Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach, Wins, Losses and Ties

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were not happy with our decision. Our protests that this too is Israeli culture were dismissed as naiveté. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Israeli soccer is not the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the novelist Amos Oz. It is not the thoughtful and passionate debate of the beit midrash, the study hall, where I spent most of my days. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw a smoke bomb.

It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it to the arena.

Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah this disagreement will be resolved. This is the original meaning for Elijah’s cup at the Seder table. Some rabbis said there should be four cups of wine and others said five. Teiku! For now we compromise. No one wins. No one loses.

The beauty, and genius, of the Talmud is that it allows contradictions to stand. Our book is not a law code of answers. It is a record of discussions and debates. The Jewish people are often called the people of the book. Many think this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Talmud that better gives life to our spirit. What we find in the pages of the Talmud best exemplifies the Jewish heart. It is there that Israel, the people of the book, is born.

Rabbis who vociferously disagreed with each other are found on the same page. They might not have lived in the same town and they might not have even known each other, they might as well not have even lived in the same century, but in the verses of the Talmud they sit at the same table, and argue with one another. That is the most important lesson of the Talmud’s volumes. Even though we disagree, every one of us, can be discovered on the same page.

Today, by contrast, we value ideology over debate. This trend began in medieval times when our traditional literature moved from the arguments of the Talmud to the distillation of law in codes such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh and the systemization of thought in the philosophies of Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides. We tend to value loyalty to ideas over devotion to community. We write those with whom we disagree out of our books.

The Talmud is our heart. That is the lesson I learned from my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman.

Teiku! Let it stand.

We can scream and yell for our team. We should argue for our view. We should fight to advance our position. When passions get the better of us we might even curse. Passionate debate is not always as highbrow as our teachers would like it to be.

What makes us Israel? It is struggle. It is argument. It is debate.

This week we read the mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being. He emerges from this struggle with a limp but also a new name. He becomes Yisrael, Israel. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He is injured by the struggle. He gains his identity through the challenge.

Heated debates guarantee the future. Knowing when to let it stand ensures that we have others with which to argue.

Teiku. 0-0!

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