Should we be protected? Sukkot 5773 Berakhot 56 and 57

As a trainee psychotherapist, the following was always going to make me chuckle:

Bar Haddaya was an interpreter of dreams. For one who gave him a fee, he would interpret the dream favourably.  And for one who did not give him a fee, he would interpret the dream unfavourably.

Is this a winning business model, a quick fix for psychoanalysts struggling to make ends meet?

Of course we all blush at the suggestion –  “We would never, we should never, we mustn’t even entertain such an idea…” – but I wonder if the matter isn’t actually a little more subtle than it seems, if maybe we don’t actually get ourselves into something of a muddle over it.

To put it bluntly, what is the role of the therapist?

On one reading, our role is perhaps to comfort, to console, to understand and to empathise.  And there is certainly some truth in this approach, there is definitely an aspect of care and concern to the profession.

That said, this is not the whole picture.  Sometimes, and this is true of all relationships, being understanding and empathetic can actually harm the person we are engaged with, it can re-enforce their sense of being a victim, it can discourage them from thinking seriously about the changes they could and should make in their lives.  If one always assures a troubled or distressed person that they are in the right, one might actually be helping them to miss an opportunity.

Many – though of course not all – forms of frustration have their source in the way a person approaches life, in the way they conduct their relationships, in the difficulty they have in genuinely connecting and relating to the other.  This is hard, sometimes we think we’re relating to the other, but we’re actually relating to the imagined version of the other that lives inside our head.  In Kleinian terms, we are relating to a ‘phantasy’ version of the other, or an ‘introjected’ other.

Frustration and anger can arise because the other is not behaving in the way we expect, they are radically deviating from our imagined sense of who they are.  And we are somehow not able to cope with that, their reality outside of us is unbearable, it unsettles and confuses us.

At this sort of juncture, it can be extremely helpful to tactfully and delicately try to get a person to see what is happening, to see what it is that is really distressing them.

It can be harmful and counterproductive to assure them that their behaviour has actually been impeccable, that they are right to be outraged.  The fury must be held, it is a valuable therapeutic commodity, and it must be unpacked and explored.

Holding onto the fury, to the rage and hurt a human being sitting opposite us is experiencing, is an extremely difficult task.  It requires one to be extremely rooted and solid, involved and attentive but not overly swayed or moved by the emotion.  And it requires insight and tact to be able to work it back into the conversation, to turn it into an object of study, to bring out what is revelatory in it.

It is much easier to move in for the comforting gesture, to try to rescue a person, to make all that horrible stuff just go away, to be the fixer.

Easier, but ultimately less productive.

Neville Symington, in his excellent book on narcissism, puts it like this:

My experience tells me that it is necessary for the analyst to be unrelenting in stripping away the false consolations with which a narcissistic person is surrounded, while holding them firmly, as it were, with care and concern.  (Narcissism: A New Theory  p.93)

It takes tremendous experience and skill to carry off this strange conjunction of gestures, to be  relentlessly stripping away whilst simultaneously holding with care and concern.  And yet, when we can manage it, we might be doing a person more good than we can possibly imagine.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something of this dialectical complexity in the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we are stripped of our defences, we are made raw through the purity of the honest encounter with our weaknesses.

On Sukkot we are held in a protective environment, in a space which takes away our comforts and consolations whilst simultaneously offering us shade, shelter and a modicum of warmth.  It is not the ease and luxury of our sturdy homes; we are rattled, shaken, provoked by what has been stripped away.

At this point, in this difficult and jarring environment, we are instructed to turn our eyes towards heaven, to peer at the stars, to be open to the majesty of external reality, to be confronted  by the other.  We are instructed to find new resolve, to creatively re-engage with our relationships and to try to overcome the ways in which we are numbed to the world around us.

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot should pierce us, it should enable us, to quote again from Symington:

To crash through this inner fortress, and bring the patient out of this turning inward and into relation with objects [people, ideas] in the outer world.

Sukkot is not easy, it does not always feel like the party it was once intended to be.  In Britain especially it can be harsh, a somewhat ascetic exercise.  And it flows from Yom Kippur in ways that were probably not intended.  And yet, it can be an extremely valuable opportunity, it can teach us something significant about the dangers of excessive comfort;  it can shake us into continued reflection on our fragility and our mortality.  It takes us outside: outside of what is homely, outside of our comfort zone.

Bar Haddaya met a gruesome and horrible end.  There is grave danger in attempting to offer false comfort, and also in acting harshly for the wrong reasons.  Harsh yet concerned, this is the challenge, both in our relations with others and also in our relations with ourselves.

