Out of Fear or Love? Shabbat 11, 12

There’s a discussion between Rava and Abaye today which caught my eye.  Abaye is suggesting that one might need to take precautions to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally carry from a ‘karmelit’, an enclosed space which is neither private nor public, into a different domain.  Rava rebuffs him with the following statement of principle:

That prohibition is itself merely a protective Rabbinic decree, are you suggesting that we need to go ahead and establish further protection around this protective decree?  (venigzor g’zeirah li’gzeirah?)

The Talmud seems to accept this principle, and the Ritva explains that even Abaye himself upheld it.

It is, quite literally, a vital principle, a principle which keeps the halakha grounded in life.

And we could understand it in two ways.  At a basic level, it could just be practical:  if we just kept establishing protective laws around protective laws, the process could go on ad infinitum.  So although there could be merit in it, we don’t go that way, even if we maybe think we’d like to.

The alternative reading of the statement is that it represents a different ideal, that we need to understand the concept of protection differently.

We may love Shabbat, and we may wish to ensure that we do not accidentally stray from its spirit.  And in that spirit, a spirit of positivity and connection, we might take a couple of precautionary steps to help keep the boundary firm.

But we are not living in fear of breaking Shabbat, we are not petrified of prohibition, our souls are not frozen by the thought of transgression.  A little protection is ok, but to get obsessed with that protection, to get carried away with it, this would be to lose something, to miss something.

It would be to reveal that one’s religious existence is not rooted in a trusting love of Divine wisdom, but in an anxious concern about Divine retribution.

We later see that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ignored the warning against reading by the light of an oil lamp, lest one come to adjust it.  When he realised that he’d unconsciously adjusted the lamp and thus violated a fairly serious prohibition, his response was not to berate himself and to quake at the punishment that would befall him.  Rather, in a spirit of love and admiration, he notes the wisdom in the Rabbi’s teaching; he is newly impressed with their perceptiveness, with their attunement to the unconscious.

This is a lesson in how to understand the protective decree, the g’zeira.  It was given out of love, and it should be embraced out of love.  We gravely misinterpret it if we think that it is erecting a persecutory framework, if we think the Mishnaic Rabbis were as anxious about their religiosity as some of our people today.

The image springs to mind of Rav Soloveitchik, who cried inconsolably when, in his last years and ill health, he forgot it was Shabbat and switched on a light.  This was not a reaction of fear, but a reaction of love, a sensitivity to losing something of the spirit of Shabbat that he cherished so deeply.

I think this understanding also allows us to read the original language of the Mishna somewhat differently.

‘lo yetze hachayat…lo yefaleh et keila ve’lo yikra le’or ha’ner’   

Soncino translates these negative injunctions as ‘must not’, Steinsalz as ‘may not’ and I’m sure many would simply read ‘it is forbidden to’.  But I hear it differently, it is not the stern voice of authority speaking, it is the loving voice of wisdom, the feminine aspect of Torah.  I hear it as ‘it might not be a good idea to…’ or ‘perhaps one might not want to…’.  The ‘lo’ need not be so harsh, it’s all about the tone and music that communicate it.

I think Julia Kristeva writes about the music of the mother’s voice, of her language, as the thing that has the biggest impact on shaping a child’s world.  Here too, the way we hear the music of halakha is what shapes and sculpts our religious life.  I believe we can hear it gently, tenderly, we do not need to read it as the stern voice of patriarchal authority.

I do see that slightly later this reading gets stretched, ‘lo’ is followed by ‘patur aval asur’ or ‘chayav chatat’.  But that just makes me ponder it more, makes me reflect on the layering of the language of the Mishna, whether already in its composition there wasn’t a move to bolster up the gentle words of tradition with a harsher voice of authority.  The culture was under threat, and a being under threat reacts defensively, aggressively, and with good reason.  But when the culture is no longer under threat, it needs to breathe again, it needs to rediscover its warmth and confidence.

I also like to read Rav Yosef’s famous statement in this light.  Responding to Rabbi Chanina’s suggestion that one must check one’s clothes before Shabbat lest one come to carry inadvertently, he says the following:

‘hilkhta rabata l’shabata’

Most translate this as ‘this is a great law of Shabbat’, perhaps echoing Rabbi Yishmael’s admiration for these decrees.  I hear it as ‘there are many, many laws to Shabbat’, with perhaps a sigh in his tone, a concern that we are losing something under the weight of all these protective layers.

Ultimately we are told not to get caught up in the spirit of protection, but to engage with Shabbat lovingly, tenderly.  And this should extend to the rest of our religious life, we should not be basing it upon foundations of fear, be they fear of punishment or fear of the inner chaos that might be unleashed without strict boundaries.  Rather, it should be built upon appreciation, wisdom and love, keeping faith with the words of Proverbs:

It is a tree of life for those who embrace it, and all who uphold it are happy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. 

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.

Democracy and Halakha: Uneasy bedfellows?? Berakhot 37 and 38

In another example of the fractious relations amongst the early Tannaim, we find Rabbi Akiva getting himself into trouble today, over the correct bracha to say after eating dates:

Once R. Gamaliel and the elders were reclining in an upper chamber in Jericho, and dates  were brought in and they ate, and R. Gamaliel gave permission to R. Akiva to say grace. R. Akiva said quickly the one blessing which includes three [as opposed to the full Grace after Meals, which would have been Rabban Gamliel’s prescription].

Said R. Gamaliel to him: Akiva, how long will you poke your head into quarrels?

He replied: Master, although you say this way and your colleagues say the other way, you have taught us, master, that where an individual joins issue with the majority, the halakha is determined by the majority.

The halakha is determined by the majority.  This is an important principle, not least because it seems to suggest that there is a democratic core in the foundations of halakhic development.

This sounds very promising, we cherish democracy as one of our highest values.  It very much accords with our sensibility to imagine that the halakha shares these values.

But is it really that straightforward?  The halakha is supposed to represent some sort of higher, Divine authority; how can that be squared with a democratic mindset wherein the will of the people, of the sometimes deeply uneducated masses, is the ultimate voice?

It’s a tricky one.

There are problems with democracy, and we would do well not to fall into what Raymond Geuss in History and Illusion in Politics calls the ‘narcissistically adulatory self-description’ (p123) that democracies are vulnerable to.  The mere utterance of the word ‘democratic’ is sometimes thought to sway an argument, and we should not be susceptible to such superficial thinking.  If democracy is great, we need to know why: what is it about the system that makes it so desirable?

The oft cited problem with democracy is that it appears to place all opinions on an equal footing.  Experts are given the same vote as the simple minded, the virtuous are given the same vote as the rogue.  It seems to lack any moral or pragmatic guiding principle; it seems to grant self-determination and self expression domineering priority over what might be right and just.

But no sooner do we state the problem in these terms than we quickly realise that this objection itself raises some thorny problems.  On occasion it might be easy to say who is the expert and who the fool, who the saint and who the sinner.  But can we really be sure to always detect these things, and to be right about them?  And who are the ‘we’ that is doing this detecting?  Haven’t we slipped in, via the backdoor,  some kind of ‘reliable ruling body’ who will take it upon themselves to ensure that the good is always fairly and justly selected?

There is no way around this, we might like to think that some of the time we can easily call upon the experts, but there is no surefire way to ensure that their expertise, their knowledge, does not become a form of oppressive tyranny.

No, we soon arrive at the ultimate defence of democracy, at the sense in which, for all its flaws, it is better than the alternatives.  In a democracy, the will of the people emerges, the truth of their desire becomes manifest.

To watch a democracy unfold is to watch a society organically grow, to see a culture find its roots, to see a people find themselves through the values and aspirations they endorse.

