Sunday, November 01, 2015

How to save a world, and the Tif'eret Yisrael on diversity

Leviticus 19:9-10 commands the makers to open their fields and vineyards to the takers.
When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields. [Also] do not pick up individual stalks [that have fallen]. [Furthermore,] do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. [Also] do not pick up individual [fallen grapes] in your vineyards. [All the above] must be left for the poor and the stranger. I am God your Lord. (The Living Torah translation; square brackets in the published translation)
If we want to be truly pious about this, and if we object to my use of "makers and takers," we can say that all this bounty comes from God. "Makers and takers" becomes inappropriate, and we can use another phrase from campaign 2012: "You didn't build that."

We don’t give these gifts only to the Jewish poor. Mishnah Gittin 5.8 teaches that we give them to the non-Jewish poor as well for the sake of the ways of peace (darkhei shalom, דרכי שלום). The point is that if your tzedakah goes only to the Jewish poor, you need to diversify.

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As you may have seen on various bumper stickers, Hallmark cards, and those needlepointed things that people hang in their kitchens, the Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who has saved a whole world. Sometimes you will hear from some Jews that one who saves a single Jewish life is like one who has saved a whole world. Which version is correct? Good question.

The talmudic item in question is Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5. This is the version that appears in standard Mishnah collections and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a):

[Witnesses in a capital case need to know] that capital cases aren’t like property cases. In a property case, one makes restitution and atones. In a capital case, the blood of the accused and that of their descendants hang in the balance until the end of the world, as we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, as it is written, “Your brother’s bloods cry out” (Genesis 4:10). It doesn’t say “your brother’s blood” [דם אחיך], but “your brother’s bloods” [דמי אחיך]: his blood and the blood of his descendants. (Another explanation: your brother’s blood that was spilled on the trees and on the stones.) Therefore, a single person was created in order to teach that Scripture considers one who destroys a single Jewish life as one who has destroyed an entire world, and that Scripture considers one who saves a single Jewish life as one who has saved an entire world.
Two things are worth noting here. First, the logic of the proof text doesn’t limit this to Jews. This isn’t about the children of Abraham, but about all the children of Adam. Second, the statement about one who saves a single life being like one who saves a whole world follows from the verse about Cain and Abel. It doesn’t follow from our descent from a single person. But this is the Mishnah, so who am I to argue?, and I’ll be using the fact that this follows from our common origin later in this sermon. To continue:
It [viz., our having come from a single person] was also for the sake of peace, so that one person wouldn’t say to another, “My father was greater than your father”...
Or as a rabbi in Pittsburgh whose name I don’t remember put it, the first syllable of yichus [inherited prestige; a pedigree] is yich. In the Ortho community, we’re not very serious about this. “He’s Rav Alef’s brother-in-law and a scion of the Beit rabbinic family--sorry, I meant rabbinic dynasty.” Or “I’m an nth-generation direct descendant of the Important Gadol of Kfar Yehupitz, which means I’m cooler than my parent. I have n­ - 1 ancestors who were direct descendants of the Gadol, and my parent has only n - 2.” It gets pretty annoying after a while.
...and so that sectarians wouldn’t say that there is more than one power in Heaven. Finally, it shows the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. A person stamps many coins from a single die, and each looks like the other; the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, stamps each person from the single die of the first person, and none of them looks like another.
This mishnah also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4.9 [23a]): who saves a single life is considered as one who has saved an entire world.
Here, it isn't limited to Israelite lives. Maimonides paraphrases the Jerusalem text in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12.3: who saves a single life in the world is considered as one who has saved an entire world. (emphasis added)
The Tif’eret Yisra’el commentary by Rabbi Israel Lifschütz (1782-1860), the head of the rabbinical court in Danzig, applies the metaphor of unique coins from a single die not only to individuals but to whole peoples (Yakhin note 39 on Sanhedrin 4.5):
There are those who are black as coal such as the Ethiopian (כושי), the Negro (נעגער), and the Hottentot (האטטענטאט), and those who are white as snow such as the Samoyed (זאמעידען) and the Albanian (אלבאנוס), those who are the reddest (אדומים ביותר) such as the American Indian (תושבי אמעריקע), and many other various colors.
Rabbi Lifschütz is commenting here on the biblical verse on which the statement about saving a single life is based. So I surmise that he would have taken that statement to apply universally and not just to Jews. I don’t know whether my reasoning here is rabbinically acceptable, but that’s OK, since I’m not learned in Torah, and this isn’t about Jewish law anyway, so who cares?
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Rabbi Lifschütz assigns colors to the peoples differently than we do. He doesn’t use the people of Danzig--the Jews and their Polish and German neighbors--as an example of a white people. I wildly guess that he had no actual contact with Samoyeds or Albanians and believed that they were literally white: the Samoyeds because of their association with the snowy north, up near the White Sea, and the Albanians because their name might have seemed related to albino and the Hebrew word for white, lavan. (The speculative translation of זאמעידען as Samoyeds was proposed by Felix Blank of the Jewish Theological Seminary library. I asked for suggestions from both Slavic and Jewish reference librarians, and his idea made the most sense. זאמעידען is a strange word; the עי is probably pronounced /ei/ as in rein, but that sound is usually spelled יי in a context like this.) Does this mean that he thought of the people we usually call white not as white, but as just normal--flesh colored, as it used to say on the crayons? Maybe. Why does he call American Indians "reddest" instead of just plain "red"? Maybe because he considered the flesh-colored people the basis for comparison. I leave it to people who are smarter than I am (which is a lot of people) to decide whether we should call him a racist.

When I was talking to some people about this a while back, a few of them objected to my using the word Negro. The word may be out of fashion now, but translating נעגער in any other way would have been anachronistic and incorrect. Negro was an honorable word until fairly recently. I was eleven when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is full of references to "the Negro."

תושבי אמעריקע translates almost literally into Native Americans, but I think that would have been anachronistic.