Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Concering the Production of Cucumbers By Magic: or, Amal and Ben study Talmud, Part One

me:  so which do you want to hear about
more about the tragic life of elisha ben abuyah?
or about the magic cucumbers?

Amal:  magic cucumbers!

me: So Rabbi Eliezer has been placed under a ban
probably not as harsh as the ban which will later be placed on Elisha ben Abuyah
but he's def got cooties

I just realized who Eliezer is!

so they are arguing about an oven
and whether the oven could become unclean
this is an akhnai oven
"an oven consisting of tiles separated from one another by sand, but externally plastered over with cement"
he refuses to go with the flow about this oven
they all think the oven can become unclean
he thinks, no, it can't
he summons a voice from heaven
i cite a paraphrase here:

It has been taught: On that day (of the discussion about the new Aknai oven) R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them.
Said he to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!"
Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place; others affirm, four hundred cubits.
"No proof can be brought from a carob-tree," they retorted.
Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!"
Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards
"No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined.
Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall.
But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what (right) have you to interfere?"
Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright (position), in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!"
Whereupon a voice from heaven called out: "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!"
But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven."
What did he mean by this?
Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol (the heavenly voice), because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "After the majority must one incline."
R. Nathan met Elijah (the prophet) and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?
He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me."

... this is a pretty crucial moment in Judaism becoming a religion of egalitarian debate rather than of ongoing revelation. it means no one has pope-like access to the Latest Divine News
but moving on

so they ban him

Amal: !

me: this is a tricky business because as you may have noted
he has friends upstairs
in fact, he has the power to destroy the world
if he's in a bad mood
However Rabbi Akiva is the man for the job
he's a smooth talker
you'll recall he's the only one of the four to enter paradise and survive
he dons black garments and sits at a distance of four cubits from eliezer
which i guess is how close you're allowed to sit to a banned person

Amal: wait
just to be clear

me: yes

Amal: he's been banned because of his opinion on ovens.

me: i don't think so
because they have differing opinions on everything all the time
my opinion is that he's being banned because he's a fuckin' showoff

Amal: hee! okay.

me: plus he tried to collapse the building on them
and they'd all be flat except luckily rabbi joshua cast a counterspell in time
and folks are pissed off

Amal: By "counterspell" you mean he pointed out the logistics of how this could not possibly happen because the walls would not collapse on debating scholars, right?
The cinematic illustration of this in my head is pretty awesome btw.

me: well what he actually said was "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?"
he rebuked the walls, basically

Amal: Right!

me: right

Amal: So like, they were crumbling, and then they uncrumbled.


me: but in order to not piss off Eliezer, the walls were now leaning
they were conflict-avoidant walls


Ben Judaism is AWESOME.

OK go on.

me: they were just hanging out, being walls, and now they're stuck in the middle of a magic rabbi fight
ok so
Akiba says, "I got this"
i.e. "I will go," answered R. Akiba, "lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world."
it is very funny to read the footnote by the modern commentator who is clearly deeply uncomfortable with the serious magic shit going down here and writes: " I.e., commit a great wrong by informing him tactlessly and brutally."

excuse me modern commentator did you just see the walls and the brook and the heavenly voice?


me: i'm pretty sure if Akiba says Eliezer can destroy the world, he's speaking literally

Amal: Modern commentators are the best.

me: you modern commentators get off my lawn

Amal: Or rather discomfited commentators of any period are the best.

me: right
so Akiba sits four cubits away and Eliezer is suspicious like, um, why are you sitting exactly four cubits from me punk?
"Akiba," said R. Eliezer to him, "what has particularly happened to-day?
"Master," he replied, "it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee." Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes.
So after this very sympathetic and indirect way of informing Eliezer
Eliezer is somewhat mollified, where somewhat mollified means that in his temper tantrum he only:
a) destroys a third of the world's olives
b)destroys a third of the wheat
c) destroys a third of the barley
d) optionally, according to some, "the dough in women"s hands swelled up", which if you ask me is kind of a plus really, but hey
e) burned a bunch of stuff with his eyes, X-Men-Cyclops style
f) rose a giant tsunami to drown Rabbi Gamaliel, who is the president of the assembly and so most directly responsible for the ban, plus he probably was the one who had the idea, not being any too pleased about his authority being upstaged by brooks, collapsing walls, and heavenly voices

Amal: d) (but what if it was supposed to be unleavened bread!)

though, no, I don't think screwing up religious observance is Eliezar's style
destroying the world, yes.

