Discovering Myself in Arcane Talmudic Arguments

Bookcase of Jewish books

I subscribe to a number of email lists whose content challenge my mind and set me thinking in directions I might never have traveled without their stimulation. For instance, I enjoy receiving twice weekly emails of Maria Popova’s BrainPickings essays for their poetic and insightful curation of the writings of great thinkers, writers and artists.

I initially subscribed to MyJewishLearning‘s daily Talmudic interpretations as part of my research for my current work-in-progress, a new novel (Women of a New Moon). As a secular Jew, I’ve never really studied Torah or Talmud or any of the sacred texts beyond the cursory attention I gave to lessons at Sunday school. (Nor do I remember much Hebrew from then.) But I find myself intrigued by these emails, not necessarily for the Talmudic interpretations (which I often find irrelevant and boring). but more for the thought processes behind them. Those processes — the instinct to question and probe rather than just accept whatever is stated — is key to what I cherish about my Jewish heritage, and what has defined my life of intellectual and creative restlessness.

Today’s passage (Daf Yomi) that was up for discussion was Beitzah 33, which is a typical legalistic debate over what the Mishnah (an ancient collection of laws) says is forbidden on the Sabbath or festival days. Like many such Talmudic discussions, it’s nitpicky. It centers on the following passage: “One may not prop a pot (that does not stand straight) with a piece of wood (in order to prevent it from falling). And similarly, with a door.” But, asked the ancient sages, does that law mean to say it is forbidden to prop a door with a piece of wood, or to prop a pot with a door?

See what I mean about irrelevance? These laws come from a time when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood. (The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE.) Judaism was transformed by that loss, and in many ways, that pivotal tragedy gave Judaism the freedom to grow and become what it might never have been otherwise. Certainly, many if not most of the laws from the Temple are alien to modern Jews as our smartphones would have been to Moses and Miriam. As a result, I can’t imagine any of the Jews I know giving a fig about what’s involved in using a lopsided clay pot, though some of my friends are exquisite potters.

But just as I was about to dismiss the email, I came to the last paragraph which starts by asking what the original intent of the ambiguous passage was. Rabbi Elliot Goldberg (the author of the email) answered, “It’s an interesting question, but not necessarily the most relevant one for Talmud study, which is more concerned with how the Mishnah was interpreted over the centuries.”

And there it was — the gem of thought and process that has my mind exploring and wondering. And now, I’m thinking not only about Jewish law but law in general and then traveling further to thoughts and feelings that might, at first glance, appear to be completely unrelated to the discussion at hand.

Law is a cold, meaningless entity all by itself. It’s nothing more than a collection of constructs, the skeleton of a society. And much like the framing of a building, it has no real purpose until we add whatever is needed for human habitation. This human ingredient — the various interpretations and interactions over the years or even the ages – breathes life into the law, and like all life, it needs to be malleable, changing in response to growth and new needs.

The lawyers in my family and among my friends will probably say, “Well, duh, Sally, of course law is an interpretive process.” And yes, I have recognized that fact ever since I first learned how the U.S. Constitution divided government into the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The ladder of courts — case decisions from local courts all the way up to the Supreme Court — define what our laws mean, until new contradictory decisions are handed down. That how the 1857 Supreme Court could uphold slavery in the infamous Dred Scott decision, while the 1957 Brown v. Board of Education decision gave momentum to the civil rights movement.

But today, as I read the MyJewishLearning daf yomi email, I understood this not only as a fact but as part of a wider truth that touched something within me, igniting my mind and my heart. I can’t say what that something is, because it isn’t under the control of my intellect which can come up with the right words and definitions. But I know that unspecified something drives my creativity. It’s the part of me that sees threads wherever I look, the connections that hold us together and those that unravel, so that we drift so far apart that we sometimes can’t even see each other. And then there are those threads that seem out of reach no matter how much we yearn to hold them in our hands. But when we stretch outward, sometimes pushing ourselves far beyond comfort, they will weave about us a new vision and understanding.

The human dimension imbues our laws with flesh-and-blood relevance (and sometimes with justice), just as it gives substance (and sometimes beauty) to our art. How could it be otherwise when it’s what we see in a child’s smile and in the pain of another’s suffering? It’s the self-recognition mixed with our empathic projections that sustains through the rollercoastering joy and anguish of day-to-day living. It’s how we’ve learned to interpret who we are over the ages and through the minutes of our lives. And it’s why I continue to look for and sometimes find myself in arcane arguments over pots and doors and other all too human nitpicks in the Talmud.

My Day of Awe: Dressing the Torah for the High Holy Days

Torah scroll open on a golden background

All my life, the turning of the year has seemed to be something that would sneak up on me. Existing outside of everyday, it was beyond the reality that shaped my life, a pause imposed on the “real” world. One day I’d be playing with other kids on the jungle gym, or studying for an exam, or working on a story deadline. Then suddenly, the new year would appear on the calendar, and the clock reset to the beginning. Incrementally, life changed over time, almost unnoticed, unmarked except by momentous highlights: weddings and births, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries, deadlines and book launches, and deaths.

