When the Talmud Makes You Squirm

Lots of things can make you uncomfortable reading Talmud. Not least is the vertigo from the steep ethical progress we seem to have made in the intervening centuries as we read back to the apparently deficient ethics of the Sages and their times. The Talmud not only accepts slavery, it dignifies it. And the praise for apparent barbarisms of war, of what seems like crude justice, of the treatment and attitude towards women,  all make us reflect on how far we’ve seemed to have come. As allegedly civilized moderns, these make us squirm.

For instance, in Avodah Zarah the Talmud accuses Bilaam, the pagan prophet, of lying and bestiality, among other things. But is it unjustified? Or should we, in our superior sensibility and sophistication, rush to distance ourselves from these misguided rabbis who are subject to the narrowness of their time and place? Yes, these passages make us squirm, in all the niceness of our enlightened sensibilities, because they are “not nice to others,” but should we really dismiss them? Or should we try to give the rabbis the benefit of the doubt?

Why can’t we assume that the same authors who parse Divine Anger into 1/53,486th of a day to make way for an expansive sense of Divine Mercy are sophisticated enough to show Bilaam the amount of mercy that is his due, which might be justifiably less than nothing. Being so quick to apologize for Talmud makes me squirm.

Of course, the whole question of “being not nice to Others” is ironic in the context of how Hebrews and Jews have been treated as the “perennial Others” throughout history.  And though logic suggests that we should be all the more sensitive to mistreating others, I would humbly suggest we must be so without abdicating the morality and authority of Judaism and the lessons of Talmud. That is, we can acknowledge the God-given neshamah in every human being, even or especially suicide bombers and bloodthirsty Iranian ayatollahs, without making Jews “just like everyone else.” And the litmus test is when we are morally called to do so and balk because it’s not nice to make such distinctions.  Neither the Talmud nor the Tanach teach us to turn the other cheek. Indeed, one could argue to do so paves the way to our ongoing martyrdom.

When we reduce the Talmud (in such passages as the one we read about Bilam) to only a mere narrative of its times (how could it not be?), it doesn’t seem like we’re endorsing a more virtuous, loving, civilized ethical posture, but a defensive apologia.  We are trying to display our modern openness, tolerance, and embarrassment at the prejudices of these ancient rabbis. But in doing so, we are missing or dismissing the more enduring theological message: although we cannot arrogate Divine authority, we are still required to make distinctions between the time to curse in anger and the time to forgive in mercy. We can be so ready to show we’re tolerant and free of bias and modern and cool and blessed with secular virtue and love for Others, that we cede important Jewish territory to the forces, like Bilaam, that seek to destroy us, whether they do so consciously or not.

