So tonight/tomorrow is Purim, a minor but very fun Jewish holiday characterized by costumes, merriment and kind of wacky humor. It's based on Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), the last book of the Jewish Bible to be canonized. Megillat Esther tells the (not historically accurate) story of how the Jews of Persia were saved from genocide by a crypto-Jew who became their queen. Traditional activities for Purim include dressing up in costumes, giving gifts of food to friends and neighbors, giving money to the poor, and getting drunk and making a fool of yourself.
On the making a fool of oneself front, I was asked to participate this year in the Latke/Hamentaschen debate. This is an event that combines silliness and pseudo-erudition. Purim is sometimes called the Jewish Mardi Gras (okay, maybe I'm the only one who calls it that) and it's a holiday that includes assorted raucous merry making activities. Jewish professors at the University of Chicago staged an event in 1947 where for Purim they did a mock-academic debate about the relative merits of latkes (potato pancakes - traditional Hanukah food) and hamentaschen (cookies that are the traditional Purim food). Different scholars from different disciplines gave talks that satirized their own fields while pleading a case for one or the other. It spread from there, and my shul started doing it last year.
So the organizer of this year's debate asked me to join in. I said yes, because I was flattered, I guess. I figured it meant they think I'm smart and funny. They wanted me to do mine on talmudic studies. I am soooo not a talmud scholar. I didn't think I could pull it off, and asked if I could do archaeology or history. The organizer said they have archaeology covered and some history but if I could do an historical thing from the talmudic period or straight talmud satire or some combo that would work. So I agreed and then could not think of anything to talk about. The event was last night and as of Tuesday I still didn't even have an idea about what to write my speech about. And then I got an email saying that everyone is wearing academic robes, so clearly I was the only one without a PhD, making it worse.
Anyway, I woke up Wednesday morning with an idea for a talk. It's a story about two of the amoraim - the sages who wrote the Talmud - that on the one hand seemed good material for such a presentation but on the other hand is so bizarre as to almost defy parody. It's also very slashy.
I wrote it up and presented it last night and got lots of laughter. It's probably not as funny in writing, but if anyone is interested, it's behind the cut (with a few stage directions, even).
Shabbat Shalom. Purim Sameach.
My name is Dale Rosenberg. I’m a longtime PSJC member but this is my first year participating in this weighty debate. I am most honored to be part of this august assembly – thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me – but I feel somewhat unequal to the task, given my lack of formal education. Yes, I’m afraid of the response this will engender, but I must admit it – I do not have a PhD. And because of that unforgivable lack, I also have no appropriate clothing for this event. So, I’m making do with the closest thing I have. [put on bathrobe]
When Elizabeth presented me with this important question I thought about how best to approach it. It seemed to me that the answer to this – as to so many of the questions of life – must lie in the words and deeds of the amoraim, those great sages whose arguments are recorded in the Talmud. And indeed, it was so. As I researched the lives of two of our great sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, known as Resh Lakish, I found the ultimate answer to the perennial question – latkes or hamentaschen.
Now, I’m sure many of you have heard their story before, and you may notice that the version I’m going to tell you differs in some particulars from the many retellings you may have encountered. I will point out the areas where it differs from the traditional telling for those of you who don’t know the story. Just remember if you’ve heard the other versions, I’m right and they’re wrong.
Okay, as I’m sure you’ll all remember, Rabbi Yochanan bar Nafcha was reputed to be the most physically beautiful of all the rabbis of the Talmud. We can’t really know just what the competition was like, but it was generally agreed that of all the amoraim, he was the most gorgeous. And he knew it. He would go hang out at the mikveh, so that women would see him as they left, and gazing on his own beautiful self would conceive beautiful children. From this we can conclude that Rabbi Yochanan’s humility was matched only by his knowledge of genetics.
So we have this beautiful rabbi and one day he is bathing in a river when who should come along but Shimon ben Lakish. He was not yet Resh Lakish because he was not yet a rabbi. In fact, he was part of a group of bandits. And here we come to the first inaccuracy in the stories you may have heard. He is often referred to as having been the chief of the bandits, but this is not correct. That part of the story comes to us from Rashi, and the idea that he was their chief arises from a mistranslation. Rashi, of course, was French and although he was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic, he told this story in the language of the land, and used a word with more than one meaning. Shimon ben Lakish was not the chief of the bandits; he was the chef of the bandits. The pastry chef, in particular, and his specialty was hamentaschen.
This rough and tumble, strong (you’d better believe strong - Have you ever tried to roll out the dough for enough hamentaschen to feed a tribe of bandits?) bandit-cum-pastry chef comes to the river and sees a beautiful naked man bathing there. So what does he do? What would any red blooded bandit do? He pulls off all of his clothes quickly and leaps upon him with one great jump. At which point Rabbi Yochanan, after he gets the water out of his lungs, says “Your strength should be for Torah.” And Shimon ben Lakish says “Your beauty should be for women.” And just like that, Resh Lakish became Rabbi Yochanan’s... study partner. Theirs was such a successful partnership that it is often looked on as the model for a marriage.
They...challenged each other. They wrestled... with Torah. They were… inseparable. They were...brothers-in-law. True – Rabbi Yochanan promised Resh Lakish that he would give him his sister, asserting that she was as beautiful as her brother, if only he would devote himself to Torah. And he agreed and they were married.
So this partnership went on for years and much of their discussion and opinion is memorialized forever in the Talmud. But there is a sad ending to this saga. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan had a falling out. Those of you who have heard this story before may think that it was over weapons, but it was not. This is the second error in the story as it has come down to us. The true argument between these great sages was over latkes and hamentaschen. Although Resh Lakish repented of his bandit ways, he continued to bake, and he was widely reputed to make the best hamentaschen east of Brooklyn. He considered them the perfect food. Rabbi Yochanan, however, preferred latkes. They argued about this from time to time, but never with rancor, until one day Rabbi Yochanan referred to Resh Lakish’s hamentaschen as “the food of a brigand.”
Resh Lakish felt so wounded by this reference to his ignominious past that he lashed out at Rabbi Yochanan, threatening to take his rolling pins and his baking sheets and go back to the bandits’ hideout because, as he said, “at least they appreciate me there.” And Rabbi Yochanan responded by cursing his long time partner, causing him to fall mortally ill.
Resh Lakish’s wife – Rabbi Yochanan’s sister, remember – came to her brother and begged him to lift the curse, lest she be widowed and his nephews orphaned. But that beautiful, proud, lacking in genetic knowledge, powerful in curses man would not relent. And before long, Resh Lakish died.
Only after his death did Rabbi Yochanan repent of what he had done. The realization that his curse had killed his... best friend and lover... of Torah drove him mad. He spent his days wandering the city calling out “Where is the son of Lakish?” over and over and over again until nobody could stand it anymore.
It’s such a tragic tale. Let me take a moment to compose myself and then I’ll tell you the moral. ::pause:: What can we learn from this? We learn not to fall into the slough of despond that ended the lives of these two brilliant scholars and devoted... study partners. I beg you - Call off this debate! Accept the merits of both latkes and hamentaschen and do not feel the need to advance the cause of latkes at the expense of hamentaschen or the cause of hamentaschen at the expense of latkes. Remember the tragic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish and let us all say “Elu v’elu ochlei elohim chaim” – these and those are both the foods of the living G-d.
The whole evening was so fun! The other "scholars" gave hilarious send ups of lectures in a variety of disciplines. Everyone seemed to have a great time - I know I did.
If anyone has questions or would like references on the lives of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish and their very intimate relationship, just ask.