Democracy, as John Dewey point out, embodies the spirit of experimentation, it allows a community to work things out for itself, even if that means sometimes getting things wrong.

We may still find ourselves bothered by the idea that the masses sometimes get whipped up into hysteria, that they may succumb to the temptations of evil, that they may elect a Hitler.  Why are these risks worth taking?  Why should we have so much faith in humanity?

Why indeed.

It is never easy to say why having faith in humanity is a good idea, but we should be clear that when we endorse democracy, especially its liberal varieties, that we are doing precisely that.  We are expressing faith in the ultimate goodness and wisdom of the people, we are saying that no one is better equipped to establish a just and good society than they are.

To value democracy is to make a huge leap of faith.

And, talking slightly differently, it is not just the people that we are expressing faith in, it is goodness itself.  We are saying that the good can only remain hidden and oppressed for so long, that the reign of darkness and indifference must ultimately exhaust itself and burn out.

Getting slightly Hegelian, we are saying that history is a grand narrative from which truth and beauty gradually emerge, that the world of brute actuality actually, over time,  discloses the ideals which were ultimately always driving it.

Democracy should never bore us, it should always be fascinating.  Human nature and human needs are always being re-imagined and reconsidered, and the democratic polity is the stage upon which this drama is played out.

Returning to our Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, as we know, is the aristocratic who dares to think he knows better than the people.  He thinks they should spend more time praying in the evening and he believes they should more regularly enact the longer form of grace after meals.  There may be some truth to his opinions: in an ideal world, if we were men and women of leisure, these would doubtless be excellent recommendations.

But we do not yet inhabit that Messianic ideal, we are not as free from the worries of the world as we might like to be, and we must with difficulty and regret tailor a more limited framework for our spiritual sustenance.

As a visionary, Rabban Gamliel may have a lot to teach us.  As a legislator, however,  his noble intentions threaten to become tyrannical.  Removed from the soil of the people, from the hierarchy of priorities which they actually can and do endorse, his prescriptions lose sight of that balanced golden mean, they become a source of unnecessary guilt and oppression.

This is all very well, but are we really saying that the Divine will, the Halakha, is expressed and articulated through the will of the people, that God is somehow bound by democracy?

In a word, yes.

As the heavenly voice famously says in closing the story of the Oven of Akhnai, (Bava Metzia 59b), ‘Nitzchuni Banai’, ‘My sons have defeated Me’.  God himself does not have the final word in halakha, the people do.

Everything we said above about democracy should help us to better understand this, we essentially portrayed democracy as a form of ongoing revelation, an everyday continuation of the events that transpired in the Exodus from Egypt and which culminated at Sinai.  In Avot 6:2 we have the idea that a heavenly voice continues to speak forth every day from Sinai; perhaps it is in democracy that it is nowadays making itself heard.

Again, it will stumble and fall, there will be mistakes.  But, importantly, we have faith that it will get there, that something Divine and Beautiful will ultimately be revealed.

Rabbi Akiva was right to ‘stick his head into quarrels’, the humble shepherd was right to challenge the Prince.  In doing so he was reminding us that there is something delicate and alive in the unfolding of halakha, that for the Divine to be truly realised in this world, the voice of the majority must be given its due heed.

This is not to say that we must take the results of democracy uncritically: we must be constantly weighing them up against what we already know of the good and the true, we must be trying to educate and influence from that which moves and inspires us.  But the book of knowledge can never be closed, the written Torah can never prosper without its living, unfolding, oral counterpart.  We may be required to teach, but we must also retain the humility to learn.  As Ben Zoma points out, to be wise is to learn from every man, not just from the experts (Avot 4:1).

May the democratic impulse in halakha act to strengthen our faith in humanity, and may it also help us retain humility in our quest for knowledge, to remind us that truth is always emerging, that it is never just there for the taking.

