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Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
Necessary Stories

The Deceiver

A Talmud teacher struggles with forbidden desire in Haim Watzman’s new piece of short fiction

Haim Watzman is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.

Main image by Avi Katz

After Kiddushin 58b–59a

Yehoshua decided that on the first of Shevat he would stop believing in God. That would give him two weeks to get his life in order.

Getting his life in order meant, first, breaking the news to Kinneret that their marriage was over. Yehoshua was fairly certain that she did not yet know this. Second, it meant a difficult conversation with Rav Moshe Franck in which he would argue that he should continue to be allowed to teach Gemara to the girls at the midrasha as long has he kept his private beliefs to himself. Third, it meant telling Tani, his ardent suitor, that he should direct his attentions elsewhere.

“I’m not ashamed of loving you,” Tani whispered with adolescent defiance as they sat by the spring in the small grove of trees just meters away from the gate to the settlement. Just two days ago he’d shed his dirty blond curls and had his hair cut short for his impending enlistment. A tattered blue kipah with white trim seemed to be glued on to what was left.

Every few minutes the leaves in the trees rustled and they felt a damp breeze on their cheeks as a car drove by and through the gate, and at longer intervals the rumble of a truck forced them to fall silent until it passed. Voices of conversation and command and gossip filled the gaps between; people were close by, so it was clear to Yehoshua, if not to Tani, that they could be disturbed at any moment, the only reason he had agreed to meet him here.

He resisted the urge to reach out to him, even to only brush a hand along the shoulder left bare by his undershirt. It had been a mistake to agree to also teach a Talmud class at the local boys’ high school the past year.

The Mishna teaches that in the case of one man who says to another: Go and betroth so-and-so to me, and the latter went and betrothed her to himself, she is betrothed to the second man. A tanna taught concerning this issue: What he did is done …

“That’s done,” he thought to himself as Kinneret turned on her side and reached out to pull his left shoulder toward her. “You were so passionate tonight.” She smiled. He stroked her cheek and felt his love for her welling up within, as if it came from a spring whose flow grew ever stronger. “Was it tough?” She asked the question each time they spent their first night together, after the week and a half in separate beds that they endured each month.

He closed his eyes. “It was so tough,” he said.

“Was it like the first time now?”

“Oh, much better.”

Her eyes had gone hard when he told her about the offer to teach at the midrasha, where young women studied before their army service. “You in a room with twenty girls? They can’t find a woman to teach?”

“Since we met, have I ever even looked at another woman?”

“You’ll teach without looking at them? From behind a screen?”

But she was won over when they visited the settlement. Aryeh and Yael had run free in a way they could never do in the city, the view was breathtaking, and Rav Moshe had given assurances — the classroom door would always be open, and he and other members of the staff would look in frequently. We’re all human beings, he told Kinneret, but we also know how to keep our urges under control, with some help. And so it went for three years.

And the tanna of our mishna, when he teaches the apparently superfluous term: Went, also indicates that he went and acted deceitfully.

Tani looked up from the heavy folio volume they were poring over side by side, fifteen minutes after an after-school tutoring session the twelfth-grader had asked for. There was a small rip in his worn drab-gray work t-shirt just below the boy’s nape and Yehoshua suddenly realized that his eye had been there and not on the page. They were alone in the classroom and the door was closed. The other students had gone. He could hear the soft slide of the mop as the cleaner did the floor of the corridor. Before he could even think of what to say, Tani stretched out his sun-dark arms and pulled Yehoshua into an embrace, as he broke out in tears. For a moment all the familiar feelings from bed at home washed through Yehoshua’s body and he hugged the boy tight, but fear mounted within him and he pushed the warm body away. For a long moment, they looked into each other’s eyes over the open book.

The Gemara answers: Here the mishna teaches us a novel element and there it teaches us a novel element, through its use of these terms.

The children were crabby that night and it took longer than usual to get them down. He kept taking deep breaths, trying to keep control, to keep the anger and frustration from bursting out. He was good at this, practiced at keeping his emotions in check when needed, but it took all his strength. He emerged from their room and found Kinneret in the kitchen, washing dishes. He stood behind her, very close, without touching, and whispered:

“I want to ask you to do something for me.”

