Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lawsuits ancient and modern: nothing new under the sun / Sanhedrin 91a

Eight years ago, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Al-Zaqazig in Egypt, announced his intention to sue all the Jews in the world. In an August 2003 interview in the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram Al-Arabi, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, said:
''Since the Jews make various demands of the Arabs and the world, and claim rights that they base on historical and religious sources, a group of Egyptians in Switzerland has opened the case of the so-called 'great exodus of the Jews from Pharaonic Egypt.' At that time, they stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth, which today is priceless… If we assume that the weight of what was stolen was one ton, [its worth] doubled every 20 years, even if the annual interest is only 5%. In one ton of gold is 700 kg of pure gold - and we must remember that what was stolen was jewelry, that is, alloyed with copper. Hence, after 1,000 years, it would be worth 1,125,898,240 million tons, which equals 1,125,898 billion tons for 1,000 years. In other words, 1,125 trillion tons of gold, that is, a million multiplied by a million tons of gold. This is for one stolen ton. The stolen gold is estimated at 300 tons, and it was not stolen for 1,000 years, but for 5,758 years, by the Jewish reckoning. Therefore, the debt is very large.”

Every plaintiff -- even this one -- has to marshal evidence for his case. Here it is:
And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 25:6)
After Jews around the globe stopped laughing, caught their breath, and got up off the floor, many pointed out that this case was already tried in a court long ago -- the court of Alexander the Great -- in the imaginations of the Rabbis. The Talmud’s court account comes from the beginning of chapter ten of masechet Sanhedrin, daf 91a.

The tenth chapter of Sanhedrin opens with a mishnah that lists six things for which a person forfeits Olam Haba (the world-to-come). Gemara begins with the first item: denying that the belief in Olam Haba derives from Torah. Speculation concerning what Olam HaBa is like will follow. More on that later. Back to the Egyptians’ lawsuit.

The Rabbis tell us that Alexander of Macedon, serving as judge (common for kings in the ancient world -- think of King Solomon) heard three cases against Israel, defended (of course!) by the Rabbis. It’s worth noting quickly that Alexander III of Macedon died in 323 B.C.E., and there were no Rabbis until the latter half of the first century C.E. -- a good four centuries later. No matter. Perhaps the Rabbis painted Alexander into the story because he was a rare conqueror who respected the integrity of the nations he conquered and their territorial borders, the central claim in two of the three cases Talmud says he heard. He did not try to dismantle these nations nor dissolve their culture so long as they paid him tribute. (Alas, his successors had a very different attitude.)

Pausing in the larger discussion designed to prove that Olam Haba (the world-to-come) derives from Torah, we find three stories involving Alexander the Great. The stories themselves have nothing to do with Olam Haba, and seem to have been inserted to demonstrate the disputation skills of Geviha b. Pesisa who is cited in the ongoing discussion. The three stories follow the same pattern: A nation brings a lawsuit against Israel to the court of Alexander the Great. The descendants of Canaan claim Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). The Egyptians claim recompense. The descendant of Ishmael and Keturah claim join ownership of Eretz Yisrael. Each claim is made on the basis of a biblical verse, and each argument is soundly defeated by our savvy disputant, Geviha b. Pesisa, with another verse.

Here is the Talmud’s “transcript” of the case:

… the Egyptians brought a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They said: “Is it not written, And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 25:6)? Return to us the gold and silver you took!'

Thereupon Geviha b. Pesisa said to the Sages, “Give me permission to go and argue against them before Alexander of Macedon. If they defeat me, you will say, “You have merely defeated common man.” If I defeat them, you will say, "The Torah of Moses has defeated you.’”

So [the Sages] gave [Geviha b. Pesisa] permission, and he went and argued against [the Egyptians]. He asked them, “Whence do you derive your proof?” They said, “From the Torah.” He said to them, “Then I will bring proof from nothing other than the Torah, for it was written, The sojourning of the Israelites, who dwelled in Egypt, was 430 years (Exodus 12:40). Pay us the wages for the work of 600,000 whom you enslaved for 430 years.

Alexander of Macedon said to [the Egyptians], “Answer them!

“Give us three days’ time.”

They sought an answer but did not find one. Immediately they abandoned their fields [already] planted, and their vineyards [already] planted. And that was the sabbatical year.
In other words: been there, done that, even have t-shirts for the youngest members of the tribe. So it seems that Hilmi doesn’t earn high marks as a lawyer or mathematician, nor does he take home the coveted Originality Prize.

The Rabbis argument is that Jews can stake claim to the Land of Israel on the basis of biblical verses. The choice of verses in the three stories that include the one cited above is clever. Here’s a summary:

Descendant of Canaan: [The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:] Instruct the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as your portion, the land of Canaan with its various boundaries [which Torah proceeds to delineate in detail] (Numbers 34:2)
Geviha b. Pesisa: [Noah] said: Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers. (Genesis 9:25)

Egyptians: And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:36) Geviha b. Pesisa: The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years. (Exodus 12:40)

Ishmaelites and Keturians: This is the line of Ishmael, Abraham’s son… (Genesis 25:12)
Geviha b. Pesisa: Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts… (Genesis 25:5-6)

Either Geviha b. Pesisa is a genius, or it’s not such a trick to find a verse that can be interpreted to say what you want. I’m voting for the latter, but I will hand it to Geviha: the man is clever. He tells the Rabbis to allow him to represent them before Alexander the Great because if he loses, they can say, “But he’s just a common man,” implying that their defense was not adequate and they are entitled to have the case retried. The Rabbis would now have a turn. But by this time, they have heard the plaintiff’s argument and have a distinct advantage. Geviha, however, never loses.

Underlying this passage -- indeed, all three “cases” -- is the presumption that the People Israel owns the Land of Israel because God promised it to their ancestors, and that title to the land is found not in a bank vault, but in the Torah.

This is a claim that is still heard today. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 4, 2002, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) delineated seven reasons why Israel is entitled to the land that now constitute the State of Israel. Here is Reason #7:
Because God said so. As I said a minute ago, look it up in the book of Genesis. It is right up there on the desk. In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says:

The Lord said to Abram, “Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.”

That is God talking.

The Bible says that Abram removed his tent and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar before the Lord. Hebron is in the West Bank. It is at this place where God appeared to Abram and said, “I am giving you this land,” -the West Bank.

This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true. The seven reasons, I am convinced, clearly establish that Israel has a right to the land.
This is the foundation of the Settlers Movement in Israel. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. (Apologies, couldn’t resist.). In the 21st century, the Bible does not constitute a legitimate claim to the land. It certainly motivates a deep and abiding attachment of Jews to the land of their forebears, but so do the past 3,000 years of continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, and the past 17 centuries of prayer directed to Israel, both physically and religiously. But a claim based on divine fiat leads only to bloodshed. A negotiated settlement is the only path to a cessation of hostilities and secure borders.

A second look at the Talmud’s account of Egypt’s lawsuit suggests the very same thing. Certainly in the mind of the Rabbis, on each occasion, Geviha b. Pesisa brings a verse that trumps his opponents’. Yet the passage demonstrates that one can always pluck out a verse to “prove” one’s case. If the verse is not explicit enough, what do we do? Long ago the solution was interpretation; today we call it spin. Inadvertently, the Rabbis have provided us with an argument that undermines their own argument.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman