Thanksgiving Is Ruined

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November 28, 2007
Norman Mailer's favorite Talmud passage

In the Forward a couple weeks back, Ezra Cappell    wrote about his conversation with Norman Mailer at a public event in Austin, Texas, last year, as follows:

I also said that I found a certain talmudic pilpul in his finest work.

To the amazement of the group, he responded by saying, "Many years ago, I received a translation of the Talmud as a gift, and I have been dipping into it on and off ever since; it has influenced everything I have written."

Once that dispute had been settled, Mailer, with his strong and distinct voice intact, began to loudly declaim his favorite talmudic section, which discusses when prayers can continue once an ox has defecated near a synagogue.

Yes, Mailer claimed that his favorite Talmud passage was the one about "when prayers can continue once -- " -- whaaat?

One might well wonder: What on earth was Mailer talking about? Which section did he declaim? Does the Talmud really include such a discussion? The Forward article does not include a cite.

It seemed the least that TiR could do, in Mailer's memory, to try to find, read and reflect upon his favorite passage.

Not so easy a task, it turns out.

While the Talmud does seem to contain many discussions of prayer, oxen and poop, our review of on-line and hardcopy volumes failed to turn up one passage that united discussion of all three, as Mailer suggested. However, scholar/detectives finer than TiR (someone may interject: no other kind exist) may have more success.

Talmud passages that fall into the "close but no cigar, Norman" category are numerous.

In the "ox" category, for example, we have:
Lastly, do not stand in front of an ox just emerging from the swamps, for at that time he is so wild that it seems as if Satan were moving between his horns.

R. Samuel said: "This refers only to a black ox in the month of Nisan."

Useful advice.

Meanwhile, indices to the hardcopy volumes of the Bablylonian Talmud helpfully direct us to the tractate Sanhedrin, in the case of a person and an ox caught together in an "unnatural crime." TiR is insufficiently familiar with the totality of Mailer's output to opine as to whether any influence from this part of the Talmud ever made it into, say, any of his novels.

As for the "ox + poop" category, we find through web surfing far afield

ha! --

what field?
someone might object that this blog only exists
as a flimsy excuse to surf apparently random webpages,
as [endless/pointless] research for its own sake,
or for TiR's own purely intellectual entertainment,

i.e. there IS no such thing as "far" from the field
(or periphery/core, background/foreground, field/gesture)

[on the other hand,
as someone else might object,
to say "there is no such thing"
means, or course, that there is,
but that one is playing cutesy with oneself
& others (if they exist)
about its location]

[reframed & restated:

someone might argue that:

semi-public speech means that you end up having a "kick me!" sign of your own making affixed permanently to your back

or worse, a "______ me!" sign --

you can't even read what it says, and never directly will,
because its territory is your stubbornest blindspot

but you may get a sense of what the sign says,
when others start acting on its instructions . . . ]

because digression is the goal here --

but who knows/cares?

            a reminder of the Rambam, who stopped to think about how the phenomenon of ox poop might look in media res from the viewpoint of the blameless ants below, watching it fall, soon to be crushed/smothered, and the implications of this for Aristotle's theory of Divine Providence.

[Insofar as this forking path of the digression begins to connect up with ponderings about the senseless destruction of innocents, fate, determinism, the weight of history, the nature of human (or ant) freedom and the problem of evil, perhaps we indeed are backwarding our way into a tangle of Mailerian preoccupations.]

Our non-expert (about anything) guess is that the Talmud passage Mailer had in mind was probably from the tractate Berakhot.

After review of some of the details in there, one could picture a few of the more colorful ones getting lodged in his long-term memory and imagination. He might have noticed the details if he pulled the "first" volume of the Talmud off the shelf and flipped through it or skimmed the section headings. Of course, my thoughts here are all pure speculation.

However, such details might have included:

A man should not recite the Shema' either in front of human excrement or of the excrement of dogs or the excrement of pigs or the excrement of fowls or the filth of a dungheap which is giving off an evil smell.

If, however, it is in a place ten handbreadths above him or ten handbreadths beneath him . . .


If a man was standing saying the Tefillah and he saw excrement in front of him, he should go forward until he has it four cubits behind him. But it has been taught: He should move to the side? — There is no contradiction . . .