She gave him a quick glance and turned back to the sink. He realized that there was nothing she wanted more than sleep.

“Please go to the mikveh today. Go immerse yourself and be with me tonight.”

A plate clattered in the sink. She turned around, her mouth pursed in anger, her eyes gentle with concern.

“What’s gotten into you? I have to count four more clean days!”

“Please,” he said. “Please.”

“But I can’t,” she said in confusion. She wiped her hands on the dishtowel on her shoulder. “You never asked this before. It’s not allowed.” Then, tenderly, “You’re crying.”

He stood before her, tears on his cheeks, and she said, “We have to wait. I know it’s hard, but we have to wait.”

His agent, I would say that it is his agent who is considered a scoundrel in that case, as one who sends an agent relies upon him, thinking, He will perform my agency for me, since he was sent for that purpose.

Tears rolled down Tani’s face. “You did this to me. Before you looked at me that way I had no idea.”

“But that can’t be.” Yehoshua felt drained, empty.

“It’s not fair. All the guys are getting it except for me.”

It made no sense. “But this is a religious settlement.”

“Ha,” Tani guffawed through his tears. “You adults have no clue.”

“You have a girlfriend. I asked around.”

Tani waved his hand dismissively. “It was set up. Rav Moshe, some friends. I’ve seen her maybe three times. Now I know. It’s not what I want. Wait until my parents hear. I’m done for.

“Tani, I’m married. I have two children and a wife. I love Kinneret. I have responsibilities. Whatever happened that afternoon over the Gemara doesn’t change that.”

The boy crouched on his knees and put his arms behind his head. “I might as well just kill myself.”

“No, Tani, no.”

They were both sobbing now. Tani raised his head. “Just do one thing for me.”

“What, Tani?”

“Lie down with me under this tree and hold me tight. Just for five minutes, ten minutes. That’s all. Can you do that?”

Similarly, the Mishna there teaches us a novel element, as it had taught: One who says to another, I would say that it is in the case of another that she is not betrothed if he betrothed her in a different place, as he thinks that this person would not go to the trouble of looking for her elsewhere, and therefore he authorized him to betroth the woman only in that particular place.

Rav Moshe settled back in his chair with a smile. “So, if I understand you correctly, you believe in God for the moment.”

Yehoshua nodded.

“And on the first day of the month of Shevat, you have this marked on your Google Calendar, you will cease to believe in God.”

“Yes.”

“And this is because …?”

Yehoshua could not say that, when he was a lonely teenager Tani’s age, he had designated God to betroth him a bride, promising faith and obedience in return. And he thought God had kept his end of the bargain. But now he realized that God had betrothed Kinneret for himself.

So he said, “It’s the process of long thought and study.”

“We all go through such crises. Doubt lies at the center of all true belief.”

But with regard to his agent, who is assumed to take special trouble to fulfill his agency, you might say he is merely showing him the place where she is likely to be found, and she is betrothed in any case.

Yehoshua did not tell Kinneret that their marriage was over. He still loved her and could not imagine deceiving her.

He continued to teach Gemara at the Midrasha, but asked to be excused from teaching at the high school. Rav Moshe occasionally asked if he wanted to talk more, and occasionally he took up the offer and they discussed belief, or a relevant passage of Talmud or a work of Jewish thought.

He and Tani found places to meet when, every other weekend or so, Tani came home from the army.

The Mishna therefore teaches us that even when he appointed an agent she is not betrothed if he does not find her in the place the putative husband specified.

When the first of Shevat came, Yehoshua found that he could not stop believing in God, although in his prayers he accused God of being a scoundrel and a deceiver. He also thanked him for giving him two loves rather than one. And hated him, because he knew that, inevitably, the deception would come to light and all would be lost. But it was done.

*****

Haim Watzman is the author of “Company C,” “A Crack in the Earth,” and “Necessary Stories.” For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.

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