Limmud

Jun. 20th, 2016 11:17 pm
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
I nearly didn't go to the local day Limmud this year, as it's in a busy time and I wasn't sure if it would make sense to drag all my non-Jewish partners to the conference. But in fact [livejournal.com profile] ghoti and [personal profile] cjwatson and even their younger children were really really excited about the event, so that was a good reason for all of us to go. And in fact it was the best Limmud I've been to in years, I came out with that glorious buzzy, head-full, wanting to have enthusiastic discussions about everything feeling.

I'm going to follow [personal profile] lethargic_man's example and try to write it up here, because it might be interesting to some of you, and because it'll be an easier archive for me to refer to in future than paper notes, and because I'm really hoping some people will have opinions and ideas, as the weekend was over before I had a chance to explore all the cool new stuff properly through in person discussions. Unlike him I'll write biased summaries and talk about my own reactions as well as the speakers' words, rather than try to actually type up the lectures from my notes.

  1. David Abulafia: The first Sephardim in the Atlantic

    Abulafia is an academic historian of both Jewish and more general Mediterranean cultures. His talk was partly a response to the recent minor media flap where someone or other tried to hold Jews 'responsible' for the trans-Altantic slave trade, so he had gone to look for historical evidence of Jewish involvement.

    He was basically talking about what happened to Jews of Spanish origin (Sephardim, in its most literal sense) between formal expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginnings of relatively greater acceptance for Jews living openly in Christian Europe from the 17th century onwards. Not the classic Sephardi diaspora story of Jews fleeing persecution in Iberia and settling elsewhere, some of the more tolerant Italian states, the Netherlands, North Africa, the New World. But rather those who at some level accepted forced conversion to Christianity, and to a greater or lesser extent retained their Jewish heritage and identity. A lot of Abulafia's thesis was that there was considerable variation between people who either immediately or over the course of generations became sincerely Christians, though still treated with suspicion of impure theology and blood, and people who were really only ever pretending to be Christian to avoid trouble, and continued to practise Judaism or at least talk about their ancestral practice in secret. There's the story of the chief rabbi of Burgos who became the Bishop of Burgos after conversion, and was followed in office by his son, and they seem to have been sincere Christians who were also willing to defend those New Christians who were seen as suspicious because of their Jewish heritage. Collectively New Christians, or conversos (the group used to be referred to as marranos but this is based on a racist slur and isn't usually accepted language these days).

    Particularly, these New Christians who ended up in small Atlantic islands as the Spanish and Portuguese empires expanded out towards the Americas. Many, though not all, of these islands, were genuinely uninhabited before being claimed for the European powers, but became strategically important as they provided ports for military or trade fleets. New Christians moved there sometimes because they had to, and sometimes because it was a way to stay within Spanish or Portuguese territories but relatively out of reach of the Inquisition. Really interesting stuff about people living with dual identities, particularly if they travelled across Europe for trade, where they might be openly Jewish in the more tolerant north such as the Netherlands, but use only Christian names and identities when they were trading in Spanish or Portuguese territories or even mainland Spain and Portugal. And a picture of 150 years where sometimes and some places the Inquisition was active and everything was underground and sometimes people got tortured and burned at the stake for (real or invented) "Judaizing", and other times and places the New Christians' Jewish background and identity was basically an open secret and they were only defined as Christians on a legal technicality. Even initiatives to positively encourage the New Christians back to Spain by the 17th century, to help the mainland to benefit from their trading connections.

    There were also quite a lot of examples of the sorts of accusations of Judaizing that are recorded from different places; Abulafia believes that the Inquisition records are a reasonable source for getting some idea of how much Jewish practice continued through the 16th century even if the accounts are obviously antisemitic and exaggerated. But I found all this a bit hard to follow and didn't manage to take down all the place and personal names.

