Avi Garelick

Spitting It Up


In the school of R. Yannai they said: What is [meant by] that which is written: “As the pressing of milk brings forth butter, and the pressing of a nose brings forth blood, so the pressing of wrath brings forth strife” (Proverbs 30:33)? In whom do you find the butter of Torah? In one who spits up the milk sucked from his mother’s breasts upon it.

—Talmud Bavli Berachot 63b

In Hebrew, there are no genderless pronouns. “It” does not exist. Every noun is classified as either masculine or feminine, and then its pronouns are either him or her. For example, “every fruit tree makes fruit of his kind” (Genesis 1:12). We usually introduce the genderless “it” when translating, which is probably not a bad idea overall. But in the above passage we are faced with an indeterminate object. “Torah” and “mother” are both feminine nouns. So it is unclear: is the subject of this sentence spitting up on his mother or upon the Torah? In order to avoid stunting our understanding, we should consider both possibilities.

Upon the mother: It is clear that somewhere at the root of this aphorism is the image of a baby spitting up breast milk on its parent. This is a thing done universally by small babies, apparently still in the process of learning digestion. The regifting of milk is accepted with surprising grace by most parents I’ve seen.

Upon the Torah: There is a very old Jewish pedagogical tradition of initiation into study: a page with Hebrew letters is covered in honey. The child learns a little bit of reading, and then eats honey off the page, thus learning to associate study with sweetness. The image of a child spitting milk onto the page kind of flips the script—but maybe learning is about rejection as much as it is about consumption. Maybe feelings of revulsion are just as important as feelings of appetite for learning. A second ambiguity: Hebrew prepositions are notoriously elastic in their use, and can cover a range of meanings. The word hitherto translated as “upon” can also have the sense of “for.” As in, “Our father, our king, act on behalf of those killed for your holy name.”

So it seems fair to suggest the meaning, “one who spits up his mother’s milk for the sake of the Torah,” in which case we are facing a kind of supersession of the mother and her milk by the study of Torah. It is quite common in patriarchal societies to see rites of initiation of male youth that bring them from the mother’s domestic realm into the masculine sphere of social life—in this case the study house. But this aphorism should not be treated as a straightforward case of mother-hating, as though it said “one who forsakes the milk of his mother.” The butter of Torah and the milk of the mother are the same substance. You bring forth the finest substance of learning not by leaving behind the sustenance of infancy but by struggling with it, and failing to assimilate it. That failure becomes success at a later stage; what you reject and expel is of the greatest value.

People who are committed to the struggle of learning and teaching have long recognized the shortcomings of our old metaphors of learning—what Paolo Freire calls the “banking model” of education, or in our terms, a purely digestive model of education. (A rabbinic voice in TB Bava Batra 21a gleefully describes teaching young students as “stuffing them full of Torah like oxen”). They treat students as passive containers, and the educational material as being complete in itself. Ready to eat. Yet despite these recognized shortcomings, teachers still talk of “absorbing” the “material,” and privilege retention as a marker of growth. We know what’s wrong with this, but we haven’t developed the models that treat points of conflict and experiences of failure as markers of growth as well.

In the next generation of education, I hope we can systematically replace our old metaphors with a dynamic imagery of consumption and expulsion, which assigns value to each.

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