The Lineage of Pushing Toward Bolder Reads

by Elaina Marshalek, SVARA Fellow

Three SVARA-niks sit at a white table with their Talmuds and dictionaries out, facing the camera. Between them, two SVARA faculty, wearing fairy wings, lean over and point to a spot in their Talmuds.

At SVARA, we know that we are players. That means it is our role to take the skills of the rabbis— their bold, creative, drash-filled tools—to interpret our text (and our life) toward a more just and liberatory world. And yet, all too often, when I think I’ve found my new favorite line of text from our tradition, my face falls when I read the next line. I freeze. Then I bring the text to our bet midrash anyway, because firstly, this kind of encounter is THE age-old question in our tradition—what do we do when we encounter a line of Torah that feels at odds with our current moment? And secondly, there’s no one I’d rather wrestle with the dicey stuff than my fellow SVARA-niks.

This last zman, in Shiur for Experienced SVARAniks, we learned a sugya that contained one of those ‘Talmud goodies,’ followed by a ‘Talmud bummer.’ Let’s start with the beginning, a line that activists love to bring when the moment strikes: 

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 54b

כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו

Whoever can protest to his household about a sin being committed, and does not protest, is punished [lit. seized] for the sins of his household. If they could protest against the people of his city, they are seized for the sins of the people of his city. If they could protest against the whole world, they are seized for the sins of the whole world.

What a powerful line of Talmud! I am so grateful for this text. This tells an amazing story about accountability, connection, and ownership. There’s a lot of great Torah to be surfaced about this line, but we’ll save that for another HOTS.

And following on the next page, we get this story, what I’d classify as a “Talmud bummer”:

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 55a

רב יהודה הוה יתיב קמיה דשמואל אתאי ההיא איתתא קא צווחה קמיה ולא הוה משגח בה א״ל לא סבר ליה מר אוטם אזנו מזעקת דל גם הוא יקרא ולא יענה א״ל שיננא רישך בקרירי רישא דרישיך בחמימי הא יתיב מר עוקבא אב ב״ד

Rav Yehudah was sitting before Shmuel. A woman came, she was crying before him, but he did not pay attention to her. Rav Yehudah to Shmuel, Doesn’t the master’s svara say that ‘He who closes his ears from the cry of the poor, he, too, shall cry, and not be answered’?” [Prov. 21:13.] Shmuel to him: Sharpened one! Your superior is in cold water. but your superior’s superior is in hot water. [I am not the one ultimately responsible to help this woman, it’s my boss!] Mar Ukba, the Av Beis Din, is sitting [he is the one who needs to take care of this!].

#uninspiring. A women is crying, she is in distress, she comes to Shmuel for help, and he doesn’t listen to her. Rav Yehuda, his student, tries to protest. He says, “Wait! I am bringing you this line of Torah that says you need to listen! Use your svara/moral intuition/reasoning that’s informed by your understanding of lived experience!” Rav Yehuda is protesting Shmuel’s actions and telling him that it’s his responsibility to respond to this woman’s suffering—he’s doing all the good stuff that we just learned about! And what does Shmuel do? He says: It’s not my responsibility, I’m in ‘cold water’ here. Do you know who should be taking the heat on this one? Mar Ukba is the higher up, this should be on him!

And that’s where the story ends—it’s a mic drop. First, we get this great teaching about our responsibility to the entire world to protest, and then when rubber meets the road, we see Shmuel pass the buck, pointing the responsibility toward someone else.

So, that’s a bummer. What do we do with this? 

First off, when encountering text that doesn’t speak to our vision of a more whole world, and maybe it goes a step further and even hurts us, it’s important to take care of ourselves. This is one of the many reasons that we’re supposed to study in a community that we trust and feel safe in. I remember the first time I learned at SVARA, it felt like there was some magical force field where inside, we knew that we had each other’s back, and we’d hold each other’s whole selves against whatever harmful examples or explanations arose, even while holding deep respect for the Rabbis. We need our people around. When we see bummer texts, we say ‘yuck,’ while sitting in thick relationship with our ancestors and our tradition.

And then, we surface rad Torah, grasping for explanations, reading between the lines and the letters. One take of this passage: we could learn this story as a realistic warning—when you protest, you’re not always going to succeed. That doesn’t mean you aren’t accountable to doing it, but if we’re being real, this is an experience most of us have had and felt. Another take: Let’s try to read what Shmuel did generously—maybe he was genuinely trying to orient the women toward someone who could actually help her? Maybe, in between the lines we’re reading, Shmuel is actually pointing to Mar Ukba who is sitting right there in the room—he’s there and he’s ready to help! Another take: This story is not about Shmuel, this story is about Rav Yehuda! The point is that no matter what, he is following the idea of taking responsibility for his house, his city, his world. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, we need to keep trying, because we don’t know what will happen next! 

