Divine Telepathy: Reading Talmud

Reading is Telepathy

Ox Gores Man
Bull Gores Man at Pamplona http://news.nationalgeographic.com 



Writing and reading are acts of telepathy.  The author tells me what’s in his mind. I try to decipher it. It can be an ecstatic communion, or dull. But assuming there’s another mind may help us out of the postmodern moral abyss.

Yes, the author’s story is just a version. The characters are just representations. The author tries to reduce the arbitrariness of selecting these few signs out of an infinity of possible others through force of will and practice and erasure. If we resonate with what we read, we respect and admire and can be pleasured by word art. But who is to say what is right or wrong in anything?

Welcome to the postmodern abyss, where morals throw themselves off the cliff to die. Where ethics are a matter of local taste. Where the world is anything you make it. Chacun á son goût. Or a “Negative Theology,” what Charles Taylor saw in Derrida’s philosophy.

When you open a book, are you already judging the author against some ideological test? Or do you try to know the author’s mind first before deciding he had failed your personal litmus test?

Reading the Talmud is good training for suspending your judgments.

The Talmud is a hypertextual text of a symposium among hundreds of rabbis and scholars spread across continents over the first five centuries after the Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The  Mishnah plus Gemarah that make up the canonical Talmud, along with inclusions of sanctioned commenatries by Rashi and others, are at least 6000 pages long. But the Talmud project has never stopped growing and promises to keep growing as commentators comment on commentators to adapt the Torah to an evolving reality. Easily millions of pages have been written about it. Not only is it a cryptic attempt at capturing a convoluted conversation, the conversation itself is an attempt to reconstruct a text that was never supposed to be written down, the Oral Law of the Jews. In short, the mere act of learning to read the Talmud requires years of study just to give it a fair hearing, to try to understand what the sages were trying to say before deciding if what they said had any merit.

Anyone can dip into this sea of interpretations and stories and pronouncements and duels among rabbis and extract something out of context to prove a point. But just to learn the names of the “authors,” the eras and cultures in which they lived, the assumptions underlying their discourse,  and the pretexts for that discourse, requires a lifetime.  It’s good practice for suspending your self-interested interpretations when reading a mere 300-page novel by a single author.



At the same time, it’s a struggle, tug of war, a contest of wills. We know the author is making a selection, an artistic choice out of an evanescence of possibilities, just to shape our view of the reality he wishes to present. She’s trying to manipulate me. He wants to replace my mind with his. If we’re both successful, even momentarily, I give myself to her.

If you understand reading this way, and you understand writing as a form of communications technology, then reading is what I call “technologically-mediated telepathy” (TMT), and it comes with certain  obligations on us.  As reader, we have to strip ourselves, at least momentarily and at first, of prejudices and ideologies and preconceptions and fundamentalisms. Telepathic reading invites us to come to the text ready to give ourselves to the telepathy with clarity. You need to come clean. That means, before thinking what you think, you are trying to read what the author thinks.  And before you can do that, you need to situate the author in his time, place, psyche, ideology, assumptions, and fundamentalisms.

Of course, there are a lot of other ways of reading. Many have legitimacy.  But one that seems destructive, unless you try it after trying telepathy, is the subjectivist (constructionist, deconstructionist, postmodern) idea that searches the text for proof of what you think to expose an ideological heresy or confirm an ideological heroism.


Divine Telepathy

So if you want to play the telepathy game of reading the Talmud, the largest challenge  is believing that the multiple authors took their task in good faith. That is, the text they were attempting to reconstruct and interpret was itself directly from God. In some senses, like any prophet or poet or postmodern ecstatic, they were trying to Read the Mind of God.

Your task when  you read Talmud, even when you’re an amateur like me, or especially when you’re an amateur like me, is to read the mind of sages and commentators who are trying to Read the Mind of God, whether or not you believe in God yourself. C’mon, be objective for once in your life. Put your personal beliefs assumptions aside to try for true reading. When you read things about slavery or pagans or women that offend all our postmodern sensibilities, find the mercy and justice and divinity in the rabbis’ judgment. Were so many wise folks being disingenuous for two millenia, or were they really trying to delve the mystery of the Universe?

