These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What I learned at Pardes this week (#1)

Posted on March 28, 2011 by Pious Antic

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When I first left for Israel, and perhaps even more so when I decided to come back for a second year, many, if not most, of my friends and family back home simply couldn’t understand why I would want to come here to spend my days studying dusty old ancient texts. To be frank, after spending spending time last summer away from these old books, with secular friends and family, whom I had missed terribly all year, I started to wonder why I wanted to come back, too. After my first week of classes at Pardes, I remembered though.

One week in, I was very excited about the learning I was going to do. In the hope that if I could share just a little of what I’ve been learning here, perhaps my friends and family back home would better understand why I abandoned them to dedicate two years of my life to Jewish text study, I decided to try to post something about my learning each week.

Four mornings a week, I have a class on the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin. In brief, the Talmud (or Gemara) is a collection of arguments and annecdotes by rabbis from approximately the 3rd through 6th centuries, structured as commentary on the Mishnah, the authoritative rabbinic law code, compiled around the year 200. Tractate Sanhedrin deals primarily with judicial procedure. Last semester, we first read chapter four of Mishnah Sanhedrin, before beginning to look at the Gemara on that chapter. Most of the chapter is a pretty dry discussion of the procedural differences betwen capital cases and civil cases, which was primarily interesting for showing that the system seems to be set up to make it as difficult as possible to convict someone of a capital crime.

The chapter concludes, though, with a description of the warning read to witnesses before they testify. It includes a pair of midrashot (exegeses) on the biblical story of Cain and Able, which highlight first the immeasurable consequences of killing someone (since not only the victim, but also any potential children they might have had, and the descendants of those children to the end of time are killed along with them), and second the sheer brutality of murder (a description of Able’s blood splattered on rocks and sticks).

This mishnah is also the source of the uber-famous line that since the whole world is descended from one person, “anyone who destroys a single life is as if he destroyed the whole world”. This warning would seem to highlight to witnesses and jurists not only how terrible murder is, so that they should not balk at condemning a murderer to death, but also on the other hand just how precious each life is, so that they should be very careful not convict someone wrongly.

The mishnah then, perhaps suprisingly, reminds us that the bible tells us we are all descended from Adam in order to teach that no one should say “my dad’s better than your dad.”

Given what we know about how the justice systems in even the most democratic societies treat different classes and races of people differently, it is shocking and yet supremely appropriate that an 1,800-year-old text about criminal judicial procedure should conclude with a reminder that we all deserve equal treatment at the hands of the law. Whoever said we needed to wait for the Enlightenment thinkers to teach us that “all men are created equal?”