My Auntie lied about literature, extensively and very well. Sometimes she would take it into her head to gather the kids and tell us the plot of some Great Book, luxuriating in the details, spinning it out over at least an hour. (In retrospect, a clear diversion.) We loved it, and only later did I realize that she changed the stories, sometimes drastically, in the name of our moral improvement.
Her Romeo and Juliet starred the Prince of Verona, sardonic and exhausted, trying to calm down the teenagers while he pushed through endless paperwork. Ninety percent of Les Misérables consisted of Javert’s suicidal musings and subsequent plunge into the Seine. My favorite was her rendition Sartre’s La Nausée. According to my Aunt, this was a story about a young man with an overwhelming hunger for knowledge. He locked himself in a library and read all the books. He finally read so much that he started vomiting and couldn’t stop. The library filled with vomit and he drowned. “And that’s what the French call absurdité,” she finished triumphantly. I think her main point was that she knew about French things. But a strange and powerful truth in her story immediately took hold of me.
I recognized that hunger. I recognized it again at the feet of my neighborhood rabbi, and later at yeshivah, in the way Talmudic sages talk about their hunger for knowledge. R. Eliezer, the honored Tanna, describes himself as a dog trying to drink the sea. It should not escape us that this is a lethal ambition, and that as he admits it, he strikes himself with his fist. But to R. Eliezer, the tragedy is not that the dog must die of a burst stomach, or that in a fantasy of success the newly oceanless world would die, but that the hunger cannot be satisfied.
In the world of the Talmud, such hunger is pathological, but a familiar kind of pathological. Usually, the object is food. The word for the hunger is bulmos, which, despite sharing etymology with English’s “bulimia,” does not necessarily involve purging. Diagnosis is by a loop of symptoms, each half a metaphor for the next: dull eyes, an inability to distinguish right from wrong, a precarious grip on life. It is as though hunger is the sole connection the sufferer has to the world, and only by yanking on that cord can he or she come back to reality. The way to cure bulmos, asserts the Talmud, is to feed the sufferer whatever they demand—even forbidden food, even on Yom Kippur—until his or her “eyes brighten.”
Perhaps it sounds surprising that the Talmud recommends radical capitulation as treatment. It runs counter to mainstream discourse on hunger today, which demands we assert self-control over our appetite. The difference might be that to Talmudic eyes, bulmos is not a vice, but a sign of some deeper fracture in the self. To heal, that self must be nourished, not punished, and its intuitions are to be treated with reverence, even if they are startling.
Again, I am reminded of R. Eliezer, and his deep craving for something other than food. His wish to consume the sea of learning seems to have been with him his whole life, but at the time he disclosed it, he had lost access to his nourishment: his teachers were dead, and his colleagues had ostracized him. Cut off from the stream of scholarship, it was not long before he died. So, is a bulmos for learning really not about the body, too?
R. Eliezer, when he was an untutored young man, refused to eat, and he kept his refusal a secret until the accumulated physical damage spoke for him. The fourth-generation amora R. Zeira follows this pattern: he, too, wants to learn with a jarring sense of desperation. He, too, refuses to eat. R. Zeira’s problem, from his perspective, is not that he grew up without an education, but with one he thinks is bad: he rejects the Babylonian style of teaching Torah in which he was raised. (Torah is often described by the rabbis of the Talmud as breastmilk, something which not only nourishes you, but constructs you, grows you into a bigger and more capable human being.) By fasting, R. Zeira aimed to demolish one self, and build another in the academies of Jerusalem.
We have stories of him habitually bringing his Babylonian body into harm’s way, for example, by putting it into a fire to test—well, to test what? He does not actually articulate a goal, and the text allows us to see that his colleagues are troubled by his behavior, suggesting he is not engaged in anything they recognize as constructive. Similarly – and contrary to rabbinic etiquette – the Talmud also catches him watching his teachers in the bath (Shabbat 40b, 41a). Just as he attacks his own body to destroy what he sees as his miseducation, so is he drawn to his teacher’s bodies as a site of Torah. In pointing this out, I do not mean that his desire for knowledge was a mask for erotic desire, but rather that his sense of deprivation echoed throughout his self, including his stomach, including his sense of pain, including a hunger of attention for his teachers and their private everyday movements. The stories of R. Eliezer and R. Zeira show that bulmos for learning is so overwhelming that it cannot confine itself to one register of human experience.
As with bulmos for food, the stories of R. Eliezer and R. Zeira show that hunger is best met with nourishment, not with more hunger. Both are allowed to feed their outsized sense of deprivation; neither are punished for it, or forced to confront whatever pain may have been at the center of their hunger. Rather, the turning point for each is a moment of sweetness. For R. Eliezer, this moment comes after a harrowing encounter in which his sense of shame has made it impossible to speak in front of his teacher, R. Yohanan. R. Yohanan listens to what he needs, leaves the room, and then – hearing R. Eliezer’s lecture from the other side of the door – returns to kiss and praise him. This kiss is the moment when R. Eliezer transforms from a haunted younger man into a sage himself. It is the same with R. Zeira, who arrives in the land of Israel starving, soaking wet, and heckled for the bizarre eagerness with which he crosses the border. Yet the community of scholars he finds welcomes him and feeds him all the Torah he wishes, and at his ordination, celebrates him as if he were a bride, singing: “No kohl, no rouge, no braids, yet a graceful ibex.” This appears to be the end of his fasting and experiments with fire.
I thought of R. Zeira when I was walking through the shuq of Jerusalem, on my way back from receiving semikhah. Strangers who had no way of knowing what had just happened shouted blessings at me, something so outside my usual awkward experience that it seemed unreal. But in my ordination, I had just received a gift of trust, one which looked favorably on my student self, though I fear I must have often been strange and overeager. I benefited much from the environment of a bet midrash, which to this day allows one to feed one’s hunger, and gives a certain gentle space to personal dysfunction. I am reminded of something my childhood rabbi told me once: “It is the job of rabbis to tell people they are sane. And I can see you are quite sane.” Perhaps it is obvious from the simple fact that he said it that I was not necessarily acting sane at the time. But I grew into his description, bit by bit over many years. That day in the shuq, it must have shown somehow on my face.
I understand the many Talmud students nowadays who worry that tales of rabbis who starved themselves or, conversely, ate everything in sight glorify disordered eating. But there is so much to learn from the gentleness that allows tradition to see them as sane, in their own way. It is a hard thing to expect people to smarten up and respect themselves when we show contempt for their desires. The Talmud understands exactly what is challenging about its approach; that is why it confronts us with a situation in which it is necessary to feed someone forbidden food. Nevertheless, we can choose instead to see what already makes sense, and nourish them until they grow.
Rabbi Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli learns and teaches at Bet Midrash Hukkim Hakhamim. Currently living in Queens, NYC, Lavery-Yisraeli works in STA”M (ritual scribal work) and is an internationally exhibited visual artist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.