual physical retaliation precisely mimicking the original offense?! What follows is, at least on its surface, a back and forth debate not on whether or not we should actually do “eye for an eye” or “money” (in the language of the yeshiva, “mamash” or “mamon”–”actual” or “money”), for the law had been determined, settled and put into practice hundreds of years prior as “money” and no one was interested in changing that—but rather, whether the “money” solution codified in the mishna was what the Torah meant all along when it said “an eye for an eye” (wink-wink) or an actual radical deviation from it (duh). Which means that the side of the debate which is saying “Hey, the Torah clearly says mamash!” is actually the more radical voice. It’s saying: Yes, of course we should keep doing mamon. That’s not at all what the Torah says…but that’s still what we should do. It’s a radical departure, an abrogation of Torah, and that’s OK! Svara trumps Torah! This is what we think God wants us to do now!” 

The surface “cityscape” of the sugya is a collection of attempted proofs for the wink-wink claim that when the Torah says “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, etc.,” the Torah never meant that we should punish those who injure others by exacting a similar and corresponding physical retribution on them (“eye for an eye”/mamash), but rather that the punishment for poking out an eye, a tooth, severing a hand or foot, etc., should be monetary compensation to the person they hurt and that that’s what the Torah meant all along when it said “an eye for an eye”—fully half of which fail, the other half of which are so obviously forced as to pull the curtain from behind the wizard to show you exactly what’s going on. Read my teacher, Dr. David Kraemer, on this sugya for a fascinating treatment of it and, by extension, the entire Talmud, in Reading the Rabbis, Oxford University Press, 1996, chapter 3, pp 33-48.

Just the multiplicity of proofs alone is telling. As Dr. Kraemer used to teach us: If the Rabbis have a good proof for a claim they’re making, they’ll offer it. And if they don’t have a single good proof…they’ll offer two. And if you know this rule of thumb, you can recognize that what’s actually going on when multiple scriptural proofs are offered, claims Kraemer, is not an expression of confidence and certainty that the new halachic claim is actually rooted in and authorized by the Torah, but as a wink-wink acknowledgment of the exact opposite—that the Rabbis actually know they have no scriptural leg to stand on at all for the radical new claim they’re making (in this case: money, not actual eyes being poked out), and that they’re not bothered by that one bit and are going to make their radical change regardless! It is their svara, not the written words of the Torah, that is driving them, and they want their students to know it. 

So when the in-the-know student sees that HaChovel consists of not a single proof, or even two proofs, but no fewer than ten proofs for the claim that “eye for an eye” means money for an eye, they know that while the “cityscape” looks like the message “‘An eye for an eye’ always meant money,” the meta-message is this: we don’t need the Torah’s approval to upgrade the tradition so that it does a better job of creating the kind of people we want to create, and the kind of world we want to live in—namely, in this case, one in which we invest in just, restorative systems for addressing harm. 

The challenge of the Rabbis, though, was never in deriving this radical new Torah. They did that easily with svara years before (even if they never actually labeled it as such). The problem they had to solve was selling it to the People. Think about it. In a queer, radical, lefty, politicized community—like SVARA—we have a fairly clear sense of what values, principles, and systemic changes need to happen in our society to make it more liberatory. We live them out, here, in our yeshiva, and work to clarify them, name them, systematize them, operationalize them, and model them. And…we know that what ultimately needs to happen is that the folks out there come to see the non-negotiability of these same values of justice, humility, joy, compassion, empathy, holding our truths lightly, love love love, and so many more—and live them out as well, both individually and systemically.

And here’s where the “stitches” come in again. I think I was both right and wrong about these stitches when I began to work on this hypothesis. I think I was right about the Talmud being a sampler of stitches. I think those five sources of truth we talk about at the end of the CRASH Talk—kra (in all of its techniques of kal vachomer, gezera shava, hekesh, kra yetera, etc.), minhag, maa’seh, takkanah, and svara, are the full range of stitches. But I think I was wrong about what the Rabbis of Yavneh actually used them for! And why the Talmud is recording them to be passed down from generation to generation. 

Stay tuned for next time and I’ll tell you what I now think is really going on in this sampler of samplers we call the Talmud!

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