Akiva and Ishmael at the Mountain

Struggling through Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations in a class with SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, I asked for help from our teacher. About five minutes into the conversation with Laynie Solomon, I realized we probably sounded like we were speaking in the story-based communication of the Tamarians in the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (see below for citations to TNG and Heschel) —

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra…

Picard and Dathan at El-Adrel.

Akiva uprooting the mountain.
Rabbis disagreeing about a Rosh Yeshivah.
Acher and ben Zoma in the orchard.
Ishmael piling up proofs….

Shaka, when the walls fell?”

Here, in images with annotations, is a part of my on-going struggle:

a stonecutter chipping pebbles, displaces a boulder [1]
norms, like mountains, suspended by threads[2]
ben Zoma paralyzed by the thinness of it all[3]
Acher cutting shoots,[4] and other others digging in
Akiva uprooting
Ishmael mounting proof[5]
rabbis debating: “uprooter” or “Sinai” for Rosh Yeshivah?[6]
a tractate concluding: This must remain undecided[7]
one generation shifting rocks to make space for the next
a student feeling rootless and ossified, stuck in battling threats
a teacher nodding: Has near-apocalypse ever looked different?
Logic and gut-sense, age-old-twin-radical tools
But, still, what’s with the boulder?

1) Heschel’s Heavenly Torah, p.52

Akiva is compared to a stonecutter planning to “uproot [עוקר, oker] the mountain and fling it into the Jordan.” [Citation is for ARN A6; read it at SEFARIA.ORG.]

2) Heschel’s Heavenly Torah, p.51

from Heavenly Torah: Rabbi Akiva, with whom the idea that there are norms that are like mountains suspended by threads did not sit well, “made all of Torah into rings,” that is into a continuous chain. [Heschel’s footnote: ARN A 18. Translator’s note: Here Heschel takes some literary license in understanding “rings” not as “thematic realms” but rather as “links in a chain.”], p.51

3) B. Hagigah 15a

R’ Judith Abrams, z”l, explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them” (citation below). Ben Zoma is one of four who “enter the orchard [pardes]” [Hagigah 14b]; others are Acher, ben Azzai, and Akiva. Upon entering pardes, ben Zoma “glimpsed and was harmed.”

Later, one day he didn’t stand for the teacher, R’ Joshua ben Hanania, so R’ Joshua went over to ask ben Zoma what was up. ‘I was gazing between the upper and lower waters, and there is only a bare three fingers [breadth] between them,’ ben Zoma replied. At this point, R’ Joshua tells his students, ‘ben Zoma is still outside.’ Not long afterward, ben Zoma dies, apparently never having returned from his strange trip (Hagigah 15a).

4) B. Hagigah 14b

Student: Being an uprooter sounds powerful and dangerous. What about Acher, who cut the shoots?

Teacher: Acher went too far and was considered outside. Wild as Akiva was considered, for his use of “jots and tittles” in interpretation and compared to the stonecutter above, he was never accused of going too far

Acher [“The Other”], R’ Elisha Ben Abuya, is said to have “cut the shoots [אַחֵר קִיצֵּץ בִּנְטִיעוֹת]” after his experience in the orchard [pardes] (Hagigah 14b). This phrase, interpreted as “committed heresy,” uses the verb “cut [kuf-tzadei-tzadei],” rather than the verb “uproot” [ayin-kuf-reish].”

5) Heschel’s Heavenly Torah, p.53ff

6) Is an ideal Rosh Yeshivah “Sinai” or “uprooter of mountains [עוֹקֵר הָרִים, oker harim]”? (Horayot 14a, also Berakhot 64a)

From Horayot 14a: R’ Johanan said: [On the following point] there is a difference of opinion between R’ Simeon b. Gamaliel and the Rabbis. One view is that a well-read scholar is superior [to the keen dialectician] and the other view is that the keen dialectician is superior. R’ Joseph was a well-read scholar; Rabbah was a keen dialectician….

7) ibid

Horayot 14b continues with another dispute about appointing a head scholar, concluding: “Now what is the answer? — This must remain undecided. [end of Tractate].” The tractate Berakhot ends shortly after the Sinai/Uprooter discussion with some words on a new generation, Torah and builders of peace.

The root Ayin-Kuf-Reish — to uproot — has appeared a number of times recently. See, e.g., “Planting Trees, Stretching Giltter” and “Bent, Barren, Essential and Abundant.” It is one of a number of Hebrew words with a root meaning “curved, crooked.” A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Rabbi Benay Lappe, Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Svara, once mused that most Hebrew words have some relationship to a root meaning either “to take apart” or “to put together,” and I wondered how many have something to do, instead, with bending. Still wondering. And meanwhile sure that ayin-kuf-reish has more to say.


Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations. Begun in the 1950s, composed in Hebrew, and unfinished in Heschel’s lifetime. An English translation, edited and annotated by Gordon Tucker, was published by Continuum, 2007.

S5E2 (Sept 30, 1991) with the amazing Paul Winfield (1939-2004) guest-staring:

The Enterprise encounters a group of people whose form of communication centers entirely around imagery from stories and is not processed by the “universal translator.” Captain Picard [Patrick Stewart] and the Tamarian Captain Dathon [Paul Winfield, z”l] learn to communicate through a shared, dangerous experience:

“The river Temarc in winter!”
“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad… on the ocean.”
“Shaka, when the walls fell.”…
“Sokath, his eyes open!”… …
“Picard and Dathon…at El-Adrel”

This particular episode is in a category all its own in terms of quality and cultural impact of The Next Generation….if regular references to it, 30 years after its original airing, including Twitter memes, e.g., are any indication. In other words: even folks who find TNG weaker than other elements of the franchise — all who understand that DS9 is much better, for example — recognize the importance of “Darmok.”

Read more at (more at Memory Alpha entry)

The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012) .


Published by vspatz

Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: