How to Read Like a Human
When Talmudic sages disagree, I’m not interested in translating them into a color-coded flow chart. I would rather see them. I want to know any scrap of detail we have about their lives, their experiences of their bodies, their childhoods, their deaths. It’s not easy to befriend sages who have been dead for centuries, but only human attachment is strong and broad enough to process a perspective in a disagreement.
The Talmud is filled not only with legal material (halakhah), but also story material (aggadah) which can help a student picture a face to go with the name, to think about a human being and not only an idea. In this cultural moment, many of us are trapped in a seemingly never-ending process of exiling our idols once we discover their faults. Common advice is to remember that our favorites are only human. When people say this, what they mean is to brace for inevitable shortcomings, not to let ourselves fall in love. Such cynicism shrinks our intellectual capacity as surely as it dims our emotional capacity. It is better to remind ourselves that authors are human, and because of that truth we must learn to fall in love. Loving, we are able to keep their insights without demanding our own idea of perfection.
But there is risk in knowing the details because they might distract from a life’s complicated wholeness. For example, one Talmudic sage was once a gladiator. I have no doubt at all that killing human beings in a packed arena has an overwhelming impact on who one is and how one experiences the world. But not every opinion of this sage is driven by his former enslavement, and it is dismaying how often his thoughts are reduced to sequelae of his life in the coliseum. We, in the prurient bet midrash, have dragged him back to fight before us and have transformed from readers into spectators. We could avoid such a misstep by focusing on his ideas, scarcely even noticing that they are attributed to the same name. But this, too, has its risks; it cannot account for where apparent contradictions reveal something fascinating beneath the surface of a text. The cure is not to avoid the person, or to make them only one aspect of themselves, but to try to see their face.
Even in aggadah, little is said about the actual faces of the sages. We know R. Zeira had dark skin. We know Rav Kahana looked like he was mocking you when he was actually quite serious. But details like that are scarce. We know that Abbaye and Rava both dreamed of lettuce on a barrel. We know that Rav Yosef disliked the cawing of crows. We know that Yalta gave intense philosophical justification for her snack cravings. These are not literal faces. But in their distinctiveness, they are like eyebrows, or the curve of an ear, or a jowl. They create the same kind of affection we have for people we encounter in our lives: born of mixed familiarity and mystery.
Recently, I failed to understand the Ben Ish Hai by reading his book as a series of isolated ideas. I read an opinion of his regarding tefilin which astounded me. Tefillin are small leather boxes containing passages from the Torah. One is tied around the upper arm, to keep it near the heart, and the other is placed just above the forehead, to keep near the mind. The idea of God is thus turned into a physical sensation of presence, which, like a string tied around your finger by your mother, affects your behavior. I could think of nothing in the laws of tefilin, as I had understood them, to back him up. Everyone agrees that the order in which one puts on tefilin is important (heart first, mind second). But the Ben Ish Hai takes this to a wild level.
If you happen to have put your tefilin on in the wrong order, he wants you to take them off and start over, this time the right way. If you put them on in the right order and then encounter your tallit, he wants you to remove your tefilin, put on the tallit, and then re-tie the tefilin. I doubt I’m conveying the level of eccentricity here to anyone who is not already a connoisseur of tefilin law. It’s a little like if you arrived at a gala and someone discovered you dressed sock-shoe sock-shoe, instead of sock-sock shoe-shoe. Questionable, disturbing, I agree. But then that person made you take off your whole tuxedo so you could re-don your outfit in the correct order. I was encountering a new idea—and that idea appeared to be unsupported, even bizarre—and my only reaction was that the Ben Ish Hai was wrong.
When I complained about it to my teacher, he asked, “Don’t you think this is someone who thinks it’s important to get it right the first time?” For me, the illuminating word was “someone.” Yes, I do know people like that, who insist on doing it right the first time! Suddenly, many other statements made by the Ben Ish Hai linked up in my mind: that he thinks people should quit touching each other’s stuff, that he recommends tucking dangling tefilin straps into a fancy belt.
These are thoughts that, read together, form the shape of a person. And the tidiness of such a person has an important place in the world. I do not have to adjudicate him at all on the level of technically correct or incorrect. I can understand him as part of an ecosystem that also includes people at the opposite end of the spectrum, like Sefer Hasidim, whose combination of tolerance for body malfunctions and focus on spiritual intensity is downright refreshing: he describes a synagogue where people hork (Canadian for spew phlegm) into their talitot, pass gas, and even encounter drops of urine, but all that is unimportant because everyone is completely enwrapped in an experience of God. I adore Sefer Hasidim. But I can see that someone who prefers to live with Sefer Hasidim might need a particular kind of sensible advice from their Uncle Ben Ish Hai.
To raise an individual from a new reader to thinker and contributor requires other humans, not a unit of clones pre-screened for whatever we have decided constitute our standards. We need variety and challenge to mirror the variety and challenge of life and help us shoulder its burden; otherwise, we have only learned to play with intellectual toys, rather than to communicate something real. And we need affection to keep the most difficult teachers and thinkers alive in our orbit.
We naturally reject things that lie outside the bounds of our perception because they cause bafflement and heartache when we experience them. But such reactions can be a valuable indicator that we have encountered a truly alien perspective – one which is indispensable precisely because we cannot (and did not) come up with it ourselves. We rage in anger; we try to get in the last word, only to be left newly disoriented by the textual rematch. A sense of moral superiority or technical correctness allows us to exit the conversation neatly after our emotional explosion, without seeing what we have to learn. Love waits patiently for us to return.
It helps to have a living person prod us into reconsideration, as I did with my teacher and the Ben Ish Hai. But from experience, I do not think it is necessary. All that is necessary is the feeling of closeness to a face. My examples so far have been strange but not truly upsetting. But I have, in fact, read things which hurt, and one particular passage in the Rashba made me want to hurt him in return. How could I get back at this 13th Century Spanish rabbi? I wondered if I should put him on the floor, but being not quite brave enough, I put him on a lower shelf. There!
Weeks passed by. Rashba, of course, never reproached me. Was his a guilty silence? Was mine? After a long while, I began to notice something different: that a book is always available to be read. Perhaps, in a different world, where Rashba was a living rabbi and I was a little girl, he could have done me harm. But such a world never existed. In the only one which does, Rashba sits in my house, silent on the shelf, constantly available to teach me everything he knows. Me, specifically? Yes: by transforming his thought into something which could be read by anyone with hands and eyes, he was in fact reaching out to me, and anyone alike or unalike who opens his covers. Is that not love? I cannot help but respond with some kind of tenderness.
It is the tenderness which rewards me; true curiosity, the kind which unwraps layers of insight to reveal a brand-new vista, is a tender thing. Anyone who hopes to locate meaning in what feels alien must resist the urge to desensitize, to disconnect. This is my practice of aggadah. Love keeps us in eye contact with the past even through moments of danger.
Rabbi Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli learns and teaches at Bet Midrash Hukkim Hakhamim. Currently living in Queens, NYC, Lavery-Yisraeli works in STA”M (ritual scribal work) and is an internationally exhibited visual artist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.