Friday, May 14, 2010

Forgotten Jewish Texts - #1

Talmud Berachot 62a

It has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned three things from him:

I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south

I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting

I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right

Ben Azzai said to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?

He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn.

It has been taught: Ben 'Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learned three things from him:

I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south

I learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing

I learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right.

R. Judah said to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?

He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn.

R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab's bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required.

He said to him: One would think that Abba's mouth had never sipped the dish before!

He (Rav) said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude.

He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.


Why was this text not taught? Back in the day, in the schools I attended, there were faculty lounges and bathrooms. Whether we were supposed to think that teachers and rabbis didn't urinate or whether it was considered somehow inappropriate for teachers and students to pass one another on the way in or out is not clear to me. What is clear, is that Talmudic era life looked oddly different. In the text above, not only do a teacher and student pass one another on the way in and out, a student actually observes his teacher relieving himself. The punch line: Don't just listen to your teacher, watch your teacher. His/her behavior, even in the most personal situation, has something to teach you.

The story of Rav and Rabbi Kahana is even more noteworthy. We don't want to imagine our teachers, rabbis, and certainly not parents, having sex. Yet, in our holy book, Kahana hides in Rav's bedroom, observing Rav and his wife having sexual relations. While Rav scolds Kahana, it is Kahana that has the last word: It is Torah, too, and I have to learn it.

What is the lesson to be learned (Why should the text be taught?) The Talmud was not advocating voyeurism. It used these stories to illustrate a fact: The way in which we do everything in life carries a value. We can behave in ways that support the tzelem elohim, the divine spark, that lives within us all. Or we can act in ways that are destructive to ourselves, to others, to our world.

But in order to know what is positive and what is destructive, we have to understand all parts of human behavior and function. It is important that we provide students and our children with the straightforward knowledge of what behaviors and possibilities there are. And we must provide them with the tools that enable them to make holy decisions in their lives.