If a passage like one of the above is what Mailer was remembering, it's entertaining to wonder about whether his memory, towards the end of his life, took a Talmudic instruction about imposition of distance between the profane and the sacred, and then transposed it from the dimension of space (three-dimensional, Cartesian geometrical distance -- cubits, handbreadths) into the dimension of time ("when prayers can continue once. . . ") and the accrual or elapse of time (chronology, history).

Or perhaps we are complicating Mailer's words too much?

Maybe we insist on scrambling up things that are completely straightforward and obvious to everybody else?
                                          [If so: What else is new?]

OK, here's a simpler, possible explanation.

Maybe a passage of exactly the kind that he described exists in the Talmud somewhere? A passage that seems to suggest that it's OK to take a break from prayer for a little while, when the livestock upwind of the synagogue deposit something stinky outside?

Possible, but unlikely. Our non-expert review suggests that the Talmud fixes the standard pretty high for when prayers can be suddenly interrupted. The allowable circumstances seem quite few, and extreme.

Surprise instances discussed, that the worshipper might face, include the following:

  • a king greets them (no interruption allowed)

  • a runaway carriage is about to flatten them ("curtail" but don't "break off" prayers)

  • a snake is wrapped around their foot (no interruption)

  • a scorpion is wrapped around their foot (interruption allowed)

Oxen stank seems, by comparison, less serious than the aforementioned instances. But we suppose it depends on the oxen.

Nevertheless, given all of the above, we conclude that it would seem odd to find a passage exactly like the one that Mailer claimed to remember.

We further tentatively conclude that the passage does not exist.

TiR was surprised not to find Mailer's declaimed passage in the Talmud. Perhaps only because we are very naive and gullible, we pretty much took him at his word, that it was in there. We were in fact looking forward to reading it.

So our original question returns. What was he talking about, in his public comments?

Maybe Mailer was working from his own "private language" copy of the Talmud? One that no one else has access to? Maybe his declaimed passage is in there. Maybe it's everybody else's copy that is defective? Maybe his gift-giving benefactor slipped him a special, customized copy that included the passage which Mailer declaimed.
[The preceding 5 sentences are not necessarily snark or sarcasm.

They are part of an attempt to react to a communication breakdown by not overlooking any possbility in attempts to figure out what happened, to take seriously arguments that, on a first pass, might be overlooked as implausible, but that could solve the riddle if looked at the right way.

For example, perhaps the explanation is true in some metaphorical sense. Maybe Mailer's Talmud really (though non-literally) was a "rewritten" one. More on this below.]
Because I have no access to Mailer's personal copy of the Talmud, I can neither disprove nor prove this possible explanation. Thus, it seems that we have to set this nonfalsifiabile explanation aside, as potentially useful in the future, should our circumstances change in some currently unforeseeable way, but useless in practical terms right now.

Or maybe Mailer took poetic license with the passage, to create a more entertaining declamation for his audience in Austin, Texas?

Or maybe he accidentally misremembered the passage?

Or maybe he did a little bit of both.

Maybe his memory's selection of an arrestingly earthy passage and then misremembering, rewriting or tweaking thereof -- a kind of piling of irreverence atop irreverance -- is itself an example of the dialogic engagement with tradition that Cappell seems to suggest was part of, we might say, a Frankfurtian spirit within Mailer's work.

Who knows?

However, regardless of Mailer's reverence or lack thereof, we should point out, in TiR's defense, that none of the above is intended as mockery of the words of the Sages. For the Talmud states the very appropriate punishment that might await us, if it were:

Whoever mocks at the words of the Sages is punished with boiling hot excrement.

[update 3/27/09:

A newly published letter from Mailer to Jack Henry Abbott (4/26/84) includes some additional mention of Mailer's edition of the Talmud:
At any rate, the Talmud is something you should read. I don't think you have to try to take in all of it. If you can get hold of one volume, and I have a set at home of 26 volumes in what's called the Soncino edition, published in London. If it's possible to buy the Talmud in individual books rather than in an entire set, which is prohibitively expensive and probably would cost close to a thousand bucks by now, I'd be happy to send you one volume. As I say, that's all you need, because you can spend 2 years reading one volume.]