One Step Ahead and Two Steps Back? (20a-20b)

So I’ve been mulling over this daf especially in connection with yesterday’s daf.

First of all, I have had to reconsider my account and interpretation of yesterday’s text. I interpreted the notion that the performance of a mitzvah could be superseded by considerations of human dignity as meaning that the considerations of human dignity would be a way of honoring God (just as doing a mitzvah would be). But the text actually says exactly the opposite because doing a mitzvah is the way to honor God, and considerations of human dignity are understood as something else entirely.

But more to the point – where I seem to have gone off the rails entirely is that I took a text dealing with the dignity of a corpse and applied it to the dignity of a living person! (Neil is not the only Am Ha’aretz here!) Mind you I have no regrets! But you see how muddled this can get ….

The text says: “But he may contaminate himself for an unattended corpse” which I now understand to mean that a person can transgress a commandment (contaminate himself) for human dignity (the honor owed to an unattended corpse).

Regarding transgressions the text makes a distinction between a mitzvah that one refrains from performing and a prohibition that one actively transgresses.  An example of the former would be refraining from blowing the shofar on Rosh Hoshanah when it falls on a Shabbos; an example of the latter would be wearing a garment of mixed wool and linen. (See Art Scroll footnote 2 for daf 20a more examples.) Rav’s more stringent view applies to the active transgression rather than to the refraining from doing a mitzvah in the first place.

All of this may seem very arcane but to me there remains a very real practical question; what takes precedence —  following the law or according dignity to an other? To me the answer is simple (and that remains unchanged from yesterday) whether the other is a corpse or a living person their dignity ought to take precedence. And for me that is the way to honor God, although the text allows that only by performing mitzvot is God honored.

Moving right along: I’d just like to note that today’s daf includes:

– the statement that the generation of the Rabbis differs from earlier ones in that in their generation no miracles occur while in earlier ones they did.

– a delightful and tantalizingly brief account of the obscure laws of Uktzin (the conditions under which stems and leaves of certain foods do or don’t convey impurity, tumah) about which R’ Yehudah said “I see here issues so obscure as to equal all the penetrating discussions of Rav and Shmuel put together!”

– the idea that the evil eye has no power over the progeny of Joseph because of Joseph’s success at avoiding the advances of Potiphar’s wife.

Okay – so now I get to some of the most interesting parts of this daf namely the extent to which women are, or are not, exempt from certain mitzvot. My understanding is that women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot because of the responsibilities women have for activities that take up ALL of the time (caring for children and husbands, cleaning, cooking, etc). So the question for the Rabbis is (at least) two-fold: which mitzvot are time-bound and which are not?  And which of the mitzvot are obligated by Biblical origin and which by Rabbinic legislation.

A poetic gloss on all of this suggests to me that men (in this context) see themselves (in the absence of The Temple)  as needing to be fully embedded in TIME because their entire sense of PLACE (ie The Temple) has been destroyed.   Women by contrast have always already been fully embedded in TIME (with or without a temple) because of our timeless obligations to family etc. Furthermore, women are fully embedded in SPACE (and by implication a PLACE) by virtue of all of the grounding activities for which we are typically responsible that have to do with the care and feeding of the family. Was the destruction of The Temple as devastating for the women as it was for the men?

In any case, the Rabbis aren’t sure how to obligate women for specific times knowing that women are in general obligated ALL the time by the activities for which we are responsible. Not only that but women have always had to be the guardians of our own inner temples and the domestic places of family even as men were the guardians of the external one.

There are differences here – real differences between men and women. But the question (or at least one of them) is how are gender differences that translate into differences of obligations avoid being reductionist (reducible to biology) and tied to a differential access to power?

More might  be said here and as I begin to mull over these ideas we’ll see what they might be and when and how they might emerge….it would be lovely to hear what others of you have to say …don’t feel you need to be doing the daf yomi to share your thoughts!

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3 Responses to One Step Ahead and Two Steps Back? (20a-20b)

  1. neillitt says:

    Your poetic gloss is very generous. Only time will tell if it can be sustained for 7.5 years.

  2. elenizl says:

    i guess i just shot my wad so to speak …so my post for the next daf!!

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