This year is different.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, time seems to be slowing down, giving me the luxury to wonder and wander, touching places in my mind and heart that I haven’t visited before.

That isn’t to say that deadlines aren’t looming, laying on the pressure professionally. Nor is the world any less hectic or demanding. But something in me was broken this past year of isolation and fear. Broken then healed, broken and healed… over and over again. In some ways, I feel like a piece of Kintsugi, a Japanese work of art created by using gold dust to rejoin the pieces of something that’s been damaged, creating beauty out of pain. But instead of gold, it’s light and lightness that is shining through the cracks in my universe. Shining on the stories within me, because stories are the gold, the light that keeps me together, and creates a new me with each character born and plot woven.Read More

Guest Blog: : “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?”

What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?On March 25th, Elana Sztokman posted a question on her Facebook page that asked:  “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?” The essay she posted as a follow-up to that question was so intriguing that I asked her permission to reprint it here.


by Elena Sztokman This morning, I asked a Passover question on my page: What would our cultural celebrations look like without the assumptions of female servitude.

The thread included some honest answers about women’s exhaustion and about the OCD-inducing minutia of some of our less meaningful rituals. It also included, predictably, some men insisting that there is no inequality in their lives because they are amazing partners.

I wasn’t on my computer at all today because I was, predictably, preparing for passover for much of the day (along with my husband, who works as hard as I do, and that’s not the point….) So I didn’t get to engage in the conversation or explain what I meant. But I just now wrote a comment to elaborate, and I thought maybe it’s worth sharing here:

My point was not to hear about all the men who help out, as nice as that may be (even though for the record, I do NOT necessarily trust husbands’ self-reports on how great they are to their wives. I believe it when I hear it from the wives….) Anyway, my point was not for people here to deny the role of female servitude in our cultural heritage, because that’s just gaslighting. (If you have never felt or experienced the impact of patriarchal structures in your life, consider yourself lucky.) Rather, I’m suggesting that we think about the effect of these expectations on the way our culture evolved. Because I would like us to rethink the whole thing. Because assumptions of female servitude construct the whole way we mark everything — pesach, chagim, even shabbat. Everything

We have designed cultural events that rely heavily on someone — usually a wife/mother — devoting their entire life to getting it done so that someone ELSE can enjoy the experience with freedom. (And of course, the entire culture is built on heteronormative paradigms — single women, non-parents, divorced women, gay couples, don’t really exist in the way our culture was constructed for most of its history.) The culture was created to enable a man, no matter how many wives or children he had, to practice whatever religious rituals his religious school determined, completely unencumbered. Even the idea of three times a day minyan outside of home relies on the idea that SOMEONE will hold down the fort at home during that time — making lunches, getting kids dressed, cooking, cleaning, homework, putting kids to bed. If the people creating the rules of the culture could not rely on such servitude, would they have made such demands like 3x/day minyan? That’s my question.

So for seder, for example, if the rabbis who felt like sitting around all night drinking wine and discussing pilpul did not have servants/women around to do the work of executing their ideas about what seder should look like, would the rabbis have crafted the seder the way it is, with so much kitchen labor and such unrealistic expectations for kids and families about how the meal might go?

I’m asking, if the people making the decisions about what the culture should look like were ALSO the people charged with getting it done, is this what we would have done? A late, long meal with zillions of rules and weeks of work that induce OCD? Really? Is that the way we would like to transmit our oral heritage? Maybe there are better ways.

Because I think that if the people doing the heavy lifting and the people getting to enjoy it were one and the same, we wouldn’t be doing all this. We might have a more common-sense, easier-to-produce, better-for-relationships event. Maybe go to the park and have some fruit salad. More flexibility and creativity and less indoctrination. Maybe less of that measuring a kzait thing or reading passages about 50,000 plagues that nobody even understands. Maybe daytime and not into-the night. Shorter. Less preparation. Less rules. More compassion. More humanity. Less meaningless rote ritual. That’s my theory. It would look different.



BIO: Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, educator, and political activist. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books at www.lionessbooks.com/shop Follow her at www.conversationswithmybody.com or www.jewfem.com

Am I the Orange on the Passover Seder Plate?

Orange on a Star of DavidWhen I was growing up, the colors of the Passover seder plate were primarily dull and dark. A shank bone, a roasted egg, horseradish, salt, and the delicious but yucky looking charoises (minced apples, nuts and dried fruit soaked in red wine). The one relieving color (and the dullest flavor) was that of the fresh parsley.

Then one year, a big, bright orange appeared on the seder plate. The story I was told back then was that it was in response to some rabbi who once said, “There will be a female rabbi when there’s an orange on the Pesach seder plate.” In other words, he considered both to be not only unlikely but impossible. Naturally, as the story goes, feminists started to put an orange on their seder plates, and the practice spread like wildfire.