May it be a chag which pierces us in all the right ways, and may the joy we attain be raw and pure in its intensity.

p.s.  This blog is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Yoni Jesner, who was killed ten years ago today in a terrorist attack in Israel.  May his memory continue to be an inspiration to all of us.

Truly, How Beautiful Berakhot 53, 54 and 55

Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure.  At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task?  Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?

So I tried to resist.  But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep.  It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.

But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me.  It was the Day.

The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.

There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .

There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange.  And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.

So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense.  And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:

The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).

Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai?  They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

In a similar spirit:

The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes.  They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.

One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.    

It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it,  we must become enlightened.

One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.

What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.

If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.

They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof.  They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. 

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.  Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress.  He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still.  Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven.  They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind.   (Psalms 127:23-31).

It is sometimes when we are wrestling  in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.

Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table?  [asked of a verse in Eziekel]

Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.

Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.

Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?

Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel.  The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.

Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.

To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.

Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.

We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.

Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.

I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity.  How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?

And yet, interpretation is not everything:

A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.

Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.

And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it.  How would this be done?

They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.

May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.

Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.

Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.

Rabbi Yochanan said:  If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.

In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.

This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.

Pure at our Core: Yom Kippur 5753 Berakhot 52

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are discussing the finer details of the laws of tumah – ritual impurity – when suddenly Beit Hillel offer a tremendous principle:

An implement or instrument cannot make a man impure.

Impurity comes from death, or from an illness or creature reminiscent of death, it is a deeply human phenomenon.  A man may make his objects tameh – impure – he may emanate the feel and sense and smell of death, he may create a surrounding atmosphere and environment which are infected by his negative energy, by the fear and deadness which have touched his soul.

But the flow cannot operate in reverse.  A tool is just a tool, a dish is a dish and a bucket is a bucket.  Their emotional range does not compare to that of man or woman, nor even to a child or animal.  They can pick up an atmosphere, whether through the fundamentals of their design or through their association and intimacy with a person, but they cannot reach out and change the state of a man.

They are objects, not events, and it is an event, something alive which changes the state of our spirit.

They are, by definition, instrumental, and they may help or hinder us as we attempt to get on with the tasks in front of us.  But if our soul should suddenly feel heavy, if our spirit should suddenly flag, then it is not really the object’s fault, it is something else.  It is perhaps something we haven’t yet noticed, a new fear which has partially emerged on our horizon, trouble in a relationship that we haven’t become fully conscious of, some part of our life which is no longer fitting into place so well.

These are the things that affect us. We may mistakenly think that it is the state of our objects, of our possessions; we may ascribe them – or our lack of them – magical and redemptive powers, to believe that our next material acquisition will be the one which really makes the difference, which really changes the quality of our lives.  We all fall prey to this at one point or another, we are living in materially seductive times.

But this is what Hillel are coming to teach us, that the object, the tool, do not change the spirit.  They cannot shift the weight that is burdening us, they cannot re-ignite the spark that is missing from our fire.

Man’s spiritual condition is a deeply interior affair.  ‘Interior’ isn’t even a particularly good word, it has some merit as a metaphor, but it leaves the impression that our feelings can be located somewhere, that they have a physical location, and hence, perhaps, a physical constitution, a physical cause.

This is of course not the case.  Where do we feel fear, angst, joy or liberation?  We do not feel them in a place, we simply feel them, they become our totality; they become the definition of what it means to be us.  They become our being.

Nevertheless, the Talmud runs with the imagery of the interior and teaches us another profound lesson:

A vessel whose outer side is rendered ritually impure by liquid, only the outer side of the vessel is impure…but if the inside of a vessel becomes ritually impure, the whole of it, its entire being, becomes impure. 

Our personality has many level:  we can exist on the surface, we can spend days, months or even years without re-visiting our depths, without confronting the harder questions of our existence, some of the quieter feelings which might guide us in life.

And make no mistake, these outer levels of the personality are rich and multi-talented, they can store some of our greatest powers and bequeath us a tremendous energy.  If it was obvious that we were living on the surface, that we were missing out on something subtler, something more sacred and significant, then we wouldn’t do it.  We’re not stupid, after all.

And from this perspective, this teaching starts to offer us a vital beam of illuminating hope.  It may be that your outside has become impure, has become sullied and filthy; it may be that your energy has caused you to become lost and adrift, that your talents have serviced you in all of the wrong ways.

But this is just the outside, it has not contaminated your depths;  there is something still in you which is untainted, which is clean and bright and pure.

And for as long as that inner light is still alive, for as long as the cold winter winds have failed to blow it out, you may still find the way, you may still recover and feel profoundly once more.

The inner is not so easily infected, our depths stay hidden for good reason:  they know that to expose themselves easily would be to run an extremely grave risk.

