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[Chalice] Talmudic Interpretation of the Babylonian passage [Chalice]
recounting the conversation between the Rabbis and Alexander the Great

Presented April 13, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Prayer for mediatation:

For all the dead Iraqi soldiers: help our countrymen remember that most were probably drafted into service by a brutal dictator and had no choice about what they were doing and so join the legions of the poor helpless of history whose lives were short and were taken away from them by violence. The great majority of them do not in any way deserve the label of enemy, and certainly if situations would have been different would have been happy to reach out to us as brothers and friends.

For all the dead Iraqi civilians: help our countrymen resist any language that diminishes their number or significance. Open the hearts of all of our citizens for full compassion to every innocent victim of this war. Let us actively pursue a true accounting of how many innocents have lost their lives and let us make a national commitment to bring more good than harm out of our actions.

For all the young people in our armed forces and in the forces allied with us who have lost their lives and all the promise of their futures in this military action. Let us all open our hearts with compassion to the depths of sorrow that their friends and families are experiencing, and let our greater understanding of human sorrow make us wise and humble and slow to anger and violence.

Talmudic Interpretation of the passage recounting the conversation between the Rabbis and Alexander the Great

First thing to understand: this is an imaginary conversation between one of the great conquerors of history and the Rabbis who have been conquered. Second thing: Alexander asks the Rabbis, we are told, ten questions but actually in the text Alexander asks eleven questions.

The first question: "Is the distance greater from heaven to earth or from east to west?" This is a natural question both for a conqueror, who must know how great the earth is so he can know how much he has to conquer, and for Alexander as the student of Aristotle, the man of practical wisdom who quantifies and numbers and measures.

And the Rabbis give him two answers: thinking within Alexander's own practical reasoning, east and west must be farther from each other than the earth is from heaven because the sun is obviously so close to us that you cannot look at it.

Possibility: Perhaps the Rabbis here are making fun of Alexander's practical reasoning, which is confident it can answer all questions in the same way. The second answer the Rabbis provide him is from the sages, meaning from the Bible which suggests that people should be more concerned about their sins, about the effect of their actions on other humans, and about the distance god puts between us and our sins, a distance that can never be measured in Aristotle's practical reasoning. This sections also ends by saying that you cannot look at the sun not because it is so close, but because nothing obstructs the view. God is not some great being up in the sky, and Alexander should not think of god in that way.

The second question and the third question are similar: Alexander asks the Rabbis about cosmological mysteries, about the creation of the world. They answer the first one but not the second because they do not want Alexander to pursue this line of inquiry. Perhaps they are more interested in having the conqueror ask them more relevant questions about this world and its problems.

The next question definitely takes the conversation in that more important and practical direction: "Alexander asked them: "What is the definition of the sage?" They answered him: the sage is he who foresees what will happen"

It is so easy for us today to interpret this in terms of predicting the future, of seeiing into a crystal ball, of the zodiac which people still take seriously. Notice in this text the Rabbis never ask Alexander what his sign is. Perhaps here being able to predict the future means having the wisdom to be able to understand fully the consequences of one's actions. Joe Conover the other night at our town hall meeting to discuss the war, criticized American foreign policy for its inability to anticipate consequences of its actions. "Unforeseen consequnces" was his main theme, as he argued that both Osama Bin Laden and Sadam Hussein are consequnces of our own actions we just didn't have the wisdom to see coming. All conquerors and all people and countries with power should be experts at understanding the consequences of their own actions, and here the Rabbis tell this conqueror that the very definition of the sage is to be able to foresee what will happen.

Next quesiton: "Who do you call strong?" Again, a natural question for a conqueror. And the Rabbis say: he who masters his evil inclination. Not he who masters others, not he who acts from his will to power and conquers others, but he who understands desire for power and control as an evil inclination within himself and masters it. The Rabbis here give Alexander a completely different concept of strength than conquerors and powerful nations have, and certainly a different one our country has been celebrating as we proudly see on our tvs the great and amazing things our military power can do.

Next question: "Who do you call rich?" "He who is content with the share which is alloted to him." what a great answer to a conqueror. How unAmerican this text is at this point: the rich person is the one who finds contentment in what he has. The Rabbis tell Alexander: if you had this understanding of what it is to be rich, would you waste your time and lives of your armies conquering and plundering?

