The Bone in the Butcher’s Neck

For a while now, I’ve held back on making a comment about an article in Tablet Magazine. The more time I spend thinking about the article, the more I feel that it’s necessary to write something about it. It first appeared around Yom Kippur in the wake of the disputes over refugees from Syria. In the wake of the attacks on Paris, I was drawn back to this draft post.

Here’s the article I’m responding to, by Liel Leibovitz. It’ll open in a new tab or browser window. Go ahead and read Leibovitz’s article. I’ll be here, waiting. (You do have to read it to understand what follows.)

You’re back? Good.

I’ve studied Talmud, and I’ve read some of Emmanuel Levinas’s commentaries on Talmudic texts. (The one Leibovitz talks about is in Emmanuel Levinas’s Nine Talmudic Readings; I wrote a conference paper on the essay in question, “Toward the Other,” when I was in graduate school.) I’ll be honest: I didn’t really enjoy Levinas’s essays that much. I tried, but I never really got into Levinas’s work in this area (or really, at all–and I’m not a tremendous fan of continental philosophy generally, further impeding my Levinas appreciation).

But I recall reading this essay, lo some seventeen years ago. And I certainly do not remember Levinas reaching anything like the conclusion Leibovitz reaches. But to avoid being too reliant upon memory, I went back and grabbed the book off my shelf to see what Levinas had said.

The story itself is about Rav, one of the sages of the Talmud, who has been offended by a butcher. Yom Kippur has arrived, and the butcher has not apologized. Worried for the butcher’s redemption, Rav decides to present himself to the butcher so that the butcher may apologize. The butcher is not prepared to do so, and continues on with his work–but, perhaps angered, the butcher strikes a bone, sending a fragment flying into his neck. The fragment kills the butcher.

Levinas, looking at Rav’s conduct, is concerned about what in law would be called the “officious intermeddler”: someone who gets overly involved in others’ business. Levinas argues that Rav’s great mistake was to assume the butcher could be prodded into doing the right thing, and Rav’s presumptuousness brought harm to the butcher.

Pivoting from this reading of the text in Levinas’s essay, Leibovitz argues that there are countries in the world with whom Western leaders have conducted themselves as Rav did, at great harm to those countries and their citizens. Leibovitz then concludes:

Instead of scrambling to find ways to absorb the waves of refugees crashing on our shores, let’s amend the conditions that got them fleeing in the first place. To do that, we must first accept the wisdom of Levinas, repair to a quiet corner, and say a little prayer seeking forgiveness for those ghastly things we’ve done out of nothing but the purest of intentions.

I will admit to taking what we might call a relatively minimalist approach to the applicability of Talmud to modern times. It’s not that I think studying the Talmud is not valuable to modern Jews–even secular and Humanistic Jews. (I’m not always in the majority on that point, but we all have our quirks). But there’s very little chance that my internal regulator for “things we can do responsibly with Talmud” would allow me ever to write something like Leibovitz’s article.

I do not think Levinas would agree that the divide between Rav and the butcher would justify Leibovitz’s Yom Kippur prescription. Levinas the Holocaust survivor, one suspects, might take a different view on the Talmud’s applicability to the question of refugees and terrorism.

Public policy is public policy, and I won’t wade into that issue. I have no solutions to offer. But responsible use of the Talmud and questions of Jewish and humanistic ethics? Those are in my bailiwick.

The “purity that can kill,” to use Levinas’s words, is not about drowned children washing ashore; it is about the risks that come from presuming that another person shares one’s own moral calculus, and the consequences of the resentment that comes from the presumption. And let’s be clear: Rav in the Talmud very much presumes that his moral rectitude will, all of itself, set an example for the butcher and bring the butcher to atonement. And as Levinas comments later in the same essay, “As soon as you have taken the path of offenses, you may have taken a path with no way out.” (Nine Talmudic Readings p. 25.)

This is about offenses, intentions, and their consequences. It is not about drowned children. And I think it’s necessary to say that whatever policy prescriptions may come, as interpreters of Jewish texts we do not serve the Jewish people well when we make texts say that which they cannot say. Integrity–saying what we mean and meaning what we say–means respecting others’ integrity, too.

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