    There's a kind of horrifying thing with Portugal and São Tomé; after explusion from Spain, some Jews were given temporary asylum in Portugal but only for 8 months at most. And the minor children of these people were taken from them, baptized, and sent to Sao Tome, aka Crocodile Island, in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea. Where very few of them survived the hostile conditions without any adults supporting them. And that's pretty grim, but it's also the case that the background of what was going on in São Tomé was the beginnings of the even more horrific transatlantic slave trade. Apparently Portugal was trying to break into the sugar market and compete with Madeira, only weather conditions were poor enough that only inferior quality sugar could be produced there, so Portugal could only compete in the market through use of slave labour, namely Black Africans kidnapped from the region of the modern day Congo. And in fact Sao Tome became a port for trading slaves to the Americas, as well as using them for labour on the spot.

    As the slave trade developed and expanded, Cape Verde became particularly central as the slave ships put in there. There is evidence of minor Jewish / New Christian involvement in the civic life of Cape Verde, such as attempts to ban them from holding certain offices, etc. And some Jewish merchants based in Portuguse Guinea on the West African coast may also have included slaves among their cargoes. There is also evidence of New Christian intermarriage with native Africans, particularly ancestrally Jewish men marrying African women, and syncretism between Judaism, Christianity and African animisms, both in Africa itself and in island communities where African slaves were. Some of these people of mixed heritage turned up in the Netherlands in the 17th century and were mostly accepted as Jewish by the Amsterdam community at the time.

    Quite clearly the historical evidence is that that slave trade was primarily started and maintained by (old) Christians. Particularly Henry the Navigator, who was extremely anti-Jewish and anti-muslim and regarded the conquest of the New World as part of his "crusade" and kept trying to ban Jews, or Christians of Jewish heritage or anyone who seemed overly sympathetic to Jews, from all the places he laid claim to. But he may also have relied on Jewish cartographers such as the Crescas family, and in general it seems like there were often pragmatic reasons for the most extremely anti-Jewish rulers to make exceptions when it came to their more remote territories. Even the notorious Ferdinand was unable to expel the Jews from Naples, where he was also the monarch in addition to Castille and Aragon, because that would have meant that trade in Naples would have collapsed as all the Jewish merchants would flee to Venice.

    So it's fairly preposterous to claim that Jews were "responsible" for the slave trade, but it's also likely that at least some of the Jews / New Christians who lived in temporary relative peace and prosperity and were allowed to run trading businesses may have had some involvement. It felt to me like the whole of this seminar was coming from a pretty strange stance; detailed exploration of the consequences of the major persecutions of Jews and more or less ex Jews by the Church in the late 15th century, and the ongoing though often somewhat less intense problems in the next couple of hundred years, but only relatively tangential mention of the slaving carried out by the same Christian powers. Which is fair enough, the history of slavery is not Abulafia's field, and obviously lots of other things were going on in those regions during that period, but it just felt odd.

  2. Rafi Zarum: Defecation and the Divine
    Rafi Zarum basically makes his living running the Limmud and Jewish outreach circuit. He's a charismatic, erudite and deservedly popular speaker, but I thought maybe I wouldn't go to his seminar as he turns up reliably at every possible study day and I've heard him lots of times. But then the topic sounded pretty cool so I thought I'd give it a go.

    So basically R' Zarum was teaching the prayer recited after using the toilet, which is as he mentioned somewhat less well known in Progressive than Orthodox circles, but it's something I'm familiar with and I am not particularly disturbed by the concept of a prayer relating to bodily functions. Zarum pointed to the origin of the prayer in more or less its modern form in Berachot 60b, and noted that there was originally a prayer said before entering the toilet involving asking for protection from angels. It seems ambiguous whether the accompanying angels of Talmudic tradition actually come into the toilet or wait outside.

    Zarum was arguing that using the toilet is potentially an intensely spiritual thing, it's a moment of being present in your body and connecting to God through your physical being rather than your conscious, verbal mind. He rejects the dualist idea, which he ascribes to Classical Greek thought rather than blaming Christianity as many speakers on similiar topics are wont to do, that the body is inferior and polluted and an obstacle to spiritual connection. I think he could have done more with establishing the idea that something can be both taboo or even polluting and at the same time sacred; there are plenty of examples of this in Jewish and more general anthropological thought, and without that being clear it all seemed a bit tendentious. Like, lots of people in the audience kept asking, well, if toilet matters are so elevated and spiritual, why the prohibition on praying or bringing sacred objects into the toilet? Why do we recite the prayer only after coming out and washing our hands, not directly in connection with the act of defecation?

