A culture of otherness (Daf Yomi Pesachim 49)

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“For it is your life and the length of your days.”

I usually can find one thing in the Talmud to write about each day, but today, I am left nearly speechless. The focus on potential marriage partners and the use of the word ignoramus over and over is extremely upsetting and especially in the light of the events of this week in Washington DC. The message of “otherness” is difficult to process. As long as there are people who think they are more privileged because of their education status or family position or other demographics, we will never find common ground among us.

I understand the passage was written at a time when the Rabbis were attempting to establish a religious footing and put guardrails around the Talmud. There were other religions circulating at the time that were recruiting from the community. But to establish guardrails around their own lives and to position themselves above others resonates of a leader who believes he is above the law – and even worse – owns the law.

It is difficult to rationalize the reading because it was written so long ago, when we are so divided as a country. Everyone is unique and special and has a place and purpose in this world. Every life is valuable contrary to the discussion in today’s Daf Yomi of people who do not study the Torah and can be stabbed to death. And yes, I know that I will be told that the stabbing does not represent a real death, but rather a spiritual one. But that is not what the words say, and words matter today more than ever.

Rabbi Akiva has been my hero since I was first introduced to him in Tractate Berakhot. He is a man who came from poverty and through study at the mature age of 40 became one of our most revered sages. He married a woman of means who supported him in this endeavor, which reflects the advice given in today’s Daf Yomi for suitable marriage partners. The quote in today’s reading that says in the years before Akiva embraced Torah study he would bite a Torah scholar like a donkey does not ring true to me. I cannot believe that the man who is seen as so generous to others would have looked back on his own life and the underprivileged in this way.

I cannot find it within me to respond to the passages on suitable marriage partners and the hierarchy that is established starting at the top with the high priests. And I have not fully processed what it tells us about how women were viewed. It is difficult to attribute all of it to a different time and place, because words matter and today, I read the passages against the backdrop of inflammatory speech that has incited unimaginable riots in our nation’s capital.

There are those who are commenting that cutting the American President off from social media is a form of censorship in violation of the US constitution. I learned when I studied constitutional law in college that shouting fire in a crowded theater or inciting violence is not protected free speech. It is a basic concept for determining what constitutes free speech. By extension, I do not believe we should protect everything we read in the Talmud as sacred.

I was not intending to post today because I need a day off. But I could not let this one go by without commenting on the language in today’s Daf Yomi that reflects a culture of “otherness.”

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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