Amal: (you know the Arabic word for yeast is "corruption"?)

well maybe it was passover, and he made the bread rise knowing they'd have to throw it out
and start over which DOES sound like his style

Amal: Right, that was the impression I was getting!
Oh man imagine the women!

me: "ha ha suckers! barley -- BOOM! olives -- BOOM! better start baking that matza again honey!"


me: "ban me, will you!"

Amal: (gigglefit)

me: So anyway, Gamaliel is in this boat, and there's a tsunami
"It appears to me," he reflected, "that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus."

Amal: Gamaliel ancestor of Sherlock!

me: my thinking exactly
So then he sweet-talks God, saying, "Listen, God, I did not do this for my own honor, nor that of my family. I did it for You. Just stop a second and think what would have happened if I'd let him prevail. Yes, yes, I got it, I voted down Your Heavenly Voice. But do you think Eliezar is the only one who can call down Your Heavenly Voice? Let's face it; you're kind of a loose cannon here."
"If I let Eliezer get away with this, the whole assembly would be dominated by any half-assed magic rabbi who could turn a stream backwards or destroy a world. Is that really what you want? Torah debate decided by dueling magicians? We might as well go back to turning staves into snakes, am I right? So chill, okay?"

or at least that's what I got out of

"Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! "

Amal: (fallingover)

me: At that the raging sea subsided.
Okay so Eliezer is mad.
He goes home.
he's calmed down enough not to destroy the world
but he's simmering.

he's kind of a crotchety old bastard.

Every day he says his prayers and there's this emotional climax, this particular space for private prayer, after the Eighteen Benedictions. Back in those days, you"d fall on your face in supplication at this point in the service.

Now check it out.

Eliezer has a wife.
His wife is named Ima Shalom
"the Mommy of Peace"

She also happens to be Rabbi Gamaliel's sister
She knows her husband is working himself up into a lather about her brother
So every day, when he's about to fall on his face and ask for what's closest to his heart
she interrupts him
day after day

Eliezer comes to the end of his prayers, kneels with his creaky old knees onto the carpet, starts mumbling, "Sovereign of the Universe, thou knowest the desire of my..."
"Elieeezer! Did you take out the trash?"
"Gaddamit woman i'm -- ah hell --!"

Possibly she's less subtle
Maybe she's like "Oh HELL no because I KNOW you thinking on messing with my brother and ain't NOHOW happening around here because I WILL get in your face Eliezer!"

this would have worked
except that she makes an error in her calendrical calculations
see, on the Festival of the New Moon you can't perform petitionary prayers, I guess.
So she thinks it's a 29-day month and today is the New Moon
and so just as she's going to interrupt him
a poor man comes to the door begging
and she's like "well, it's the New Moon anyway, so he's not allowed to fall on his face"
so she takes the beggar some bread
and when she comes in
there's Rabbi Eliezer, on his face.

"Aw FUCK" says Ima Shalom
"Arise," she cried out to him, "thou hast slain my brother."
"How do you know?" he says, rather evasively.

"We have a saying in my family", she says: "all gates are locked, except the gates of wounded feelings"
at this point the tractate in question, Baba Mezi'a 59b, veers off into a digression about wounded feelings

Amal: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

me: in particular, hurting the feelings of converts to judaism

Amal: Hold up.

me: yes.

