Footnotes to Footnote

By Michael Fagenblat
Friday, March 2, 2012

Director Joseph Cedar's film Hearat Shulayim (Footnote) takes place in the Hebrew University Talmud Department, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the (unnamed) Shalom Hartman Institute—the Jerusalem cloisters of the small network of Israel's talmudic academic elite.  The film is a talmudic tragicomedy, a morality play about "the masters of those who know."  Those who have been sequestered in these cloisters will see the film with a special dose of libidinal gusto, but the fun of the movie allows a wider audience to enjoy it without feeling patronized. 

It helps, however, to begin with Baba Metzia 84a.  One day on a river bank, Resh Lakish, a womanizing Jewish bandit, sees the talmudic master Rabbi Yohanan bathing near the opposite bank.  Resh Lakish mistakes Yohanan for a woman—or maybe not—and, desiring him, uses a pole to vault, naked, over the river.  But Yohanan tells Resh Lakish that the talmudic life can provide mastery, power, even women.  Resh Lakish, converted, becomes a rabbi.  He tries to vault back over the river to retrieve his clothes; but his pole (metaphorically?) has softened, and he fails.  Yohanan, true to his word, gives his sister to Resh Lakish as a bride and makes Resh Lakish into a great scholar and rabbi.

For 40 years Yohanan trains Resh Lakish, who becomes Yohanan's principal talmudic interlocutor and friend.  Yohanan gives Resh Lakish his sister in marriage, and Resh Lakish thereby completes his conversion from a typically acculturated Roman man to a rabbi by transforming his desire—without need of castration or celibacy—into the duality of earthly sexuality and spiritual longing for Torah, a righteous contrast to the perceived barbarism of Roman masculinity. This transformation and elevation of masculine desire reflects, according to the talmudic story, the great difference between rabbinic and Roman culture.

But the love between the two men does not prevent them from falling into a bitter fight over truth—a disagreement about the ritual status of "the sword, the lance, and the dagger."  Resh Lakish falls deathly ill.  His wife begs her brother Yohanan to relent: If Resh Lakish dies, she says, he will leave a widow and orphans.  Unmoved, Yohanan cites Jeremiah 49:11: "Leave your orphans, I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in Me."  Resh Lakish dies.  Yohanan's substitute interlocutor is an inadequate yes-man.  Yohanan is bereft.  He wanders around town crying for his lost friend, goes mad, and dies.  Thus, the Talmud depicts the violence that can mar even its most prized way of life.

Back to the movie.  Near its beginning, academics at a cocktail party discuss the real-life scholar Daniel Boyarin, whose Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man argues that the conversion of Resh Lakish from virile Roman to effeminate rabbi represents the Talmud-era feminization of the Roman male so as to create the Jewish male:

Academic A: What [Boyarin] is trying to do is derive anthropology from hermeneutics.

Academic B: But what on earth is the connection between techniques of the body and reading practices?

Academic A: It's a new story; it feminizes the Jewish male in talmudic times.

Academic B: What on earth are you talking about?

Academic A: What am I talking about?  What are you talking about?  What he's trying to do is to feminize the Jewish man of the talmudic period and essentially say that this man, this sissy, compared to the virile Roman man, the strong guy, with his iron helmet and coat of mail . . . .  He's arguing that Zionism has transformed this Jewish man from a feminized man to a macho man—and this is the destruction of Jewish history.

Academic B: Ah, if that's what you're saying . . . .

The conversation trails off.  Cedar has paid homage to both Boyarin and Baba Metzia.  Those au fait with the connection between techniques of the body and reading practices are laughing; those not in the know are none the wiser.  

The cocktail party takes place just after the film's protagonist, young professor Uriel Shkolnik—like his father Eliezer, a member of the Talmud Department—has been admitted to the Academy.  Unlike the purist father, neglected and secretly thirsting for recognition, the latitudinarian son basks in accolades.  It is the father, however, who receives a telephone call informing him that he has won his country's highest scholarly honor, the Israel Prize.  Uriel soon learns—spoiler alert—that the call was a mistake: The prize was meant for Uriel, who must now deal with the error.  As in the talmudic legend, the film depicts the residual violence that takes place when physical aggression is sublimated as intellectual strife. In both cases, the wife and children of the cultured elite are collateral damage to their intellectual warfare.

