The pages we’ve been looking at lately have been particularly rich for the historically minded reader of the Talmud. Some days everything is anonymous, and we’re left with the feeling that we’re being presented with the recorded discussions from a Babylonian study hall in the 5th Century. Not that we should knock that, that’s still going pretty far back.
But when we start hearing today from Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan, the first of the Zugot, who were around in the times of the Maccabee Dynasty, c.170 BCE, it feels like we are taking things to a whole new level. We are no longer simply immersed in Rabbinic Judaism, we are going way back into its pre-history, into the realm of myth, to the point where scholars fear to tread.
And the thing that I find particularly endearing is that I have the sense that those participating in the Talmud’s discussion, fledgling early Amoraim such as Shmuel and Rav Huna, were also particularly awed by the historical weight of the discussion. It’s not something we often see much self-consciousness of in the text, the richness of the history we are dealing with. We certainly see people from the past being treated with respect, as voices of authority, but this is something different. This is pure reverence, almost giddiness; a genuine response to the experience of reaching about as far back into the recesses of Rabbinic Judaism as is possible.
What I’m trying to say is that the Rabbis rarely exhibit a historical sensibility or consciousness; or at least that’s how it generally strikes me. Perhaps in their attempts to establish continuity, to preserve the tradition, they fail to emphasise the extent to which people living seven hundred years apart are simply separate, different, other. And it’s only maybe only once that is granted, once the reality of difference is acknowledged, that the significance of any continuity we might share with these people is really felt, is really appreciated.
It’s a powerful thing history, and our ability to be open to it is an important mark of where we are with ourselves, of how comfortable we are in our lives. I had a great conversation with an old friend tonight, someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time. Something had come between us, and whilst the thing itself had faded, the distance had set in, a block had arisen. We both acknowledged that this blockage was tiring, exhausting, that it needed energy to maintain itself which neither of us wanted to put in. What we wanted was to be able to be open, to the rich history we’d shared, to each other as real beings, and to whatever the future might hold.
And it felt good to begin to fix that, to do some work towards opening ourselves up again.
I remember a drug induced experience once when I was able to actually feel my anger towards someone solidify and freeze up into hatred, where this transition from a live emotion into a dead attitude was sensorily palpable. I became aware of how locked and stuck it made me feel, how suddenly other parts of my mind were forced to switch off, to join in the deadness. It simply made me closed; somewhat closed off from the outside world, but, more importantly, closed off to myself. And in that closed state, I sensed that I could neither be nor perceive, that my thinking was clouded and limited, that things were not revealed to me in the way that they usually are.
I was angry, and I turned the anger into hatred. And whilst the object of my wrath was completely unaware of any of this – I don’t think they were even present – I was left to suffer, it was me who ended up paying the price. To be full of hate is its own curse, it needs no further punishment or consequence.
We were discussing Heidegger in a seminar last night, and, inevitably, someone asked the seminar leader what was meant by Dasein, by Being, a term that sits at the core of Heidegger’s philosophy.
It struck me that in the sections we’d been reading Heidegger’s main concern was with whether or not we were open to Being, to a situation, to an emergent reality. He was less concerned with what Being might actually be. Being alive meant being open, and if one was open, one’s possibilities for inspiration and relationship were significantly enhanced.
With all of this in mind, it seems very interesting that one of the things we hear of Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan is their decree that glass has the potential to become impure.
Glass is a symbol of transparency, of openness, and they are warning us, reminding us, that whilst it is essential to be open and receptive like glass, that there are also risks involved. To be that clear, to be so apparently unprotected from life means that one is susceptible to being corrupted, that one is liable to be led astray from time to time.
So we are warned. Openness is still the ideal, but we do not surrender to it totally, unthinkingly.
This is made explicit by Rav Ashi:
And regarding your concern that a glass vessel should not become entirely impure simply by touching an impure object, you should understand that glass is different, and does become impure more easily, because its inside looks like its outside.
Its transparent nature makes it particularly susceptible to impurity; its thoroughgoing integrity, its honest authenticity leave it exposed to perversion.
Their decree, however, has its limits, it does not go quite as far as other decrees with regard to impurity. When an impure metal vessel is broken, it temporarily loses its impure status. But if it is reassembled it regains that impure status: the change in status was only temporary.
With glass we rule differently. Glass doesn’t just fall apart in the way that a metal object does. Glass tends to properly break, to shatter, and in that intense fragmentation it is hard to see that impurity could be maintained.
When a person is properly broken, when life has torn them to pieces, when they are in need of serious rebuilding, at that point we may assume that however bad their distress, they have rediscovered something of their original purity. The collapse of a certain configuration of the ego, of a certain rigidity, allows life to flow once more, allows openness to be rekindled.
Through shattering, rebirth; through dissolution, regeneration.
We pray regularly for openness; at the end of every Amida we say the following:
Open my heart with your Instruction (Torah), and my soul will eagerly follow your commandments.
When we are open we see what is right, what is good; we grasp it more easily and we respond to it more quickly, more naturally perhaps.
And this ties in with one of the few other things we knew about Yosei ben Yoezer, from all those years ago:
May your house be an open door to the wise; may you cleave to the dust of their feet and may you drink thirstily of their words. (Avot 1:4)
In being open we are able to connect with more, to reach across history more readily and to allow the wisdom of ancient times to flow more easily into our lives. We must be wary of the impurities that might come in the wake of this, of the dangers in being so free of spirit, of living with so little anxiety. But this awareness must not bear on us too heavily, we must be able to carry it at the same time as remaining firmly open.
May our hearts be opened not just to the Torah, but by the Torah too; and may our goodness burst forth brightly as a result.