Rabbis who taught “you can’t actually judge by looking” (MIPodcast Moments)

  • The episode with Julia Watts Belser offers a great primer on Judaism shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE., answering questions like Who were the rabbis, where did they come from, and what are their writings all about? We focus especially on one particular text, the Bavli Ta’anit, which is a tractate on fasting and disasters. The text has surprising things to say about the relationship between one’s outward appearance, righteousness, and God’s blessings.
    Blair Hodges: Let’s talk about the part of your book where you’re relating stories about women and men with low status who had the ability to do incredible things that the rabbis were expected to do but couldn’t. Talk more about how gender and class are represented in the texts. Julia Watts Belser: Sure. The final chapter of my book examines a series of stories that praise the simple piety of the anonymous, humble, holy man and holy woman. The presence of a couple of women here is actually quite significant in rabbinic Judaism. Because we don’t necessarily always see women emerging in quite this light. But these figures often are revealed to be more virtuous and more pious than some of the greatest of the rabbis. So in one instance, an unknown man averts a plague and spares his neighborhood, not because he’s a great scholar of Torah, not because he’s a master of the law, according to the value system of rabbinic Judaism, but because he lends out his hoe and his shovel to the local cemetery. A woman protects her neighbors from a blaze of fire because she shares her oven with her neighbors. It’s a concrete act of communal protection that trumps the efforts of the great sage Rav Huna. In another story, Rava, one of the greatest rabbis of the late Babylonian academy, is utterly crestfallen when he learns that God sends a daily personal missive to the otherwise unknown guy, Abba the Bloodletter. A bloodletter is a healer, he’s a medical practitioner but, let’s be clear, he is not at the top of rabbinic social hierarchy. Hodges: Not a prestigious…bloodletting…not a very prestigious [laughs]. Belser: Exactly. I mean, he has some prestige, but certainly if the rabbis were doing a sort of ordinary ranking of merits they would place themselves far higher in answer to the question, “ideally, who’s got favor with God?” Ha, clearly it’s the rabbis! So Abba the Bloodletter gets his correspondence from God on a daily basis and Rava, it turns out, only gets personal connection with God once a year. So Rava is quite distraught about this and he sends out his rabbi minions to discover what Abba’s secret is, and also probably to try and reveal that he’s not actually worthy of divine favor after all. But Rava’s ruse backfires. Despite the rabbi’s terrible behavior, Abba The Bloodletter reveals himself to be a humble, virtuous, pious man. Hospitable, careful, generous, right? And the reader is left to conclude he is in fact, actually far more worthy than the two hapless rabbis in the tale or the illustrious leader of the Babylonian rabbinic academy who sent those other rabbis on the first place. So, in thinking about these type of stories, I appeal to the work of the great historian of late antiquity Peter Brown. He’s talked about this type of tale as a story that dramatizes what he calls “paradoxes of sanctity.” He’s particularly focused on late antique Christian texts, so he emphasizes this type of storytelling appears quite often in Syriac—that is, eastern Christian—sources from around the same time and a relatively similar geographical area. These tales, I think, underscore the idea that holiness and divine favor don’t correlate neatly with social status or with any other external signs or marks of a person’s virtue. In the rabbinic texts, they serve as a powerful and somewhat unsettling reminder that the usual markings of high class—good status, masculinity, learning, elite family background—don’t actually testify to a person’s piety or their character. These teachings are part and parcel of what I see as one of the Bavli Ta’anit’s central theological and ethical claims: You can’t actually judge by looking. You can’t make a clear and convincing link between social status and divine favor. Those external signs of success—prosperity and acclaim, right—they don’t actually reveal the inner dimensions of the heart. They don’t tell us much—maybe anything—about the nature of a person’s piety, or the truth of their connection with God. Hodges: So that raises the question, if that’s the case on the individual level—where you can’t tell based on how righteous a person is based on how prosperous they are—how does that correlation play out in that wider covenant narrative that we talked about from Deuteronomy, where God promises rain and abundance when the community is righteous? Belser: I think you’ve just identified the crux of one of the most important—and potentially subversive, right?—dimensions on what’s going on in Bavli Ta’anit. In the biblical book of Deuteronomy [chapter 11] we see this very clear notion of covenantal ecology. It’s a claim that God’s favor and God’s rain come in response to good behavior. But Bavli Ta’anit complicates this idea. It doesn’t entirely disown it, but it certainly messes up the neat and tidy assessment that we saw in Deuteronomy. Where Deuteronomy has a strict notion that obedience to God will get you a favorable weather forecast, Bavli Ta’anit is just not so sure. In Bavli Ta’anit we see the idea that virtue and piety might be rewarded. But that “might” is a critical difference than the confidence we saw in Deuteronomy. It might be rewarded. But Bavli Ta’anit also knows that sometimes there is a real disconnect between right action and reward. So I see this as a very theologically significant idea. It’s the recognition that signs of divine favor are not so easy to read after all. The healthy, wealthy, meteorologically well off—these aren’t necessarily the ones who have God’s blessing. And on the communal level as well we see this, too. If you think about the context of Jewish communities in late antiquity where a lot of Jewish history can be told as a series of one disaster after the next you can see how this might be an interesting, important, meaningful, resonant theology, right?—that the external circumstances of a community don’t actually testify, in a conclusive way, to its connection to God.