I say a little prayer for you… Berakhot 28b and 29

Rabbi Eliezer warns us in the Mishna:

One who makes his prayers ‘keva’ – fixed, rigid, routine – loses the sense in which they are pleas, cries for mercy. 

He is giving voice to a fundamental concern that any honest appraisal of prayer must accept – there is a tension between making prayer routine and maintaining the emotional core which gives it life.

We talked about this the other day, about the benefits of routine, but now we must adjust our focus and look at its costs.

The Gemara (I’m sorry, I just can’t keep saying Talmud all the time, it’s not quite natural! (Not sure exactly what I’m suppressing, but even less sure why I should suppress it…)), gives three insights into the meaning of ‘keva’, ‘fixed’.

R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him.

All the formulations are slightly strange here, R. Eliezer talks of ‘making’ one’s prayer fixed, and here we talk about the experience of it feeling like a burden.  There seems to be a suggestion that we somehow choose to view it as a burden, that we allow it to become nothing more than a heavy debt which weighs us down.

Is it really possible to avoid this?  Perhaps there is a hint in the next insight:

The Rabbis say: Whoever does not say it in the language of supplication.

If we assume that the text of prayer is reasonably fixed, then ‘the language’ being referred to here must be more of an emotional language, the tone and mood in which we pray.

What I hear in these words is an injunction to make oneself humble before praying, to reconnect with the part of us that is vulnerable and needy.  So much of our experience, perhaps especially nowadays, reinforces our sense of self and enhances feelings of omnipotence that we never quite grow out of.

We are so busy and distracted that we give no thought to the ways in which we are fragile and troubled.  It’s not a co-incidence, part of the interest in being busy is precisely because it distracts us from ourselves, from the uncertainty and unease we encounter when we spend time alone, when we find ourselves looking inwards.

Even the study of Torah can distract us from this.  This was a motif running through the story we read yesterday and something I myself have noticed whilst being engaged in this daf yomi project.  Torah is inspiring and elevating, it lifts us and makes as attuned to something we might genuinely call Divine.  But is also strengthens us, it satisfies us, it makes us less vulnerable.  And in doing so it can make it harder to properly pray, to experience that sense of being a vulnerable creature who needs to reach out to something bigger and stronger, to something outside the self.

There is a genuine emotional conflict between study and prayer, it is not merely an ideological difference that surfaces from time to time.

We must find the language, the music, the feel of vulnerability.  Otherwise our prayer lacks life, it loses its power.

And if we do find that vulnerability, if we remember our neediness, then perhaps we have achieved enough in prayer, perhaps this is the core of the whole exercise.

Does this make it less of a burden?  It doesn’t make it easier, but hopefully it makes it less tedious, less meaningless, less dominated by a spirit of rigid obligation.

The third insight is also interesting:

Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.

Before we go further, you just have to love the candour and humour of the next person to comment on this:

R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused.

Something fresh.  That’s a challenge, for sure, but again it is a suggestion, a word of advice.  As well as trying to adopt a certain emotional posture before or whilst praying, we are encouraged to bring something new to it.

On one level this can be a challenge to the imagination: the language and imagery of prayer is extremely rich, and we are being encouraged to pause and consider it, to try to understand it differently, to relate to it in a new way.

On another level, this can be taken as a more psychological challenge, as an almost therapeutic injunction to allow something from our day to surface in our prayer, to use it as an opportunity for reflection, for contemplation.  One of Freud’s most powerful insights was to emphasise the importance of free association, of encouraging the mind to just wander, to amble, to allow itself to be.

And it’s not just because things will be revealed, because we will gain deep insights from the stuff that comes out.  No, it’s more fundamental than that:  the mind needs to open up simply because it needs to be open, because that’s its natural state.  We spend so much of our lives in society needing to close down our mind; so much of our upbringing is about discouraging us from certain thoughts and self-perceptions.

We are fundamentally anxious, and often we are so anxious about ourselves that we daren’t even explore certain thoughts or ideas, for fear of where a given trail may lead, for fear of what certain thoughts might mean.

So we are told: ‘Do not be afraid, use your prayer to go to new places, to try different things.  Prayer is an encounter with Truth, if you are not prepared to grapple with difficult truths when you pray, then maybe you shouldn’t bother.’

In my experience, good prayer can have a very similar effect to good therapy.  But in praise of prayer, one is obliged to point out that it is a lot cheaper and a lot more readily available.

So this is what the Talmud offers us, do not view your prayer as a burden, use it as an emotional and psychological opportunity to try out different things, to change the pace of your day.

Still, we have the nagging sense that this is not easy, that it is a big ask to do this three times a day.  We saw yesterday that Rabbi Yehoshua felt that a twice daily obligation would be more appropriate, today we see that he goes even further:

Rabban Gamaliel says: every day a man should say the eighteen benedictions.   R. Yehoshua says: an abbreviated eighteen.

Now, as a first observation, even Rabban Gamliel seems to suggest that we need say the full eighteen blessings only once a day.  I’m not sure about the logistics of this, perhaps he had a different prayer format for Mincha and Ma’ariv.  But he doesn’t seem to say that we should say the full Shemona Esrei thrice daily.

As we know from yesterday, Rabbi Yehoshua is the great defender of the working classes, of the busy and time restricted people.  He advocates using the abridged version of the prayer, which makes the thirteen middle berachot into one short paragraph.  This makes the whole exercise much more manageable.

Perhaps more importantly, I take him to be emphasising quality over quantity.  ‘Do not pray so many words that you are unable to concentrate, to mean anything by them.  Do not spend all your time on the text, rushing through words without experiencing anything resonant at all.  Slow down and say a few words carefully, use them as a springboard to thought and feeling, this is the point of prayer.’

And, significantly, the Gemara engages in quite a detailed discussion of this prayer, as well as offering a variety of even shorter prayers that we might use.  Unlike nowadays, I get the feeling that they really did use these prayers, that it was quite common for even the leading Rabbis to pray using these shorter formulae.  And this is very heartening.  It’s quite a challenge to spend over an hour a day praying.  But the idea that we do it in three short bursts, each lasting perhaps a couple of minutes, that sounds  a lot more feasible, something that we might and, realistically, could do.

So, in sum, let’s avoid making our prayer into a burden.  Let’s keep it short and meaningful, let’s make it regular but fresh.  I’m genuinely quite excited about this, I’ve often felt that meaningful prayer involves an unfeasible time commitment.  I’m liberated by this Gemara,  I have a renewed sense that maybe less really can be more.

When the Rabbis turned Marxist… Berakhot 27 and 28a

There’s a phenomenal story today about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel II, the successor of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh.