Seventh question: "What should one do to live? Kill oneself". Could the Rabbis be recommending suicide? It's much more likely that they are speaking figuratively and telling the conqueror that if he really wants to live there is much within him that he should try to kill spiritually, like his desire to control, to have power, to rule over others. I wonder what there is inside George W. that the Rabbis would tell him to kill? We will be thinking about this in a few weeks when we talk more about the theology of George W.

Now Alexander asks about politics and power, about how to rule. He asks: "What should one do to be popular?" The answer from the Rabbis is stark and abrupt: "hate power and authority!!!!" the Rabbis tell this man of unbelieveable power and authority that he should hate power and authority, even as he has it, even as he exercises it. Imagine a ruler who hated power and authority, who hated what lifted him up and over other people. This question and the Rabbis answer, for some reason, I don't really know why, remind me of that passage in bob woodward's book on the current administration where George W. says that the thing about being President that is so great is that other people have to explain themselves to him but he doesn't have to explain himself to anyone.

Alexander doesn't accept the answer of the Rabbis and counters it with his own answer: "one must love power and auhtority and take advantage of them to do favors for the people." a darned good answer. Alexander speaks with the confidence of the powerful: I am powerful and I can do all kinds of good for my underlings. And the Rabbis give no response. Are they humbled? Are they admitting that Alexander has won the argument and provided a better answer? Or are the Rabbis at this point looking at each other and shaking their heads, marvelling at the naivete of the conqueror? Perhaps they are rolling their eyes at each other? Their answer to the elevent question at least suggests these as possibilities.

The ninth question: "Is it better to live on dry land or on sea?" The sea, that takes the conqueror away to distant lands. The Rabbis answer not only clearly but in terms of peace: It is better to live on land, because those who risk going to sea only regain their tranquility when they have landed on firm land.

And the tenth question, a question so natural for a great and famous pupil: "Who among you is wisest?" Alexander thinks the within logic of individualism, of individual accomplishment, like the student who thinks only about his own grade. But the Rabbis do not fall into this trap. They try to get him to think within another, within a communal logic: "we are all equal, since we have all answered your questions as one man." the Rabbis suggest that Alexander should think about the wisdom of a community, of a society, and not just as a matter of one person standing out.

And the climax of the conversation of ten questions,the eleventh question, and do all the previous ten lead up to this question Alexander puts to the Rabbis: "Why do you oppose us?" "Because Satan is a conqueror. He is always a conqueror." Note that the Rabbis do not say that every conqueror is Satan but they do say that Satan is a conqueror, that Satan always conquers, that conquering is something Satan loves to do! Isn't this enough to give pause to conquerors and to trouble and question their good conscience even when they think they are conquering for good reasons and with good intentions?

Here's a profound difference between Christianity and most periods of phases of Judiasm. Christianity is a religion of conquerors and of triumph but Judiasm for most of its life speaks from the perspective of the conquered and the powerless, from what Dussel calls the underside of history. This story here, where the Rabbis tell Alexander the Great that Satan is always a conqueror, is a great example of what Christianity, the relgion of Empires, the Roman Empire and the American Empire, must repress and suffocate, must make sure never comes to the light of awareness.

However, in this story told by the Rabbis, the conqueror listens and recognizes the wisdom of his Jewish teachers. Of course not so much that he decides to stop conquering. He announces his desire to conquer Africa and the Rabbis tell him he cannot because of the darkness of the mountains. Alexander tells them he is going anyway and that he asked the Rabbis how he should invade and not whether he should invade. Then the Rabbis give him another metaphor of darkness: take Libyan donkeys that see in the dark. The dark mountains and the donkeys that see in the dark. Are the Rabbis warning the conqueror that god's light of justice never shines for conquerors, that conquerors always travel in the dark? The Rabbis also warn him to fasten ropes to the mountains to use on the way back out, as if to say to him: once you get there, your biggest concern will be how to get back out.

Alexander leaves and he begins to conquer and the first village he comes to conquer is inhabited only by women. Now this could be simple sexism, or the women could stand for the smaller, weaker people overwhelmed by the power of the conqueror, the people who really have no chance. Since we failed to win in Vietnam, haven't we really invested so much of our national treasury to turn all the other peoples of the world into the women of this village, into the people how have no chance in a battle with us? More than half our unbelieveable national budget goes to the military, and simply the increase in our military budget from one year to the next is more than the military expendites of any European country. The cost of the bombs we dropped on Iraq would add up to more wealth than most countries of the world possess. Here in this Talmudic passage the helpless people, the ones with no chance, say to the conqeror: "if you massacre us, people will say that you have massacred women. If it is we who kill you, it will be said that a king has been killed by women." this passage is something to keep in mind as we celebrate our victory over a people and a military which was so weakened in the first place.