Amal: I suddenly need to switch PhDs

me: ha ha ha ha

Amal: I need to become a Talmudic scholar in order to illuminate the Talmudic influence on The Princess Bride.
OK carry on.

me: some say hurting the feelings of a convert breaks three laws. Some say two.
they debate about it a little bit.
Eliezer, never one to do things by halves, apparently claimed it broke thirty-six, or possibly forty-six laws

Also, if someone's ancestor was executed by hanging
don't say "hang this fish up for me"
because that shit is not funny
then they start talking about produce

so we skip over to Sanhedrin 68a
a whole other part of the Talmud

Eliezer is sick, he's dying
the rabbis decide to come visit
even though he's under a ban
plus, he killed Gamaliel
but y'know
the guy's dying

So they go sit in the living room
he's in his canopied four-poster bed
no kidding
I did not make that detail up

Amal: ...

me: this is ancient Judea, or possibly Babylon, women are carrying water in clay pots on their heads, peasants sleeping with their goats
dude has a canopied four-poster bed

Amal: He can TIME TRAVEL!

me: no doubt
they're sitting in the living room, because you know
...four cubits, right?

So Ima Shalom is there, and Eliezer's son Hyrcanus is there
What kind of name is Hyrcanus for the son of a magic rabbi?
a greek name, that's what kind
however, it was Eliezer's father's name too
so whatever
it's Friday night
they've got to get ready to do the sabbath thing
Hyrcanus (the son) goes in to take off Eliezer's tefillin
you can't wear tefillin on the sabbath

Amal: how come?

me: they're a weekday thing
i guess it's work?
or perhaps it's just too reminiscent of weekdays
too weekday-ish
but this is a somewhat later rule, right? a rabbinical rule

Amal: ok!

me: a rule made up by Eliezer and Gamaliel and those guys
so Eliezer yells at him
and Hyrcanus goes out crestfallen, like "he won't let me take off his tefillin, I think he's losing it"

and the rabbis are like, "no, he's not the crazy one. your mother is the crazy one, for putting a minor issue like tefillin before major issues punishable by death."
now the assumption is that they are talking about lighting the candles and putting away the meal. in other words, they are saying that paying attention to tefillin rather than to the primary laws of the sabbath is crazy

the interesting question here is, why do they say, "no your MOTHER is crazy"
since it was Hyrcanus, not Ima Shalom, who wanted to take off Eliezer's tefillin?

The text is not clear but I believe I detect a backhanded compliment to Ima Shalom (who is after all Gamaliel"s sister, and no slouch since she kept Gamaliel alive for months with her timely interventions) and a backhanded insult to Hyrcanus

because they rebuke her as crazy -- not ignorant
they expect her to be able to grasp this point of Talmudic reasoning. They pointedly don't expect it of Hyrcanus.
With his freakin' poser greek name.

So now from this incident
they're pretty sure Eliezer is not crazy, he's still sharp as a tack
so they get their courage up and they go in his room
but they have to stay four cubits away
so they're, like, pressed up against the walls.

"what are you doing here?" shouts eliezer
"we, uh, we, uh..." no one wants to tell him he's dying. "we (ahem) we came to study Torah with you."
"oh," says Eliezer, "oh NOW you come? NOW you come to study Torah? Why the fuck do you come NOW?"
"Uh, we were really busy," they say.

I am not making this up.
"And why did ye not come before now", he asked? They answered, "We had no time".
He then said, "I will be surprised if these die a natural death".

So that's a pretty serious threat.
Rabbi Akiba is there and he's, as we know, a smooth guy, not one to lose his head
R. Akiba asked him, "And what will my death be?"
Eliezer says, "Yours will be more cruel than theirs".
Eliezer knows what he's about because Akiba is going to lead a revolt against Rome and be tortured to death

Then Eliezer throws his arms over his heart and says "oh poor arms, you are like wrapped up torah scrolls! I know SO MUCH you guys! I know SO MUCH! Even though I only got as much from my teachers as a dog lapping from the ocean, it is WAY MORE than my students ever were willing to learn from me!"
"they only drew from me like a blob of ink from a tube!"
I know THREE HUNDRED LAWS about a deep bright spot which is one obscure form of leprosy!
But has anyone ever asked me about them?

