“In a settled area it is prohibited; in the desert it is permitted.”
If I have learned anything from the past year of reading the Talmud, it is that I have been born into a very difficult heritage and the punishment for breaking the multitude of rules can be quite severe. I understand that the Rabbis at the time of the Talmud had created guardrails around the Torah in order to ensure its laws were followed through the creation of stringencies. But if someone strayed, the consequences could be dire if you read the text as it is written. There are punishments of spiritual deaths or karet and excommunication, which must have been a type of death on earth if someone was cut off from his community.
And then there are lashes and more lashes. I had wanted to believe that the lashes are a form of spiritual punishment and there were no Rabbis in the courtyard bent over hapless souls with whips in their hand. But today the flogging seems very real through the reference of locating an official or master to carry out the act. The transgression that is discussed today that results in a flogging is not a theft or murder or attack against someone else, but wandering beyond the town limits on a festival day. Rav Natan bar Asya traveled from Rav’s study hall to the town on Pumbedita on the second day of Shavuot. As a result, he stood accused of the crime of desecrating the second day of the holiday by traveling beyond town limits.
To have the opportunity to sit in the great Rav’s study hall must have been a life changing experience, much like the memories I have of listening to the great Eli Wiesel speak at the 92nd Street Y in the 1980s, with his deep dusky voice. Rav Natan may not have wanted to miss the opportunity to hear the great Rav speak. Perhaps he was pulled into two directions and had family obligations in the town of Pumbedita and made a misguided attempt to attend the lecture of a lifetime and honor his family. He may have miscalculated the timing of his travels.
Rav Natan did not harm a person or property but simply traveled somewhere. He was brought before the court of Rabbis who voted on his punishment. Rav Yosef voted to excommunicate Rav Natan, while Abaye called for a flogging. But then somehow in the text their positions were reversed. In the end Rav Yosef agreed to flogging since “in Eretz Yisrael they vote to flog a Torah scholar but do not vote to punish him.” We are told that this is the least severe punishment, which is reserved for a Torah scholar, when compared to excommunication.
This passage, which is the one “thing” that resonated with me today, suggested that Rav Natan must have been so enraptured with Rav’s lecture that he risked dire consequences by traveling afterwards on the second day of a festival. Somewhere hidden in his name and the tale of how the Rabbis argued over his punishment was a man who made a mistake by literally stepping out of line. It was a very proscribed life with a litany of rules and regulations.
I have questioned from the beginning of the first Tractate the apparent lack of proportionality for some of the punishments. I was first troubled by the idea of putting so many people to death for infractions that did not warrant capital punishment. I was told that this was a spiritual death and no one’s life (at least in this world) was being taken away. But the floggings seem real and painful and from my modern sensibility barbaric.
Every day of reading the Talmud requires a new effort at coming to terms with what it says. Everyone has their own way of wading through the text and it is not unreasonable to accept that it is what it is and reflects a different time and place. I live my life in words and each syllable and accent, and punctuation means something to me, and the only way I can continue on this journey is to grapple with what I am being told in the here and now. That is my way.