The theme of this page is…scatological. On today’s daf, the rabbis discuss a series of detailed rules and customs relating to using the bathroom. Some of the debate focuses on how to maintain modesty and privacy, but many of these practices are focused on physical safety. In the time of the Talmud, going to the bathroom could be a dangerous process, since it often required walking far outside the city, in the dark, in order to find somewhere clean and safe. The Gemara mentions that demons, robbers, and other menaces might threaten someone looking for a place to use the bathroom.
But despite the apparently pressing nature of these dangers, the texts of the Torah and the early rabbinic tradition themselves don’t give much direct guidance about how to manage the dangers and cultural norms surrounding using the bathroom. How, then, could the rabbis understand and explain how to act in these situations?
In one of cycle of stories, several rabbis deploy a strategy found periodically throughout the Talmud: they watch their teachers to see how they behave. In the bathroom, however, this takes a strange turn:
Rabbi Akiva said: I once entered the bathroom after my teacher Rabbi Yehoshua, and I learned three things from observing his behavior: I learned that one should not defecate while facing east and west, but rather while facing north and south; I learned that one should not uncover himself while standing, but while sitting (in the interest of modesty); and I learned that one should not wipe with his right hand, but with his left.
Ben Azzai, a student of Rabbi Akiva, said to him: You were impertinent to your teacher to the extent that you observed that much!
Rabbi Akiva replied: It is Torah, and I must learn.
For a culture deeply concerned with modesty, this approach is certainly surprising, and Ben Azzai expresses shock, and even a little frustration with Rabbi Akiva’s behavior. And yet, in the next story, Ben Azzai does the same to Akiva and receives the same scolding and offers the same justification: “It is Torah, and I must learn.”
The intuition behind this statement is a powerful one — Torah is about how we live our lives, in lots of different moments, even in ones that seem more disgusting than sacred. In this way, the sages suggests that Torah — understood very broadly, to include the behavior of people we trust, admire, and want to learn from — can help us find holiness even where it seems to be absent. It can also help us manage our fears, even when we have to journey out away from the city in the dark.
But the rabbis don’t stop there. Next, we learn that Rav Kahanah goes so far as to sneak under his teacher Rav’s bed, in order to see how he interacts with his wife during intimacy. Rav Kahanah is surprised to find that Rav engages his wife in pleasant chit chat, and he is even more taken aback that Rav explicitly expresses his lust for her, “like a person who has never tasted cooked food.” Rav scolds Rav Kahanah for his voyeurism, asking “Rav Kahanah, are you here? Get out of here, this is not how people behave!” Despite his teacher’s rebuke, Rav Kahanah sticks to the now-familiar line, “It is Torah,” he responds, “and I must learn.”
Just as Rav Kahanah can teach us about how Torah can inform even the disgusting or frightening parts of our lives, Rav has something important to teach us here too — Rav reminds us that our pursuit to understand something — whether it be an abstract idea or how another person lives her life — can sometimes turn us into someone we didn’t want to be. In Rav Kahanah’s case, the desire to learn as much Torah as he could from his teacher about how to be modest turned him into a person who had lost basic common sense about where ethical boundaries should be. Sometimes there is just as much to be learned, just as much Torah, in “how people behave.”