Just the facts (Daf Yomi Pesachim 45)
“Two verses that come as one.”
We are provided with a lesson in today’s Daf Yomi of what constitutes an analogy and by extension, how to discern the facts. When I was studying in the Creative Writing program at New York University, we tried really hard to not fall into the trap of over-used analogies, such as “cold as ice” or “hard as steel” and “white as snow.” Some of our analogies became fantastical and frankly, misguided. But we were young and trying hard to find our voice and may not have fully understood that it is important for an analogy to be truthful.
Today we are told that two verses that come together to teach the same principle cannot be assumed to be an analogy or relied upon as precedent for understanding the truth. The logic is as twisted as the over-the-top analogies that my fellow students came up with and involves Nazirites who gave up wine and imbibing and everything related to a grape. We are told that if a Nazarite partakes of both a permitted substance and a prohibited one, he may or may not have transgressed depending on the size of a grape skin that he ate. What we are sure of is that comparing the two substances does not constitute an analogy, which any first-year writing student can tell you.
The Gemara considers the concept of taste and how it is absorbed. We are told that non-sacred meat that touches a sin-offering renders it prohibited “even if it did not absorb the taste of the sin-offering it touched.” Therefore, we are told, that the meat “is not consecrated until the taste of the sin-offering is absorbed within its flesh.”
Taste can have physicality and fundamentally change something if it is absorbed through its essence, just like being provided with a new set of facts can change one’s perspective. There are stories of people who have lost their taste through a bout with the coronavirus who have not regained it months later. They talk of living on liquids because they cannot bear to even chew their food. The absorption of taste can change the status of a piece of meat under Rabbinic law, just as its loss can impact quality of life.
Here is where the logic gets really twisted and begins to take on the characteristics of sloppy journalism: we are told that if the case of a Nazirite and a sin-offering are considered “two verses that come as one,” they do not teach the “principle that the legal status of taste is like that of the substance of the entire Torah.” In other words, do not come to broad conclusions from today’s reading portion because it is focused on a narrow supposition. The discussion in today’s text on dough that is stuck in the cracks of a kneading bowl is also very narrow, but it tells us something about relying on a visible set of facts.
I have been pondering the meaning of “two verses that come as one” and how it is important to guard against obvious analogies that might lead us to believe something that has not been proven. Analogies resonate, which is why people use them through the power of bringing two concepts together. But they can mislead. As a trained librarian (which I rarely admit), I scrutinize sources. I was trained long ago, and before there was an internet, to always question a source. The phrase “fake news” might not have been in circulation at the time, but the concept of unreliable sources certainly was.
All news sources need to be scrutinized, but generally reliable sources are ones that have controls in place that fact-check the news stories. Its important to understand the difference between the news stories that are fact-checked and the editorials that are opinion pieces. Often, I will hear someone complain about a news source being too liberal or conservative, when they are referring to an editorial rather than a news story. News outlets have biases, with some leaning left, center or right and it is important to understand the orientation of each.
I continue to be perplexed by intelligent people who quote stories from questionable sources, like tabloids and websites that do not have fact-checking departments. A friend recently repeated a story to me that sounded sort of ridiculous and when I asked him about the facts that supported what he was saying, he said “just because something can’t be proven doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”
And so, that is the world we live in. We can bring two verses together and as a result, say something is so. Or we can outright discredit facts from reputable sources, because we don’t agree with them and just say it isn’t so. That doesn’t mean that everything should not be questioned regardless of the source. But at the end of the day, all we really have to trust are bare, unadorned facts. What happened to “just the facts” and nothing but the facts? It seems like a quaint idea from a 1950s police procedural television show.