The story begins prosaically enough, there is a debate as to whether the evening service, Ma’ariv, is obligatory or optional.  Rabban Gamliel holds it is obligatory, Rabbi Yehoshua believes that it is optional.  We are not yet given any insight into what lies behind this debate, we are left to ponder its significance.

A certain student asks Rabban Gamliel about this dispute, and receives the following response:

Wait until the shield bearers enter the Bet Midrash and we will see.

It’s a striking comment, describing the process of study in language both military and combative, hinting at an aggression and exclusivity in his approach to the Academy.

Now, one of Gamliel’s achievements was to bring some harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and it may well have been his forceful approach which made this possible.  But perhaps that approach had run out of steam, perhaps the balance between openness and intolerance had tilted too far by now.

This seems to have been the feeling of the Rabbis of the time.  After Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Yehoshua by making him stand for an extended period, there is an outbreak of protest.  It is too much, the scholars say, this is the third time he has humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua, and it is no longer acceptable.  This man cannot be our leader, he cannot dictate the tone of the Torah,  the flavour of the culture which must sustain the Jews in exile.

The Torah, they seem to say, is not about victor and defeated, it is not about the exercising of power.  Perhaps in bringing harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, too much of Hillel’s basic humanitarian sensitivity has been lost.  If we detect that the institution of learning is being guided by people out of touch with its spirit, then how are we to maintain faith in the Divine power of the Law?  The Law can easily be corrupted, it can become an outlet for the expression of tyranny.

So they depose him.

They discuss who should take over, ruling out Rabbi Yehoshua on account of his involvement, and Rabbi Akiva because his lack of lineage might enable Rabban Gamliel to smear his reputation.  We get from this a feel of quite how fraught the political atmosphere is, Rabban Gamliel had his Josh Lyman waiting in the wings, there would be no holds barred when it was time to attack.

They opt to give the position to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, on account of his wisdom, his lineage and his wealth.  Again, we are dealing with realpolitik here, we are not quite in the business of canonizing saints.

He consults with his wife, who suggests that it may be something of a poisoned chalice, that tomorrow they may turn their outrage towards him.  It may not be the prudent choice.

I love his response:

Let a man use an expensive cup for one day even if it be broken the next.

He’s saying that sometimes we just have to make the most of the opportunities in front of us, to enjoy them, and not to worry too much about the possibility that we may lose them.

Then, famously, his hair turns white before its time.

We then get a feel for the revolution that is taking place in the aftermath of Rabban Gamliel’s ejection:

They dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter.

The guard??  Again, the Academy has ceased to be a democratic institution for furthering the wisdom of the people, for answering their needs with the Divine spirit.  It has become an exclusive club, a gentlemen’s refuge, the preserve of an aristocratic elite.

And what were his criteria for rejecting people:

Rabban Gamliel would proclaim and say: Any student whose inside, his thoughts and feelings, are not like his outside, i.e., his conduct and his character traits are lacking, will not enter the study hall.

Now this relation between the inner and the outer is a huge topic on its own; we touched on it somewhat yesterday.  In the context of this story, however, it seems that it’s a classic expression of upper class snobbery, ‘His manners aren’t terribly well polished, he can’t possibly have anything interesting to say’.  Here in England, there is a wonderful tradition of this subtle and disguised cruelty, of the ability to maintain power with the most delicate insults and refined barbs.

And what was the upshot of this opening up, did the masses indeed feel they wanted to contribute to the growth of this new culture of learning?

Yes, yes and yes:

On that day several benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous students. Rabbi Yoĥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this matter. One said: Four hundred benches were added to the study hall. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added to the study hall.

Rabban Gamliel, rightly, felt bad about this, and the dream which eased his mind was nothing but illusory wish fulfilment, as the Talmud dryly observes.

After Rabbi Yehoshua outwits him in another debate, this time, fittingly, about the extent to which we should be open to converts, Rabban Gamliel decides he must visit Rabbi Yehoshua’s home and apologise.

This is where it gets really interesting.

When he reached Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he saw that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua in wonderment: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith, [as until then he had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to engage in that arduous trade in order to make a living].

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Woe unto this generation that you are its leader!  For you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, of what they must do to make a living and how they struggle just to feed themselves.

Woe unto this generation indeed!  What an indictment this is:  “You Rabban Gamliel have not got the faintest idea of what it really means to live as a Torah scholar, to balance the challenges of working in the real world and finding wisdom and practice to get you through the day.  The Torah you profess to teach is not hard won wisdom, it is not insight drawn out of the burning crucible of real life.  It is mendacious and decadent ideology, it is a culture born of the luxury of the aristocracy, of people who do not get their hands dirty.”

And now we get the meaning of the dispute about Ma’ariv.  We can hear Rabbi Yehoshua continuing:

You profess to tell me that the Ma’ariv prayer is an obligation!  Perhaps in your easy life you need further obligation, perhaps you need to restrain your energies and instincts.  I am a working man, and when I come home from work and take care of all my other responsibilities, there is simply not always the time nor energy left to say Ma’ariv.  I understand that it is a ‘reshut’, a permission, a privilege, and for the most part I manage to use that privilege, I endeavour to commune with my Maker.  But on the occasions when I cannot manage it, and more than that, on the occasions when the honest working people amongst the Jews cannot manage it, they do not need you, Gamliel, making them feel bad, adding extra guilt into their already burdensome lives.  You have gone too far Gamliel, you have lost touch with reality, you have turned from leader into oppressor, the guilt of your privilege has soured your love for your people.”

Rabban Gamliel accepts the rebuke.  He realises that he had lost his way, and that he must make some serious changes if he is to return.  He begs Rabbi Yehoshua’s forgiveness, who finally gives it, albeit, ironically, only on the merit of Rabban Gamliel’s father.

The study hall is reluctant to return Rabban Gamliel to his position, particularly Rabbi Akiva, but eventually, at Rabbi Yehoshua’s insistence, they do so.  We can only assume that he genuinely did have the mark of greatness, otherwise it’s hard to see why they would give him another chance.

So the debate, once again, is about the spirit of the Law, of the dangers in it become alienated and oppressive, of it losing contact with the honest soil in which it must grow.  Rabbi Yeshoshua is its defendant, arguing for its democratic character in much the same way as when he tells the Bat Kol  ‘Lo Bashamayim Hi’, ‘It is no longer for the Heavens to decide’ (Bava Metzia 59b).

That said, we might have thought there was something crass about opening up this debate, about reducing the arguments of the Tannaim to Marxist considerations about class and integrity, about raising the concerns of the workers.  Not so, the Talmud tells us as a postscript, the student who initiated this debate was also the founder of the mystical tradition in Judaism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.  I read into this that even the most esoteric mysticism must always grow out of honest proletarian soil, that when it becomes yeasty and indulgent it loses its power to talk to us.

May our Torah always be grounded, and may we never rush to judge the practice of those who do an honest day’s work.