I know THREE HUNDRED (some say three thousand) laws about planting cucumbers!
But no one except Akiba ever asked me about them!"

now when Eliezer says "laws"
i'm pretty sure it's a euphemism
as we're about to find out

"One time Akiba and I were walking together on a road, and he said to me, 'master, teach me about the planting of cucumbers' "
"And I was like oh? CUCUMBERS? You want CUCUMBERS?
So I said ONE THING and the whole field was full of cucumbers."
(That is the kind of, ahem, "law" that Eliezer means)

"So then he said 'master, you have taught me how to plant them, now teach me how to pluck them up.'"
that's Akiba for you. Unflappable.
"I said something and all the cucumbers gathered in one place."

So the visitors are getting a little uncomfortable.
He was banned for being a showoff, he's dying, now here they are to make amends, and he's still grandstanding about cucumbers
So they decide to cut to the chase
And they ask him --
here it comes --
"What is the law of a ball, a shoemaker's last, an amulet, a leather bag containing pearls, and a small weight?"

Now you may ask
why is this a big deal?

Because they are going back to the disagreements about uncleanliness.
Eliezer thought the oven was clean.
He also thought that if a leather object designed to carry something permanently became unclean, you could cleanse it without removing the stuffing
the Sanhedrin --the rabbinical council --disagreed
they said, you have to take the stuffing out
also note that they are talking about magic things. An amulet, and a leather bag containing pearls, worn about the neck to prevent illness
Also cows wore these pearl-bags around their necks
fashionable cows
but I digress.

So they are basically like "yeah yeah, you know a lot of Torah, you can grow cucumbers with magic but WHAT about the law of CLEANSING LEATHER ITEMS MEANT TO CARRY THINGS PERMANENTLY? What about THAT huh???"

And he says "Goddamnit I told you punks a long time ago you can clean them without removing the stuffing! YOU don't HAVE TO REMOVE THE STUFFING!"

And they are like "what of a shoe that is on the last?"

the shoe has never been worn. The rabbis regard it as finished and thus liable to become unclean but Eliezer thinks it's not finished until you remove it from the last
Eliezer, red with fury, yells "it's CLEAN!!!!"
and with those words he dies

And then they remove the ban and they all act really sad
I mean, I don't mean to imply that it's an act
he was a seriously powerful and wise dude, albeit kind of scary
so they probably have mixed feelings, and now that he's dead, grief gets the upper hand

Akiba beats himself bloody with grief while they're carrying the coffin, which is not much like him
he gives the funeral address and everyone is sad
so then the talmud returns, having finished this anecdote
to the original question of Sanhedrin 68a, which is
who did Akiba learn cucumber magic from?
did he really learn it from Rabbi Eliezer?
Or did he learn it from Rabbi Joshua?

For some reason this is a big deal
The rabbis then answer themselves
Eliezer just SHOWED him the cucumber magic
but he didn't know how to DO it until Rabbi Joshua taught him

And then some rabbis break in and say
hold up now
are we actually supposed to do magic?

Isn't there something in Deuteronomy 18:9 about not doing any magic?

And then some other rabbis answer them
no no it's cool

as long as you don't EAT the cucumbers
you can't do magic TO DO MAGIC
but you can do magic to learn
he was just SHOWING him how to magically create cucumbers
you can do pure research in magic, as a way of understanding the universe's workings, that's okay.

"For it has been said, Thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of these nations: thou mayest not learn in order to practise, but thou mayest learn in order to understand"

And that is the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the cucumber magic

Amal: .............................................





also I am suddenly SO HUNGRY FOR CUCUMBERS

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Magical Elders

Often the only way I manage to write blog posts is that I end up writing such lengthy comments on Facebook posts that I feel obligated to crosspost them here.

Mary Anne asked

I know Magical Negroes are bad. But how about magical old people (of the same South Asian race as my protagonist), who are not actually magical, but do show up partway through the story, dispense some much-needed wisdom, and then disappear into the crowd again? Can I get away with that?

