Read the bottle - Talmudic narrative and community
“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.”
(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction)
What is a story? What is its physical form? If a story had a physical form, that is, what would it look like? A conventional story, Ursula K. Le Guin thinks, is the Hero story. The Hero is strong and powerful and likes fighting and killing woolly mammoths. He (yes, he, because it’s implied to be a man), goes out to hunt the mammoth and the story with which he returns is one involving physical strength and conflict and conquest. It goes in one direction, pushing forcefully onwards like a spear thrown towards its target. Anyone and everything who is not the hunting Hero or his antagonist, that is, the trees, the trickle of rain, a child playing by the side of the road, the woman thatching a roof to build a warm home, all that falls outside of the picture being sketched here.
What if, Le Guin, wonders, instead of privileging this story, we thought of storytelling in a different shape, a shape that in reality is quite common and of direct practical relevance to people’s lives. What if the shape that better described a story, or described a better story, was not a spear but a bottle. The bottle, in her telling, stands in for a container of any kind, a carrier bag, a leaf, a gourd…. What fundamentally distinguishes the shapes is that one pierces and penetrates and moves in a linear fashion from one point to another, while the other carries, supports, holds possibly many contradictory things to be true at the same time. It moves at a different speed too. A spear not zipping forward through the air is a piece of dead wood. A bag, and we can make this more modern than the containers that Le Guin describes, like the tote bag you put your book and your snacks in when you go to the park on a sunny day, moves at a much more relaxed pace without losing its purpose. If we stick to the tote bag, even if you put it down on the ground and it collapses in on itself, it hasn’t lost its purpose, it has merely adjusted its shape but will still hold on to the items you’ve entrusted to its care.
As a model for narrative structure, the bag, or the bottle, is much more malleable, allows for shapeshifting and contradiction. It allows, also, to widen the scope of the story’s subject. In the Hero story, everyone else, the people who make the beds and cook the food for the Hero, the people gathering in groups and making decisions about how the community should be run, or even just sharing the latest gossip, “have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero”. As Le Guin remarks, “it isn’t their story. It’s his.” The story of the carrier bag allows for many more subjects to exist at the same time, like a bunch of wild mushrooms foraged in the woods. It allows for their many plots to exist next to each other, not one big plot and sub-plots forced into the service of supporting it. All the plots run parallel, and some might not even look like plots at all. Not just the man hunting the mammoth is the story now, but something as slow moving as the flow of a stream, or the repetitive action of repairing a fishing net, or consoling a crying child comes into view as a valid stage for narrative drama. This story allows a fundamentally different idea of what it means to be human, one that is far deeper than just fulfilling the idea of the Hero.
This capacity for the co-existence of different narrative paces, or different scopes, appears in the discussion of the great synagogue of Alexandria. In Sukkah 51b:6 we’re told:
“It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda says: One who did not see the great synagogue [deyfloston] of Alexandria of Egypt never the saw the glory of Israel.”
“תַּנְיָא רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר מִי שֶׁלֹּא רָאָה דְּיוֹפְּלוּסְטוֹן שֶׁל אֲלֶכְּסַנְדְּרִיָּא שֶׁל מִצְרַיִם לֹא רָאָה בִּכְבוֹדָן שֶׁל אֵל
Shortly after, that very synagogue is violent destroyed. Alexander the Great invades and “all the people who congregated in that synagogue were killed”. According to the Gemara, a reason for this could be punishment for having made a home in Egypt. I’m not so much interested in taking apart the moral lesson here. Instead, I want to look at what happened in between the introduction of the synagogue and its destruction because I think it’s emblematic for something visible throughout Sukkah, maybe throughout the Talmud. It is also something that appears in an interesting light when seen through Le Guin’s theory of narrative. Between the introduction and the destruction of the synagogue, we see a verse that, seemingly, pales in comparison. We have the imposing synagogue, clearly, a building that is described as exemplifying the glory of Israel. Physically imposing, visually arresting, dwarfing all who stand in its shadows. Then we have a short but nonetheless violent description of destruction and murder. We picture the invasion of an army and the slaughter that follows. Good things, it seems, are often tinged with an edge of violence, either in the presence or as a threat on the horizon.
What happened in between those two verses though?
“And when a poor stranger entered there, he would recognize people who plied his craft, and he would turn to join them there. And from there he would secure his livelihood as well as the livelihood of the members of his household, as his colleagues would find him work in that craft.”