Is Prayer Sacrifice? Berakhot 26

We begin chapter four today, leaving behind the Shema and starting to focus on the Amida, the silent prayer at the core of our service.  The Talmud is trying to understand the framework for saying the Amida, and it leads into a reflection on the fundamental roots of prayer:

It has been stated: R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: The Tefillot (the Amida) were instituted by the Patriarchs. R. Joshua b. Levi says: The Tefillot were instituted  to replace the daily sacrifices.

Ultimately we arrive at a compromise: there is some sense in which they were instituted by Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, but the Rabbis used the framework of the Temple sacrifices to flesh out their structure and timing.

From our point of view, they have two sets of ancient roots, one in our forefathers, the founders of our nation, the other in the history of our ritual, in the primordial structure where our religious impulse first found its expression.

Sacrifice is a tricky concept, without even touching on the ethics of animal offerings.  (We’ll get there, I’m sure.)  In at least two posts recently, I’ve highlighted the sense in which religion is not just about sacrifice, on dapim 14 and 23.  And yet, the key word here is ‘just’.  Religion is not solely about sacrifice, it is not a competition to see who can punish themselves more, who can endure more suffering.  But it would be wrong to suggest that sacrifice has no role to play at all.

Perhaps we can soften the idea of sacrifice by connecting it with the word ‘commitment’.  To commit to something is ultimately to sacrifice something else, whether it is a clearly defined alternative or simply the possibility of some unexplored freedom.

I think the concept of ‘commitment’ carries reasonably positive associations nowadays; it is taken as a given that commitment is indispensable if one wishes to be in a relationship, to build a community or to excel in one’s vocation.  It is less clear why one would commit to religious practices which stretch back thousands of years.

In response to this challenge, people sometimes cite the ideals of ‘discipline’ or ‘routine’, but to the free spirited being who is feeling a little penned in and restrained by the vast web of halakha, these values only beg the question.  How can discipline be a value in itself?  Isn’t ‘routine’ simply a word grown ups use to plaster over the monotony of their lives?

There is some truth in these counter-claims – I retain the right to be suspicious of people who assume those terms to constitute a decisive argument in favour of commitment.  If we are to make sense of commitment, we need to think about what we are committing to, and of what we might gain from that commitment.

As we touched on in discussing freedom and the self, it is less than clear cut exactly how we come to have a personality, how we develop character and exhibit freedom.  Experimental psychological research has shown recently that our will power under difficult conditions is actually a lot weaker than we would imagine.  David Brooks talks about this in his book The Social Animal, and he concludes that one of the biggest factors in our decision making is the way we perceive the challenge, the manner in which we frame our dilemma.  To change our behaviour requires changing our perception.  He says:

This learning-to-see model emphasizes that it is not once crucial moment that shapes a character.  Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.  This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character…It also empahsizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain.  Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world.  Good behaviour strengthens certain networks.  Aristotle was right when he observed, ‘We acquire virtues by first having put them into action’. (p128)

Aristotle was indeed wise to see that we are in the business of trying to acquire virtues.  It is often  in those very moments where we see that we wish to live a certain kind of life, a life which exemplifies our most cherished values, that we are paralysed by the failings of our personality as it is.  We sense that there is something missing, but it is deeply unfashionable to suggest that must set to out to fix it.

There is, however, no easy path.  The only way to get to the personality we desire is to work at it, to commit to it.  If we wish to embody a certain sort of Divine light in the world, then we must build a temple which might house and contain it.  And, as our tradition teaches, the core of that temple must be sacrifice, a voluntary spirit which curbs the excesses of the ego.

To commit to regular prayer is to make a sacrifice.  But, it is not only to make a sacrifice.  It would not be enough, whatever Yeshayahu Leibowitz may contend, to recite the phone book.  We make a sacrifice, but in that moment, in those minutes of the day when we relinquish our other projects and deisres, we focus on our highest values, on our deepest needs, on the ways in which we might be genuinely true to ourselves.  We connect to various streams within our tradition, and we try to draw strength from those roots.

We make a sacrifice in establishing a routine, we commit to a discipline, but we do so because we desperately desire the ends that they promise.  We want to experience our better selves more of the time, we want our being to be graceful and light, we want to feel the joy and cheer in the most everyday situations, in the places we too often miss them.

These are the benefits of a developed personality. There may be a contemporary myth which suggests that some people simply live their whole lives in a state of easy happiness, of effortless harmony.  And perhaps it is true of the odd person here and there.  But for most of us, it doesn’t come easily, the labours and responsibilities of life drain our spirits and dampen our enthusiasm.

We opt for routine over freedom, not because we fundamentally value routine, but because we believe that the routine may give us a sort of freedom that we would never have if we embraced a life without structure, if we abandoned our personality to its whims.  Beauty is often built out of the most painstaking detail, and that is nowhere more true than in the human soul.

And we commit to that routine, because we know that we are more likely to be inspired regularly if we are committed to turning up, because we concede that we are rarely going to jump out of bed at 6.45 in the morning and spontaneously praise the source of our Life.

In prayer, the deepest commitment creates the highest and most inspired form of freedom, a place where our spirit can truly soar, an event which can change our entire day.  We must be careful with sacrifice, it must not become an idol worship of its own.  But we must not think that we can live without it, to do so would be to starve our soul of some essential nutrients.

Where Angels daren’t tread… Berakhot 25

Generally I manage to learn the daf in the morning and let it play around in my mind for a while before writing something.  I didn’t manage to do that this morning, and I felt it.  My imagination missed its muse, its plaything, and its lack of activity sat heavily with me throughout the day.

I’d always taken the idea of ‘vehigita bo yomam valaylah’ – you shall meditate on it day and night – as something of an unrealistic imperative, I can now see that it’s actually the description of a blessing, a possibility.  Let it be on your mind constantly, and you will feel better for it; try to live without it, and you will miss it.

The daf today contains some extremely detailed discussions about urine and faeces.  And if I’m honest, I found it tough going, it wasn’t obviously inspiring.  Again, it may be that I came to it too late in the day, maybe the inspiration comes from encountering ideas in the morning, but either way, it didn’t leave me rhapsodic.

There was one gem, about halfway through we are in the midst of yet another discussion about the environment in which one may recite the Shema.  I’ll leave the details for now, but Rava turns round and justifies his position with the following statement:

The Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels. 

On one level, he sounds a bit fed up with the discussion.  Like Rav Pappa yesterday, I hear him as saying,”let’s be reasonable, let’s use a bit of common sense and not get too carried away with these detailed discussions…”.

On another level, I think it’s a fantastic principle.  The Torah is given to human beings, in all their fleshy and bodily reality.  We need not deny the body in order to utter or learn the Torah –  we may make attempts to elevate it, but these are always going to be limited, both in terms of scope and success.

