I attended an excellent performance this evening by the well-known radio personality and Jerusalem storyteller, Jacky Levy. For many years Levy has been telling stories about the old quaint neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Many of these are nostalgia-filled folktales that take place in the synagogues and shops of Nahlaot, where he lived until recently. But for the past few years, Levy has pioneered a new genre of storytelling that wonderfully restores the aggadot (legends) of talmudic literature to orality. The written Hebrew text is projected on a screen for everyone to read, but the storyteller doesn't simply read the words. He spins an elaborate tale out of the terse talmudic text. He adds dialogue peppered with modern slang. He adds contemporary allusions. He even inserts entire stories within the story. It's a bit of a meta-midrash, and it's very impressive when done correctly.
One of the stories that Levy told this evening comes from tractate Sotah of the Jerusalem Talmud (also Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) and contains lots of spitting, both good and bad. How could I have neglected to include this in my previous post? Here is the text in English translation:
This is a wonderful story for many reasons. First, it contains a strong female protagonist who behaves in a surprisingly modern manner. She enters the bet midrash to study Torah with a prominent sage instead of staying home to wait on her husband. Secondly, the wise sage has a sense of humor and is not afraid of dishonoring himself in public. His solution to the marital problem which he created is extremely clever because it satisfies everyone. Similarly, the punch line he delivers at the end is very slick. R. Meir wants to shut up his fawning disciples, so he says something shocking. He initially equates himself with God. But then he quickly turns this blasphemous statement on its head. If God is prepared to dishonor himself (by allowing an inscription containing his holy name to be dissolved in sacral water as part of the Sotah ritual) for the sake of marital peace, should not I be even more willing to dishonor myself? In Carnal Israel, Daniel Boyarin briefly discusses this story, noting that its underlying agenda is to show that "the function of the Sota ordeal was not to find out and punish guilty wives but to remove the jealousy of paranoid husbands, for this husband here is an analogue of the jealous husband of biblical times, and the spitting in the Rabbi's eye is an analogue of the ordeal" (p. 188).
Boyarin is no doubt correct, but I am most interested in how the spitting works in this story. The point of the story is not that Rabbi Meir is so humble that he is willing to have a woman spit in his face. Nor is the point that Rabbi Meir considers domestic peace (שלום בית) more important than his own honor. The point is that Rabbi Meir is able to make everyone happy through his quick thinking. His brilliant solution to the couple's fight is to made possible by the multifaceted meaning of spitting in the ancient world. In the mind of the husband, spitting in Rabbi Meir's face is an insult intended to teach him a lesson for keeping his wife away from home. Meir accepts his punishment but is able to reverse the meaning of this act by re-contextualizing in medical terms. He knows that he will have to get spit at, but he transforms the insult into an act of healing. There is a slight change in the act: rather than spitting once (combatively) in his face, the woman spits seven times (ritually) in his eye. But there is no difference in language between the two kinds of spitting; in both cases the Talmud uses the verb רקק. Here too, Rabbi Meir displays great wisdom. To ensure that the husband does not figure out the ruse, Meir redefines the meaning of seven spittings. Rather than being a ritual charm, seven becomes an illustration of the woman's extra zeal to fulfill her husband's vow.
So what is the lesson that can be learned from all this? Yesterday, I wondered if there is a connection between good and bad spitting in the ancient world. It appears that the answer is absolutely yes. The ancients appreciated the ambiguity of this heavily charged act and even exploited its multiple meanings for dramatic effect.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.