November 16, 2018

Purim Torah — Why We Don’t Wear Shoes on Yom K’Purim

Many people ask me the origins of my teaching: “no criticism, no complaints, no condemning (including accusing, blaming, abusing) and minimal criticism.” One important source is found in tractate Baba Ganoush 69b, where Rabbi Yosi HaNegbi (Joe, the from South) says, “Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, – walk a mile in my shoes.”  Several problems arise from this statement.

First, it is a well-known, though controversial, dictum in Talmudic thought that ‘all commandments require intentionality.’ The prime legal example of this law is that of the “dish-throwing wife” (Rosh Shavur 29a).  In that case, a woman threw a dish at her husband, missed, and it flew out an open window and landed unbroken in a beggar’s cart. Can we say that she has given tzedakah (righteous giving of charity) even though she did aim the dish at the cart?

Some rely on motivation in performing commandments, saying that a person must have the right motivation for the commandment to count. They say that even though the beggar was benefited when the dish landed in his cart, the “dish-throwing wife” is not considered as one who has given tzedakah, because she did not intend to benefit the beggar. Others say that since she did intend to benefit her husband by having the error of his ways pointed out to him, which is an act of tzedakah, that the motivation attached to the dish stays attached even though the dish went out the window (for an alternative reading, see the case of “the defenestrated dish”, Halon Patuach, 26b, which deals with the question as to whether windows can frustrate the will).

If, however, one relies on the consequences of action, then commandments don’t require intentionality, only on the result of an action. The “dish-throwing wife” is accorded the merit of tzedakah purely because the beggar was benefited. The case of the “dish throwing wife” applies to our case thus: what if you unintentionally walked a mile in someone else’s shoes: can you then “abuse, criticize and accuse”?  This case is discussed in tractate Aifoh Ha-Na’alayim Sheli 16b. A Jewish man goes to a Buddhist temple for spiritual instruction, where the custom is to remove the shoes. When he leaves, he accidentally puts on another man’s shoes. He walks half a mile. Upon realizing his mistake, he walks back half a mile, and thereupon accuses the other Jew at the Buddhist temple (*some wonder why the Talmud says “the other Jew” since everyone there was Jewish) of having carelessly worn similar shoes and left them in the same place as his own shoes.

The Buddhist monk, who was also a rabbi, quizzed the “the accusing JuBu” (as the case is known) why he felt he had permission to “abuse, criticize and accuse”. The JuBu responded that he had walked half a mile when he realized his error, and knew that it was half a mile back, totally one mile in someone else’s shoes. The rabbi/monk pointed out that only in the first half mile was he walking unintentionally in someone else’s shoes, and the second half mile he was walking intentionally in someone else’ shoes. Can one criticize, et al., in either or both cases?  He declared it a koan, and promised to meditate hard on it.

The Rabbi/Monk’s silence, therefore, left standing the larger question: If you intentionally or unintentionally, or some combination of the two, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, can you therefore criticize, etc., the other person? (Further questions, such as if one walks two miles in only one shoe, etc., and whether one is thinking in kilometers, not miles, will be discussed in a further teaching on the issue).

This matter of intentionality in shoe wearing is discussed in a recent legal case of the man who participated in the “International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault and Gender Violence”. In that event, men are asked to walk a mile in women’s high-heeled shoes, thus ending rape, sexual assault and gender violence. A man borrowed his wife’s high-heeled shoes, walked a mile in them, and then came home and accused, criticized, etc., his wife. He claimed that having walked a mile in her shoes, he was now permitted to engage in the heretofore forbidden behavior. (The question is fully discussed just before the aforementioned “dish throwing wife” case).

That question revolved around whether he purposefully walked a mile in her shoes so that he could verbally abuse her, or whether walking a mile in high heel shoes just put him in a foul mood in general, and he then felt permission to take it out on his wife, once realizing that he had just walked a mile in her shoes. It is not clear from that case whether the timing of his decision to criticize, etc., made a difference. (See I. M. Feddup, “Whining and Timing: An Analysis of Infantile Behavior in Adults”. Journal of Spiritual Mediocrity, 26/2, 1988.

The question is deepened when Rabbi Hochma M’at pointed out that had the man who walked a mile in his wife’s high heeled shoes not then criticized, etc. his wife, then she would have not thrown the dish at him and the beggar would not have been enriched, concluding that, from a consequentialist perspective, the merit for the charity given in this case redounds completely to the accusing and criticizing husband, even if he purposefully walked a mile in his wife’s shoes so that he could criticize her legally. (After several years of externally enforced celibacy, R. Hochma M’at admitted the error of his reasoning).

A recently leveled feminist critique of the issue asked why it was the wife throwing the dish; why not the man, who should have been doing the dishes anyway, and why, in typically patriarchal oppressive spirit, the woman misses. In a re-written Feminist Talmud, the wife, who is a carpenter, throws a hammer at her dish-washing husband before he can throw a dish, but does not miss. A social justice critique of the feminist critique holds that while it approves that the husband should be doing dishes and that the wife should be a carpenter and not miss with the preemptively thrown hammer, in the end it is the beggar who remains impoverished. The social justice critique also points out that this legal case assumes that everyone has shoes, when we all know that many in the third world lack shoes, as well as justice.

In the rewritten Social Justice Talmud, no one has shoes until everyone has shoes, the hammer ricochets off the husband’s head, goes through the open window and lands harmlessly in the cart of the beggar, who then uses it to build shelters for the homeless. It has been pointed out, though, that in a world where no one has shoes, no one will accuse, criticize or abuse, because no one will be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, thus obtaining legal permission to accuse, criticize and abuse.

Hence the custom of taking off our shoes on Yom K’purim.