Toilet Humour. For real. Berakhot 8

Toilet Humour

I have the idea that sometimes we just misread the Talmud, we take it too seriously.  We don’t see that sometimes they’re just having fun, they’re talking tongue in cheek, they’re making a joke.

And this isn’t new to our generation, often I’ve seen something codified as Law in Maimondes or the Shulkhan Arukh and I’ve thought ‘come on, they were just messing around, you can’t make that into a law!’.

Today the Redactors – I’m growing more conscious of their role, partially from reading Jeffrey Rubenstein, partially because it just begs to be noticed – bring varied explanations for a verse:

‘For this let every pious man pray to you in the time of finding, that the overflowing waters may not reach him.’ (Psalms 32:6)

Seemingly unconcerned with the ‘overflowing waters’ and how they might affect him, they question the meaning of ‘the time of finding’.

At first it seems we are headed into romantic territory – the first explanation is that it means the time of finding a wife.  This is supported by the verse:

‘He who finds a wife finds goodness and obtains favour from the Lord’ (Proverbs 18:22).

It’s a lovely thought, and this would perhaps be the point for the Talmud to launch into the virtues of the ideal wife – the rock of the family, the strength and inspiration behind everything, the model of love and compassion.

But no, it doesn’t go that way.

It goes instead with this gem:

In the land of Israel they used to ask a man who married a wife thus: ‘Matzah’ or ‘Motzeh’?

What did they mean?

‘Matzah’ refers to the verse above – finding a wife is finding goodness.

‘Motzeh’ is less flattering – the reference is to the verse  ‘And I find – motzeh – the woman more bitter than death’.

Charming.  ‘What say you of your wife, does the thought fill you with warmth or with bitterness?’. Ouch.

The suggestion is that they would ask this at the time of the wedding, though one might also understand it as ‘when meeting a married man’.  The latter, though still pretty harsh, isn’t quite as cynical and hopeless as the first.

Rubenstein suggests there is a tension between the life of the academy and marital life in the Redactors worldview.  Perhaps that’s motivating this little bit of acerbic wit.

Moving on, we stumble into more earnest territory.  The ‘time of finding’ is variously understood as referring to Torah, Death and Burial.  The ‘overflowing waters’ of seriousness are strong here, perhaps they are what we should be watching out for?

Mar Zutra is having none of this seriousness, he is quite firm on ‘the time of finding’.

Mar Zutra said: The time of finding refers to finding a toilet. 

This may be to do with the lack of sewage facilities in place in his vicinity.  Or maybe he was just acknowledging the sheer joy and relief of being able to go when you really really need to.  I prefer the latter understanding.

In case we thought that he was a lone joker, a solo voice in a choir of gravity, the Redactors let us know:

In the West – the land of Israel – they say ‘This explanation is the best of them all.’

Nevermind your romantic sentiments, spare us your morbid thoughts of death and burial, and, from time to time, let’s have a break from the Torah.  Keep it real, when you gotta go, you just gotta to go – do not underestimate the simple pleasures of the body.

Maybe you don’t believe my claim that people miss the humorous note here, not just in Mar Zutra’s quip but in the way the whole passage builds up to it, the natural sense of joketelling on exhibit.  If so, check out the explanation of Rabbi Abraham Moshe Horovitz quoted in the Steinsaltz.

For him, this explanation is best because the term ‘motza’ – finding – is associated in Kings II 10:27 with the toilet.  And for his superior knowledge of the Bible, Mar Zutra wins the prize.

It can’t possibly be about the body, about toilet humour.  It has to be about study, knowledge, the move towards omniscience.

Or maybe Rabbi Horovitz is joking too, maybe – with tongue firmly in cheek – he’s the one having the last laugh.

Breastfeeding and the Shema

The Talmud continues its enquiry into the timing of the saying of the Shema.  With reference to the morning recital, it gives the following guidance:

When a woman talks with her husband and a baby nurses from its mother’s breast, let him rise and recite the Shema.

What a wonderful image and connection,  from the warmth of everyday domesticity, he may rise and recite the Shema.

The suggestion is of a seamless integration between the homeliness of this scene, the nourishment of the feeding child and the engagement with the Shema.

In the psychoanalytic worldview too, everything begins with the breast.  For Winnicott, the manner in which this meeting is conducted – the tenderness in the mother’s embrace, her calmly loving presence – are as critical to success as the milk itself.   We begin, for him, not as one, but as two, and the harmony and dedication in that coupling are what gives us the foundations to engage with society, to seek out and build the relationships which sustain us.

The beauty of the moment is wonderfully portrayed by Sara Maitland, in ‘A Book of Silence’:

I remember it with an almost heartbreaking clarity.  Some of it is simply physical – a full and contented baby falling asleep at the empty and contented breast.  But even now I think that those sweet dawns, when it turned from dark to pale night, and we drifted back into our own separate selves without wrench or loss, were the starting point of my journey into silence. 

There is something about the dark itself, and the quiet of the world, even in cities, at that strange time before the dawn.

The dark, the ‘time out of time’ and the quiet of the night are fixed in my memory, along with the density of that particular silent joy.  (Page 12.)

Indeed, from this womblike darkness and silence we emerge into the world.

The Shema, our umbilical cord to the Divine, acts as the transitional object which makes the movement a stable and confident one.