    There was a lot of discussion of the connection between the Talmudic term for a toilet or privy, the house of the seat, with phrases to do with the seat / throne of God's glory. I do accept there's a word-play going on in the toilet blessing itself (if my digestive system didn't work properly to be able to sit on the throne / I wouldn't be able to stand before the throne of glory), but I need a bit more convincing of the idea that pooing expresses some kind of unique connection with the Divine. But anyway, the main source for this, whether or not it entirely supports R' Zarum's point, is this amazing mishnah from Tamid. The tractate, which has no Gemara, is basically about the practicalities of how things worked in the Temple, and it starts with what happens if the priests need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. And there is a mention of a special Temple privy, which is called a toilet (house of the seat) of glory, which I can't deny is a really telling phrase. and the thing that makes it glorious is that it's a lockable, single-person cubicle. There does seem to be this idea that toilet privacy is something that makes Jews stand out in general Roman culture which appears to have had only shared toilets available.

    Then we studied a Gemara about R' Yehudah, known as the Prince as he was so wealthy and also the editor of the Mishnah. He is said to have had such terrible pain using the toilet that his screams could be heard even by sailors out at sea, even over the sounds of animals at feeding time. R' Zarum was using this source to demonstrate that the toilet has really high status and sanctity, because of the fact that toilet stuff is mentioned in a story of one of the greatest and most respected rabbis. But to me that's pretty clearly a story not about the importance of toilets, but about bodliy agony.

    According all the honour due to someone who has taught me really a lot of Torah over the years, this is not the first time I've felt that R' Zarum's teaching sorely lacks a disability perspective. He didn't deal well with audience questions around the issue of, what happens when people don't have fully working eliminatory systems, how does the famous toilet prayer fit into that situation, and he gave kind of vague or mealy-mouthed answers. I do think there's a lot to be said for teaching that bodily functions are important, and they're not just gross, and good religion needs to accept people as fully embodied. But it's too easy for that to slide into the really disturbing ableist assumptions about people who for whatever reason need personal or medical support to deal with said functions.

    We didn't really have time to discuss in detail the Gemara in Berachot about Ammi and Assi (the married couple rabbis) being so virtuous that they were able to safely use toilets even in areas known to be really dangerous. The main point of that was an interesting parallel betweeen 'silence and modesty' in the toilet, and 'silence and prayer' in the face of suffering; R' Zarum was using this to bolster his argument that using the toilet can be a form of physical prayer. But there's really a lot in that Gemara, the more so since the bit that was left out of our source sheet is about Rav Kahana sneaking into his master Rav's bedroom to learn from his master the Torah-appropriate way to have sex...

    And the final source we didn't have time to look at at all, which is a shame because it's one of the rare bits of Talmud where Jesus appears, and ok, Jesus happens to be talking about toilets in that text, and it probably would have taken us off topic to actually think about the evidence for rabbinic attitudes to Jesus, but wow. It's basically Avodah Zarah 17a, and it would be better if I could find a sensible English version of that, wouldn't it? OK, this is a paraphrase, but it's by Steinsaltz and gets most of the point across, section titled The dangers of learning from Yeshu ha-Notzri (that's the Talmud's name for Jesus, Notzri means either Nazarene or Christian). Anyway, I can't usefully interpret that Gemara because we didn't get that far, but apparently Jesus taught his disciple James and James taught R' Eliezer that although it's normally forbidden to offer money earned from selling sexual services to the Temple, it's acceptable to use such tainted money for building the privy.
OK, I meant to do brief summaries but got carried away, I'll write up the other talks another day...

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-20 11:27 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Oh, you went to R' Zarum! Huh. Some interesting gemaras there.

But it does sound a bit like he's doing that synchronic-Judaism thing where he's got a piece of Torah to teach--in this case, that experiencing a functioning body is a profoundly spiritual experience--and tries to retroject it into the Gemara, that being the locus of authenticity.

