Recently, author Alice Walker has been in the news for what has been called “repeated expressions of anti-Semitism.” In the wake of this controversy, a 2017 poem by Walker titled “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud” has resurfaced, wherein she refers to the “devastating impact” the Talmud has had on the entire world.
In response to Walker, what follows is a real, actual excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud.
BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Bava Batra 60b
The Mishna teaches: One may not build a balcony in the public domain; one must instead draw back the walls of their home and create a balcony within the property lines.
The Gemara asks: If he drew back his house, but did not (at that time) build the balcony, may he build it later?
Rabbi Yochanan says: He may.
Reish Lakish says: He may not.
Alice Walker asks: “Are goyim meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only that, but to enjoy it?”
Rabbi Yochanan says: No, of course not.
Reish Lakish challenged her: Where did you even get that idea?
Alice Walker says: “By Googling.”
Alice Walker continued: “Are 3-year-old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse? Are young boys fair game for rape?”
Rabbi Yochanan says: This is absurd.
Reish Lakish says: Do we have to talk about this? I really have a lot to say about balconies.
Alice Walker says: “Must even the best of the goyim be killed?”
Rabbi Yochanan says: Come on! We’re the balcony guys! You can’t seriously believe we’d say that!
Alice Walker says: “Pause a moment and think what this could mean, or already has meant in our own lifetime.”
Reish Lakish says: Why don’t you just tell us what you think it means.
Alice Walker says: “You will find that we, goyim, subhumans, animals … are a cruel example of what may be done with impunity, and without conscience, by a Chosen people to the vast majority of the people in the planet who were not Chosen.”
Rashi, Talmudic commentator, 11th century, France: Bonjour! By “Chosen people” I think she means, “the Jews.” En français, “Les Juifs.”
Rabbi Yochanan says: Thanks a lot, Rashi.
Rashi: Though perhaps she extends the status of “Jew” to any oppressor of the majority in the name of a minority?
Rabbi Yochanan: That’s quite enough, Rashi.
Rashi: Merci beaucoup.
Reish Lakish says: She thinks everyone is oppressed … by the Jews?!
Rashi: Mon Dieu! He says this in astonishment.
Rabbi Yochanan: Rashi, please! Give us some space!
Rashi: You will regret sending me away. They will need me to make sense of your endless debates. Au revoir!
Alice Walker: “Is Jesus boiling eternally in hot excrement, for his ‘crime’ of throwing the bankers out of the Temple?”
Reish Lakish says: Come on! We didn’t say that.
The Gemara challenges Reish Lakish, for it says: “What is the punishment of that Man? Boiling excrement.” (Gitten 57a)
Rashi: “That Man” is Jesus.
Reish Lakish says: Ah! He keeps sneaking up on me.
Rabbi Yochanan says: Look, Alice Walker, random Googling might have given you the wrong impression of what we’re doing here. Me and my buddies here, we get together and mostly what do we do? We debate. We debate about balconies, Sabbath violations, people who marry their aunts, whatever. But sometimes we do other things too—we tell raunchy stuff, jokes, love stories. Why, they even tell stories about me and Reish Lakish here.
Reish Lakish says: They say that Rabbi Yochanan is gorgeous and that we met while bathing in a river!
Rabbi Yochanan: Exactly. So the idea that this is some sacred book that contains the most secret utterances of a highly influential rabbinic cabal … do you know how many fart jokes there are in the Talmud?
The Gemara says: “They said that Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya was so promiscuous that he had no prostitutes left …” (Avodah Zarah 17a)
Rabbi Yochanan says: Go Google that, Alice Walker.
Alice Walker says: “It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud. It is within this book that, I believe, we will find answers to some of the questions that most perplex us.”
Reish Lakish says: I HAVE BEEN VERY PATIENT BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I AM MOST PERPLEXED BY? BALCONIES. WE ABSOLUTELY NEED TO GET BACK TO TALKING ABOUT BALCONIES OR I AM JUST WARNING EVERYBODY I AM GOING TO SERIOUSLY LOSE MY COOL.
Alice Walker says: “Simply follow the trail of ‘The Talmud’ as its poison belatedly winds its way into our collective consciousness.”
Reish Lakish says: AND THE REALLY INTERESTING THING IS THE WHOLE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRIVATE PROPERTY AND PUBLIC SPACES. DOES AN EXISTING STRUCTURE—FOR INSTANCE, A BALCONY—GET TO RETAIN ITS PRIVATE STATUS IF IT ENCROACHES ON PUBLIC PROPERTY? I MEAN, REALLY, ISN’T THAT MORE INTERESTING THAN THIS OTHER GARBAGE?
Rashi: By “garbage,” Reish Lakish means Walker’s poem.
Michael Pershan is a math teacher and writer living in New York City. He is the author of Teaching Math With Examples.