On Yom Kippur we attempt to renew and purify these outer layers, we ask for Divine assistance to “cleanse and remove our sins and transgressions”.

And we are given assurance that the Day itself will help us, will change us.  I doubt that a day alone could ever change us, without any input or effort from our side.  But I know and believe with all of my heart that this is a Day like no other day, and that the possibilities for change that it opens up in front of us would not be readily available at any other point in the year.  It is singular and unique, it has an incomparable atmosphere and dynamic, a rich tapestry of emotional complexity that is all of its own.

May the day help us to rediscover our purity, may we be renewed with completeness of heart, authenticity of purpose, integrity of being and a range of feeling which is warm, empathic and open.

Gmar Chatima Tova, may it be sealed decisively for us on The Day.

Men on Women – Destructive, Hysterical, Dangerous Berakhot 51

We spoke recently about how there is a suppression of the feminine in the text, and how the repressed returns, in displaced form, as Torah.

The physical woman is shed of her maternal and life-giving qualities, and those qualities are projected onto some other surface, in this case, that of Torah.

There is actually quite a disturbing continuation of this unfortunate move today, and I genuinely found it to be one of the most insulting and offensive of the genderist statements I’ve yet come across in the Talmud.  It occurs in the following story:

Ulla happened to come to the house of Rav Naĥman. He ate bread, recited Grace after Meals, and gave the cup of blessing to Rav Naĥman.  Rav Naĥman said to him: Master, please send the cup of blessing to Yalta, my wife.

Ulla responded to him: There is no need, as Rabbi Yoĥanan said as follows: The fruit of a woman’s womb is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s womb, as it is stated: “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you numerous, and He will bless the fruit of your womb [vitnecha]” (Deuteronomy 7:13). The Gemara infers: “He will bless the fruit of her womb [vitnah]” was not stated. Rather, “He will bless the fruit of your womb  [vitnecha, i.e. masculine singular].”

This is ugly.  The woman is no longer the giver of life, it is no longer her womb which bears fruit.  Rather it is the man who bears children, the woman is somehow in the background, a deeply insignificant extension of him.

There’s so much to say about this.  For a start, this is a wilful and unnecessary interpretation.  The Torah often seems to use the masculine singular form of the second person without there being significance in that (I write this as a man of course, so I fully accept that this is easy for me to say).  It’s not clear the exact grammatical intention of this habit, but we might hear it as Israel being spoken to in the singular, this seems to be the implication of the opening of this speech:

Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

But even this isn’t clear cut, this very verse ends with Israel being referred to in the feminine, and we see this again later in verse 15.  I’m not aware of there being any clear rule here, we could simply say that Israel as a people is generally spoken to using the masculine gender, though not exclusively.  There is definitely nothing to suggest that this particular use of the masculine – vitnecha - is significant.

Maybe people think I’m being over sensitive here, but to say that a man’s womb is blessed is an appalling act of theft.  The womb of Israel is to be blessed, not the womb of its male members.

Going further, I feel compelled to point out that there is something of an absurdity in this interpretation, and it is noteworthy that both the Soncino and Koren translations seem to mask this uncomfortably by replacing ‘womb’ – the natural translation of ‘beten’ – with ‘body’.  The translation thus repeats the sin of the fathers, it belittles the significance of the woman, it denies the primacy of her involvement.

Perhaps this goes back to Genesis 3, to the idea that childbirth and its pains are a curse.  Childbirth is painted in a negative light, the focus is on its pain, not on its miraculousness, not on its centrality, not on the joy that it brings about.

If we were feeling bold, we might go further and comment on the idea that in Genesis 2 the first woman was not born to a woman, but was created, from a man, by a God who is spoken about in the masculine.  There is something of a denial here of the fact that we are all born to women, that women, through childbirth,  have made a huge and difficult contribution to the entirety of human existence.

Even as a man I’m deeply offended, I can’t begin to think how this all reads to a woman.

But reading carefully, it’s actually even worse.  The Rabbis – yes, this interpretation is repeated for effect in someone else’s name – suggest that if the Torah had wanted to speak of a woman’s womb it would have said ‘vitnah’ – her womb.  Not ‘vitnach’ – your womb in the feminine – but ‘vitnah’ – her womb.

There is an assumption that the woman is not directly involved with, engaged by the text.  Either God/Moshe would not be speaking to the women, or perhaps the thought is that women will not be listening or reading.

Again, I have no idea where this comes from, what leads the Rabbis to think in this way.  But the two go hand in hand, women have nothing to do with Torah, and women have nothing to do with birth either.  Women are banished and belittled; they are not the bearers of life, nor are they addressed by the book of life.  ‘Torat imehka’ has suddenly undergone a radical and unsettling negation.