Way too strict… Aristotle vs Shammai Berakhot 36

Aristotle – writing about 800 years before the compilation of the Talmud, and about 200 years before Hillel – is famous for his doctrine of the Golden Mean.  The idea is that good and healthy conduct is defined by balance and proportion, never by excess or extremism.

Indeed, for the Greeks, beauty was seen as a deep and abiding guiding principle, something to be internalised and then recreated in action and personality.  And the primary constituents of beauty, in as much as they could be defined, were symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

I’d love to say that Judaism embraces this, and Maimonides famously uses this principle in talking about virtue and personality.  We are, however, forever engaged with the Law, and this sometimes threatens to upset the balance.

The Law can seem to make unreasonable demands, to be indifferent to our inner needs, to be arbitrary and ruthless.  In short, it can come across as extreme.

It can be hard to see how it is sculpting our souls, how it is leaving an imprint of beauty and truth, around which a crystal of virtue and grace may begin to grow.

This concern is one of the reasons I’m so interested to explore Talmudic material which sheds light on the spirit of the law, to understand the philosophy of halakha.  I want to hear the earliest voices on this, the intention and inclination of those who were in the process of founding Rabbinic Judaism.

Today we have a little more insight into the approach of Shammai.  We have already discussed their fundamental differences: Hillel seems to have a humanitarian guiding principle, Shammai grants the Law a much rawer and absolute form of authority.  (My friend Rav Alex Israel brought an excellent article to my attention, which also explores this difference.)

We are discussing the laws concerning different fruits and vegetables, and there is uncertainty as to the classification of a caper bush.  Is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Beit Shammai want to have it both ways: for the prohibition of mixing plant types, kilayim, they view it as a vegetable; for the prohibition of eating the fruit of a tree for its first three years they manage to view it as a fruit.

The first voice in the Talmud states the obvious:

This is contradictory, it is fundamentally difficult.

And yes, they are right, it is problematic to be unable to classify.  One cannot be learning the ways of harmony and beauty when one is inviting contradiction into the heart of one’s worldview.

The next voice however, suggests that there is an explanation:

Beit Shammai were in doubt, so they acted strictly in this case, viewing it as vegetable, and strictly in that case, viewing it as a fruit.

If in doubt, follow the strict path.  This seems to be the approach of Beit Shammai.  And, if we’re honest, it’s a path which a lot of people seem to follow today.  In this worldview the Law stands to protect us from danger, to guide us to safety, to keep us out of harm’s way.  And so, it follows, when in doubt, play it safe.

What does the Talmud conclude?

Well, one thing is clear, this is only the approach of Beit Shammai, and the implication seems to be that Beit Hillel do not follow this, do not believe in it.

For them, the Law is there to refine us, to enhance our sense of balance, to deepen our attunement to beauty, proportion, harmony.  And therefore, there is no such easy option, no lazy comfort.  One must wrestle with what is presented, and following that, one must decide.

In decision we create, we act out the nascent intuition of beauty which we have been patiently incubating.

And if all goes well we will have strengthened our own intuition, cementing its roots in our personality.  We will also have brought light to the rest of the world, showing something that was previously hidden, illuminating a possible new path.

No, for Hillel, we cannot just go the stricter way: it is unhealthy, it is unbalanced and it is untrue.

So we have a dispute between Hillel and Shammai, a pretty fundamental one.  What do we do?

On this point, the Talmud here is completely unequivocal:

When Beit Shammai express an opinion in the same place as Beit Hillel, it is not considered a teaching, it is as if nothing has been said.

The matter is too important, and here we must bring in some strictures of our own.  Beit Shammai wish to bring disharmony into life, to turn halakhic living into a form of poison.  As a result, they must be thoroughly dismissed, they must be clinically lanced from the discussion.

This is a different voice from ‘Eilu ve Eilu’, ‘both are the Voice of the Living God’, (Eruvin 13b) , an important principle which has its time and place.  Here the matter is more serious: Beit Shammai want to make excessive strictness, extreme submission into a guiding principle, and we cannot accept that.

