Is the Talmud Really What We Say It Is?

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership

Two SVARA-niks sit at a table in the bet midrash. One, on the left, has their palms up.

Over this year, as we’ve moved through continued isolation and exile amidst a global pandemic, I have found the bet midrash to be one of the only places that I’ve been able to be fully present, immersed, and in a joyful state of flow. Sometimes I feel this flow when I am swimming in a text that explicitly and easily shows the radical agenda of the Rabbis as they model the creation of a useable past, finding creative and subversive readings of texts and practices that enable them to shape new worlds that meet their current moment. Other times I feel this flow when I sink into the minutiae of a dynamic kra proof, or try to sharpen the structure of a complex amoraic dispute in which, after hours of winding and cracking open the text, I find the Rabbis arguing the point they started with. In those moments it is hard not to ask myself (or find SVARA-niks asking), “Is the Talmud really what we say it is?”

This question shows up for me each time I learn one of my favorite texts with a new group of SVARA-niks, as I’ve done over the past five weeks as the third cohort SVARA’s Teaching Kollel has been digging into one of the most central texts that our learning community returns to again and again: Sanhedrin 17a, which explores the necessary attributes for judges who can be appointed to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court). While it discusses an ancient judicial system, the text—like all learning, really—serves as a rorschach test, in many ways, revealing to us what we believe is most fundamental to the rabbinic project. After one sage lists a number of attributes for an ideal appointee to the Sanhedrin (like wisdom, status as an elder, stature), Rav Yehuda brings a teaching in the name of his teacher, Rav:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב אין מושיבין בסנהדרין אלא מי שיודע לטהר את השרץ מה”ת

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: We place on the Sanhedrin—the highest court—only one who knows how to purify a sheretz (an impure creepy crawly thing), using Torah. 

Rav seems to argue that in order to sit on the Sanhedrin, one needs to be able to do one thing: to find a way, using the Torah, to declare that sheretz—which the Torah tells is impure—is pure. In other words, the rabbi-est of rabbis who sits on the most authoritative governing body of the Jewish people is someone who can be metaher et ha sheretz min hatorah, who can purify the creepy-crawly thing that the Torah says, by definition, is inherently impure. A requirement for Jewish leadership, power, and authority, then, is to use the Torah to declare pure something that the Torah itself defines as fundamentally and unchangeably impure. To embody this kind of relationship with the tradition is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itselfeven, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least overturn-able.

Many SVARA-niks learn this text, but we don’t always learn what comes next. After this teaching, the sugya continues. 

אמר רב אני אדון ואטהרנו

Rav said: I will discuss [the sheretz] and declare it pure

Lest we understand the qualification of knowing how to purify the sheretz as so outlandish and far-fetched as to be impossible, Rav attempts to demonstrate how it is possible to create such a logical proof, using the tools of the Torah. “I will do it,” he says, and then goes on to make a logical deduction / proof in the form of a kal va’chomer, attempting to model for us what it might look like to take that which is impure and deem it pure according to the Torah’s logic. It is noteworthy, I think, that he uses this specific interpretive technique (kal va’chomer), which is one of the 13 principles through which the Torah can be interpreted, according to the sage Rabbi Yishmael. These principles are understood as the tools that Rabbi Yishmael and those in his midrashic school of thought use to interpret, transform, and adapt the Torah in order to enable it to speak to us in each generation. This is what it means to purify the sheretz using the Torah, according to Rav: it means using the tools and techniques we have been given to create logical pathways and proofs to the interpretations we are seeking. 

But Rav’s logical deduction is quickly rejected by the stamma, the gemara’s anonymous editor (the queer genius of the gemara, as Mónica says!), as insufficient and illogical, and the conversation moves on to a new topic. Each time I’ve learned this part of the text, my chevrutot and fellow learners are left perplexed and unfulfilled. Is that how we’re supposed to purify the sheretz? We’re supposed to make an illogical logical deduction? If this attempted proof from Rav is not here to teach us how to purify the sheretz, why is it here at all?!

Tosafot, our medieval commentator comrades on the daf, remark: “What good is this [attempt at] purifying the sheretz to us? Is it not just futile mental gymnastics (charifut shel hevel, lit. “sharpness of air / nothingness” ), since the Torah deems the sheretz impure?” This question hits close to home for me—as it did for many of the Kollel-niks when we learned this together—as any moment in our learning can be understood, really, as charifut shel hevel, futile mental gymnastics, mental exercises that can seem untethered to our daily experience. When we are learning, the line between charifut shel hevel and empowered, spiritual, deep flow can feel so thin. 

In shiur, Fellows argued that perhaps the difference between charifut she hevel and charifut shel liberation is, perhaps, the worlds we are building with our learning. The rabbinic project is one of world-building, one that takes seriously that our words shape worlds, giving birth to new realities each time we learn and speak something. 

Perhaps this is why Rav’s kal va’chomer is rejected by the stamma: we cannot simply make a logical deduction and assert that liberation is complete. To purify the sheretz is an ongoing aspiration, a process that we continue each time we learn. Rav’s kal va’chomer is offered and promptly rejected to remind us that our task is not as simple as applying one of Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretive tools and making up an answer that fits our need in the moment.  

To the Tosafot, our Fellows suggested, the dilemma posed by Rav that we must purify the seemingly-categorically-impure sheretz is hevel, a mere mind game, unrooted in any real experience. Why should we spend our brain-power using logical proofs to declare the sheretz pure? What good is that?! To us, as queer folks, as SVARA-niks, and as shratzim, this is precisely the charifut that matters. This is the charifut that grounds us and drives us as we seek to find the tools and frameworks in our tradition to model the creation of a radical future which draws on our thick and complicated past, this is far from a capricious logic puzzle. To live into the demand that we know how to purify a sheretz is to continue to root our learning in liberation, to bring our charifut for the sake of finding each and every sheretz in any given moment, and to use the full power of our tradition to increase purity and justice through our learning.

This sugya, through the eyes of Tosafot and our Fellows, reminds me of the power we have to choose and create charifut of liberation over charifut shel hevel. This is present in the way we work a sugya and allow it to work us, the way we come together as queer interpreters and players trying to find and shape a useable past, the way we learn and root ourselves in our textual tradition not to replicate misplaced kal va’chomers or to create textual solutions. May we continue to be emboldened and shaped by our ancestors as we move through the world and build new worlds of our own.

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