Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Let whoever is without sin post the first video

Many Jewish blogs have been gleefully playing this clip of brawling Lebanese politicos:

...along with other videos of similar events in the past, presumably because they reckon it reveals a fundamental lack of civilisation among the Ayrabs, citing other similar occurrences. Notwithstanding the fact that similar political fights, in supposedly civilised contexts such as debates on television and in parliament, have broken out in the Ukraine, South Korea, Russia, Italy, India, Pakistan, Czech Republic, the United States of America and, of course, lest we forget, Israel, in this post I want to discuss some of the instances of Jewish and rabbinic violence that we know about, which might give some of these cheery gloaters some pause for thought.

There are a couple of examples of the stresses of Jewish communal life leading to an outbreak of violence, such as the scuffle that took place in Chicago in November 1903 due to tensions between Rabbis Album and Willowsky, or the one that necessitated summoning the police in Manhattan in 1906, surrounding the ambitions of Rabbi Weinberger (both reported in 'Orthodox Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook'). And lest you think these fights are a thing of the past, almost exactly a year ago, a fight broke out in San Francisco between left-wing and right-wing Israel activists.

But what I want to talk about is the literary precedent for violence in the Jewish canon. The Biblical stories of Pinchas' vigilantism, the people's lynching of the Sabbath-stick-collector and so on provide plenty of examples of violence in the Bible where perhaps words might have been preferable (or, as in the case of Abram's and Leo's shepherds quarrelling, a parting of ways). But in the Talmud, surely, where discussion and debate are prized above all things, we wouldn't find such barbarism?

Would that it were so. One example of a crisis resolved by violence comes in b.Nedarim 23a:
R. Ishmael son of R. Jose had a vow for absolution. He went before the Rabbis, who asked him, ‘Did you vow bearing this in mind?’ ‘Even so,’ replied he. ‘Or this?’ ‘Yes.’ This was repeated several times. A fuller, seeing that he was paining the Rabbis, smote him with his basket.
In fact, the continuation of this passage implies that people who annoyed Rabbis ended up getting smitten on a fairly regular basis (in this case, it just so happened that the smitee was a Rabbi himself):
Said he, ‘I did not vow to be beaten by a fuller,’ and so he absolved himself. R. Aha of Difti objected to Rabina: But this was an unexpected fact, as it had not occurred to him that a fuller would smite him, and we learnt: An unexpected fact may not be given as an opening? — He replied: This is not unexpected, because scoffers are common who vex the Rabbis.*
*And as their adherents naturally try to punish them, the incident could have been anticipated, and therefore is not regarded as unexpected
(Soncino translation and notes)

Ah, but that wasn't a Rabbi doing the smiting, it was a fuller doing the smiting on the Rabbis' behalf! Alright, what about this cute little anecdote from b.Avodah Zarah 43a:
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: I was once walking with the eminent R. Eleazar Hakkappar along the road, and he found a ring upon which was the figure of a dragon. There passed by a heathen child but he said nothing to him. Then there passed by an adult heathen and [R. Eleazar] said to him, ‘Annul it,’ but he refused to do so; and he struck him until he annulled it.
(Here's the context)

Ah, but that was a Rabbi striking a heathen! You have to understand it in the context of the time, and so on. Presumably the same defence would stand even if the "heathen" in question wishes to become a proselyte, as does the chap in b.Shabbat 31a who ends up on the receiving end of Shammai's "builder's cubit". Very well, what about a Rabbi murdering another Rabbi, at b.Megillah 7b?
Rabbah and R. Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera's throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honour come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.
(pdf this time)

Ah, but he was drunk! Haven't we all done things when drunk which we go on to regret and which make our friends less inclined to come drink with us? Rabbis are still human you know (although some of them do get resurrected)! I see you are a tricky customer. Perhaps this (Hagigah 3b) will set your teeth on edge:
Once R. Jose b. Durmaskith went to pay his respects to R. Eliezer at Lod. Said the latter to him: What new thing was taught in College today? He replied: They decided by vote that in Ammon and Moab the tithe of the poor should be given in the seventh year. Said [R. Eliezer] to him: Jose, stretch forth thine hands and lose thy sight. He stretched forth his hands and lost his sight.
 (Here's the Soncino (pdf), with some helpful notes)

Don't worry, R. Eliezer later has a change of heart and another miracle restores R. Jose's sight. More recently, R. Eliezer has been offered the position of Head of Campus Police at UC Davis. BOOM!

For an excellent and enlightening discussion of violence (mostly violent rhetoric) in the Babylonian Talmud, you could do a lot worse than to have a look at the chapter titled Violence in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein's 'The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud'.

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