So Reish Lakish wins the argument, and R. Yochanan knows it.
"Fuck you, you brigand!" says R. Yochanan.
"Funny, that's just what your sister said last night..." sez Reish Lakish.
Tonight I went to a Hebrew College lecture that included some study of the famous story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. (They tell me it was famous... I never heard it before, but then again I've never studied talmud more than the tiniest smattering.) Later, I'll try to write up the passage or find a link to it for all of you without the handy class handout.
The text-study was the most interesting part of the evening for me. My hevruta-partner & I worked out an interpretation of the two men's final argument that illuminated so much in the rest of the story for me. I love it when that happens!
The key point in our interpretation was that the argument over the manufacture of blades should be read as an argument about Reish Lakish's identity-formation. He is symbolized by the forged weapons, because they undergo transformation and the story was just telling us about Reish Lakish's transformation, from highwayman to scholar. Tal had this insight. Once he said that, it became clear why this arguement became so "personal". They are talking about when did Reish Lakish become the new man he (maybe) is now.
Good, so if arguers recognize that they are debating about each other, where is R. Yochanan symbolized? Is he equally a blade? In the section just before we was that he was instrumental in re-shaping and re-forming Reish Lakish's life. So I think it is better to see him as the furnace. In other words, R. Yochanan is saying "You were made [into who you are now] when I was done with you."
Reish Lakish disagrees. R Yochanan can't take full credit for him! "The manufacture of the blade is finished when it is tempered in the water."
So, who is "the water"?
Who came after Yochanan began teaching Lakish Torah? Remember Yochanan's (outrageous to my eyes) proposal: "If you can change your ways, I'll give you my sister to marry." The sister/wife is the water! (This is very appropriate, because after all, water is so often feminine symbolism.)
This neatly doubles the amount of concept-time the sister has in this story, and also puts some nice symmetry into the themes of the 4 thematic sections we identified.
I think there is a very defensible subtext of whether or not Reish Lakish has become a worthy man, in the men's arguement. And his marriage was predicated on becoming that man, so the debate strikes very home. Could go into that more. Also some great byplay, because I certainly think that the sexual connotations of Reish's response are not accidental. It's a real answer to the question "When is the manufacture of a blade finished", but Reish would make it lewd, too. (Our translation said "finished in the water", although the Aramaic was something like "scrubbed in the water" judging by a cognate in Hebrew.) Imagining that, Yochanan's retort about that a "brigand knows his brigandry" is a condemnation of Reish's sexual past and still-dirty mind -- and thus his relationship w/ his wife -- as much or more than a comment on his knowledge of weapons.
(Certainly sex is part of the image of "brigandry" as much as daggers are, oh tell me no?)
That's the key part of what we came up with. Several other ideas can be built from that base. Might note them later; they were mostly interpolating emotions and expanding terse scenes. Also reflected on why it might be that the marriage with the sister finalized what the life-changing study with the Rabbi did not.
One last note, several people hooked on to Reish Lakish's ripost (that he is called "master/rabbi" as a rabbi same as he was as a chief highwayman) as a condemnation of the Talmudic/scholarly cohort for failing to provide the promised non-heirarchical "free exchange between equals" non-distructive idealized Eros[?] companionship.
This boggled me. Where did they get the idea that the academy promised any sort of interpersonal democratic utopia? "Non-heirarchical"??? Whose campaign-promise was that?
There are egos on the line to be threatened, there is power that can be wielded --- oh try to pretend to me that there is no power-structure to be wielded between master and student even though the student may be a teacher himself now, when all ranks are based on the acclaim of peers. Attacks on "social capital" are very real. "Structural Violence", may be the term I'm trying to bring to mind.
And our big open question was: Who won the debate over the purity of forged blades? Who won the debate of veiled allusions? Who won the open ad hominem round?
I think the answer is Reish Lakish.