This is all very upsetting, but it’s actually only the start, it’s simply setting the scene for the next act.

Once a woman is robbed of her essential qualities, once the male attachment and need for the women is denied, the actual woman becomes  a blank canvas, and there is the need – or at the very least the possibility – of painting her in a different light.

On this point, the Talmud seems to begin at the same place as Freud – hysteria.  The woman is painted as the hysteric, she is the repository for all that is frightening, irrational, excessive and uncontrollable in us.

Let’s see how this plays out in the story we began above:

Yalta heard Ulla’s refusal to send her the cup of blessing, so she arose in a rage, entered the wine-storage, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.

There is probably some hyperbole at work here, surely one’s rage would expire before successfully smashing up four hundred barrels of wine.  Either way, it seems to me that she was quite right to be enraged by these comments, and I think the Talmud’s portrayal of her as ‘acting out’ in an excessive and violent manner actually reflects more badly on the Talmud than it does on her.

In making her the repository of all that is hysterical in the world, it seems to be projecting something unsettling and alien onto her.  This mechanism of projection is what we use when become dimly aware of something in our character that makes us uncomfortable.  We find it much easier to assign that characteristic to another than to question whether the perception might be relevant to our own personality.  The idea is that perception comes partially, and that we misinterpret the meaning of that partial perception.

There is another passage today which further fleshes out the scary and demonic depiction of women:

The Angel of Death told me: …do not stand before the women when they return from the burial of the deceased, because I dance and come before them and my sword is in hand, and I have license to destroy.

Where to begin with this?  If you perhaps thought I was overdoing it with all this talk of projection and ascription, surely this image makes clear that we are very much in the right ballpark.

The Angel of death is conflated with women, he may be met when you meet a woman.  He is there, in their presence, and he is exhibiting characteristics that are chaotic, dangerous, destructive.

It seems to me that we have taken a male imagining, a fear of death and dissolution, and placed it firmly in the woman’s locale, we have described it as a risk of encountering her presence.

The teaching continues:

And if one encounters women returning from a funeral, what is his remedy?  

Let him jump four cubits from where he stands; if there is a river, let him cross it; if there is another path, let him go down it; if there is a wall, let him stand behind it; and if not, he should turn his face around and recite the verse: “And the Lord said to the Satan: The Lord rebukes you, Satan, the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you; is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:2), until they pass him.

Wow.  That is quite a speech to make to a woman one might, by chance, encounter when she is returning from a cemetery.  But, of course, we are not making it to the woman, we are making it to the Angel of Death we imagine to be in her presence.

Does this make it better?

I’m not sure it does, I think it makes it clear that we are dealing with a mind which is struggling to keep hold of something, with a mind that is somewhat frenzied and hallucinatory, which is imagining and projecting in all the wrong places.  It cannot contain the fear and disturbance it is experiencing, it can no longer distinguish between what is happening within and what is happening without.  It is speaking out of place, to the wrong people, it has become deeply confused as to who is who and as to where the source of trouble really is.

Perhaps this is too much, maybe it is easier to just ignore these passages, to treat them as irrelevant detritus from the age of superstition.  But that would be a mistake, for they are psychologically rich and they sometimes treat of topics which are extremely important and relevant, such as the way we imagine and relate to our women.

So, to sum up, these are my interpretations, my attempts at reading some problematic texts in the Talmud, at unpicking some attitudes and perspectives that strike me as problematic and objectionable.  As I have said previously, these interpretations do not weaken my faith nor do they diminish my interest in the Talmud.  If anything, they strengthen both, for through honestly seeing the various layers at work in this text I feel that I have a much better sense of the richness and complexity of our history and tradition.  I can see that at every point the Rabbis were just human beings trying to do their best, that they were prey to all of the fallibility, weakness and confusion that I myself am beset by.

I see no purpose in pretending that they were perfect, in setting it up as a principle of belief that their teachings or intuitions were perfect, for perfection belongs to the realm of the Divine, not to that of the human.

They were not perfect, but they were grappling with perfection, trying to perfect themselves, trying to build a culture which would ultimately foster an appetite for perfection.  And this is a struggle I am very much interested in, it is an impulse that I feel very strongly.  And it is to help me with this project that I turn to my religion, and it is because I see and experience the many ways in which it does help me that I come to value and love my traditions, that I come to develop faith in them.

Faith is not something we can arrive at through evading the truth, it is a profound attitude we can only attain after being fully exposed to the truth in all of its glory and its horror.  May we continue to wrestle with that truth, and may we pray to be granted faith as a reward for our struggles.

