Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 33b-34a: R' Shimon b. Yochai - Part I
ADDeRabbiMy fellow Mavens and I have discussed reposting some stuff that had been up on our individual blogs that's Maven-worthy, like once a week for each of us, or something like that. I've been working on a series - just posted Part VI at 'home' - expositing the story of R' Shimon b. Yochai. Rather than posting part VI here, I've decided to repost part I on MY, and eventually catch up by the time I've completed the exposition. The story itself serves as a very fruitful paradigm for understanding the interplay between Judaism and a dominating culture.
The text of the narrative can be found in the original here and in English (Soncino) translation here (follow at your own risk; the site itself is an anti-semitic site. It just so happens that they are also the only site with a translation of the Talmud). At times I've taken the liberty of doing my own translations.
To my knowledge, there are two extant expositions of this Talmudic passage. The first is R’ A. Y. Kook’s commentary to the Aggadic sections of Shabbat, Eyn Ayah vol I, which has been translated into English in Bezalel Naor’s Of Societies Perfect and Imperfect. The second treatment is in Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Talmudic Stories. R’ Kook’s exposition is the direct inspiration for my own, though still different enough to warrant a separate treatment. I read Rubenstein’s book only after developing the approach presented here. Nevertheless, by the sheer fact that I am treating this Talmudic narrative as literature, I have assumed one of the basic characteristics of his approach, or of an academic approach in general. I will inevitably incorporate textual and literary considerations that he addresses, but my goals are vastly different from his.
Two conflicting tasks confront the Talmudic commentator: on one hand, his goal is that of the objective scientist, using objective methodological tools to unravel, to the greatest degree possible, the meaning of the text for its intended audience. Thorough knowledge of the language and culture of the composition, in their broadest sense, is crucial to understand the meaning of any text. By definition, objective text study, to the degree possible, means divorcing one’s self from the normative implications of the subject matter.
At the same time, Torah study is the religious gesture par excellence. The sacred texts where God’s mind and man’s mind meet, and where man employs his God-given intelligence to understand, appreciate, and carry out God’s revealed Will, thereby become the focus of the ongoing relationship between the Creator and His elect. One who studies Torah within this frame of mind will demand meaning and relevance from the text.
Ignoring the former goal, one would run the risk of rendering the Torah irrelevant. The meanings that had been invested in the texts would contribute nothing to any type of contemporary discourse. It would remain a closed book. Those who would purport to ignore objective tools in the name of preserving the integrity of Torah undermine the Torah’s intelligibility, the basis for the ongoing conversation between God and the Israel. Nevertheless, ignoring the devotional elements of Torah study allows the Torah to petrify completely by consigning it to the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. As long as the Jewish people lives, the Torah is its constitution from and covenant with God. Treating it as a dead-letter violates its very essence.
Reading the current segment of the Talmud, as any, is limited by these constraints. This particular segment is unique because it is reflecting upon the very tensions described in the preceding paragraphs. Therefore, the following presentation is both a description and an example of an earnest attempt to mediate the dual constraints of objectivity and relevance.
Our story is set in the middle of the 2nd century, CE. The three Rabbis who open the story with their conversation are all considered later students of the great Rabbi Akiba. Although Rome had been a major player in the local politics for nearly two centuries by then, it was only in that generation, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, that the Jews living in the Land of Israel sensed that they were no longer sovereign over their own land, and that they were in a state of unredeemed exile and would remain so for the foreseeable future. For two centuries, Jewish and Roman cultures existed side-by-side, sometimes at war and sometimes at peace. With the failure of Bar Kochba’s revolt, Jewish culture was swallowed entirely into the Roman world, and forfeited its status as an autonomous culture. The task fell to the leaders of that generation to shape the proper attitude toward the newly dominating culture, and it is with this in mind that the story begins.
 Torah here is the generic term for any Jewish text whose status is normatively or formatively canonic.
 The previous two paragraphs are oversimplifications of two very broad topics – the task of the historian and the nature of Torah study. My purpose is to briefly describe the tensions that characterize the impulse to incorporate both. For a broader description of this interpretive duality, see R’ Kook’s introduction to Eyn Ayah. On the necessary interdependence of these two general tasks, see Eyn Ayah to Brachot 45a, s.v. ‘eyn ha-meturgeman’.
 The importance of the setting is not to establish or posit its literal historical value. Rather, the setting of the story will indicate to the reader (or originally, listener) to recall the collective memories of that period and its traumas, triumphs, and dilemmas. As I hope to demonstrate, the generation in which the story is set is of extreme significance to understanding the story itself. The historical ‘data’ that I marshal here is to characterize the way that composers of the story would have retrospectively viewed the generation in question. Each bit of information can be substantiated as part of Chazal’s (the generic term I shall use for the formulators of Rabbinic literature) understanding of the period discussed.