Beyond any metaphorical meaning, I was delighted to see that orange on the seder plate. It felt like a fresh bit of life among the dull, dark artifacts of our history. As such it helped to make the history feel more modern and relevant. At the same time, it was a recognition of the long line of women who came before me, stretching back through my mother and grandmothers through the generations to the matriarchs of ancient times.

Besides, oranges have been one of my favorite treats for as long as I can remember. What fun it is to use my nails and fingertips to pierce and peel away the tough, pebbly skin, to get to the crisp sweet-tart pulpy juices that play on my tongue. And as a writer, I get a kick out of the fact that even the sound of the word is unique; no word in the English language rhymes holistically with orange. (Botanists will point to “sporange” which is a part of ferns, fungi, algae, or mosses. But really, how many of us will ever use sporange in a poem?)

All these years, I have identified with that orange on the seder plate. Read More

If You Could Transport Back to Eden, Would You Eat the Apple?

Snake offering apple to Eve

If you could be magically transported into Eve’s body before she reached for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, would you pick and eat it, knowing what you know of life?

As I research the stories of Eve and Lilith for my novel Women of a New Moon, I return often to the original Garden of Eden stories in Genesis. The story of humanity’s exile from paradise has a bittersweet allure. Who doesn’t dream of being welcomed back to the original utopia where illness and hunger didn’t exist, where death was unknown, and life was gentle.

All of Creation was the embodiment of goodness, as God proclaimed. But did Adam and Eve experience Good? Could they understand what goodness was when they had known nothing else?

However if you were in Eve’s body in the Garden of Eden, with all that you know, you would have a soul-deep understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in the decision to eat the apple from that one forbidden tree. To not eat would mean to be immortal, protected, and forever innocent. To eat would mean Read More

Sally Wiener Grotta reads from her new novel “Women of a New Moon”

During this past November’s virtual Philcon, I went back and forth what piece of fiction I should read. For much of the past year, I’ve been pouring all my passion into a new mainstream novel Women of a New Moonand that’s what I really wanted to share with my friends and fans. However, Philcon is a science fiction conference, and I worried that my audience would expect me to read one of my recently published science fiction short stories or a new not-yet-published speculative novel. Uncertain what to do, I asked a number of people who had mentioned they’d be logging into my online reading, and they all wanted to hear Women of a New Moon, even though it is still in its first draft. Decision made.

Women of a New Moon centers on a woman’s Torah study group. We learn about the six modern women of the group – their personalities, histories, crises and story arcs – through the filter of their monthly discussions of women of the Bible (such as Eve & Lilith, Sarah & Hagar, Miriam, and so forth). At the beginning of the book, they are what I call “intimate strangers,” because they know each other only through frequent but superficial schmoozing at synagogue events. They meet once a month, taking turns hosting in their homes, and each chapter is from the host’s point of view as she leads the group for that month. I read portions of Chapter 2 in which Jen (a retired war correspondent and secular humanist) is leading a discussion of Sarah and Hagar.

Unfortunately, the recording of my reading failed. Again, I listened to my friends and fans, and a number who hadn’t been able to join me for my Philcon reading asked me to do another recording of it, and to let them know when it was posted. Of course — how could I resist? So, here it is.

The Power of a Single Word

Self-portrait: Sally Wiener Grotta, storytellerFor years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own. I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression. Read More

As the Gates Begin to Close

As the sun sets on Yom Kippur — a day set aside for reflection, to evaluate our past deeds and failures, to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to rededicate ourselves to a better future — I’ve decided to share this poem that evolved out of my meditations this morning.

On this day of awe,
when I turn my mind
to the blessings of my life,
and to my failure to treasure,
to honor and nurture them,
when I count my sins
of omission,
of commission,
of blindness
to what must be done,
what should be done,

Read More

The Sprecher & Rose

Sally Wiener Grotta talking with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM) about storytelling
Click to hear Sally reading this story on ArtScene with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM). The photos are from a previous appearance on the show.

My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher

In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.

At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.

The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More

Book Review: “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” by Lucette Lagnado

"The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" by Lucette Lagnado

Some time ago — certainly more than a year — a good friend suggested I read The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. My friend Tom has impeccable taste in books, music and… well just about anything. So, I immediately bought the book and put it on one of my shelves among the many other to-be-read books in my library.

Let’s face it; one of the facts of a bibliophile’s life is that her library contains an inordinate number of books she is looking forward to reading. (And, of course, she has a library rather than a home, where every spare wall is covered with bookshelves, and scores of overflow books are piled next to her bed, on her kitchen table, in her bathroom and just about everywhere else.)

I’m delighted to say I finally got around to reading Lagnado’s memoir this week. Tom was right; it’s an elegant and eloquent work that absorbed me with its personal poignancy and fascinating universality. 

Depending on where the mutable borders were drawn at the time of various births, Read More