With this in mind, then, let’s practice telepathy.

If an ox gores my brother, how do I exact revenge?

Bava Kamma is one of the 63 tractates of the Talmud. It seems like pretty dull stuff at first glance. It concerns damages assessed against an owner of an ox if it gores a person. Through many conditions and twists and turns, the rabbis make the default fine, at worst, that the bull is put to death and the monetary value of the life that was taken is paid to the rightful heirs of the damaged party.

But how would one who is metaphysically-minded wrangle deeper meaning from these labyrinthine pages? If these rabbis are reading the Mind of God, then God’s Mind, you should forgive me, seems like a dank cheder (study hall) in Brooklyn. I’d like to take the challenge seriously and propose a possible answer by reading one passage.

Bava Kamma is drawing out a pretty straightforward-seeming passage from Exodus:

And if an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.

וכי־יגח שור את־איש או את־אשה ומת סקול יסקל השור ולא יאכל את־בשרו ובעל השור נקי

[Ex 21:28]׃

Although they never say it in so many words, the Sages seem to be worried about how the death of a mere ox is supposed to compensate for the loss of human life? You mean the owner of an ox that kills my brother gets off with what’s tantamount to a huge traffic ticket? And how does this equation, work, exactly?

I believe a word in the original line from Exodus – נקי -‘naki holds the key. The Torah in the translation above says it means “quit,” as in “quit of all claims.” Schottenstein Talmud translates it “absolved” in the 20 or so times it appears.  Other translations for נקי in the Jewish corpus are:

  • “not held liable.”
  • “empty-handed”
  • “free from possessions”
  • “cleared to perform a prior oath”
  • “clear from sin” [Job xxii:30]
  • “pure and guiltless”
  • “clear-minded”
  • “innocent of robbery”
  • “unable to make a living”

But the literal root of נקי means “clean.” According to Jastrow’s dictionary, it also becomes vernacular for a newborn lamb. It is later taken by Christian allegory to signify innocence and divine purity because of the power of the image to communicate the connection between mundane actions and divine “cleanliness.”

So Gemarah asks

Is the owner of a bull that gores a person to death really clean when he just puts the bull to death and pays a monetary fine? Really?

The hint at answering Rabbi’s question is contained in a neat turn of phrase by R. Eliezer:

כפרה כופרא קסבר

Kasabar qufra qaparah

– Bava Kamma 41b3

Schottenstein translates this sentence: “Kofer is an atonement payment.” But it can be read as “Monetary payment of the kofer is an atonement.”

קסבר = ’kasabar’ = monetary payment

כופרא = kofer(ah) = monetary liability

כפרה = atonement

R. Eliezer’s play on words introduces a new term – kasabar, payment – into the argument. It does so in order to enforce the concept of monetary payment equal to the much heavier burden of the  soul’s atonement for metaphysical transgression, or simply put, sin.

Here is the interface between the material and the spiritual.

For all the technicality of this passage we’re in, the Sages seem to be keeping the root connection between material, worldly payment and liabilities to the metaphysical depth of atonement required to keep your soul “naki” – clean.

The Talmud concludes that the owner of a tam (tame) ox that gored a man is indeed “clean.” We are liable for the unaccountable actions of our possessions in the public domain, but only so far.

In other words, No.  If an ox gores my brother I don’t get to exact revenge on the owner.

You can see why Jews believe the Law springs from the Mind of God

Systems of law are meant, among many other things, to intercede where emotions urge us to take matters into our own hands and seek vigilante justice. An ox just gored your brother to death in the marketplace. Of course you want to exact revenge. But Law interrupts the cycle of revenge by drawing a line: Here is where the courts adjudicate the damages, even in very difficult cases like this one where there is going to be a huge feeling of injustice. And you can see why the Jewish tradition, like many others, sees the giving of the Law as Divine: it creates transcendence of the brutal, never-ending cycle of revenge violence. This metaphysical idea informs and is tacit in this whole discussion. The sages of the Talmud have this at the forefront of their minds. And so should we when we read their debates.