Acts of Liberation: Yochi Brandes & Ruth Calderon reboot the rabbi tale

Published in Haaretz

In her most recent novel, “Akiva’s Orchard,” Yochi Brandes spins a brilliant chapter out of the incident in Bnei Brak, familiar from the Passover Haggadah, when five rabbis study Torah all night until their students announce it’s time for the morning prayers. In Brandes’ take, the night is not about interpretative one-upmanship, but rather is the very moment the content of the Pesach Seder is determined.

Brandes is one of two non-Orthodox Israeli women – Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon is the other – who have made the news talking Talmud. While readers have been scooping up Brandes’ novel, the YouTube video of Calderon’s rookie address to the Knesset has been viewed an astonishing 221,000 times. This is all the more extraordinary because in Israel, Talmudhas been seen as the exclusive provenance of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish men since the country’s founding.

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Both Brandes in her novel and Calderon in her Knesset talk focused on a very particular kind of Talmudic text, eschewing the Jewish legaldebate that dominates the yeshiva curriculum in favor ofthe rabbi tale.

Rabbi tales come from the rabbis of the first several centuries C.E., including Hillel, Shammai, Akiva, Rabban Gamliel and Yehuda HaNasi, predating and extending to those who created the Mishna and Talmud. These tales are neither commentaries on biblical texts nor legal deliberations. Unlike the stories of saints or the wonder-working Hassidic rebbes that would follow 1,500 years later, Talmudic rabbi tales do not necessarily describe exemplary behavior. Some are tragic, some didactic, others baffling, and it is not clear that these bits of biography were always recorded with a specific polemical purpose in mind.

The story Calderon chose to teach from the Knesset podium is not a cheery tale. It is Yom Kippur eve, and Rabbi Rechumei’s wife is waiting for him to come home. Rechumei visits his wife just once a year on the eve of Yom Kippur. (This is not the most auspicious sign for their relationship, since sexual relations are forbidden on the holiday.) But the rabbi doesn’t show. He’s sitting under the stars on the roof of the yeshiva studying Torah. The rabbi is elated – high from fasting, getting closer to heaven. He’s so caught up that he doesn’t notice it’s too late to make the trek home, or perhaps his learning is so intense he feels he can’t abandon it.

His wife waits, sure that he’s going to come. That’s what the text says – “he’s going to come, he’s going to come.” Calderon asked the Knesset assembly to imagine a split screen, the ecstatic rabbi on one side, decked in Yom Kippur whites under the night sky, his wife on the other, her patient trust slowly crumbling.

Finally, she sheds a tear; one tear for all the years of loneliness and now, this final disappointment. Final, because when the tear lands, the roof caves in and kills Rabbi Rechumai.

Calderon used the story to draw the lesson that Torah study should not come at the expense of sensitivity to the needs of others and cannot be made dependent on someone else doing the heavy lifting of maintaining daily life. The price of this error is no less than death and the collapse of the institution of Torah study. The severity of the punishment indicates the extraordinarily high stakes.

Calderon meant her interpretation as a rebuke to ultra-Orthodox draft-and-employment evaders, but she also offered the contrary message that both Rabbi Rehumai and his wife believed they were doing what was necessary to sustain the House of Israel, i.e., that there is more than one way to support the Jewish People.

(The story can of course be interpreted in other ways: that the tear represented a loss of faith; that a sexually sterile marriage is equivalent to death; that Rav Rehumei went too close to heaven and, like Icarus, crashed down to earth, etc.).

In both sticking it to the ultra-Orthodox and calling for an open, respectful and inclusive debate, Calderon spoke from within the tradition. Her critique of ultra-Orthodox life is based on the same prooftexts some ultra-Orthodox use to justify their disengagement from larger Israeli society.

The most famous Jewish woman to suffer in solitude for the sake of her husband’s Torah study was Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, who waited in poverty for 12 years (or 24, depending on the version of the story) while Akiva evolved from an illiterate shepherd into the leading rabbi of his time. To Brandes’ credit, her empathy for Rachel does not lead her to vilify Akiva. Rachel is the narrator of Brandes’ seventh novel – Rachel is a prophet, and she suffers mightily for the accuracy of her visions – but the novel pivots around Akiva’s journey.

Rabbi Akiva becomes the preeminent teacher of his generation for throwing open the gates of the yeshiva in a populist Torah-for-all approach, but also because of his revolutionary style of interpreting Torah through Midrash. His imaginative leaps exasperate conservative colleagues but thrill his young followers. His new Midrash – textual interpretation based on study and prayer – is meant to supplant the defunct temple ritual, to reinvent or reboot Judaism; Judaism that must be able to survive despite the destruction of the Temple and continued rule of Rome. Brandes knows that whether we practice Judaism or ignore it, rebel against it or try to revive it, it is rabbinic literature and not the Bible that shaped the Judaism of today. Brandes is keen to describe the revolution that is Rabbinic Judaism at its point of origin.

She deftly works in the moments of conception of the building blocks of Jewish practice, lightly and in passing; e.g., rabbis are fighting over the final redaction of the Shmoneh Esreh, the 18 (actually 19) blessings recited standing, which are the heart of all three daily prayer services and struggle to remember one rabbi’s winning formulation of a controversial blessing, which no one had bothered to write down. And at the all-night B’nei Brak Seder, “the Four Sons” storyis offered as a new homily in the name of an absent opponent of Akiva, and meant not as a metaphor about Jews who don’t affiliate or identify, but as an attack on early Christians. The debate over including or excluding the passage in future Seders causes a schism among the rabbis that leads to disaster.

The combination of Akiva’s greatness and the horrific trajectory of his downfall spark the big questions at the heart of the novel:

1. How could such a visionary leader support the catastrophic Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome in 132 to 135 C.E., which – far more than the destruction of the Temple 65 years earlier – led to the Jewish Diaspora that lasted 1900 years?

2. How could God reward his greatest teacher with a bloodcurdling death – having his living flesh combed off his body – at the hands of the Romans?

3. Why did Jews and Christians go their separate ways?

4. And above all, what did the four rabbis see when they entered the mystical Orchard – the pardes? What happened to them that led to death, apostasy and madness?

I won’t spoil Brandes’ solution to the pardes enigma, but I will say that her answer is not fuzzy-minded mystical drivel, but specific, ingenious and profoundly disturbing.

In reworking pithy rabbi tales, Brandes is a modern Darshan, answering a call that few other Israeli artists even hear, let alone address with the depth of Jewish learning that Brandes brings to her subject. Calderon began her political life by modeling the kind of Jewishly informed, respectful but unrestrained discourse engaged with Jewish sources that she wants to promote for all segments of the Jewish public. Perhaps Calderon and Brandes signal a liberating shift in Israel’s cultural discourse.

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