And that's a valid way of doing Torah and all but if you're going to do that I think it's important to admit that what you're doing is using Jewish sources to advance a worldview. I mean, admit it to yourself. Rafi needs to admit it to himself, I mean. Because otherwise you have this lovely lecture where you're building a world in which pooing is a spiritual experience, and it's not totally a fantasy world, it is kind of supportable on the evidence, but you haven't thought through how real people are going to fit in that world. So you end up with people asking questions about e.g. disability, and you can't answer, because halakha's answer is basically "la la la not listening" so you don't have a ready-made answer, and then your world that you've built is revealed to be not a hospitable place for anyone who doesn't look like you.

(jen's philosophy of teaching torah, part 23432342)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 03:49 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet

Ugh, Rafi. "Nobody is ever turned away" is such utter bullshit.

(I am thinking particularly of a blind friend who was very explicitly told that she would not be welcome in a beit midrash program because of being blind.)

and I don't pretend to have an answer for "my mother just died and it was nasty" but I think that acknowledging that some things are not spiritual and you are not bad for finding them so is probably a start.

toilet demons

Date: 2016-06-20 11:31 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Also, I'm surprised you didn't mention him mentioning toilet demons at all. I mean it's a bit difficult to engage with gemaras about toilets without that context. The toilet is obviously a place where horrible scary demons live. Like Abaye would take a lamb with him into the loo to protect him from demons. In that context I think the prayer is maybe not so much about establishing spirituality as about saying, I hope the toilet demons don't kill me. Okay, Abaye is a Babylonian amora, and they were more worried about demons than the tanaim were, but it seems a bit silly to read the "hai angels halp" prayer as being primarily about spiritualising pooing.

And again, yes, talmudic Judaism, perhaps particularly Palestinian sources, are super into having brachot for absolutely bloody everything, i.e. spiritualising everything, to use anachronistic terminology, so it's not totally silly, but...demons are important.

Re: toilet demons

Date: 2016-06-21 03:38 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Ooh. I was hoping we'd have some time to learn things together, and I was meaning to ask you what you thought we should learn, and here we are! I'm better on material culture than metaphysics, but we'll have the whole weekend...

(edited to add...ber. 61b is the bit about Raba's pooing bricks, which are just great. so we should start there.)
Edited Date: 2016-06-21 03:48 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-20 11:39 pm (UTC)
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks
Only tangentially related, but I am delighted that there are still living people today with the surname Abulafia.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-20 11:40 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
ME TOO OMG SO MUCH THIS

(frozen) (no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 12:11 am (UTC)
kass: Shepherd Book; caption "The Good Book." (book)
From: [personal profile] kass
ME THREE

:-)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 05:49 am (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
I was struck by it, but only because it took me a moment to pin down where else I've heard the name - Richard Aboulafia is a very prominent aviation industry analyst, the kind who is in the trade press every week.

euphemisms

Date: 2016-06-20 11:39 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
And I totally concur that deriving meaning from euphemisms like beit hakise is just silly and Rafi should know better.

Also the mishnah there is truly amazing and I had not learned that one but for heaven's sake, it was called "the dignity toilet," and the reason it was called the dignity toilet was because it had a door that closed, and it was in the mikdash, that all screams this is a special, unusual toilet. Ordinary people have to shit communally like Romans, that's in Berakhot, about how much of yourself you have to expose while pooing and whether or not you should have conversations. (Sorry. It bugs me when people use mishnahs to show that Jewish culture was soooo much better than Roman culture.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-20 11:50 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Re disability perspective and bracha, the answer I've always heard is that if you're not dead, you have at least a somewhat functioning body, so you can say the bracha. Which is true but does not answer the underlying question. Seems to me it would be more honest to admit that sometimes things don't work as planned, and some people are able to find spirituality in that situation, and some people aren't, and find some gemaras about being pissed the fuck off with God. Or compare to the amulet corpus, which is absolutely crammed full of people trying to get pain relief but is barely mentioned in the gemara at all, suggesting that the religious apparatus was poorly-equipped to handle that sort of thing.

