Where The House Once Was

It’s hard to imagine Torah scholars having such a furious argument that they ripped a Torah scroll. But…

It happened, did it not, in the synagogue of Tiberias over the issue of a doorstop that had a knob on the top of it?! Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Yose disagreed to the point where they ripped a Torah scroll in their anger. Do you really think that they ripped it? Rather, say that a Torah scroll got ripped in their anger. Rabbi Yose ben Kisma was there and he said: I would be surprised if this synagogue didn’t become a place of idolatry, and so it was. (Yevamot 96b).

(Click here for Talmudic passage in Hebrew and English)

Their issue—fully examined elsewhere in the Talmud—concerned the appropriateness of using an ordinary workday tool for Shabbat use. One insisted that a doorstop—a piece of metal used to wedge or bolt a door in place—must unconditionally be set aside on Shabbat. The other maintained that a doorstop that had been fashioned with a knob on the end might serve as a mortar for preparing Shabbat food—an acceptable use, in his opinion.

It’s hard to imagine that scholars ripped a Torah over this! Bad enough if this awful image is symbolic, but the story teller allows little refuge in metaphor. At best, there was passive, unintended damage; one might say that a Torah was ripped. Either way—more violent or less—there was a witness:  Rabbi Yose ben Kisma was there.

However, the symbolic resonance is never far away. In addition to seeing the act, Rabbi Yose saw the implications of the Torah drawn taut and split, uncompromisingly claimed by two immoveable opinions:  I would be surprised if this synagogue didn’t become a place of idolatry.

The symbolic hovers low over the hard surface of story. Certainly, this story’s argument did not precipitate furious, dangerous rolling of a scroll from one proof text to the next.  For, Shabbat is a mountain hanging by a thread; there is little Scripture, but many laws (Hagigah 10a), other sages had said. The Shabbat status of an object is a matter of oral Torah—a Torah more supple and difficult—but not impossible—to rip.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Rabbi Yose ben Kisma foresaw the idolatry of the intransigent idea, the cult of an inflexible position that rips apart the Torah and ruins the house of worship and learning. To this witness, the story teller adds the testimony of history: … and so it was; in a way that was real, even if not literal, the synagogue became a place of idolatry.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai added his own warning about the consequences of foot-stomping insistence:

From the place where we are right
Never will there sprout
Flowers in the spring.

The place where we are right
Is trampled and hard
Like a courtyard.

But doubts and loves
make the world loose
like a mole, like a plow
and a whisper will be heard in the place
where the house once was
now destroyed.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

Foot-stomping insistence packs the earth, said the poet. His language reminds us that the Hebrew language draws the words, right, and righteous, from the same source—an association that can strengthen a stance, for better and for worse.

The house now destroyed invites the image, and echoes the language, of the destroyed Temple (and of the story’s spoiled synagogue in Tiberias). The house now destroyed also carries the whisper of a necessary tension:  Doesn’t the house depend upon firmly packed foundations? Flexibility must be well founded; but the foundations themselves must be giving and forgiving.

In order to prepare fertile ground that yields, one must be prepared to yield; to make use of those tools that loosen the soil and the soul, promoting growth. It is, perhaps, the wind whispering through that new growth that enlivens the terrain where the house once was.

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