The love between Yohanan and Resh Lakish was not enough to prevent them from killing one another for the sake of truth.  From this, Boyarin concludes in his book that renouncing overt violence for a more spiritual culture may not negate power dynamics but merely shift the arena in which they operate.  Without a "revolution in power relations," Boyarin says, the sublimation of violence into more civilized and spiritual forms just produces more civilized and spiritual forms of violence.  

There is another footnote in Footnote and, interestingly, it also alludes to the problem of culture as a form of violence. Before his ill-fated star has risen, we find Professor Eliezer Shkolnik studying Talmud with his adolescent grandson, who exudes the innocence and purity of youth. 

Grandson: So maybe from this one can learn that welcoming guests is more important than keeping Shabbat?

Professor Shkolnik (senior): That is a very nice idea. Very nice. But wrong.

Grandson: But my father says it fits with Levinas's position.

Professor Shkolnik (senior): Hmm . . . "One does not bring proof from fools."

The hilarious insult to Emmanuel Levinas (d. 1996), the most important Jewish philosopher of recent times, hints at the "talmudic readings" he penned in the course of his philosophical career. The talmudic academy in Israel never warmed to these "readings." From its philological perspective, Levinas's "ethical interpretation" of the Talmud is precisely where violence lies—the worst violence, violence to the text. The citation which the senior Professor employs to insult Levinas's interpretation comes from a talmudic passage that refers to Jesus (Shabbat 104b). So when Professor Shkolnik rejects Levinas's view that "welcoming guests is more important than keeping Shabbat" by denouncing it as Christian foolery, he too, like Boyarin in the previous scene, takes a stand on an age-old dispute.

Boyarin proposed that "spiritual interpretation" was foreign to the Talmud. It was, in his view, a Christian way of violating the text and, implicitly, denigrating the human body. Levinas's view is exactly that—a spiritual interpretation. For him, the Talmud always points to an "ethical meaning." Both thinkers are concerned with the moral implications of how Jews read their texts, and the film delightfully, perhaps unwittingly, stages this problem.  

In the end, Uriel must confront his father's nemesis, Professor Grossman, who chairs the Israel Prize Selection Committee. Grossman refuses, at all moral cost, to award the prize to Eliezer. Facing Grossman, whose wrinkled brow protrudes like an overgrown brain, Uriel pleads to be allowed to forfeit his rightful claim to the prize so it can be given to his father.  "There are more important things than truth," he insists. Grossman replies, as if the thought disgusted him, "Like what—family?" 

For Grossman and Eliezer, only the truth counts, while Uriel is caught in this "antagonism," as Levinas calls it, of our "essentially hypocritical civilization, that is, attached both to the True and to the Good." Boyarin also thinks that the desire for spiritual Truth runs the risk of being antagonistic toward the Good. The film, just like the story of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan, is fraught with this tension, which "causes the crisis that leads to its catastrophic end."

The Talmud records this tragic end with the death by madness of Rabbi Yohanan, a tragedy all the more touching because it is expressed in Rabbi Yohanan's deepest longing for his beloved Resh Lakish. In the film, the tragicomedy is precipitated by a Faustian deal struck between Grossman and Uriel. In both stories, the quest for a more spiritual and more civilized culture is twisted into a cultural form of violence. In both stories, this cultural violence deprives the protagonists of the very thing they cherish. The parallels go even further. Cedar has included an equally droll scene to the one depicting Resh Lakish, a sword-wielding bandit, suddenly become a naked, impotent rabbi. It happens when Uriel finds himself in the locker room, his clothes mysteriously stolen, and given fencing gear to wear. So too the scene in which Uriel's wife and son, like Resh Lakish's wife and sons, are presented as the true sacrificial victims of this sublimation of physical into cultural violence.

As the curtain rises on the ceremony conferring the Israel Prize, each person on the stage—Ezekiel, Uriel, even Grossman, who values truth more than ethics or family—knows the prize is going to the wrong man.  Ensnared by the antagonism between goodness and truth, everyone participates in the excruciating, isolating lie. Like Rabbi Yohanan, who went to this grave in madness.

The charming Footnote is the first talmudic lesson to have won a Cannes Film Festival award and an Oscar nomination.  Some Talmud scholars have complained that the movie ignores the delights of talmudic scholarship.  But if the talmudic allegory teaches that spiritualization and culture do not erase the danger of violence, Footnote, an allegory of the allegory, enables the Jewish texts to speak beyond their confines and release their critical potential.

Michael Fagenblat, Monash University. This article was written with the support of a John Templeton Fellowship in Philosophical Theology at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem.

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