וְלֹא הָיוּ יוֹשְׁבִין מְעוֹרָבִין אֶלָּא זֶהָבִין בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָן וְכַסָּפִין בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָן וְנַפָּחִין בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָן וְטַרְסִיִּים בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָן וְגַרְדִיִּים בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָן וּכְשֶׁעָנִי נִכְנָס שָׁם הָיָה מַכִּיר בַּעֲלֵי אוּמָּנֻתוֹ וְנִפְנֶה שָׁם וּמִשָּׁם פַּרְנָסָתוֹ וּפַרְנָסַת אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ
If you try to picture this scene, much less is happening here than in the other sugyot. It’s not describing an imposing structure or a military conquest, both highly dramatic moments, Instead, it’s giving us insight into two things. On the one hand, we’re learning about community structure. The way people are sitting in the synagogue tells us something about the organisation of both commercial and social life as organised through guilds, or guild-like social formations. On the other hand, there’s a personal narrative implied here too. If you think of the last time you entered a space in which you knew (almost) no one, how did that feel? What kind of thing gave you structure, made you feel at home? Were you drawn to specific things or specific people? This scene also tells us of entering into a new space and finding a way to call it home. That addresses something that, I would argue, is a human universal, the desire to feel welcomed into the fold somewhere. What’s so interesting too, is that the first and the second perspective really can only exist together. The second perspective, the emotional one, exists together with the first one, the societal perspective. Feeling emotionally at home happens in specific social (and, in this case also economic) arrangements.
This is not a dramatic account. There is no clear beginning, narrative arc, or end. Instead, it sets the scene, but I worry that that phrase implies something passive, something that happens to quite literally paint a backdrop for more important and dramatic events happening in front of it. If we just shift our perspective, slightly, this description might merit closer attention. Even though nothing dramatic happens, there is no rush forward, no conflict and no resolution (even a violent one), is it true to say that nothing happens? To consider this question, we can think of other, similar, descriptions at other points in Sukkah. How much of it is a description of the construction of the Temple, measuring out the exactly right amount of oil for the candelabra, the meticulous counting out of the right blasts of the trumpet, the construction of the balcony during Simchat Beit Ha’Shoeva, or the allocation of the right amount of sacrificial animals on the right days?
None of these instances have a narrative structure in the way Le Guin describes the Hero tale. You could argue that Le Guin is talking about fiction, about the narrative in a novel, and it’s probably inaccurate to reduce the Talmud to a piece of fiction like that. Of course, culturally and practically, they are not the same form of text at all. At the same time, both contain narrative, and it would be inaccurate to not consider the narrative element of the Talmud as something (also) essential to the way we understand its message. It’s a particularly interesting narrative, too, exactly because it doesn’t choose to do just one thing. In fact, the impossibility of ever reducing the Talmud to just one thing is exactly the reason for its depth, and the reason I’m even writing this today, the reason we’ve all written and engaged with it at all.
The impossibility of a clear and unambiguous linear narrative is what makes the Talmud what it is, and I think this is exemplified in those moments that appear, seemingly, in between the moments of overarching plot. The reason these thoughts started somewhere entirely differently, with Le Guin’s theory of narrative, was because her emphasis on an alternative form of story, one that carries many contradicting parts jumbled together along at the bottom of a cavernous bag, allows us to see that it is exactly those non-linear, detailed descriptions of how to organise life, the everyday and the rituals that interrupt it that make it worthwhile. This may be true in two senses: it is worthwhile as a story, yes, but the Talmud is not a novel, and its narrative therefore has to be seen as serving (also) another purpose. The story, like the holders and recipients that Le Guin describes, is also a receptacle, and therefore a tool, for our (spiritual) lives and how we think about them. In other words, a story that doesn’t move forward like the conflict driven Hero tale, may still be a story and at the same time and also so much else: it’s a tool with which we live our own lives at the same time.
This is only one side of it all, of course, and maybe it does a disservice to the Talmud’s narrative structure anyway. The comparison between Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Temple and the detailed description of everyday life (or, at other points in Sukkah, rituals) could make it seem as if the two are opposed. One is dramatic narrative and the other is, seemingly, its absence. The point, however, is that even the absence of drama, the absence of conflict and the proverbial Hero hunting the mammoth, is exactly not the absence of story. That different kind of story, the detailed descriptions of the structures in which we live our lives, and, perhaps even more importantly, the dense argumentation between the different Rabbis trying to explain those structures to us, is its own form of narrative. This is narrative of a different kind, exactly the kind that allows it to be story and tool at the same time. Following the seemingly static description of how lives were lived, or the slowly moving argument between Rabbis, is a form of story that definitely does not go clearly from A to B. It goes from A to Z to G and back again and that is exactly what makes it valuable.
If we see how the moments where, seemingly, nothing moves forward, or it moves forward only slowly, are actually moments rich with plot, we can appreciate another, final, element of what Le Guin was arguing. In Judaism, as in life, none of us exist solely for the purpose of furthering someone else’s plot. Each of us and the lives we live, are not fit to be pressed into the service of an overarching Hero story, whether this be a community leader or Hashem in whatever form. If we tip the idea of the Hero narrative upside down, we see how stories and how life happens in the cracks between the drama. It’s the synagogue congregation taking in a travelling craftsperson, it’s the community built in the process of arguing about the right number of blasts for the trumpet.
Foregrounding those elements of Talmud as what they are, contributions to a rich a understanding of community in which the organizing of everyday life and of rituals is just as important as the conventionally plot-driving drama that interrupts it periodically, allows us to conceptualize not just narrative or Jewish life, but life in general, as something in which we all play an active part. Not because we are all Heroes who need to actualize ourselves in a proverbial fight with a mammoth, but because we are all significant parts of a whole world that is jumbled together inside a carrier bag the size of the great synagogue of Alexandria, or the whole world.