Indeed, part of why we engage with Torah is to achieve some element of transcendence, to lift our spirit from the weight of the body, to bring the taste of something beyond into the everyday.

To engage with Torah, with Divine Law, is to open ourselves to improving, refining, finessing our behaviour, our personality.  We give more material to consciousness, we are taking part in Freud’s famous mission: ‘Where id (unstructured drives) was, ego (personality, consciousness) shall be’.

To be human is to be, hopefully, growing, reaching for the light, creating a character that we both trust and love.  To be an angel is to have no need for this, it is to be born and created perfect, pure, without the possibility of either growth or regression.

We may not discuss Torah in the presence of faeces or urine which are giving off a repugnant smell.  But at a certain point, we must accept them as part of the human condition.

We may still be left with an environment where Angels dare not tread, but for us, it’s the perfect point at which to be opened by Torah.

Nakedness and its Vicissitudes, or, It’s all in the Mind… Berakhot 24

Nakedness is something of a hot topic in the Jewish world nowadays.  It seems that we can’t go long without hearing of some new demand for further separation of the sexes, for woman to cover up another part of their anatomy, for the purity of the male mind to be protected at all costs.

Today’s daf presents some of the key material on the topic, and it’s well worth reading it carefully to see what’s being said.

First up, we have the opinion of Shmuel, who says that if one is in bed naked with another, they may turn in the other direction and recite the Shema.  And this applies even if it is his wife, for his wife is considered like ‘his body’.

What does this mean ‘like his body’?  Surely not that she will therefore not cause him to have sexually inclined thoughts.  That would be very problematic.  It may be a challenge for married life to retain the vigorous zest of its earliest days, desire may well be less intense for that which is familiar, but it is surely too must to say that she could not provoke him at all!

Rather, I think we may read that the level of intimacy between a man and his wife is so complete, so natural and unproblematic that he may, with a mere turn of his body, engage in the meditation of Keriat Shema.  A happily married couple have attained the original intent of Genesis, they have become one flesh.  More than this, they have returned to the state wherein nakedness was not wholly coupled with shame, where clothing was not a secretive mask required for human interaction.  Only after the initial sin did Adam and Eve intuit that they needed to clothe themselves, to hide something of their essence, to create a barrier between what was happening on the inside and the outside.

Rav Yosef makes a curious objection, he thinks that only when in bed with his wife would this twist and Shema move be permitted.  But if a man was in bed with another person, who may be more likely to evoke sexual thoughts, then he cannot turn and recite Shema.

It seems, amazingly, that the Shema would be the problem, but that there would be no intrinsic issue in lying in bed naked with a person who fills one with desire.  I can’t imagine many contemporary Rabbis saying this, perhaps there really was a radically different sexual ethic in those times.

We soon get another flavour for how far removed from our own sensibility these Rabbis were.  Referring to the ‘Twist and Shema’, they ask:

And what about the buttocks?  Are these not considered a problematic form of nakedness??

We must say that this provides support for Rav Huna, who holds that buttocks are not nakedness. 

Brilliant! – Ladies who are pestered on buses to cover more of their arms should state that they follow Rav Huna and show the man their buttocks.  That would help the man put things into perspective.

And we then adduce further support for Rav Huna from the following idyllic image, which reads like something from a 1960s acid assisted love festival:

A woman sits and separates her challa naked, despite the fact that she must recite a blessing over the separation of the challa, because she can cover her genitals in the ground, but a male, [whose genitals are not covered when he sits], may not do so.

There is disagreement as to whether her buttocks are in fact being exposed, and therefore as to whether this is conclusive support for Rav Huna.  But either way, it is clear that her legs, arms, shoulders and breasts are very much exposed, and nonetheless she is encouraged to separate her challa and make a blessing!

I do see that this is talking about a woman on her own, there is no suggestion that a man may be in her presence and make a bracha, but the it is powerfully clear that we are potentially very comfortable with nakedness.  I take this to be encouraging, it suggests that we are not as afraid of our bodies, of the bodies of others, as one might have supposed.

Indeed, there is something beautifully domestic about it all, the woman separating challa as she bakes the family bread, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat, and she does it whilst sitting in the grass, again with an Eden like innocence, her hair tumbling down her shoulders, perhaps with some flowers in it, as the warm Mediterranean sun caresses and soothes her.

Snapping back to the halakha, some significant heavyweights – Rashba and the Magen Avraham – accept this ruling about buttocks, they are not even considered problematic for the recitation of the Shema.

Thus far, all seems well, there is an acceptance of the post Edenic condition in which nakedness is at some level incompatible with making a bracha, but there is no sense in which nakedness is altogether threatening, in which its presence might somehow undermine the foundations of religious life.

Indeed, there’s an imperative to keep things in perspective:

Rav Mari said to Rav Pappa: Does it constitute nakedness if one’s pubic hair protruded from their garment? Rav Pappa said about him: A hair, a hair.

In other words, a hair is just a hair, let’s not get carried away and start looking to cause trouble.

Or, he might be saying: “I understand that some men may have a fetish for pubic hairs, and perhaps you, Rav Mari, include yourself in this category.  I appreciate that the sight of one may cause untold stimulation and excitation, and who knows where that might lead one.  We do not, however, legislate on the basis on the basis of personal fetish, it is neither in principle nor in practice acceptable to make demands on a woman’s attire due to whatever excessive sexuality a man may read into a situation.”

In this spirit, the Talmud continues its exploration of the female body.  It cites Rav Yitzchak, a later Amora, who holds that a tefach, a hands-breadth, of a woman’s flesh is considered nakedness.

It is not clear what he is referring to, and at this point the Talmud drops a bit of a bombshell:

If you say that it comes to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth in her, didn’t Rav Sheshet say:  Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.

And there we have it, one of the most popular statements for justifying attacks on what women choose to wear.

Let’s unpack this.  First of all, Rav Yitzchak wasn’t talking about this, he was talking about Shema, and we do not accept his opinion.  We accept the more open minded opinions already cited.  So the common phrase ‘Tefach Be’Isha Erva’ actually has no application, it is, essentially, rejected.

Now, onto Rav Sheshet.  How are we to square this with everything more accommodating that we’ve seen above?

First of all, I think we have to note that the verb used here is ‘mistakel’, which suggests an intense form of staring, ‘gazing’, as the translation above has it.  We are not entertaining the idea that a chance sighting of a woman’s little finger is in anyway the same as seeing her genitalia.  What I think we are talking about, however, is the power of fantasy, of the imagination.

There is a recognition that if a man has lustful feelings towards a woman, then even the slightest glance at part of her body, at a finger or toe, at the passing shadow of her form, will be enough.  It will contain the power to carry his weakened and subservient mind into a world of illicit possibilities.

