Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The heresy antidote

The other night, my teenaged son came to me with a question about Talmud. He had come across an "ika "d'amri" and he was puzzled. Here's the passage:
R. Mari said: For what reason did the Rabbis maintain that the river-bank does not constitute an identification mark? Because we say to him: As it happened to you, so it may have happened to your neighbour. Some have another version [ika d'amri]: R. Mari said: For what reason did the Rabbis maintain that the place constitutes no identification mark? Because we say to him: As it happened to you in this place, so it may have happened to your neighbor in this [same] place
What, my son wanted to know, did Rav Mari actually say? Did he speak about river-banks, in particular or about all places, in general? And if, my son continued, the scholar-to-student tradition of what Rav Mari said existed in two different versions, is it possible that other versions of other statements also once existed but were lost? And didn't it all come directly from Sinai?

You might say the gates of heresy had begun to open beneath his feet, only he's fortunate enough to have me for a father. In our house, recognizing the truth is no crises. This is because I've always taken care to ensure my children never became invested in the lies.

Here's the thing, I told him, the Gemarah is a compilation of various teachings about various subjects that came together slowly over hundreds of years. As time goes by, its only natural for details to be forgotten or modified. The same thing happened here. There's nothing shameful about that. Its how things go. As a result, no one really knows what Rav Mari taught. Some of his students remembered the teaching one way; others remembered it differently. Years later, when the time came to write things down, both possibilities were preserved.

In other houses (and I know, because I've heard the stories) my son's questions would have been met with anger, ignorance or indifference. A questioning child who encounters any of those three responses is immediately discouraged. What does the anger hide, he wonders. Why doesn't my father know how to address this?  Is it possible the whole things a fraud?

Alternatively, I could have given my son the traditional answer, the answer I was given, and told him that there's really no disagreement between the two versions of Rav Mari, only to our limited intellects they seem to contradict. I could have reinforced the notion that the whole Talmud was known to Moshe, and passed down uncorrupted to our hands. But once a child knows there is no Santa Claus, what's the point in continuing the charade? He knows the score. He's started to think like an adult, and now has nothing but disdain for childish thinking. If you don't acknowledge his new insight and his new ability you'll only fall in the child's esteem. Kids have a nose for B.S. They know when someone is condescending to them.

By admitting what he already knows to be true, the door remains open to more conversation. If he knows I won't lie, he'll trust me when I have more important things to say about the value of upholding traditions, and celebrating our heritage, and the rest. Honesty, after all, begets trust.

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