Saturday, November 01, 2014

A high point of college

So around 1987, in the fashionable literary criticism/theory circles at Yale, there was a moment when Jewish tradition became hip.  Geoffrey Hartman edited a volume on Talmud and criticism and had a seminar, Derrida did something too.  This was before the scandal over Paul de Man's WWII collaborationist journalism.  It was an innocent time.

I had been reading a lot of Kafka and had been intrigued by the fact that Kafka and Max Brod had, in the early 1920s, been drawn into low-brow traveling Yiddish theater and other emblems of their otherwise repressed Judaism.  Likewise I had been intrigued by the relationship of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, and had even purchased a volume of Buber's tales of the Hasids and put it on my shelf, though I never much of it.  In general, the concept of Jewish self-hate as manifested in the Jews of Vienna and Prague at the turn of the century was really forming a template for emerging ethnic and other repressed group studies concepts (African-American, Women's, LGBT, etc.).

So I, in my purist, holier than thou way, bad-assed do-anything-to-impress-the-girls kind of way, decided that rather than read more theory, I should go and look at the actual Jewish traditions of reading and interpreting holy texts.  There was a course called "Rabbinical Literature" offered, tought by a guy named Stephen Fraade, and I went and signed up for it.

I was the only undergrad in there, and the only goy.  Which was perfect for me.

So I learned about Pentateuch, Mishnah, Midrash, Gemarah, Talmud, and other stuff, as well as hermeneutic principles (from general to particular, or vice versa), and the main schools of thought (Rabbis Ishmael and Akiva, I think).  Thank goodness there's Wikipedia now to refresh my memory.

So there I was in the Judaic Studies reading room, way up high in Sterling Library, with a bunch of Judaic Studies grad students trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there.  And I had the most profound experience of my whole formal education.

So there is an injunction in the Mishnah against transacting commerce on the Sabbath. Fair enough, we gentiles have that kinda thing to.  Hell, there are dry counties in NC, and in Connecticut liquor stores closed at 8 and no alcohol was sold on Sunday. There was discussion in the Rabbinical literature and in our class of whether or not it was cool for the baker to put a loaf of bread on the sill of his window, and for someone who wanted the bread to take it and put a coin there.  Did that constitute commerce, and thereby violate the ban?  And the rabbis and the students bickered a little on this question, but basically they came down and said:  no no, that's cool, that's not commerce.

But I sat there, quietly, and thought to myself:  "That's outrageous!  Of course that is commerce. Even though there is not a direct exchange of bread for money, they both know what they're doing."  And then I realized, that what was welling up within me was right at the heart of a huge, multi-millenial debate.  We have Paul in Corinthians saying "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."  And this rumbles on through the ages, from Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Law through the judicial activism of the Supreme Court, especially under Earl Warren, down to the countervailing forces of strict constructionism and loonie Tea Partiers toting around constitutions they haven't read.

The whole Letter/Spirit thing is huge, and between Jews and Christians (or Orthodox and Reformed Jews) it can be a thorny issue.  How outrageous does it seem to turn on the TVs before sundown on Friday and leave them on all Saturday so as to evade a stricture against using machines on Shabbos?

And there it was, right within me in that class. Well worth the cost of admission.

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