This is to take Rav Pappa’s thought to its conclusion, we cannot possibly legislate for all instances of sexual provocation, because perhaps ninety percent of that provocation is happening inside the mind of the man, with only incidental assistance from the external world.  It’s a very Kleinian worldview.  His mind is in a state where it is disposed towards lust and desire, perhaps in general, perhaps with regard to one specific woman.  And in that state, no matter what we were to do, even were we to banish him to a cave on his own, he would come to think lustful thoughts.

So the burden is upon him, not upon the woman.

The plot thickens, it turns out that Rav Sheshet, who made the comment about the little finger, was blind (TB Shabbat 109a, 119a), possibly since birth.

Where to go with this?

On the one hand, he is hardly the most realistic judge of what is and is not sexually provocative in the realm of sight.  That just has to be an indisputable reality.

On another level, what we do have, what we must be dealing with, is his imagination.  He must imagine that to see this part of a woman, a woman one desires, is as much as to see her nakedness in its entirety.  And he is right, to an extent.  In the realm of the imagination, of fantasy, the smallest symbol can be the key to the whole image, can trigger a vision of the totality.  He is presenting us with an imagination fully formed, in its most excitable state, and he is right to suggest that in this condition, the smallest glance could be overpowering, intoxicating.

We must be in the realm of the imaginary, I was sure of this before I was reminded of Rav Sheshet’s blindness, now I am utterly convinced of it.

We then have another two famous examples of what constitutes nakedness in a woman.

One is the leg, and the verse used to support this is from Isaiah.  Well, actually a verse which talks about a leg is next to a verse which talks about nakedness.  And the nakedness isn’t physical, but sounds more metaphorical, existential:

“Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen” (47.3)

I take it that we are in the realm of what might provoke an excitable male, of musings on the fickle side of man.  But what I do consider is that perhaps the anxiety around nakedness is provoked by this idea of Isaiah’s, as follows:

In our nakedness we do experience shame, and therefore we seek to avoid shame, and we do so by avoiding nakedness, and not just our own, but nakedness in general, perhaps in particular of those who evoke shame in us.

In psychoanalytic language, this would be a form of projection, a kind of displaced transference, wherein we direct our powerful emotions at very much the wrong object.

And this happens again with the next quotation, which seeks to establish the female voice as ‘nakedness’.  There the quotation is from The Song of Songs, that powerful and sensual love song which gave some of the Rabbis so much trouble.  And what better way to deal with that than to use it to reduce the amount of sensuality in one’s environment, to clamp down on the unease that it brings about.

Rashi seems to be thinking this way, he comments, perhaps ironically:

Since the verse exalts the voice so highly, we learn from there that it is a source of desire (ta’ava).

So both of these assaults on the female body can be read as expression of male unease and anxiety.  And the fact that they are not generally taken as legal rulings, neither in the Talmud nor, universally, in the codes, gives us more room for this provocative and challenging reading, for us to ask what was really going in this discussion.

We are given a variety of conflicting views, and it’s important to distinguish the manner in which we ought to read them all, if indeed that manner has been clearly established.  I believe that a close reading of the text makes the issues a lot less black and white than commonly assumed, and that it also makes for a richer, more psychologically interesting discussion.

Sensuality evokes unease, that is what it means to live outside Eden.  But how we manage that, how we act it out, that we do have control over, and it is demanded of us that we do so in as honest and considerate a way as possible.

Fools Gold Berakhot 23

There’s a discussion today of the verse in Ecclesiastes (4:17):

Guard your foot when you go to the house of the Lord and prepare to listen; for that is better than when fools offer sacrifices, as they know not to do evil.

The Talmud is a bit perplexed by the idea of fools who know not to do evil.  What sort of fool is so fortunate as to always unwittingly do the right thing?  Besides, it seems they must have done some evil, why else are they bringing a sacrifice?

We are given the following interpretation:

Regarding those fools, the Holy One Blessed Be He said: “They cannot distinguish between good and evil, yet they have the audacity to offer me a sacrifice??”

Sacrifice is not enough, the prophets make this clear.  But whereas they usually suggest that a person must behave with mercy and compassion, with justice and righteousness, here we seem to go a bit further.  We are now demanding that a person learn to distinguish between good and evil, to refine and develop their moral sensibility.  There is now the demand upon every individual that they strengthen their capacity to sit with difficult issues and work their way towards an ethical resolution.

Religion is not about sacrifice, it is not about our masochism, about providing an outlet for our ascetic tendencies.  Nietzsche argues convincingly that such behaviour is the last refuge of the thwarted and downtrodden ego, it is not the display of pure hearted piety that it may at first resemble (Essay III, Genealogy of Morality).

That said, we don’t follow Nietzsche in looking to move ‘Beyond Good and Evil’.  We are, however, happy to accept his assistance in deepening our understanding of the concepts.  Thinking at that level of depth can only make us better able to recognise and live by our moral lights.

I see a link here to another halakha on the daf, that one shouldn’t hold a Sefer Torah whilst praying.  On one level, the person may be worried about dropping it, which would distract him from his prayer.  But thinking further than that, we may worry that a person holding a Sefer Torah could start praying to the Sefer Torah, that they may invest it with an inappropriate level of Godliness, with magical otherworldly properties.

This, it seems, would be another case of the fool, who is too caught up in ritual and sacrifice, and whose heart is distracted from the authentic and intangible matters at hand.

The antidote for Ecclesiastes’ fool is to ‘come close to hear the words of the wise’.  We must have the humility to listen, and the desire to imbibe the refined personality one encounters in the wise.  This is the Divine path, this is what keeps our foolishness in check.

Dirty Dream Number Two Berakhot 22

There is a somewhat head-spinning discussion today about what someone is allowed to read, study or pray following an emission of semen.

In a heartening admission of just how hard the discussion is to follow, the narrator of the Talmud says the following:

It’s clear that all the Ammoraim and Tannaim are arguing with Ezra’s decree [i.e. requiring purification after emission], let us see what Ezra himself actually decreed!!

Perhaps it’s difficult to appreciate this line without having endured the discussion up until this point.  That said, anyone’s who’s gotten lost in Talmudic dialectics will surely like the idea that once in a while the text is able to be self-conscious about it and to itself demand some clarification.

Going back to the discussion itself, the rejection of Ezra’s decree is finalised in the following story:

Once a certain disciple was mumbling words of Torah in front of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Betera, [as he had suffered an emission of semen in the night].  He said to him: My son, open your mouth and let your words be clear, for words of Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness, as it says, “Is not My word like fire?” (Jeremiah 23:29).  Just as fire is not susceptible of uncleanness, so words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness.

I think there are three key points to take from this story.

