Rabbis Without Borders
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I’ll be honest. I am both fascinated and horrified by many of the daily updates in these still early stages of the presidential election season. Take the last few days’ news cycle. There were some pretty substantive debates that took place onstage at Saturday night’s Democratic debate. Anyone paying attention would have heard some quite important differences of opinion on the strategic approach to tackling ISIS, and the role of the United States within a larger international stage.
But where has our attention been drawn by media coverage these past two days? To Donald Trump’s use of Yiddish and Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during that debate. This would be quite astounding in any election cycle of any country. But really? Is this worthy of the United States of America? I can just imagine Hillary Clinton waking up to the daily headlines, incredulous: “Really? We debated for two hours, and they are talking about my bathroom break?!” Even the New York Times got in on the debate and provided a detailed explanation of the respective locations of the men’s and women’s bathrooms relative to the entrance to the stage, so that we might better understand why Hillary had a tougher job getting back during the break than her male colleagues!
While Donald Trump made this non-event into a media-worthy focal point by labeling the whole incident “disgusting,” Bernie Sanders, tongue-in-cheek, helped put things back in perspective by admitting that he, too, had used the bathroom during the break.
Am I just continuing to fan the flames of irrelevant media coverage by drawing attention to these stories? Perhaps. But the whole to-do brought to mind a rather bizarre and not well-known excerpt from the Talmud that, likewise, seems to bring an entirely inappropriate level of attention to the intimate behaviors of the leaders of that time in the Jewish world – the Talmud scholars. You can read a translation of Berachot 62a here but here is a taste of the story presented:
It has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned three things from him:
I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south
I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting
I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right
Ben Azzai said to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?
He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn.
It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learned three things from him:
I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south
I learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing
I learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right.
R. Judah said to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?
He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.
R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required.
He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before!
He (Rav) said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude!
He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.
There is little doubt that these behaviors on the part of students are both rude and inappropriate. And yet, some of the observations demonstrate that the students are concerned with correct action in every moment of life, even the intimate and private ones. It takes the idea that our leaders are judged by their behaviors and words in spaces and places beyond the professional ones in which they wish to be seen and expect to be judged, to the ultimate extreme.
Rabbi Arnie Samlan puts it this way:
The Talmud was not advocating voyeurism. It used these stories to illustrate a fact: The way in which we do everything in life carries a value. We can behave in ways that support the tzelem elohim, the divine spark, that lives within us all. Or we can act in ways that are destructive to ourselves, to others, to our world.
During this long presidential election season, the way we assess and respond to the words and actions of the candidates should, ultimately, be based on the broader ethos that Samlan suggests. Bathroom breaks may simply be a distraction, but the choice to turn them into part of a political stump speech teaches us plenty.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.