How far are we from Goodness? Berakhot 49 and 50

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: In a zimmun, one who recites: “Blessed be the One from Whose food we have eaten and through Whose goodness [uv’tuvo] we live”, he is a Torah scholar.

However, one who recites: “Blessed be the One from Whose food we have eaten and from Whose goodness [ume’tuvo] we live”, he is an ignoramus.

What is the difference between these formulations, and why is it so important?

It’s a tricky one, but what seems to be in play is a question about the relationship between man and God.  If we use the phrase ‘from Whose goodness’ there seems to some kind of distancing going on. He, God, is distant, and by some sort of action, by virtue of His separate choosing, we live, we are nourished, we are sustained.

This is all very well, but the more we think of God as separate, the more we face difficulties in understanding how we could be in a relationship with Him, or indeed know anything whatsoever about Him.

Indeed, there are actually three separate levels here: God, His Goodness, our lives.  We are very far from the ‘He’.

Using the other formulation, uv’tuvo, suggests that we live through a much more intimate connection to His Goodness.  We might translate it as ‘in His Goodness’, which conjures up images of us basking in the light and warmth of His Goodness, and finding the inspiration to live as a result of that.

This reading allows also for a qualification of the meaning of ‘we live’.  If we are plugged into Goodness, if we allow it to enlighten and guide us, then we will be genuinely alive, our existence will have purpose, meaning and the possibility of effecting social change.

More than this, it feels like there is a lot less separation here between God and his Goodness.  Goodness is an aspect of the Divine, it is a fundamental facet of God’s being, it is not some moral option that He may choose to engage with.  In this sense, strangely, He is less free than we are – medieval scholastics, this would be the time to get wound up – we have the choice whether to be good or not, for Him there is no choice, Goodness is simply what He is.

When we live by Goodness, we are acting in harmony with the Divine, we are manifesting Its essence in this world, and we are showing ourselves to be intimately sensitive to Its presence.

This personal connection is emphasised again in the next statement of Rabbi Yehuda:

One who recites in a zimmun: And by His goodness we live, he is a Torah scholar. However, one who recites: And by His goodness they live, he is a fool.

The point of Grace after meals is for us to recognise that our own existence, to the extent that it is profound, dignified and ethically charged, is made possible by the unexpected presence of Goodness in this world.  We assert this as a statement of faith, for we can sometimes doubt quite how real or reliable that Goodness actually is.

The person who thinks that Goodness sustains others, but not himself, is doing one of two things.  On one level, he could say that God’s Goodness sustains others, but it has nothing to do with him, he is an isolated individual and is untouched by it.  That would be a saddening confession.

On another level, he may be expressing a weakness in his own faith, in his capacity to sense and live by principles of Goodness, in his ability to remain true to them when challenged by life.  This would be understandable, but the formulation charges us to have faith in ourselves, to push ourselves further in trying to feel our way towards goodness.

This then, is the essence of being a Talmid Chacham, a Student of Wisdom.  He must not separate himself from the community, and nor may he separate God from His Goodness.  And most importantly of all, he must sense that he himself lives by and is guided by this Goodness, and that the true source of his wisdom is his humility and receptivity before it.

This chimes with one of the first lines we recite every day:

The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Divine (Proverbs 1:7).

Wisdom starts with an acknowledgement of just how very near we are to Goodness.  If we can only clear away the trauma, pain and fear which prevent us from embracing it, then we will discover that we can begin to live well again, that we can escape our personal hell and begin a new phase of honest living.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Let Us Make God – Rosh Hashana 5753 – Berakhot 44 & 45

We are discussing Zimun today, the communal form of Grace after Meals, and the Talmud wishes to know the source for this practice.  It finds two complementary sources, and, for a change, sees no reason to choose one over the other:

“Make God great with me, and we will exalt his name together.” (Ps.34:4)

“When I call in the name of the Lord, let us give greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3)

The words are so commonplace to us – particularly if I’d quoted the Hebrew – that we rarely stop to think about what a strange concept they express:  the idea that man (and woman) should be able to add to God’s greatness, to somehow make him bigger, more awe inspiring.  This might be particularly on our minds as we go into Rosh Hashana, the days on which we are charged with establishing and restoring God’s Greatness and Kingship.

Surely God is self-sufficient, beyond our help?  We might recognise or discover his greatness, that would make sense.  But to create that greatness, to take part in the magnification of His Being, surely that is outrageous, anthropocentric audacity gone mad?

In a word, no.  There is a sense in which one aspect of God, is unmoved, untouched, unaffected by anything we might do, say or think.  But that is perhaps not the aspect we are genuinely interested in.