The Shema then contains something of the stabilising and rooting force of a functional spousal relationship and also something of the helpless dependence of the baby being fed.  We recite the Shema, more of a reading of memory – of constancy – than a prayer, and in a strange way that we don’t fully understand it affects us, centres us, prepares us for the day.

My friend William Kolbrener pointed out that in Homer, we see a markedly opposing image.  The hero returns from his warrior’s journey and disrupts the suckling child, he unsettles the gentle routines of the household.  In that culture, we might speculate, the understanding of a man’s role could not accommodate the memory of the intimacy and dependence of breastfeeding.  His violence and independence had to exist in denial of it, the two worlds could never be integrated.

The Shema tries to help us with this integration, to ensure that our religious projects do not proceed from a denial of our fragile humanity.  In the Shema we remember, and in that memory we find the compassion and concern which must fuel our engagement with the world.

How do we read the Talmud?

As we begin to engage with such a vast body of work, we can only be filled with questions.  What is it about? Who wrote it? Why did they write it?  What are we supposed to take from it?

Books nowadays have introductions, prefaces, acknowledgments.  They may also have revised introductions or forewords by a learned friend.  And all with good reason.  We need to orientate ourselves when we encounter a text, to have some sense of the game that’s being played, of the response expected from us.

And yet, in the Talmud, nothing.  Is it too far-fetched to say that the redactors themselves weren’t too sure about the meaning of this text?  Might we suppose that their humility before it, their awe of it made silence the only possible response?

I think there is some truth to that.  The Talmud is much more than just another text.  It is the document of a culture, of a way of life, of a civilisation in grave danger of being forgotten.  In the face of this, and here I believe we can relate, the only response, however unsure, was one of connection, of remembrance, of engagement.

It can certainly feel overwhelming to embrace the Talmud wholesale, to swallow it acceptingly at the cost of our own autonomy and individuality.  And yet, it seems impossible to ignore it, to run away from it, to deny the scale and significance of it.  We honour it through engagement, and it is entirely consistent with its spirit to suppose that that engagement need not be unquestioning.

In the absence of an articulated introduction, can we find a hint of one in the opening passage, an implicit directive as to how to begin?  I think we can.  It begins like this:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter their houses in order to eat their Terumah until the end of the first watch.

What does this reveal to us?

There is certainly grounds here for the ‘traditionalist’ assertion that the Talmud is a book of law.  The line would be: it opens with laws because it is about laws and because its purpose is to ensure that we keep the laws.

But this is too simple on two fronts.  As we’ll see in the many pages ahead, law is only a part of the discussion here, and to only look for the law is to miss something – if not the wood then certainly a whole lot of trees.

To ‘only look for the law’ also speaks, psychoanalytically, of a peculiar inner compulsion, a need for certainty and rigidity, a flight from the encounter with chaos.  It’s a strange way to read, to live.

Let us concede that there is a lot of law going on.  Still, this just leads to the bigger question:  What is the meaning of Jewish Law?  What is its texture and sensibility, what is its ethos and logos?

The least appealing conception of the Law, and one that is nonetheless surprisingly popular, is that it is the arbitrary will of a distant and transcendent God.  This God may in some sense be concerned and loving, but we can never really be sure about that or what it means.  We can only know Him through His Law, and all we can be sure of is that He wants us to keep It.

I find such a picture deeply troubling and profoundly incoherent.  And I treat its widespread acceptance as a serious challenge to my faith.

An alternative conception of the Law is that it begins with Love, sustains a community through Love and always aims at the furthering and deepening of Love.

Such a Law is Divine because it reflects what is highest in humanity, what sometimes only exists beyond it.  It is eternal because it continues to reveal itself throughout human history, because at any one time it can only be partially understood.

Now, I certainly know the Talmud well enough to know that this picture of the Law will be challenged.  But, that said, I am also very pleased to see it reflected in its opening lines.

‘From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?’ – we can read this as:

Our evening begins with a discourse on Love – the primary theme of the Shema – and we are keen to know how soon we may begin this.

How early may we re-immerse ourselves in reflection on Love after the difficult and unloving experiences that have challenged us throughout the day?

We receive the following answer:

‘From the time that the priests enter their houses in order to eat their Terumah.’

This is a strange response, one that does not straightforwardly answer the question.  It does, however, set the tone in an important way.

What I notice here is the non-arbitrary nature of this law.  It is not rooted in a distant source of authority, it is not even defined by a naturalistic phenomenon such as the emergence of the stars.  Its source is closer to hand, in something lived, embedded in the rhythm of the culture.

The shape and texture of Jewish legal discourse is being carefully sculpted, the spirit of the law is being taught alongside its content.

And so, the subtle but profound response is this:

You may begin your discourse on Love when you have given thought to the traditions of your community.  Give particular thought to the traditions which are currently disappearing from memory, whose supporting institutions lie in ruin.

Remembering them is an act of Love, and their entire rationale was to place in your heart a Love that is full and genuine.

Giving Terumah was done with Love, and as we move into an era when it may no longer be possible, you must keep its spirit alive by meditating every evening on Love.

The Talmud and Jewish Law thus choose to begin with Love, ushering a person into an intimate matrix of loving thoughtfulness.  Whether this spirit stays prominent throughout is uncertain, but I’m pleased to proceed knowing that we’re right to be looking for it.