Monday, July 14, 2014

Tractate Taanit Thoughts

We finished Taanit yesterday in this Daf Yomi cycle. I'm thinking I should write a post like this when we finish in order to get some of my notes down despite the breakneck speed that dafyomi compels me to follow. Sure, I should write these down on daf day, but I'm always behind...

I thought Beitza was an excellent masekhet: filled with important halakhic concepts. Rosh Hashanah was even better - most of the theological concepts of judgement which I expected with Yoma were analyzed in RH. The Mishna of RH is chock full of great things and the Gemara follows suit. Taanit, however, is a jarring reverse from those 2 in quality; it's beyond just not good, it's pretty scary bad. Why? Because the basic mitzvah is about how we need to fast during difficult times. But instead of the mature theodicy of RH which is about individual judgement and responsibility, Taanit is about a shallow theodicy that presumes God will reward and punish IMMEDIATELY based on clearly defined merits/demerits. This assumption is so dangerous; it's not upheld by (1) most grown-up theology, or (2) everyday observation, nor is it (3) consistent with most of our moral philosophy. Basically said, it is the mentality of Job's friends, and I think I can say confidently that his friends are supposed to be wrong.

All 3 problems are significant. (1) shows that there are opposing views, and that is how I deal with this masekhet. I imagine that the grown-ups left the room for Congressional recess, as it were, and the mystical clowns got ahold of the floor that day and included all this stuff. Or maybe the grown-ups felt that since many of these stories are part of the tradition, even though they disagree with it, they needed to be included somewhere, so might as well put it in this tractate which has the undercurrent of mystical magic.

(2) is a problem because many cases of "off the derech" for mature thinking adults are as a result of reacting to these types of childish, and UN-NECESSARY, theology. I have historical cases but I've also seen it in my own rabbinic counseling career. It's self-inflicted wounds.

(3) Because the stories are just horrible after horrible. They are such chillulei Hashem that I cannot even cite them in good conscience. These stories cannot be serious contenders in our moral philosophy, and this can be seen in the over-time effort put in by the Aggadah scholars, especially the Maharsha, who do their best to render these terrible stories anodyne.

Now, it's possible that I'm wrong about the inconsitancy of the theodicy presented in the story. Only recently did I hear a similar concept labeled in modern times as "hashgacha pratit" - which I thought just meant God's constant scrutiny, but which I've now heard means God will give immediate messages and reactions to an individual's behavior. HP isn't nearly as bad as what we see in Taanit (anybody saying something like the third chapter in Taanit would be laughed at and vilified) but HP suffers from the same 3 objections as above.

There are some redeeming qualities. Taanit has some interesting and even invaluable points about science and public policy - for the same reason we have all the stuff about theodicy, i.e. how to assess what is a public threat. So the set reaction - fasting - leads to the philosophy issues above, but the need to know what to react to requires knowledge of what is threatening to the public weal. So they need to define the 'rainy season' but also how crops grow and what rains are the best for each. They define the types of calamities which are 'normal' (wolves) and abnormal and thus indicative of Divine punishment. This latter category helps me understand the 'public health' knowledge of 1500 years ago, which is interesting to me as a historian and social scientist.

There's so much I have written in the margins of my gemara and it's not possible to deal with them all in the time frame I want to devote to this, sorry. One last brief point, the bad theology of this tractate reminds me of 'samurai morality' i.e. it reflects a culture of strict honor. This has implications on life-and-death questions, my bread and butter, so I may return to this further.

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