The aspect of God which plays a part in our lives, the ways in which He might move and affect us, is very much given to the hands of mankind.  He, in a sense, is entirely at our mercy.

‘God’ is a word, the meaning and significance we give to it, the way we flesh out the concept, this is largely up to us, it is a function of our thoughts and reflections.

It is possible that ‘God’ stays small, that it remains the trivial Heavenly Bearded One that we learnt about as children, the scorekeeper of our moral activities, the One who issues us with strange and incomprehensible commandments.  The ‘God’ of 5 year olds is great, if you are 5 years old.

But as we grow up, ‘God’ needs to grow with us, it needs to becomes something more profound, something more connected with our powerful intuitions about what is meaningful and significant in life, with Truth, Justice, Love and Compassion.  This ‘God’ acts in our lives, there is a deep level in which it shapes our thoughts and actions, in which it can radically change the course of history.  To imagine the world differently is to live by a vision, and this vision is powered and fuelled by our sense of what is right and beautiful, by the greatest possibilities we dare to foresee in the world.

This is an aspect of a more grown up ‘God’, and it is this aspect which depends on us for Its greatness.  This happens in two ways.  It requires the full powers of our intellect, of our creativity and imagination, to fathom and perceive the possibilities that ‘God’ represents.  Every unique situation demands fresh effort as we feel our way to a sense of the just and compassionate way to respond and to act, to the ‘God-worthy’ course of action.

In a world that is sometimes cynical, that seems to want to surrender to a fateful economic or genetic determinism, that certainly gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic, it is hard to keep faith that things could actually be different, that mankind, with the help of God, might shape a more perfect world.  It takes all of our will to resist this and all of our memory to cling to that glimpse of an improved world we once knew.

Once we can see this greater possibility for ‘God’, The other sense in which we make God larger, greater, more magnified, is through the space we allow these considerations in our lives, through the emotional and intellectual import we ascribe to them.

This is a constant struggle, the whole corpus of our ritual and practice attempts to help us with this.  But there are a few days a year which we set aside especially for them, and they are about to begin.

On Rosh Hashana, as we begin the new year, we dedicate two days to making God great, to considering Him as our King, as the most powerful force in our lives, as something worthy of our awe and respect.  We work to limit our arrogance, our omnipotence, our narcissistic ego and to embrace a spirit of openness and otherness, and to re-connect with an idealism that we all too easily lose.

It really is in our hands, God will always be there, but ‘God’ is forever in danger of becoming empty, lifeless or simply ignored and forgotten.  If we cannot lift our eyes and see something better, if we are too busy or exhausted to make the effort, too hurt or broken to try once more, then ‘God’ really will wither and die.  Nietzsche will be right, it will be us who will have killed Him, it is our hands that will be bloodied by His demise.

It seems paradoxically apposite to go into Rosh Hashana with the words of Nietzsche, with his prophecy as to what happens when we fail to make ‘God’ great, to keep ‘God’ alive:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!

How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? (The Gay Science 125)

Judaism, and all ‘good religion’, is alert to the possibility that we talk about ‘God’ but fail to keep God alive, that our spirits and imaginations become deadened to Its call.  For that reason we install two days a year to resurrecting His Reign, to magnifying his Memory, to enlarging his Greatness.

When we pray for life rather than death, we are praying for the life of ‘God’ as much for our own lives, we are becoming conscious of the sense in which neither can live without the other, of the ways that they nourish, fuel and sustain each other.

May our prayers be fluent in our mouths, may they rise to the awesome and lofty tasks before us, and may they be effective in sculpting space for God in our lives, in restoring ‘God’ to the life and place worthy of it.  May our year be full and blessed, may our lives be touched and lifted by the Grace of a freshly restored ‘God’.

Appreciation: Poetry, Nature and Wine Berakhot 42 and 43

We spoke recently about gratitude, about how it is at the core of our concern with berakhot, blessings, how it plays a role in the transition between the physical and the spiritual, how it bridges the emotional and the intellectual.

Gratitude is quite profound, it requires perhaps a certain level of seriousness, of mindfulness.

It’s younger, rambunctious cousin, appreciation, is a different beast altogether, albeit one with which it is intimately connected.

Appreciation is perhaps more of a spontaneous aesthetic phenomenon, an instinctive response of the soul.  Gratitude is more of a project, an attitude which we work hard to attain, which requires a curiously balanced blend of intellectual work and emotional grace.

We might imagine that gratitude is the kind of thing that the halakha would aim to inculcate, whereas appreciation might be something it aims to tame, to bring under control, to temper.

In fact, it is not so simple, and it seems that there are voices within the Talmud who believe that appreciation should be cultivated and encouraged, that there is something pure and holy in the  energy and inspiration that we discover when presented with something delicious, something which arrests us with its beauty.