There's a story about...actually, it's another story about Rebbi Yehuda haNasi, huh...anyway, when he was dying, he was in horrible discomfort, and his maid helped him take his tefillin on and off, on and off, so that he could keep on going to the loo. And because she was involved with his care, she could understand his wish that he would just die already. His colleagues and disciples were all outside praying that he would stay alive and she recognised that that was fucked up and he did not want to be alive any more. That is a story about a great rabbi who is in horrible pain and clearly not finding anything spiritual about it at all. It's not the best story for the context because stories about people who would rather die are dangerous things, but it's a story that shows a great rabbi not being spiritual. I happen to have that one in my head because tefillin. I expect there are others.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-22 01:59 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I'd been going to say, I thought I'd heard elsewhere of people being encouraged to say the prayers about blessings they were lacking, either in acknowledgement of that, or in aspiration, which seemed, if not inevitable, at least reasonable. And there are examples which are much more prominent than the toilet prayer, which must have established some precedent one way or another. I don't know why he didn't refer to that.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 12:10 am (UTC)
kass: "Judaism is my other fandom." (judaism)
From: [personal profile] kass
That is a fun blessing, and I've taught on it before -- usually I wind up talking about how being a stroke survivor gave me a whole new appreciation for the notion that "if one of these [vessels] were closed where it should be opened or opened where it should be closed," etc.

I do love the rabbinic throne humor. It cracks me up every time. :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 05:24 am (UTC)
dafna: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dafna
Oh man, I totally know what I'm going to get my rabbi to do some text study on next year. I knew about the blessing, but the sacred privy in the Temple and the guy spying on his rabbi having sex are awesome.

Isn't Aboulafia (spelling varies) a pretty common Sephardic last name? It doesn't ping for me as unusual at all.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-22 08:40 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
it seems to have been one of those profession names

Yup, I didn't realise until Judith WinoLJoDW pointed out to me that it's not abu lafia but abu'l afia, at which point I realised (or had pointed out to me) that I could understand it.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 05:55 am (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
I do think there's a lot to be said for teaching that bodily functions are important, and they're not just gross, and good religion needs to accept people as fully embodied. But it's too easy for that to slide into the really disturbing ableist assumptions about people who for whatever reason need personal or medical support to deal with said functions.

This! Western society as a whole is seriously screwed up in its attitudes towards this whole area.

And fascinating stuff in general, though as a Christian I'm probably only getting half the context.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-22 08:29 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
Context is nice, and appreciated, but seriously, we'll give you a pass when you're delving deep into Jewish theology, that discussion isn't about us as non-Jews.

And having said that about context, I think we do have to consider it for the bodily functions, because there's such a huge societal hang-up about them, and even more so about people who have medical issues around them.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 01:32 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
One of the things I found fascinating in writing my Pirate Rabbi stories was that the courts of Phillip II and III (and perhaps others, that was the era I was focusing on) established by royal decree some small number of judios de permiso, Jewish merchants and bankers and diplomats who were allowed to live openly as Jews in Spain during the Inquisition because their economic and political contributions were deemed essential to national security, essentially. But it was an incredibly tenuous existence- you had permission to live and to some degree to practice Judaism, but that permission could be and was revoked at a moment's notice, and you assuredly couldn't publicly associate with any New Christians for fear of subjecting them to suspicion.

I can't really imagine the toll of living the sort of dual life many Jews did under the Inquisition... the dual life of an American Jew in 2016 is fraught enough.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-21 01:47 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Re: R' Zarum's talk, yeah, my sense coming to Berachos as a scientist is that a lot of these stories are present because the Talmud is functioning to some degree as a public health text... and that can make it hard to engage with today when it's so obvious that a lot of the medical advice is inaccurate. I don't have a huge problem in principle with trying to reinterpret all of it as being spiritual advice as a way to acknowledge and work around the problem, except that it potentially poisons the well in terms of our actually recognizing what ancient scientific knowledge actually still has value. It seems to me that if it was written as a public health text, reading it as something other than as a public health text without recalling that it also functions as a public health text is analogous to translating shnei shadayich as two tablets.

And I can see how that particularly comes onto display when it comes to the lessons the Talmud is teaching about appropriate handling of disability.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-06-22 08:39 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: "Happy the person that finds wisdom, and the person that gets understanding."—Prov. 3:13. Icon by Tamara Rigg (limmud)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
Thanks for posting these, particularly the first one, which was coming from a perspective I'd never even thought to consider. Most interesting.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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