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Rabba Yaffa Epstein’s: “Be Flexible Like the Reed" :A Talmudic Story of Rethinking-at Limmud

by Penny Jones Square, March 22, 2022



“In Judaism there is something holy about   argument.”—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “God Loves Those Who Argue”

Rabba Yaffa Epstein began her session at Limmud Winnipeg Festival 2022 “Be Flexible Like the Reed: A Talmudic Story of Rethinking” with a discussion of organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s understanding of “the process of rethinking,” considered in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Do Not Know. Grant’s central claim, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we do not know is wisdom,” is founded on a relationship between humility, curiosity, and learning as unlearning or rethinking. By acknowledging our ignorance, by questioning our current convictions, we allow for doubt and therefore, for more complexity. This opens us to curiosity, the desire to learn what we do not know, which “leads us to new discoveries, which in turn maintain our humility by reinforcing how much we still have to learn.” Epstein pointed out that the Talmud taught this lesson thousands of years ago in the text under study—the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Ta’anit 20a – 20b, and that it is inherent in the dialogic process hevruta itself, Talmudic study based on debate and questioning. 

Epstein welcomed all to participate in a “giant hevruta,” to discuss/debate/rethink this Talmudic text which concerns an encounter between a rabbi “very taken with himself” and “a very ugly man.” One person read the part of the rabbi and another the part of the ugly man while Epstein read the part of the narrator. The two readers were immediately so confused by the continual use of the indefinite “he” rather than either “the rabbi” or “the ugly man,” that they were not sure which part was theirs to read. The ambiguity, which Epstein believes is deliberately built into the text, persists throughout such that we never are certain who is speaking the greeting that ensues, the insult that is provoked, the response to it, the admission of sin, or the refusal of forgiveness. And it is also unclear, then, who is being flexible like the reed and who rigid like the cedar. Thus, the text demands rereading and rethinking and invites us to interpret it in multiple ways, thereby affirming that truth resides in complexity.

Various interpretations were expressed, some finding the rabbi, and others the ugly man, flexible or inflexible at different points in the encounter. Epstein offered her own surprising interpretation that resolved the dilemma of the speakers; she claimed both were the rabbi himself, stating “he is talking to himself!” The rabbi’s “travelling by the river” suggests this interpretation as water is associated with reflection. The rabbi’s being “very taken with himself after having learned so much Torah” suggests his being full of pride. The “very ugly man” he encounters then becomes the reflection of his own deepest fear, which is ignorance, what he is too proud to admit not knowing. Flexibility is “suddenly” not about acting with compassion toward the other without, in the encounter with difference or in one’s reaction to insult, but toward the other, the ugliness, within and the need to compassionate with the self.

The story ends with the rabbi teaching: “A person should always be bending like a reed, not rigid as a cedar. Therefore has the reed merited to be used for quills with which we write the Torah scroll, t’fillin (phylacteries) and mezuzot (scrolls of parchment).” Thus, flexibility is finally written into Jewish texts themselves.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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