We see this argument first on 40b:

One who saw bread and said: “How pleasant is this bread, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation to recite a blessing. One who saw a date and said: “How pleasant is this date, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yosei says: One who deviates from the formula coined by the Sages in blessings, did not fulfil his obligation.

For Rabbi Meir, the idea that one could be so moved that he spontaneously erupts into blessing and praise, that he is genuinely moved to appreciate creation and its Author, this is commendable and to be encouraged.

Rabbi Yosei is not so sure, for him there might some danger in encouraging this aestheticism, in chancing the fate of the halakha to the whims of one’s inspired responses.  He does not see the opportunity in this moment, he does not see that this natural excitement, this pure emotion which cannot be feigned, can raise the individual to untold heights, can be an opening in their otherwise hard and very closed armour.  He does not see that it holds the promise of a genuine connection, of a profound educational insight, wherein a person might come to understand that praise is something we do because we need to, because it is one of our most basic instincts.

Rabbi Yosei is scared of our subjectivity, for him Halakhic Man represents an ideal of controlled and disciplined objectivity, the chance fluctuations of the spirit are not to be trusted.

I’m pleased to report that the Rambam agrees with Rabbi Meir, and that an individualistic expression of praise, with certain provisions, ‘fulfils the obligation’ of the berakha.  Even the codifier and logical philosopher par excellence allows for this poetic inspiration, for the profoundly inimitable sentiments of appreciation.

The dispute continues in the next Mishna:

If there were many types of food before him, over which food should he recite a blessing first?

Rabbi Yehuda says: If there is one of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael was praised among them, he recites the first blessing over it.

And the Rabbis say: He recites a blessing over whichever of them he wants.

For Rabbi Yehuda berakhot have a purpose, and a rigid framework exists to ensure that goal is met.  We look to a text to establish the rubric, for we need to tame and normalise the experience.  Holiness is ordered, externally mandated.

For the Rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda has lost sight of something.  How can we educate in the ways of gratitude, how can we foster appreciation for the marvels of creation if we begin by ignoring a person’s natural inclination?

No, this inclination is precious, we must encourage and develop it, and we must help the person to deepen the experience with the help of a berakha.  The Rabbis believe in what Schiller called ‘The Aesthetic Education of Man’.

In the Gemara, this point is pushed even further.  The Mishna only considered the case where all the options had the same berakha appropriate to them, and we were choosing which food to make that berakha on.  In the Gemara, Rabbi Yirmeya suggests that even when there are different berakhot, they would prioritise which berakha to say based on personal choice.

This may not sound revolutionary, but the alternative is that there is actually quite a rigid hierarchy of berakhot which we must stick to, and that is the rule that we generally follow.  So Rabbi Yirmeya’s opinion is genuinely quite bold, and again suggests that he saw the wisdom in building the structure of berakhot on the basis of an individual’s idiosyncratic preference, rather than in trying to fight it.

Finally, we come to the wine.

We have the rule that a berakha over bread at the start of a meal covers everything else, that one need not make further berakhot.  There are two exceptions.  Firstly in the case where someone unexpectedly brought some food which had nothing to do with the meal, but which, perhaps, they had just discovered and felt needed to be appreciated.  In that case, a fresh berakha of appreciation is merited.

The second case is wine.  The Gemara asks why this should be, and gives the following answer:

Wine is different, for it stimulates a blessing on its own. 

Wine inspires us, and in that inspiration, we are moved to make a berakha.

I’m not going to put this better than the romantic poet John Keats, so I’ll let him do the talking at this point, I’ll let his berakha on wine speak for us all:

For really ‘t is so fine-it fills the mouth one’s mouth with a gushing freshness-then goes down cool and feverless-then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver-no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape-then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waistcoat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step-Other wines of a heavy and spirituous nature transform a Man to a Silenus; this makes him a Hermes-and gives a Woman the soul and imortality of Ariadne…

We do not stand in the way of the aesthetic currents in man, we engage with them, we ride their waves and we try to ensure that they are not squandered, but are used for the refinement and elevation of the personality.

We may be aiming for gratitude, but we cannot get there without genuine appreciation, and wherever we stumble upon this natural treasure we are obliged to let it sing its own song, to express itself through its own poetry.

Are we running on empty? Berakhot 40 and 41

Rabbi Zeira, and some say Rabbi Ĥinnana bar Pappa, said: Come and see that the attribute of flesh and blood is unlike the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

The attribute of flesh and blood is that an empty vessel holds that which is placed within it, while a full vessel does not hold it.

The attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, however, is not so, as if God adds to a person who is a full vessel in terms of knowledge or good attributes, he will hold it; a person who is an empty vessel will not hold it.

It is difficult to speak about the state of one’s spirit, of the plane of emotion that runs deeper than the surface.  We are forever employing forms of metaphor that only hint at the feelings, and we hope that we make ourselves understood through their use.

We speak of being high or low, open or closed, sensitive or numb.  And another of the key distinctions we use is between feeling full and empty.

We speak of fullness in terms of an abundance, of love, of energy, of will.  And it can also denote a certain contentment, completeness, peacefulness.

And we make speak of emptiness in terms of exhaustion and lethargy, and also in terms of impatience, irritability and a lack of concern.

What is quite perplexing though, and what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan particularly emphasised, is that out of this absence, out of this emptiness, often emerges desire.  We might have thought that desire springs from a fullness of life, out of a sense of strength and of energy.   But no, it is not so;  in his view desire is born out of emptiness, out of a lack.

We should probably clarify what we mean here by desire.  Desire is not the healthy activity of fulfilling our genuine needs that comes about naturally, that is a basic expression of our personality and life force.  No, desire here is something more alien, something which is sought out in order to fill a void, in order to overcome the emptiness, in order to make us feel real.

Desire in this sense is seeking out stimulation, provocation, excitement, but doing it because we are otherwise too dead, because we are unable to connect with genuine energy, because the reality of our life is simply not what we want it to be, it doesn’t motivate us sufficiently.

To be sure, it is not always easy to distinguish between the healthy activity born of fullness and the desperate desire born out of emptiness.  It is perhaps the hardest thing in life to be able to read our own desire and know whether or not it is real, to discern whether it comes from a place of happiness or a river of sadness.  The words, the ideas, they can help, they are tools, but they never do the job on their own, the work is truly never completed.

But let us leave the question of desire for now and return to the idea of emptiness per se.  As the Talmud observes, physical emptiness is something very different from spiritual emptiness.  Physical emptiness is easily filled, and indeed, once filled, can be filled no more.  There are limits to what can be contained, if we are existing on the purely physical plane.

In the realm of the spirit however, emptiness is not so easily corrected, it becomes a rut, a trap, an inescapable vortex of negative energy.

Fullness however, has a very different dynamic.  Once it is attained, once the winds of inspiration have lifted us, it can continue to grow, to develop, to become richer.

But we can say more than this.  The key to physical containment, to being able to hold on to the love and energy which animate us at times, is the ability to give it spiritual expression.  When we successfully connect the two realms, when we are able to pour ourselves into something much bigger, into something which is greater than us yet intimately related to us, we achieve, quite literally, an expansion of our self.

The vastness of nature, the sense of the sublime, religious imagery of grandeur and infinity –  all of these allow us to stretch out our imaginative muscles, to experience an expansiveness which our purely physical existence precludes.

Rachel Elior suggests that the intricate mystical constructs of the Kabbalists came out of a Spanish Jewry which was oppressed and constricted  by the ravages of the Inquisition.  The physical reality of their lives was so limited, so difficult, that it was only through growing new fields in the imagination that they were able to keep their spirit alive.

Our circumstances are different, but the demands of contemporary life often seem endless and thankless, and we too, in spite of our physical affluence and abundance can often be left trapped and empty.  We too can find nourishment and space by engaging with the world of the spirit, by attempting to connect with something  larger.

One of the things we desperately cry out for at this time of year, in the heightened emotion of the Selichot service, is that God should not take his Holy Spirit away from us – ‘v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu’.  We do not wish to be left abandoned, forsaken, we want to be full, to be complete, to be connected.  We need the possibility of a spiritual grounding in order to maintain and to root our physical lives.

Indeed, we say every day in the Amida, ‘umilfanecha malkeinu raykam al t’shiveinu’ – ‘and from before you, our Majesty, do not return us empty’.  The Divine presence is not something incidental, something that merely surrounds us.  It is something we need to bring inside us, something to combat the emptiness which can otherwise wreak havoc on us and unleash all manner of unholy desires.

And I think it is no co-incidence that we stumble into this discussion in the midst of a discussion of how to say grace after meals.  We seek fullness and satisfaction from food, and to an extent that is of course necessary and right.  But there is always a danger lurking, the possibility that we confuse our spiritual thirst and hunger for something physical, and that we eat in the wrong way, and use food to fill the wrong holes.

In the discourse of fullness and emptiness, the worlds of the physical and the spiritual become enmeshed and entangled.  The Talmud shows awareness of this, and recommends that we always listen, that we attend to what is really happening, and ensure that our responses are the right ones, the wise ones.