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Mirror and Enigma: Tales from the Talmud

Susan Reimer-Torn
January 15, 2015

by Susan Reimer-Torn

Illustration, “Many Hands,” by D. Yael Bernhard
Many HandsI GREW UP IN A DIFFERENT WORLD than did Lawrence Bush, who has edited Jewish Currents for the past dozen years. He, like many of JC’s readers, was raised as a secular, leftist, socially conscious Jew, suspicious of religion and its well-chronicled abuses. I grew up in an Orthodox home with a fervent father who taught me that everything was subservient to Truth as revealed to the chosen people by the God of Israel on Sinai.

Among the many things Larry and I do share is a delight in the cryptic, quirky tales tucked into the long legal argumentations that over the course of centuries of wrangling have come to be known as the Talmud. Rabbinic disputation over fine points of law is an art in itself, but what attracts us are the sometimes despised, oft-neglected stories that pop up in between the long tractates of legal swashbuckling. These astonishing stories are known as Talmudic aggadah.

Talmudic aggadah touches a lot of hot buttons: patriarchy, authoritarianism, internal conflicts, men’s egos, and women’s one-upping men — even (or especially) while institutionally repressed. There is no way to talk aggadah and avoid frank discussion of states that haunt us to this day: vulnerability, shame, greed, envy, narcissism, lust, power, grandiosity and its flipside, fragility.

The editors of the Talmud could have left out these often disturbing, frequently indiscreet stories. But they didn’t. They compiled them and tucked them into the more rigorous, colorful debates. Why did the editors, hundreds of years after the actual discussions recorded in the Talmud, bother to include for posterity the story of a repressed, homoerotic sage who goes mad because of his refusal to forgive the man he loves — or that of a woman who pays a huge price when she opposes the rabbinic dictum that all of her gender are untrustworthy? Why speak of a father who would rather bury his daughter than contend with her beauty — or a man who goes to the ends of the earth to end his addiction to whoring?

These are stories of men, and a tiny smattering of women, who are considered to have achieved greatness. They stand out as stars among scholars, arbiters of justice, teachers, peacemakers, community leaders. And the editors of the Talmud could have chosen to let these characters live on in the glory of untarnished reputations. Instead, they gave us aggadah. Each of the stories is a literary gem, and for that alone, they are worth telling. And everyone from classical psychoanalysts to edgy screenwriters to Jewish Currents activists can have a field day with their implications. That tells us why we ought to read them. But why did the Talmudic editors — sages and no lightweights themselves — include them in a classical pedagogic guide to good living for all to see forever more?

These editors of yore had a genuine stake in passing along the truth, even the version of it that mars the noblest of human natures. In doing this, they lead us to a starting place of authenticity. By acknowledging the dark or complicated sides of human beings, Judaism eschews sainthood, avatars and hero-worship. We are invited to be more fully who we really are — and to aspire to goodness and mentshlikhkayt despite our weaknesses and foibles. This, says the aggadah, is our humanity; ipso facto it is anything but simple. Yet it’s what we have to work with, and the sages suggest we can make a go of it from here.

ABAYE HEARD A CERTAIN MAN saying to a woman, “Let us arise betimes and go on our way.” “I will,” said Abaye, ”follow them in order to keep them away from transgression,” and he followed them for three parasongs across the meadows. When they parted company, he heard them say, ”Our company is pleasant, the way is long.” “If it were I,” said Abaye, ”I could not have restrained myself,” and so he went and leaned in deep anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination. —Sukkah 52a

This is the tale of a respected rabbi who follows an unmarried couple across a couple of meadows, thinking he will catch them doing something sexually transgressive. They do not satisfy his suspicions. Instead they part and, in a surprisingly modern tone, thank one another for the pleasant company that has made the long walk seem shorter. Here are two quick observations: Such a foray in the isolated countryside was not then forbidden to the unmarried of the opposite sex as it has come to be today in many extremist communities. The rabbi follows the two according to his own inner prompting, not because they are already violating a religious law. The rabbi must have been close enough to hear them speak, yet they don’t seem to know he is there. Thus we learn that sexual prohibitions have grown more stringent in certain communities over time. Also, surveillance and privacy issues are nothing new.

Tears happyThe rabbi crumbles in despair and self-accusation, realizing that if he had been alone with the woman, he would have transgressed, or, as we would say, come on to her. He is displaying an intuitive grasp of what later came to be known as Freudian projection: his own temptation to sin, his own sexual urge, repressed and denied, is “projected” on to another man. The rabbi finds his flash of insight into a buried truth that is hard to bear. The text specifies that he then leans against a doorpost. In the Biblical text, a slave who declines to be freed also leans against a doorpost and has his ear pierced. Does the doorpost in this story hint that this man is enslaved to his passions?

An older man then comes along and offers the following words of comfort: “the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination” (his yetser hara).

When I recently studied this story in a conference room full of sophisticated adults in midtown Manhattan, that line stirred controversy. Some of the women insisted, “It lets the powerful guys off the hook,” adding, “That kind of ending does nothing to protect our daughters.” Others (myself included) felt that the honesty of the insight brought us to an unflinching place from which to start the hard work on the problem.

Larry Bush asked me, what does it mean “the greater the man”? What sort of greatness are we talking about? Is it the combination of outsized ambition, ego and achievement, as in the Clintons, Cosbys and Strauss-Kahn’s of this world? Or is it the greatness of spirit and sacrifice of social activist giants such as Martin Luther King, Jr.? Are we talking about the hidden vices of a hypocritical Pentecostal preacher? Or are we talking more generally, about the tendency towards self-adultation or self-serving attitudes that accompany many forms of accomplishment — in other words, the vulnerability of “great men” to public attention?

Larry also observed that the yetser hara, the evil inclination, is not just sexual lust, but the lust for self-assertion, for self-differentiation, for excitement, for life! “Great men” often have this lust in spades — and women are often attracted to it. Hence, the “greater the man,” the greater the temptation, the greater the opportunity, the greater the illusion of “Wow, I’m really great!” — and the greater the danger of losing sight of one’s higher or deeper self.

In the Jewish tradition, the yetser hara is what tugs us downwards in the perennial struggle between our higher and lower natures: our impulse control and our lack of control, our sense of interconnection and our sense of selfishness. While few of us would crumble against a doorpost in despair when brought face to face with our own sexual desires, we all have to struggle to mature — to come to terms with how our needs for validation, security, and control do harm our personal and collective worlds, and to try to overcome those needs, not to be ruled by them.

The story about Abaye (the name means “Little Father,” and the rabbi, who died in 339 CE, was a president of the Pumbedita Academy, a leading Talmudic academy in Babyonia) suggests how difficult it is for people to recognize that the “evil” tendencies that we see or project onto others are present in ourselves. For Abaye — with the help of the old man who instructs him and presumably uplifts him at the end of this cryptic tale — psychological awareness is a sine qua non of personal growth.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week, most recently about dancer Anna Sokolow.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.