Friday, March 1, 2013

The Piece of Gemara Dr. Ruth Calderon Skipped

While the buzz has certainly died down following Dr. Ruth Calderon's moving Talmud shiur in the Knesset (now approaching 200,000 views), the issues that she raised continue to resonate, and form the fault line between the Chareidi political parties who refused to allow their young men to enter the IDF, and the current Bayit Yehudi-Yesh Atid alliance, which refuse to enter a Netanyahu government without a firm agreement to implement the draft for the vast majority of Chareidi youth.
To recap: Calderon read a story in the Gemara from Ketuvot 62b about Rav Rechumi, who would only return home once a year on Yom Kippur to his wife, and how one year, totally immersed in his study, he forgot to come home. When his wife finally shed a tear out of anguish and pain, the loft upon which Rav Rachumei was learning caved in beneath him, killing him. Calderon used the story as a warning against using the study of Torah as an excuse to legitimate the harming of others. She associated Rav Rachumei with the Chareidi world, which sits in its ivory tower, and his wife with the rest of Israeli society, bearing the brunt of his learning. (if you haven't seen the talk, you can see it here with English subtitles.)
It was wonderful drush, and a powerful message. But Calderon began her lesson without mentioning the beginning of the section of gemara. She essentially told only half the story. And the part that she left out paints a far more complicated, nuanced picture.
The Gemara that introduces the story deals with a husband's obligation to fulfill his wife's sexual needs - the mitzvah of onah. According to Jewish law, a husband must satisfy his wife's sexual needs on a regular basis, an obligation codified in Jewish law. How often? That all depends on what you do for a living (and, according to Rambam, on how many wives you have). The range that appears in the Mishnah (Ketubot 61b) ranges from daily (!) all the way to once in six months. But then the Mishnah adds,
התלמידים יוצאין לתלמוד תורה שלא ברשות שלשים יום
The students [may] leave [their homes] for the study of Torah without [their wives'] permission for up to thirty days.
That doesn't sound like too much. But the Gemara (on 62b) notes that many Torah scholars would stay away from home for far longer.
אמר רב אדא בר אהבה אמר רב זו דברי ר' אליעזר אבל חכמים אומרים התלמידים יוצאין לת"ת ב' וג' שנים שלא ברשות אמר רבא סמכו רבנן אדרב אדא בר אהבה ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו
Said Rav Ada bar Ahava in the name of Rav, that [thirty day period] is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, but the Sages said that one may leave for the sake of Torah study for two or three years without permission. Rava said: the rabbis relied on the position of Rav Ada bar Ahava and practiced themselves according to his opinion.
To clarify: Halachah makes demands of a husband that requires a him to be home at least once a month, if not more often. But, on the other hand, serious Torah study demands that one leave home and study at the academy, often a great distance from home. Trying to study while juggling other responsibilities greatly diminishes the level of one's study.
How do you balance the two? Should a person choose his individual obligation, he cannot realistically grow in the way that he could by investing in exclusive Torah study for an extended period of time. On the other hand, what right does a person have to make the choice to abandon his own obligations towards others and leave his wife (and probably children) so that he can sit and learn?
And yet, that's exactly what the Sages did. That's also how they became Sages. They made difficult choices (the formulation in the Gemara is fascinating: "they themselves practiced according to his opinion"). The Gemara gives the impression that they didn't really ask anyone for permission - not their teachers, nor their wives. They understood that their choice may not have been ideal. Yet, they nevertheless left home, family, community and other obligations for two to three years at a time if not much more (see the famous story of Rabbi Akiva) all for the sake of Torah immersion.
It is with this background in mind that the Gemara relates the story of Rav Rechumei, and the difficult, tragic price he paid for the pain he inflicted upon his wife. The story doesn't condemn his choice. Chazal agreed with it. Many, if not most of them made similar decisions.
Yet, perhaps he went too far. Perhaps his error wasn't in the choice he made, but in his lack of sensitivity for and appreciation for his wife, and he sacrifices. Maybe, had he understood her pain, his story would not have ended in tragedy.