I see this dispute as illuminating the very next legal principle that comes up in the discussion, the status of peel and leaves which act as ‘protection for the fruit’.

Abaye teaches that certain protective parts of a fruit – for example, topically, the crown of a pomegranate – contribute to the size of the fruit.  And the size is important for deciding whether a fruit can become tameh, ritually impure.  If it is too small, it cannot, if it is big enough, it can.

So, Abaye teaches us, if you have a small fruit, it may be immune to the possibility of being impure.  If however, it is encased in protection, if that protection appears to be a form of swelling, if it needs protecting because it is considered too delicate, then it can become impure.

The protection is what creates the possibility of impurity, without it, it was incorruptible.

So let us stick with the spirit of Hillel, let us remember that the Law has a delicate and subtle purpose, and that there is tremendous danger in approaching it with extremity and a spirit of excess.  Indeed, it might just be our attempts at protection, at playing safe, that ultimately render us impure.

The Theatre of Prayer Berakhot 34

A major theme of the daf recently has been the idea that prayer, particularly the recitation of the Amida, should be approached as if we were standing in front of a King.  A story from yesterday makes this clear:  An eminent politician encountered a pious man deep in prayer, and the pious man refused to respond to him.  When he was finished, the politician asked him to justify his actions, for surely he was putting himself in danger, given the politician’s power and authority.  The pious man responded thus:

He said to him: Had you been standing before a flesh and blood king and your friend came and greeted you, would you return his greeting?

The officer said to him: No.

The pious man continued: And if you would greet him, what would they do to you?

The officer said to him: They would cut off my head with a sword.

The pious man said to him: Isn’t this matterthen  an a fortiori inference?

You who were standing before a king of flesh and blood, of whom your fear is limited because today he is here but tomorrow he is in the grave, would have reacted in that way;  I, who was standing and praying before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who lives and endures for all eternity, all the more so that I could not pause to respond to someone’s greeting.

This is a classic little story, the rhetorical exchange has something of a Socratic quality to it, the wise man patiently leading the layman towards a meaningful insight.

And in this vein, the method that he uses, the analogy or parable, is central to the point he is making.  He’s trying to get the politician to imagine what it is like to be engaged in prayer, and he’s doing so by reference to a flesh and blood experience that he can relate to.

He doesn’t just say: ‘You fool, I am talking to the King of Kings, do not bother me with your trifles!’.  He acknowledges that it is not at all obvious what is happening, and he tries to show the politician something of his worldview, something of what it means to be engaged in prayer.

And the parable, the ‘as if’, isn’t just for the politician’s benefit, it’s for our benefit too.  We have a tendency to switch off when we hear talk like this, of us standing before the King of Kings, in the presence of greatness.  We feel it’s somehow crude and anachronistic, out of tune with our concept of the Divine.  We feel that they were taking it literally, but that we simply cannot do that.

But it is not so.  I think this story suggests that they too were using the analogy as pedagogical tool, as an attempt to encourage us to imagine that we are in a certain set of circumstances.  They are asking us to act, to engage in a theatre production, and the hope is that through doing that, we might create an environment or mood wherein something profound can happen.

Let us step back.  Let us imagine that we are encountering the idea of the Divine for the very first time, we are learning to think along the lines that there is a reality to our values, that there are real things happening in the depths to which we have never paid attention.

We are then told that we must pray to this Divine, that we must engage with it and meditate upon it.

Where would we begin?  How would we find the right frame of mind, the feelings, the headspace?

It would be a challenge.  It would be like an actor being thrust into the role of Hamlet, given the vaguest of backgrounds and then being told to deliver a meaningful ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

It can’t happen.  The actor connects with the mood of the moment through imagining himself in similar circumstances, through finding a personal reality in the drama.  This takes time, thought, intense research.  And when he does so successfully, he is actually making the words ring deeply true; we are no longer in the realm of fiction, we are rather watching a man baring his soul.  The text and the staging are a device, carefully constructed to evoke something genuine in the actor and to leave the audience with a real and lasting experience.