This is especially poignant in this passage of Avodah Zarah.  The whole volume is devoted to erecting barriers to idolatry and forbidden practices, and this passage is one among many premier places where the rabbis of the Talmud take a stand on the bulwark.  We are so ready to dismiss the rabbis as bigots who are out of line for accusing Bilaam of bestiality and other not nice things, we miss the force of what the Talmud is trying to tell us.
 In other words, this isn’t just an example of the rabbis expressing their pain at recent historical abuses and exiles, nor their lack of civility or civilized restraint in despising Bilaam. It is an attempt to demonstrate why and when certain others are worthy of everything “not nice” we can say about them.  Taking a secular, modern stance by suggesting Chazal are “not being nice” to Bilaam is after all, strange. Do we really owe Bilam anything more than accusations of the worst sort?  After all, he set out on his she-mule (and lover) to destroy Israel and thousands of lives with his curses?  Or should we accord him the courtesy we would and should, by contemporary canons of civility, to any stranger or “other.” Ironically, this aggadah is trying to get us to avoid precisely this descent into overly-deferential moral relativism.
Further, if we delve the mystical symbols that come crowding into this passage, they show incredible thematic coherence, and they confirm the message: The red comb of the rooster, Bilaam’s curse turning to positive prophesy, his she-ass testifying that he is a liar and worse (practices bestiality on her), the parsing of a Divine Moment (=1/53,838 of a day), the nature of Divine anger and mercy, the futility of human attempts to synchronize with Divine Time,  all are deeply implicated with each other.
The rooster has special status in our religion, and it is no accident that his comb in the aggadah is granted mystic prophetic power, as a sort of Divine Timer.  ‘The Rooster Rebbe”  by  Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen notes that “Rabbi Rooster,”  whenever he makes his appearance with his special gift for telling Divine Time, is bringing us a warning against cultural and ethical relativism. Rabbi Rooster tries to teach us something important about making judgments between night and day, between human corruption and the “right time” to apply the Divine qualities of anger or mercy.  I think the point is that every time a rooster appears in Tanach or Talmud, we should treat him as a proxy for Divine Judgment.
“Just as the rooster has the understanding to distinguish between the light of day and the darkness of the night, so too the human heart should develop the understanding to distinguish between ideas which bring light into the world, and ideas which bring darkness into the world. The rooster is therefore to serve as our rebbe, a teacher that reminds us to make distinctions between the light of the life-giving Divine teachings and the darkness of false instructions which lead to destruction and death.
The Rooster Rebbe, however, has many opponents in our modern age. They say to him, “What gives you the right to make such a distinction and decide for everyone what is light and what is darkness? Do you think you have the absolute truth? There are no absolute truths, for they are all relative; thus, each person is free to decide what is light and what is darkness.” The opponents of the Rooster Rebbe have the view known as “moral relativism” – the belief that no opinion or value is ultimately better than another, since it’s all “relative.” It simply depends on your point of view. For example, one person may feel that “tzedakah” – helping those in need – is his truth, and another person may feel that being a miser is his truth. From the perspective of the moral relativist, who is to say which is better?
According to this philosophy, each person can be his own god and create his own truth. This philosophy speaks in the name of “tolerance,” but by denying that there is a higher and universal truth, it increases the divisions within the world.” http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/rooster.htm

One of the real discomforts I see my classmates often experience is when the suggestion is made that the Talmud has divine origins or at least is bringing us attempts to read the Divine Mind that should be taken seriously, as opposed to reading it as only an important philosophical corpus reflecting the lives and times across the centuries in which it was composed.  So which is it?  Is reading Talmud an intellectual exercise or is it an attempt to open hailing frequencies with Divine Will?  In studying Talmud in Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative  settings, I’ve noticed the latter proposition makes almost all of my chaverim in these classes squirm. 
But this passage is a good example where it makes a difference in our understanding of the Talmud. Either Bilam represents evil, and is thus worthy of all the abuse the rabbis can heap on him, or else this is just an example of rabbinical excess, a product of its cultural moment, and it should be dismissed and apologized for as such.
I believe we should be concerned about assuming the latter reading is correct.  It makes the Talmud a text like all other texts, one whose exegesis collapses into isogesis – personal interpretation (a term I will forever be grateful to Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth, Palo Alto, for). In doing so, we give up our exceptionalism as Jews, and thus the Higher Authority on which we base a superior moral, ethical, judicial system.  If our culture is just like all other cultures, no better and no worse, and this text, for all its wondrous complexity and blossoming, is not necessarily better than other texts, then we have given up something essential in what’s keeping us going as Jews in the world, in exile.  We have a responsibility to make distinctions, to curse Bilaam and praise the quality of Divine Mercy the rabbis ask us to emulate. Although it is decidedly modern to apologize for cursing Bilaam, it also courts a blindness not only to metaphysical belief, but even in granting the Sages the right we give any other text: reading it first with the assumptions the authors brought to the discourse.  In apologizing for cursing Bilaam, we flatten the distinction of the Jewish  quality of mercy, founded on mitzvoth, and, say, that found in pagan culture. We implicitly say, “Ours is no more worthy than theirs.”  I know most everyone in my Talmud classes would agree with this last premise, but I would suggest that such indistinction leads to our extinction; self-effacement leads to effacement.

If I’m wrong, what are we doing?  Are we reading an incomparably rich but ultimately secular, historical text from which we cherry-pick gems of morality, or are we trying to read G-d’s Mind and Will better than Bilaam did without trying to game His system? Are we engaged in intellectual exercise or a form of delightful conversation with Divinity?  I vote for both.

Kol tuv, all, and thanks for your patience, specially if you’ve read this far.