Friday, March 19, 2010

Notes towards Srugim and Talmudic Culture


Despite the accolades that Srugim has received for achieving a kind of objective correlative that affords access to dati and hillon audiences, it simultaneously point to aspects of the dati/hiloni divide - especially in terms of perceptions of the Other. A number of episodes ago, Hodaya, the rabbi's daughter who left the fold and is now officially a "datlash," and finds herself in a relatively unfulfilled relationship with a fellow datlash. One depressing evening she heads out to a bar, alone, and phones her old boyfriend - the Hebrew U archeologist Avri who was the focus of a number of episodes last season. Avri was truly secular. Not a drop of datlash in him. The chemistry is still there, but Avri has found someone new. And as he repeats over and over again, his new girlfriend, unlike Hodaya, is stable. The scene sheds light on an interesting assumption. Pretty much all of the characters are, in their own way, unstable - especially in their obsessive and unending search for identity and the interplay between identity and religion. Hodaya is of course the perfect example. but the same could be said of the other characters, like Amir - the married man who is less happy with having to fake as an Ashkenazi, Roi with the questions of his sexual identity, etc. One episode poked fun of a hilonit trying to leave her cozy Tel Aviv world and "play" the complex experience of being religious - clearly a nod to the experience of Srugim's actors.

It is worth noting that Srugim assumes that there is an inherent instability in the religious experience- an idea that R. J. B. Soloveitchik famously celebrated in "footnote 4" of his Halakhic Man. From the staid mid-century confines of Orthodox America, R. Soloveitchik tried to demonstrate that being religious was no trip alongside the tranquil waters, but a tortuous, existential experience. At least in certain corners of the Modern Orthodox world, it seems this battle of perception was won.


Speaking of identity, the questions of datlashim and borders came up as well. Hodaya's new boyfriend has no problem whatsoever with ordering shrimp. He is not dati, so what difference does it make if he transgresses the rules of Shabbat or eats creepy crawly things. But Hodaya is uninterested in the treif. Indeed, Hodaya is interested only in pursuing a traditional existential quest. So when she gets a tattoo on her back after wandering the streets of Tel Aviv, her datlash boyfriend is less than happy. It's an interesting way to think of the halakhic categories of mumar lehahis and mumar leteavon. The datlash boyfriend is essentially portrayed as a "mumar leteyavon." He is in it for the non-kosher food and premarital sex, while identity seems less a part of it. On the other hand, identity is Hodaya's obsession, and in order to concretize her new identity as secular she inscribes it as a sign on her body. I don't necessarily want to characterize Hodaya as lehahis - except in the sense that what she's doing is "for real" and not a temporary phase, in the passion of the moment. As much as possible, she wants her new secularism etched on her body, and soul.

Trust and Believablity

Amir and Yefat have been having some marital problems. Not only in conceiving a child, but also in trust - from the banal to the serious. Amir crashes the car and tries not to tell Yefat, etc. etc. At the beginning of the episode entitled Shivah Neqiyim, the glasses waiting to be immersed in the mikveh are still on the kitchen counter - Amir simply has not gotten around to do it. And Yifat has been taking hormonal supplements to play with her cycle since she's been having fertility problems - a matter of some controversy in Israel over the last few years (Menahem Mendel posted about it a while back). At Hodaya's insistence, Yifat considers rethinking when to begin counting the "shivah neqiyim". This is rather interesting since she is married to a Sefardi, who begin counting from the fourth (and not fifth) day of the onset of the period. But Amir loses trust in Yifat. He asks a Rav how one can trust one's wife that she has immersed in the mikveh and receives a lesson about notions of believability in Jewish law (the idea that a person is believed regarding "forbidden things" is actually derived from the menstruant's believability). It doesn't work for Amir and, he does everything to avoid the mikveh night since according to his (mistaken) calculation, Yifat has immersed too early. The irony is profound. The glasses that Amir finally ends up immersing are partially broken, while his wife, who has immersed properly is broken as well. Judging by the facebook comments on Amir's profile, he is not exactly the most beloved character right now, to say the least.

As for the Shivah Neqiyim themselves, it is interesting how Yifat, the woman, is less sure of the process of shivah nekiqiym than her husband, while at least according to the Bavli it was a female innovation.
In my dissertation I made a fairly radical claim that I have yet to receive a response to. I hope I will get some pushback when I publish it in article form. For further details, I would suggest looking there, but in short, I argue that by comparing the Bavli and the Yerushalmi we can see that the phrase "the daughters of Israel were stringent" is a Babylonian addition to a Palestinian kernel, which merely declares a woman a menstruant even upon seeing a small drop of blood. In tannaitic sources, shivah neqiyim need not refer to seven "clean" days without blood but a period of time that is divorced from relations. This is at least how it appears in Tannaitic Hebrew. R. Zera cited the tradition in the name of R. Huna, and it made it into Babylonia in slightly altered form. In Rava's circle it was not entirely clear what the decision was - a stringency of the women or one that was simply "folk" or rabbinic and connected to the tendency to blur the distinction between zavah and niddah - already apparent, in some respects in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There also was the factor of Zoroastrian practice which similarly preached a need to divide the period from purification and underwent a comparitive development. It is interesting how the sources are in fact much less clear regarding who was responsible for the innovation - pious women, rabbis, general "folk custom" etc. And the same dynamic can be found in the later history of hilkhot niddah which ossocilates between rabbinic concern, female stringencies occasionally looked down upon by the rabbis, "mikveh ladies" etc. As always, things are messier than they first appear. The texts testify to this - if you look closely enough.