Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If he used an animal as a wall of the Sukkah, R. Meir declares it invalid and R. Judah valid, for R. Meir was wont to say, Whatever contains the breath of life can be made neither a wall for a Sukkah, nor a side-post for an alley nor boards around wells,  nor a covering stone for a grave.  In the name of R. Jose the Galilean they said, Nor may a bill of divorcement be written upon it. What is the reason of R. Meir? — Abaye replied, Lest it die.   R. Zera replied, Lest it escape.  Concerning an elephant securely bound, all  agree [that the Sukkah is valid], since even though it die,  there is still ten [handbreadths height] in its carcase.

 Regarding what then do they dispute? Regarding an elephant which is not bound. According to him who says, Lest it die, we do not fear;  according to him who says, We fear lest it escape, we do fear.  But according to him who says, Lest it die, let us fear also lest it escape? — Rather say, Regarding an elephant which is not bound, all agree [that the Sukkah is invalid]; regarding what do they dispute? Regarding an[ordinary] animal which is bound: According to  him who says, Lest it die, we fear [for that[ according to him who says, Lest it escape, we have no fear.  But according to him who says, Lest itescape, let us fear lest it die? — Death is not a frequent occurrence.  But is there not an open space between [the animal’s legs? [It refers to] where he filled  it in with branches of palms and bay-trees. But might it not lie down? — [It refers to] where it was tied with cords from above. And according to him who says, Lest it die, is it not tied with cords from above?  — It may occur that it is made to stand within three [handbreadths] of the covering but when it dies, it shrinks, and this might not enter his mind… (Bavli Sukkah 23a-b; translation follows Soncino).

Here’s Pshitta’s video, with apologies to those who do not read / understand Modern Hebrew:

What interests me here is both the pedagogic angle and the cultural meaning of a video like this.  As in its “who threw R. Yirmiyah out of the beit midrash video, Pshita is using strange talmudic texts to try to make Talmud study (and the organization) playful, counter-cultural, anti-bourgeoisie, and most importantly, relevant to Israelis who do not identify with normative expressions of Judaism, Jewish text study, or even Israeli national culture.  In the R. Yirmiyah video, this “New Yeshiva Bochur” who studies in a secular yeshiva, engages in social justice in South Tel Aviv, and presumably believes in the right of Palestinian self-determination (you can argue that I am over-reading here. But better a strong over-reader than a weak under-reader), jostles for space in the beit midrash, alongside “real” yeshiva bochurim.  Just like R. Yirmiyah, he reserves the right to ask his klutz kashas. Now we have a video in which an absurdist talmudic debate about an elephant serving as a sukkah wall is told using the form of a children’s story.  It might also relate to the now entrenched cultural phenomenon of holiday videos on youtube. But what does this video want?

Criticism always takes place someWHERE. Bakhtin’s criticism had clear political motives, and so does this Pshita video. But what are they?

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7 responses to “Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

  1. 2 points:
    1) Isn’t is ‘ta’aseh – ve-lo min ha-asui’ if they install the elephant after the schach is laid?
    2) Regarding the criticism, the Vilna Gaon linked the mitzvah of sukkah with the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel, as being the only 2 mitzvot that one fulfills with the entire body. Perhaps building the sukkah is a metaphor for building the state?

    • Metaphor or not, Sukkot is an important holiday in the building of the Jewish character of the state through the annual Hakhel event (www.hakhel15.co.il), labeled “The Annual Happening (Hebrew: “happening”) for Jewish Identity and Israeli Culture”.

      I’ll be in the audience of the lecture on Rava and Seinfeld.

  2. I’d read this video as a challenge to essentialist assumptions about the nature of things and human-beings. If an elephant can be a wall of a sukkah, then anything can be anything, nothing has a primordial, “natural,” essential character, but all is virtually constructed, fluid…
    Alternative interpretation: the elephant-sukkah-story connects with the rabbinic tendency to draw connections between seemingly unrelated fields of law (I mean, when for example laws of betrothal are derived from laws of sanctification of animals in bQid 7a). Rubenstein explains that behind this tendency is the idea that there exists some unified reality behind what appear to be discrete fields of law, a conception of reality in which all legal spheres are interrelated somehow. This conception, in turn, implies (according to Rebenstein again) a realist and non-nominalist “Torah is down on earth and not in heaven”-philosophy: if the law would simply devolve from the commandments of God independent of the nature of things, then there would be no reason to assume connections between disparate realms of law…this goes along well with pshita’s idea of text-study for people who do not identify with normative readings, something like, “Torah is here and now try to translate it into your world”. That’s apparently why their videos always or often end upon a question, turning to the audience…

  3. Pingback: Fat Rabbis (Humor & Religion) (Daniel Boyarin) | jewish philosophy place·

  4. Pingback: Elephant Sukka (Talmud) | jewish philosophy place·

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