Aliyah and Insults: on Rising Up and Put-Downs

Current LABA fellow Yochai Greenfeld on the witty comments of the Talmudic sages, and why Jews around the world must learn to laugh at themselves more.

In our last sessions at LABA, we studied a fascinating passage from the Babylonian Talmud:

What is the interpretation of the word Babylonia? Rabbi Yoḥanan says it means mixed, as the spiritual centers of Jewish Babylonia were mixed with Bible, Mishna, and Talmud. Rabbi Yirmeya says with regard to the verse: He has made me dwell in dark places, as those that have been long dead — this is the Talmud of Babylonia. (Lamentations 3,6)

Sanhedrin, 24a

On the same page, Rashi, the twelfth-century sage and commentator, says:

They dwell in dark places meant that the Babylonian sages were not at peace with one another, which disrupted the clarity of their studies.

Evidently, there are quite a few passages in the Talmud mocking the Babylonian sages and their studies, presenting them as inferior to their peers in Israel, who composed the Jerusalem Talmud.

In one of these stories, Rabbi Zeira, who ascended from Babylonia to to Israel, fasted one hundred days in order to forget the Babylonian methods of learning (Baba Matzia, 95a). Another story is about Rabbi Yirmeya, who was never regarded as a sage until he ascended to Israel and became a renowned scholar and viewed the Babylonian sages as fools (Ketubot, 75a).

These witty stories by the Jerusalem sages are quite reflective in their nature, because they are being narrated within the Babylonian Talmud. It’s as though the Babylonians, who had wealthier communities and larger study centers, were willingly accepting their spiritual inferiority to their peers in the Holy Land.

This is ironic because eventually it was accepted that the Babylonian Talmud is the broader, richer, and more prominent of the two; it has been studied and written about on a much larger scale, and is usually considered the Talmud, with a capital “T.”

The stories about sages who migrated between the two centers are specifically fascinating to read today, because terms like aliyah (“ascending”) and yerida (“descending”) have remained in modern Hebrew, perpetuating the idea of the superiority of Israel. On the other hand, it seems like most American Jews don’t feel like they are actually inferior to Israelis.

Over the past two years since “ascending” from Israel to America, I have been observing the perceptions Jews in both places have about each other.

One of these observations occurred to me during my first Israel Day Parade experience. While I was deeply moved to see the love for Israel in the eyes of the people marching, the conversations I had with some seemed to depict a different Israel than the one I had come from. Their Israel sounded like a land of milk and honey, an asylum for all Jews, and a place where people could sell their startups for a fortune while sipping beer on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Later that night, when I was browsing through mainstream Israeli news websites, I could barely find any mention of the parade; apparently the Israeli media thought that Israelis couldn’t care less about the support of American Jews.

On the other hand, the recent Western Wall crisis — when the Knesset limited a more pluralistic approach to access of the Western Wall’s main plaza — left many American Jews feeling disregarded and disrespected.

It seems that in the days of the Talmud, there was an awareness of the difference between the two centers, but never disrespect. Each center had great appreciation for the other and knew that its own existence depended on it.

The mathematician Gödel said that a system cannot be complete and be consistent at the same time — meaning that in order for anything to function fluently, it must have flaws, and thus continue to be developed. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud have entire tractates of Mishnah missing from their discussions.

This is no coincidence: a complete set of tractates might have sent a message that the conversation was over. Incompleteness demands a dialogue, not only between generations but between places; without it we might believe in a Promised Land with flawless leaders, or a powerful demonstration in support of a country who barely notices.

The Babylonians could afford to laugh at themselves because they knew that their peers in Israel actually thought highly of them. And because self-deprecation is a form of self-awareness. More so, the Babylonians knew that conversation is the essence of life, and that siblings may be different and can always fight, but that doesn’t change the fact that their fates are tied together.

May the Jews of Israel and America be forever so codependent.