To which I said:

There are a couple of issues here. One is how flat/archetypical/simple characters interact with structures of oppression. Not all characters can, or should be, round or have their own arcs; in parable-like stories sometimes no one has an arc or is more than an archetype, and even in other stories there's not room to give everyone the same degree of attention. The Magical Negro trope is about: (character has no arc of their own)+(character seems to exist to help protagonist)+(character is of, or reminiscent of, a real-world group which has less status, power, and access to being represented as having agency, than the protagonist's own), with often an optional serving of +(tragic thing happens to character in service of underlining protagonist's humanity, goals or resolve) [this is the Sacrificial Negro variant].

The real-world power relationship between elders and young adults is not as simple and linear as that of, say, white and black people. So the sting of Magical Elder is not quite as bad as that of Magical Negro. But I think it still does play into a real-world oppression, in the sense that one oppression old people are targeted with, is the message that their own lives are effectively over, that their needs and struggles are kind of embarassing lapses or signs of their decreasing humanity, and that their proper role is to support and empower those younger than they, the ones still in the game, who have real lives.

The second issue is sheer "tropiness". This is an esthetic, not a moral issue, and the relevant meme here is not Magical Negro, but Plot Coupon Dispenser. The wise elders who appear with advice are certainly a stock trope. How you deal with that depends on the tone of the story. In a certain kind of earnest archetypical fiction, use of a stock trope (especially if played against more surprising, fresher elements) can evoke a tradition powerfully, and provide comfort to the reader. Another approach is to breathe life into a stock trope by taking it seriously adding realism to it which is usually lacking. And a third (which is kind of the second taken even farther) is the deconstructionist impulse -- reimagining the stock trope in ways that challenge, invert, mock it, or expose its contradictions. So consider superheroes, say: the recent Marvel movies, particularly the Captain America one, mostly do the first variant, playing the tropes straight. The Avengers got a little into the second territory with Whedon's dialogue suggesting nuances to the characters' experience; or consider Dave Schwartz's Superpowers or Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, which (especially the latter) shade into the third strategy, which is also the strategy of, say, Watchmen.

Those are three successful ways to have Plot Coupon Dispensers in your story, but the risk, of course, is that they appear to the reader not as fully real -- that they break the vivid dream of the story by being obviously there for authorial convenience, or, if they don't break the dream, that they dull it, make it vaguer and hazier, because the reader simply inserts [Known Value] in that place in the book instead of being stimulated to imagine freshly. (In parable, myth, postmodern tale or deconstructionist jape, the vivid dream has a different quality -- it does not rest on an agreement to pretend that the story is not a story, on the contrary the reader reads with one foot in and one foot out of the story, and the awareness of the story as artifact is part of the pleasure of reading).

The last thing I would say is that making a character round does not necessarily require a lot of verbiage. Giving a character an arc doesn't necessarily mean narrating that arc -- an arc can be implied very concisely. If your smiling beneficent elders simply appear in order to give the protagonist what she needs, and seem to have no other life of their own, that does play into the stereotype. But if they are quarreling, and in a hurry because in the midst of their own struggles, and pause to help the protagonist but that's clearly a secondary concern, then they clearly have an arc of their own, and their own reality, even if we don't see it. No one ever mistakes Gandalf for a Magical Negro. That's not because Gandalf is powerful; it's because Gandalf is playing a big game with a lot at stake, and is not sure of the outcome -- he's not static. He's protagging on a grander scale than Bilbo or Frodo, it's just mostly offstage.

But I don't mean to say that Nosy Great Uncle's problems must be of Gandalfian scale; they can be as small-scale as his nagging wife, as long as we have the sense that his life is not static and there only to support the protagonist, but rather that he has his own quest, at whatever scale.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology"

"Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology" is another in the series of excellent anthologies that Jim Kelly and John Kessel have been doing -- after having tackled slipstream, post-cyberpunk, li-fi/sf crossover, and kafka -- and my and Cory Doctorow's really-long-novella-hell-it's-pratically-a-short-novel "True Names" is innit. Here's tachyon talking about it and look they have a contest too. Check out the TOC -- we're hangin' with Stapledon, Vinge & Rajaniemi. Enjoy!

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