We BJ members are accustomed to meeting in shoddier surroundings, in synagogue basements that double as homeless shelters at night. But, Rabbi Roly’s six-week series of lunchtime Talmud classes convenes in the corporate spheres. Here on the 38th floor conference room of a midtown skyscraper, suspended between heaven and earth, we ingather to be close to our rebbe and weave our own cocoon from the strands of old fashioned tales.
Perversion and Holiness, Stories of the Talmudic Rabbis… it’s a catchy course title to be sure. Rather than the legal wrangling for which the Talmud is best known, we are reading curated tales, some of them tinged with magical realism, all with unsparing insight into the foibles of even the most esteemed spiritual leaders. These anecdotal snapshots of a distant world, eerily close to our own, spark lively controversy among the assembled.
I’m not sure if the material we are studying with Rabbi Roly is what I would call perverse, but it certainly is highly unusual. In the 7th chapter of the Bava Meztia tractate, we are introduced to a revered rabbinic teacher who has an innocent man arrested and then cuts off his own flesh to see if it will rot in the sun. He declares the non-rot to be proof of his vindication in the nasty affair. Then there’s a Rav who preens like a peacock in front of women emerging from their post-menstrual visit to the mikveh or ritual bath. The women are now fit to resume relations with their husband and the preener insists he is there only to encourage amorous feelings within couples. After that some Rabbis indulge in a bragging contest about the size of their sex organs, but they must have been exceptionally bored that day.
I am never bored at these lunch-and-learn sessions, but that doesn’t mean I have any clear notion as to why I am here. The last time I beheld a Talmudic text was some 40 years ago when I was seventeen years old and cramming for the final high school exam not having followed a word the Talmud teacher said for weeks, counting on, as I knew I could, my best friend Lilah to decode the crowded, squiggly black letters into streams of logic in a couple of pre-exam all-nighters. She did so faithfully, both of us sprawled on the floor of my bedroom along with graham cracker and salty pretzel crumbs. Kneeling over the weighty tome, Lilah would draw for me a coherent line through the cryptic, tortuously circuitous text, not even minding when I managed to match her score in the next morning’s exam.
I never expected to revisit this terrain and so far I am keeping my distance, keenly aware of the No Girls Allowed sign hung over the entrée to this cloistered men’s club. I cannot shake my suspicion that there is something inimical to my general mental health in the hermetic musings of this sexist assembly of long-beards. I tell myself I am a drop-in/drop-out tourist in Talmud-land, careful not to take any of it too much to heart.
Still, what is it that has me mark these Thursdays at 12h30 as inviolable time-out from the other concerns of my life? There is a compelling, even sacred nature to this mid-week, mid-day rendezvous, something that makes me twist with inchoate anticipation, something that beckons me from the fringe.