And while we continued to expound, drash after glittery drash, I was hungry for something else. I wanted a new ending for this story. 

I wasn’t alone.

The Rabbis gave us a lot of tools to figure out how to expand and innovate on the Torah, and wrapped it up in the Talmud—let’s call that Torah 2.0. And luckily, that’s not where our innovations ended. Enter Torah 3.0:? A whole new set of guys who do a whole new set of making shit up when they see that the work of the Talmud at face value is incomplete. When we encounter a text in the Talmud that we know with our svara needs some expanding, we have another tool in our tool belt: we can see how the later rabbis, the Rishonim, expanded and flipped this text. 

I found a commentary that speaks to this passage from Tosafot, a group of Provencal/Ashkenazi Rishonim from the 12th-13th century in what is now France and Germany who were the intellectual descendents (aka queer fam) of Rashi, our friend on the daf (fun fact: they mostly sarcastically argue with Rashi. This is our lineage)! In this commentary, they are bringing in a story they claim to have heard from Rabeinu Chananel, a Sephardic Rishon living in the 1000s in North Africa. Both Tosafot and Rabeinu Chananel made it onto our modern-day page of Talmud, hanging out on the literal margins of our text.

This commentary lives far away on another page of Talmud. The page of Talmud where we find this is focused on something that, on its face, is entirely unrelated to our sugya and doesn’t even mention Shmuel or Rav Yehuda: it’s talking about a vision a rabbi had about the world to come as a “world upside-down.” The commentary is expounding on this idea of “an upside-down world” in the Talmud: 

Tosafot, Bava Batra 10b

פי’ ר”ח דאמרו הגאונים שקבלה בידם רב מפי רב דעולם הפוך היינו שראה שמואל דהוה יתיב קמיה דרב יהודה תלמידיה משום דמיחה בשמואל בפר’ במה בהמה (שבת דף נה.) גההיא איתתא דאתיא וצוחא קמיה דשמואל ולא אשגח בה

Rabenu Chananel explains: The Ge’onim had a tradition, Rabbi from Rabbi, that “an upside-down world” means that he saw Shmuel sitting in front of his Talmid Rav Yehudah.  [Rav Yehudah became Shmuel’s Rabbi] because he protested Shmuel in Shabbos (55a) regarding the woman that came and cried in front of Shmuel, and he did not pay attention to her

Tosafot brings in a story that Shmuel, the teacher who ignores a crying woman, is punished for his actions in the world to come and Rav Yehuda, who protested Shmuel’s actions, becomes his teacher. Shmuel becomes Rav Yehuda’s student – the power dynamic switches, everything gets topsy turvy. Does disrupting the traditional power dynamic between teachers and students sound familiar? Sound a little closer to home?

What a vindication of this #uninspiring text! And what bold creativity. So much of the drashing that we see in the Talmud, and that we do in class, is by zooming into a word or a phrase and finding new meaning in it, by digging our fingers into a crack of light shining through the text and heaving open a wellspring of glittery Torah. 

This time, the Rabbis really truly just made that shit up from scratch (making shit up: a technical Talmud term identified by our Rosh Yeshiva R’ Benay Lappe). This drash is fan fiction—these Talmud nerds of their era discussed these Rabbinic stories and they wrote their own endings. I can’t find any other record of Rabeinu Chananel actually saying this (scavenger hunt is on, if you find it let me know!), so I can’t be sure who made this shit up, but something is clear: someone made this shit up, and through a long game of telephone and likely embellishment on this story, Tosafot wrote it down, and it got recorded onto the daf.

Sometimes when I’m making my wild reads of the text, I wonder, “what would the Rabbis think of this?” While I don’t always know if the Rabbis or the Rishonim would have uncovered the same type of Torah as me, I do know that their twists and turns of the tradition are so creative and far-reaching that they push me to think bigger and bolder. If Tosafot can bring in a tradition with new endings to our Talmudic stories, we can do a lot of things that we might think we can’t do with the text. We’re not alone in our wildest drashes of the text—we are artists in a long chain of tradition. And Baruch HaShem (Thank G!d), that SVARA is a safe place for us to dream up these new endings together, dreaming of the days when our drashes of the text will find their place on the margins of the daf too.

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