Another way to look at text

Studying Mishnah Gittin 5:8 with Rabbi Tzvi Blanchard of CLAL.  In English, he insisted, because we’ll be teaching it in English if we ever teach it (except to my amazing Advanced Adult Hebrew Class on Sunday mornings!) and also because it allows us to see the text through other eyes than whatever was presented to us in rabbinical school.  Here’s how he framed it: “It’s either a short story or maybe a poem.”  Then he had us tell the story or speak about the poem.  And Wow!  Here’s a translation of the original text:

Traps for wild animals, or birds, or fishes come partly under the law of theft — in the interests of peace.  Rabbi Yosi says:  This is undoubtedly theft.

In case you can’t parse this (I couldn’t at first), read it as:

[Concerning animals removed from] traps for wild animals, or birds, or fishes: [This is sort of considered stealing, and therefore is adjudicated] partly under the law of theft — in the interests of peace.  [But] Rabbi Yosi says: This is undoubtedly theft.

Under Maine or Massachusetts law, or for northern trappers of a previous century, I think it is undoubtedly theft: nobody is supposed to mess with your traps, and anything in them has become yours.  But under Jewish law, ownership of the animal is different from ownership of the container: ownership is established not by the animal’s location, but by your action of physically lifting it.  Till then, it’s a wild animal, free to anyone, even if currently trapped.

“It’s about a lobsterman, and he’s out on his boat hauling up his traps, and the bait is gone but so are the lobsters.”  For the fun of it, starting off with a real-world but very trefe example.

“It’s about a single mother, and she has no way of feeding her family, and she’s so desperate that she’ll go out after the lobster fishermen have baited the trap and take what she can get.”

Whoa!  I missed the second side completely!  Is that why it’s only *partly* considered a theft?  Is there a way to satisfy the needs of both A and B?

“It’s a poem written by PETA, and the theft is the theft of the animals from themselves; they are not ‘free for the taking,’ they are an integral part of nature and belong to themselves.”

“It’s about the theft of life from the animals themselves.”

“It’s about the theft of an entire species from the ecosystem.”  Depletion.

So there are more interested parties than just the two human beings.  The animals aren’t even players, just props, as the story reads in the beginning; but that’s not a big enough picture.  Add in consideration of the animal in question, the entire species, Gaea as a whole.

“It’s a story about the American West in a time of transition, and a question of allocation of scarce resources:  ‘The farmer and the cowboy should be friends,’ because each believes s/he has a claim on the open land, but for apparently incompatible purposes.”

“It’s a story about MacGregor, who owns the land, and Native Americans who used to trap and hunt freely on the land; when they catch something on their ancestral lands, he now claims that it’s his, because anything on his land is his and he has the papers to prove ownership.”

To whom do the resources belong?  If to anyone?  Are there ways to resolve this that bring peace — a win-win situation?  A win-win-win situation, taking into account the animals and the ecosystem too? And is any solution of necessity a temporary one, since cultures are in flux?

“It’s about the theft of traps.”  Who owns the means of production?  Are they perhaps Rabbi Yosi’s traps?!

“It’s about Goldilocks — wandering around in the forest, going into an unlocked house and helping herself to whatever she finds, without so much as a by-your-leave.  Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers.”  Or is Goldilocks a single mother, who stumbles onto a blessing that allows her to keep her family going for another day?

And so on, and so on.  And after that we started discussing what “in the interests of peace” might mean.  What a way to bring the text alive!

Rabbi Blanchard is an amazing teacher, appreciating everyone’s contributions and finding a way to weave each insight into a very clear statement of yet *another* thing to think about!  And then effortlessly connecting each way of looking at the text with real-world lobbying implications: What perspectives we might encourage legislators to see, how to think bigger and outside the either/or box to do creative problem-solving, etc.

And I sat by him on the ride out here (to the Pearlstone Retreat Center) and blithely discussed how domesticated animals have partnered with a stronger partner (us humans) to both our benefits.  I was harking back to conversations on this very blog from a year ago about whether it’s ok to raise animals for our own purposes.  I had no idea what a scholar and a mensch I was talking with!

Just look at wolves and dogs, said he.  Dogs are flourishing and wolves almost driven to extinction.  He said that on the ride, and referenced it again during last night’s learning session.

We Jews are a domesticated people, he said to me.  (I wonder if that was at all the subject of his teaching at the United Nations.) We have found a way to ally ourselves and partner with the dominant culture almost anywhere we have gone.  Usually to mutual benefit.  What a perspective!