Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Internal Homeland" and "External Homeland": A Literary and Psychoanalytical Study of the Narrative of R. Assi and His Aged Mother

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"Internal Homeland" and "External Homeland": A Literary and Psychoanalytical Study of the Narrative of R. Assi and His Aged Mother

Article excerpt

This article deals with an aggadic story in the Babylonian Talmud (Qidd. 31b) concerning Rav Assi who fled from his mother to "Eretz Israel," after she began relating to him with sexual innuendos. Consequently, he hears that she was pursuing him and solicits Rabbi Johanan for permission to flee.

Basically this story deals with the complicated relationship between two systems or languages: The aggadic system (which reveals the hidden desire between the son and his mother) and the halakhic system (which "covers" it with another "language" or a different set of explanations). This article tries to understand the relationship between the two systems, making use of the psychoanalytic model of J. Lacan.

"The core of the evil that one person does to another is not because people are inherently evil, but because they do not understand one another; because they do not understand the profundities of their own soul." (1)


The following talmudic narrative revolves around two axes: the spatial axis moves between the Land of Israel and Babylonia; while its inner dimension examines the question of the identity of the story's hero, R. Assi. The narrative alludes, from a distance, but, as I argue, with a very critical eye, to the troubling question as to whether R. Assi's identity as a man of halakhah and the values put forth by the law is authentic, or merely a pose used by this Amora to escape coming to terms with his turbulent inner world. I maintain that this aggadic narrative criticizes the talmudic-halakhic apparatus that seems to cloak other psychological needs, since in such instances this apparatus dims man's vision of himself and his motives, acting as a double-edged sword directed against the individual.

The discussion of the relationship between aggadah and halakhah, both in the world of the Rabbis and later in modern literature (Bialik, Berdyczewski, and others), (2) focuses mainly on the question of the tense relationship between the two, with each approach indicating the advantage of one or the other, and arguing that it be given priority. At times (as suggested by Bialik, for instance) this question is possibly inappropriate since, in his opinion, the halakhah and the aggadah are "two aspects of the same creature." (3) Our intent here, however, is not to reenter this discussion but to examine a talmudic narrative that presents the halakhah-aggadah relationship from an entirely different perspective. We shall argue that this narrative casts a very critical eye at the halakhic system; its distinctive fashioning demonstrates that the unnamed formulators of this vignette exhibit both great skill and much sophistication.

My final argument, stated simply and directly, is as follows: this talmudic-aggadic narrative, that exhibits keen psychological discernment, centers around the claim that blind and exclusive attachment to the formal side of the halakhic system, emphasizing its external structure, can cause man to lose the ability to listen to his inner world, and choose the nonessential over what is really important. (4)


Before, however, addressing the narrative itself, it must be stated that this short narrative, that is so economical in its wording, presents us with a challenging interpretive task. In order to avoid complications this early in our discussion, the narrative is initially presented in accordance with the more accepted understanding, that of Rashi's Talmud commentary; we will later discuss the parallel in the Palestinian Talmud, and other interpretations that attack Rashi's reading.

The narrative appears in b. Qiddushin 31a:


The following translation is based thus on the commentary by Rashi:

R. Assi had an aged mother. (5) She said: "I want ornaments!" so he made them for her.

"I want a man! …

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