Firstly, the idea that words of Torah do not become impure or unclean is a powerful one.  It follows from this that we may view them as a kind of oasis of purity, an inextinguishable source of life, a refuge from the filth and muck that life sometimes catches us in.  No matter how dirty or fallen you may feel, do not think you are too unworthy to engage in Torah.  It is the tree of life, your mortal wretchedness is no match for its power.

Secondly, and implicit in this one, Rabbi Yehuda ben Betera rejects what other Rabbis in the discussion seem to assume, i.e. that a person who is impure may not utter words of Torah.  Irrespective of the effect they may or may not have of the Torah, one might think that they simply are not fit, as an individual, to approach the Divine Word.

We firmly reject this, re-enforcing the idea we’ve seen before that it is precisely in our most abject and graceless state that we may need to reach out to the Divine.  We are never too far, never too low, Torah was given to elevate man, and it is precisely when he needs that elevation that it may work best.  The Torah was deliberately not given to angels, it was given to flesh and blood, to those who wake up in the night flustered and confused, dirty and disoriented.

The third lesson is that words of Torah are like fire.  Not only can they not become impure, but I think we can assume that their heat may sear and purify us, that their intensity may burn through the layers of our ego and touch something forgotten in our unconscious.

There is a mysterious vitality to fire, it’s seductive yet very dangerous, it plays to something unbounded in our imagination.  Torah should always carry some of this allure and mystique –  if it doesn’t then perhaps we’ve lost our connection to its vitality.

So, following this ruling, and, it seems, a general revolt against Ezra’s law, we may learn Torah even if we are in some sense impure, if that’s the consequence of a wet dream.

There is another discussion later on, which seems to take place in ignorance of this ruling:

Our Rabbis taught: A ba’al keri [one who experienced an emission of semen] on whom nine kabs  of water have been thrown is clean. Nahum Ish Gamzu  whispered this to Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva whispered it to Ben Azzai, and Ben Azzai went forth and repeated it to the disciples in public.

Two Amoraim in the West differed in regard to this, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida.  One stated: He repeated it, and one taught, He whispered it. The one who taught ‘he repeated it’ [publicly] held that the reason [for the concession] was to prevent neglect of the Torah and of procreation. The one who taught ‘he whispered it’ thought that the reason was in order that scholars might not always be with their wives like roosters.

There’s a lot of whispering here, there is a secret tradition, we don’t seem to trust everyone with the fullness of the truth.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai were two of the four who entered the mystical Pardes, we’re being given a glimpse of that esoteric world here.

What’s really important though is the point at the end about roosters.  It seems that roosters can mate up to 100 times a day, and there is a suggestion that this is not behaviour befitting a scholar of Torah.

And yet, paying attention to the text, this is not a point made by any of the Tannaim mentioned.  Rather, it is offered anonymously, as a possible rationalisation for a divergent reading of the story.  This different reading is attributed to Amoraim living 200 or so years later in Israel.  And the explanation is being offered by even later Amoraim maybe another hundred years later in Babylon.

So, there is no indication that this is to be taken as a final legal ruling, or even as an undisputed Scholarly Sexual Ethic.  And yet – you know where this is heading – it has become precisely that, codified thus in Rambam (Deot 5:4) and Shulkhan Arukh (OH 240:1, EH 25:2).

There seems to have been an evolution here, the ambivalent and complex sexual attitude of the Talmud – which we’ll be exploring as it arises – is being transformed into a scholarly asceticism, a demand for sublimation, a disavowal of earthly life.  There is doubtless a balance that needs to be struck here, but I think we should be aware of the way the tradition may shift in a certain direction, of the way that certain voices who no longer appeal to later generations might be ignored or repressed.

Sex and Torah both contain an element of fire.  They are both a source and manifestation of life.  I think we must tread very carefully in presuming to understand the relationship between them, in attempting to legislate for it.  A period of heightened sexuality can often concur with a burst of intellectual creativity; it is not the case that one can easily and straightforwardly timetable sublimation.

Living with spontaneity and uncertainty is living truthfully, remaining engaged with reality.  Let us not run too quickly away from those aspects of life, let us remember that Torah was given to us in this world and that it is here that we must make something of it.

Just Like a Woman… Berakhot 20b and 21

Today we encounter one of the more divisive rulings in the Halakha.  The mishna begins:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from putting on Tefillin. But they are subject to the obligations of Tefillah and Mezuzah and Grace after meals.

The Gemara responds quickly:

It is obvious that they are exempt from the Shema – that is a positive commandment which is time-bound, and women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments!

Really?  Was it that obvious?

If this is such a well known principle, we would be within our rights to expect the Talmud to give us its source or background.  We saw yesterday that it spent nearly a whole daf trying to find the source for Human Dignity and its power to defer prohibitions.  And yet, today, nothing.

I’m highlighting this as a strange absence in the text.  And before highlighting some other strange absences, I’d like to propose one understanding of them:

The Talmud is not shy about discussing anything and everything, pretty much whatever someone might say can lead to a discussion of one or other related topics.  Discussion is basically its raison d’etre, its lifeblood.  So if the Talmud doesn’t discuss something, it suggests that the matter was so uncontroversial, so widely assumed, so unconsciously accepted in Talmudic culture that no one thought to question it.

To my mind, this suggests that if something did become controversial in later generations, as society and people changed, then the discussion ought to be re-opened, that this would be the only authentically Talmudic response.  Judaism is always about trying to improve the world, to improve the moral and spiritual quality of the lives we lead.  In order to do this it must always start from our mode of living in the world, from the raw actuality of that.

Put differently, there is perhaps nothing fundamentally Jewish about this strict division of male and female roles.  It may have been codified in Jewish Law, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any sort of Jewish Ideal.  It simply means that it was an aspect of people’s lives and so some kind of habit and rule was required in response to it.

For example, we see later today – 21b – that a man may wed a woman who was raped by either his father or his son.  Would we say that there is any kind of ideal involved in one’s relatives being rapists?  I think it’s clear that the answer is no.  On the other hand, such a circumstance may arise, and in a society where a raped woman would find it hard to get married, it may seem reasonable to allow such a marriage to proceed, with the women’s consent.

This is an extreme example, but it shows the extent to which we need to be careful about moving too readily from Jewish Law to Jewish Ideals.

Maybe we should step back a moment, perhaps I’m rushing into assuming that this issue of women’s exemption is objectionable, something that needs defending and repackaging in a radical way.

Perhaps it isn’t, I did a survey of a few women today and the exemption itself didn’t seem to be so problematic.  Where it may sometimes leads to seems to be the problem, but we’ll get there.

That said, I do still think it’s worth noting these strange absences.

So the first is the lack of a source for the principle of exemption.  We may happen to know that it is also mentioned in a Mishna in Kiddushin (29a) but there is no biblical source given.