The conqueror is hungry so he orders the women to give him bread, so they give him bread of gold, thinking he must have come all the way there for some special bread. Alexander says to the women: how can I eat bread of gold? And the women—early masters of the art of sarcasm—say to the conqueror: if you wanted ordinary bread, don't you have any at home? Why come all the way here for that?

Isn't it possible that other nations of the world, so impressed with America's overwhelming wealth and power, might say to America at this point: if you can to Iraq for the oil, don't you have oil of your own? Don't you have money to pay for it? Who has more money than you? Or if you came to Iraq to destoy those weapons of mass destruction so you can feel more secure as a country, who has more security than you? What nation has such military power and such a reason to feel so secure? If you wanted security, why didn't you just stay at home and think about how all the security you have already got?

At this point Alexander the great conqueror turns around. Notice that is it not the Rabbis and their wisdom who dissuade him from conquering but the words of the women who would be conquered. When he understands what the women are telling him, he wrote on the gate of their city: "I, Alexander of Macedon, was a fool before having come to this country of women in Africa and having received their advice."

And the next lines of this Talmudic story are vital: On the way back Alexander has one more adventure. He finds himself at the gates of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps he is rethinking his role as a conqueror but he is still a king, a ruler of men. He says: "open the gates for me!" a voice says: "it is the gate of the Lord, the just shall pass through it." Alexander responds: "I am king. I am an important man." nothing happens so Alexander says: well, at least give me something!!! and someone gives him a human eyeball.

What does Alexander, this student of Aristotle, what does he do with this human eyeball? Of course his actions are perfectly Aristotlian: he weighs it. This is the most remarkable moment of this remarkable Talmudic text. Confronted with the eyeball, Alexander applies his intelligence, his logic and his practical reason, but his intelligence here proves unintelligent, useless, and a great un-wisdom. The questions he poses to the eyeball -- what is it made of? what is its use? How much does it weigh?"—are all the wrong questions but he uses the only reason, the only logic he has, the one he has mastered, without understanding at all that he himself has been mastered by the limitations within that logic and that unreason. I like to think of Alexander weighing this eyeball as the persistence of that one rational, practical logic that at the same time builds bridges and the bombs that blow them up. I like to think of Alexander and the eyeball as the very origin of that one logic in politics, as the very origin of real politique.

You can just imagine the Rabbis shaking their heads and laughing at the limitations of this logic. Alexander suspects that when he has weighed the eyeball he still may not have completed understood its meaning, so he asks the Rabbis that most dumbfounded of all questions. "What is happening?" the Rabbis tell him: it is a human's eyeball which is never satisfied." How do you know that, he asks? The Rabbis tell him: Cover it with a little dust and it will become light, for it is said in the Bible: "the day of death and the abyss are insatiable; the eyes of man equally."

So the story returns to its beginning, to the insatiablenss of the human eyeball, since it began with the conqueror's eager eyeballs, asking the Rabbis about the distance between the east and the west because he was eager to conquer it all. And it ends with Alexander the master of practical reason faced with the human eyeball.

But Alexander, as great and as powerful as he is, is not prepared for this task of thinking about the meaning of the human eyeball. The Rabbis in the story have been trying to educate him, but he is not as successful at being their student as he was succesful as Aristotle's student. He is very connfident in his rational abilities. He can weigh the eyeball, can break it down, dissect it, describe what it is made of, and put it to practical use. But he is not well prepared to think about its meaning in another way, within another logic. This other wisdom is very foreign to this master of reason.

We have in front of us every day on our TV's constantly the evidence of our great technological mastery that has enabled us to conquer Iraq. Like Alexander,, we are masters of this practical reason. But other kinds of wisdom are required of our leaders and of us a a people. Do we have any confidence in our leadership and in ourselves to summon the kinds of wisdom required now, or will we prove clueless and unwise masters of reason like Alexander, a question I simply throw out at you as once a human eyeball was thrown out at Alexander the Great.

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. Talmudic Interpretation of the Babylonian passage recounting the conversation between the Rabbis and Alexander the Great, /talks/20030413.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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