Shabbat Talmud Study: Viewing Reality Through a Distorted Lens


At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot on Tuesday night, Jon Levisohn was teaching a text that prompted me to say to myself: “Oh my God! That is our world. That is exactly what I do not understand about our country right now.”

Here is the context. In the Second Book of Samuel, there is no doubt that King David commits two major sins. He sleeps with Bathsheba, who is the wife of Uriah. She becomes pregnant with their child. He murders Uriah by deliberately ordering that he be sent to the front lines of battle where, as expected, he dies in battle.

Adultery. No question. Murder. No question. The biblical narrator condemns David for these sins. The prophet Nathan condemns David for these sins. David himself acknowledge these sins. David’s life story, after and as a result of these sins, is ruined. Son Amnon rapes daughter Tamar. Son Absalom kills son Amnon. David’s colossal malfeasance ruins his own life.

Yet in the Talmud, Shabbat 56A, a rabbinic sage, Shmuel Bar Nachmani, insists “Whoever says David sinned is mistaken.” The Talmud will then twist itself into a pretzel to argue that what looks like adultery (what God, the prophet Nathan, and David himself acknowledges was adultery) is not adultery. What looks like murder (what God, the prophet Nathan, and David himself acknowledges was murder) is not murder.

What is that?

How do we understand somebody looking at “X” and insisting that it is not “X” for reasons that are extrinsic to the merits of whether “X” is “X.”  In the Talmud that conversation is impelled by factors other than what David actually did.

In short, spin did not originate on cable television. This is primordial Talmudic spin. What does rabbinic insistence upon viewing reality through a distorted lens teach us about our own world?

Shabbat shalom,
Wes