The second is the lack of any explanation at all.  We must assume that the rationale is something to do with a woman’s role in the home, which keeps her too busy and does not allow her to break for the Shema or to put Tefillin on.  Yet this is quite strange –  are men never busy, does their contribution to the maintenance of the household never merit an exemption?

This brings us to the third absence, the lack of exceptions.  What about a widow who has lost his wife and is forced to raise his children on his own?  What about a woman aged 23 who is not yet  married and has a very comfortable and relaxed life?  Or a woman of 63 in a similar position?

By neither considering nor exploring these realities, the text begins to suggest that there is something more fundamental in play, some less practical reason why a woman is exempt.

And at this point it can go either way.

One can say that women are superior, that they are intrinsically more spiritual, more attuned to the love and compassion which the mitzvot are trying to teach us.

One could say that the work they are involved in is fundamentally more holy, more Divine, and that there  is less need to take them away from it to remind them of their genuine purpose in life.  As we discussed with relation to breastfeeding (pages 3 and 10), we hold the maternal as the highest model of being, and we learn from it how to conduct ourselves.

Further, one may say that men are prone to forget their origins and roots in the family, and to stray towards alien Gods.  For this reason they must have a framework and routine which brings them back to it.

And this is all very nice.

But, realistically, this massive generalisation, this universal assumption about what men and women do, carries a huge risk of essentialising and reifying gender.

It leads us to generate a blessing wherein man thank God for not making them a woman.

It leads us to rebuking women who wish to wear tefilin, as Rambam seems to do (Tefilin 4:13) and as codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 38:3).  This rebuke becomes demonisation in contemporary life.

It leads us to banishing women from any role in synagogue life, relegating them to a non- participatory spectators’ gallery, far away from the action.

There is a line of thinking which says that men will look to subdue women wherever and however they can.  They are threatened by them, sometimes by their goodness and tenderness, other times by what their sensual sexuality evokes in the male.  And sometimes it’s simply by their symbolising the dependency of the maternal.

So let us assume that from time to time over the last two thousand years this misogynistic spirit has flared up within Jewish culture.  In such circumstances, it seems inevitable that people will have looked to Jewish texts and law and abused them in order to legitimise their diminution of women.

And, let us be honest, the text of the Mishna opens itself to this.  Women are treated in the same breath as slaves and children; the idea that we are talking about higher spiritual beings doesn’t quite ring true here.  If we started with ‘women, angels and saints are exempt…’ then we might have a case on our hands.  It may be unfortunate, but juxtaposing women with slaves makes a certain sort of conclusion tragically inevitable.

This leads us to the fourth and final absence:  the voice of the women.  This is a discussion of men about women, and at no point is any woman consulted or quoted in order to hear her thoughts.  We don’t talk about whether Devorah said Shema before battle, nor do we consult the habits of Beruria to see how she felt about the dimension of time.  Women are absent from the study hall here, whether through exemption or exclusion, and we are asked to trust that the men of 1800 plus years ago knew their needs and natures best.  To the modern eye, this ‘legislation by the other’ robs women of all their dignity.

It doesn’t look great.

This is a huge topic, and I’ve no doubt we will be returning to it.  In summary, I read the text here as exhibiting several glaring absences, and these leave it sorely exposed to an abusive appropriation for unholy ends.  However, I do not believe that Judaism is in essence a rigidly gendered or misogynistic culture, and as the realities of the world change, new discussions must take place to ensure that its ultimate aims can be furthered.

Let us end by noting something wonderful on daf 21a.  Rav Yehuda proposes that the prayer we say after the Shema is actually a more binding obligation, a Torah obligation, than the Shema itself.  Let us remember the beginning of that prayer:

True and firm, established and enduring, right, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, pleasant, awesome, mighty, perfect, accepted, good and beautiful is this faith for us for ever and ever.

Quite.  When the ideals we lay claim to in Judaism match up to these standards then we know we are on solid ground.  When we know or suspect that they do not, then it is time for some serious soul searching, it is the time to root out whatever toxic may have entered our spirit and to expunge it.

p.s. I dedicate this blog to my wife, who has in every positive way earned her exemption from the bindings of time.  With the little time she has, she fights to ensure women are fairly treated in Judaism, and I stand proudly behind her on this quest.

Respect for Human Dignity Berakhot 19 and 20a

The Talmud, without much prompting, gets into a discussion today about the principle of Kavod Habriyot, Human Dignity, or more literally, the Dignity of the Creatures.

As a first reflection, we may note that this literal translation tells us something about the source of this dignity, and the meaning of the concept of createdness.  Humans are to be respected because they are created in the Divine Image.  Or, conversely, to be worthy of being created by something Divine, we must live with and exbihit dignity.  There is no such demand upon someone who wishes to see themselves as a mere cosmic or biological accident, that frame of reference gives no higher purpose to one’s life.

Moving on, we first encounter the basic principle as stated very clearly in a baraita:

Come and hear: Human Dignity is so significant that it overrides a negative prohibition of the Torah.

This is the kind of meta-halakhic utterance that we like to hear, it fits in very well with what we said about Hillel and the spirit of the Law on page 11 and also with the sense in which mitzvot are secondary to an awareness of the Divine (page 14).

And yet, challengingly, it’s not quite so simple.

There is a contradictory spirit, presented by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav, based on the verse from Proverbs 21:30 – “There is neither wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Lord”.  He interprets this to mean that negative prohibitions override concerns about honour and dignity.

The first thing to say is that this interpretation is not the simple meaning of the verse, nor does it fit with the spirit of the chapter from which it is taken.  On a simple reading, the verse rounds off a chapter about honourable and noble behaviour, about living with a passion for truth and justice.  The verse thus reads that there no alternative wisdom, understanding or counsel which will triumph over genuine fidelity to God.  But there is no sense in which this Godly imperative is to be perceived as the Torah’s explicit commandments, especially not when their context makes them seem inappropriate.  Indeed, a selection of verses from the chapter show which aspect of the Divine will is under consideration:

v3 To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

v4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart—  the unploughed field of the wicked—produce sin.

v13 Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.

v21 Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honour.

This does not sound like an injunction to override human dignity, to presume to understand the Divine imperative so well that one may trample one’s fellow underfoot.  Humiliation and shame, which some of the Talmudic discussion here seems to be weighing up, seem to be way off the mark.

“That’s all very well”, I hear you say, “but is it really your business to be re-reading the verses that the Talmud uses and deciding that they are being taken out of context?  Doesn’t this approach make a mockery of the tradition, sanctioning an interpretative anarchy which will undo the foundations of the faith?”

On principle, I reject this objection.  The Talmud is given to us to study, to question, to challenge, to disagree with.  I would say that this is true of every text, but it is especially true here – the open, discursive, non resolutory style particularly demands it.  If a verse is taken out of context, if its simple meaning is perverted, then we need to know this and we need to understand why.  Otherwise we are not studying or engaging with the Torah, we are blindly and thoughtlessly following it.  In this direction lies our peril.

Moving beyond principle, in this particular case the matter is left very much unresolved.  We are left with a baraita which gives Human Dignity a huge role in overriding Torah commandments and an Amoraic teaching – albeit one who almost has Tannaitic status – which seems to run counter to it.  In classical yet frustrating style, the Talmudic flow just seems to drift away from the conflict, seeming to lose patience with resolving it.  It very much leaves it in our hands.  And perhaps this is fitting, perhaps it would go against the spirit of Human Dignity to suggest that its scope could be established once and for all, thereby closing down the discussion for future generations.

I want to be clear that the discussion is left very much open, for others have concluded that Human Dignity in fact only applies to rabbinic prohibitions, not biblical ones.  This is a thought which is raised in the discussion, but it is in no way clear that it is the conclusion of the discussion.

I believe there is space to read it in the following way:  The principle of Human Dignity is established and accepted, as a principle of the Oral Law (not merely Rabbinic Law).  The Talmudic characters engaged in discussing it were not able to support it with further proof, to find a supporting source, but that in itself does not undermine it.

To counterbalance the power of this principle, we are presented with Rav’s teaching, which suggests that we need to be wary before readily overriding the prohibitions of the Torah.  As a scholarly and political leader of the emergent and flourishing Babylonian community, we can understand his need to emphasise this.

However, lest we conclude that Rav was a hardliner who took the word of the Law severely and literally, let us counterbalance it with some of his other teachings:

“The commandments of the Torah were only given to purify men’s morals” (Genesis Raba 44).

“Whosoever hath not pity upon his fellow man is no child of Abraham” (Beitzah 32b).

“It is better to cast oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly to put to shame one’s fellow creature” (Bava Metzia 59a).

On this reading we are justified in taking the principle of Human Dignity very seriously, and in leaving room for it to override, or require re-interpretation, of certain biblical prohibitions.

If people fail to read the ‘sugya’ in this way, they are perhaps unconsciously accepting a premise of contemporary orthodoxy which anxiously prioritises the word of the Law over its spirit.  As a clinician, I view this as a defence mechanism and I respect the need to cling to it.  I will not, however, allow the truths and wisdom of my culture and civilisation to be misrepresented in this manner.

Human Dignity is great indeed, and we should look to enhance it in every way possible.  We should not simply recall it when we want to override a problematic law, but we should be seeking to increase it in ourselves, our families and our communities and to help people throughout the world whose dignity has been compromised.

In Dignity we see another aspect of the Divine, and the more intimately we can connect with that, the better we have done in enhancing Its Presence in this world.

A time for life, a time for death… Berakhot 18

One who has suffered the loss of a close relative, and is waiting to bury them, is exempted from Shema, prayer, Tefillin and any other positive commandments.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 3:1) helps us understand this.  it reminds us of  Deuteronomy 16:3 – ‘that you may remember the day you came forth from the land of Egypt all the days of your life’ – and deduces that you should remember on the days when you are dealing with life, not on the days when you are dealing with death.

What are being given here is a very clear injunction to think about death, to consider our mortality.

It is hard to gauge quite how much of our mental energy we dedicate to denying our mortality.  To varying degrees we kind of know that we are going to die, but it less clear whether we have really absorbed that insight.

In his phenomenally good book ‘The Denial of Death’, Ernest Becker argues that we repress our knowledge and fear of death.  This in turn leads to us being afraid of all sorts of other things, which the mind substitutes for death.  The unconscious ‘fear’ triggered by death is transferred onto other objects and we consequently spend a lifetime fighting the wrong battles.  We would, he contends, find a much more direct path to contentment were we to stare death in the face, to acknowledge its presence and to accept it.  Our craving for immortality would subside, and we would learn to see more of reality for what it is, helping with our general ability to accept and appreciate our lot.

It seems that the Talmud here is backing up this line of thinking.  In a time of mourning, we will experience a sense of loss, and a part of this loss will be the realisation of how easily our world can be emptied.  Freud describes the experience of mourning thus:

Painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity… In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty. (Mourning and Melancholia 244-6)

Faced with this abyss, confronted with our deepest fear and the fragility of life, we might think that we would turn to Judaism, to the transitional objects of our practice, as a means to overcome or escape this despair.

No.  Quite simply, this is not the path we are to follow.  The Jewish religion helps to build our sense of life, to enrich it, to alert us to its possibilities.  But it is not given to us to abuse for the denial of our mortality, of our humanity, of the darker side of life.

When circumstances bring death into our path, we must pause and absorb it, we must become fully conscious of it.

And I think there is a more general message here, that Judaism is not given to us to create a falsely sweet and pretty picture of reality.  It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of life, a point Rav Soloveitchik makes throughout his writings.  Rather, in the opposite direction, it gives us the conceptual and ritual tools to grapple with the murkier and more confusing aspects of reality, sometimes even helping us make contact with them.  In doing so, it allows the unconscious to give expression to them, to symbolise them, and provides some means for containing and absorbing the resultant emotions.

The Talmud proceeds with a narrative of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan walking through a graveyard where Rabbi Yonatan’s tzitzit were dragging over the gravestones.  Rabbi Hiyya chastised him for this, letting him know that he was insulting the dead.

We then get side-tracked into a huge debate about  whether the dead know things, and what it is that they might know.  We encounter the dead in a number of ‘Six Feet Under’ type scenes and some of the argumentation has to be read to be believed.  (As an aside, whereas everyone watching ‘Six Feet Under’ understands that talking to the dead is a narrative device, an externalisation of an inner dialogue, people reading the Talmud often don’t allow themselves to see things that way.)

But the question of what the dead actually know or feel is irrelevant.  Rabbi Hiyya is rejecting Rabbi Yonatan’s haughty arrogance, his sense of immortality, his lack of respect for death.  ‘Show some consciousness of your mortality Rabbi Yonatan’, that is what he’s telling him.  ‘Respect death as you do the Divine Presence – for both are given 4 cubits in this world.’

There is no greater challenge than finding the balance between the faithful and optimistic spirit we have spoken about in the past, and acknowledging the fragility of our weak and mortal existence.  In the spirit of this paradox the Kotzker Rebbe advised us to carry a piece of paper in each pocket.  One would say ‘The world was created for me’, the other would say ‘Man is nothing but the dust of the earth’.

Being able to live with paradox, to ride the emotional waves generated by their irreconcilability, this is some of what we hope to take from our culture.  In doing so we embrace the spirit of Rabbi Hiyya, understanding when it is the time for life, and understanding when we must give death its space.