I believe that this is exactly what is happening with prayer.  The pious man is our Shakespeare, he has written the words and he is now giving us our stage directions.  ‘Don’t do it that way, do it this way, imagine you are standing in front of a powerful King, a President, someone you are in awe of and who makes you tremble with nervousness.  Think starstruck, think dry-mouthed, raised pulse and sweating.  Now you may speak the words, now you may being to act.’

We are being taught how to act, and only once we sense that we must act, that we must dig deep to create something, only then can we start to pray, can we start to mouth words in front of the Divine.

‘Imagine the honesty you would experience at that moment, imagine how all your masks and defences would drop, how you would stand feeling naked and exposed, confronted by the reflection of everything that is weak and flawed in your personality.’

This is what we are aiming for, the construction of a stage upon which we might encounter the reality of our lives, the truth that runs through it, however carefully hidden it might be.  In confronting greatness something is reflected back to us, and however much we might prefer to not see it, we must bravely stare at it and accept it.

We’ve done a lot of work in understanding the Divine, in moving beyond childish ideas of God.  But once we’ve done that work, we have a whole new challenge, we must learn how to experience and live with that Divine, how to make its presence a real and powerful force in our lives.

And for that, we must step out of the Theology faculty and walk across the campus to the Drama faculty.

The stage directions continue today:

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of the Tanna bar Kappara: An ordinary person, conducts himself as we said; he bows at the beginning and the end of the blessings of Patriarchs and thanksgiving and is admonished if he seeks to bow at the beginning and end of the other blessings.

It is appropriate, though, for a High Priest to bow at the end of each and every blessing; and for a king to bow at the beginning of each and every blessing and at the end of each and every blessing.

[Another opinion]  The king, once he has bowed at the beginning of the first blessing, does not rise until he concludes the entire prayer, as it is stated: “And it was that when Solomon finished praying all of his prayer to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling upon his knees with his hands spread forth toward the heavens” (1 Kings 8:54).

Here we are not just using the imagination, we are using the body too.  The body is more primitive than the imagination, our use of it affects us in ways that don’t altogether make sense.  It creates its own reality, it generates its own sense of occasion.

And what we see in these instructions is that the more eminent a person, the more they must bow and humble themselves, the harder they must work to experience the rawness and defencelessness, to be moved by something Majestic.

And it’s no co-incidence that we use Solomon, that wisest of men, as our example.  Wisdom is no substitute for experience, if anything it can get in the way of feeling something genuine and human.  He of all people needed to completely prostrate himself to achieve the experience of being humbled before Truth, of being confronted by everything he had failed to realise in his life.

The discussion of bowing practices continues, and it’s fascinating to observe the varieties of habit, the sense in which everyone was doing something different.  It’s as if they had reached the point where they were hearing the music, wherein they were able to merge their own spontaneity with the framework they were inhabiting.

And this idea that we might succeed in making something real happen, that we sometimes know that our prayer has hit the right note, that we have connected with something, this is how I understand the following idea:

Once the son of R. Gamaliel fell ill. He sent two scholars to R. Hanina b. Dosa to ask him to pray for him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber and prayed for him.

When he came down he said to them: Go, the fever has left him; They said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied: I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learnt this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that it is accepted: but if not, I know that it is rejected.

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa knew that his prayer had been accepted or rejected based on the experience he had whilst saying it.  If he attained fluency, if he connected with something real in himself, then it was accepted.  If not, if he remained in the world of empty ritual and lifeless artifice, then he could be sure that it was rejected.

I believe that we know when we have prayed, and we know when we have just uttered words, when nothing has happened.

“Being accepted”, “being heard”, these are experiences, phenomenological descriptions of feelings.  I do not believe that they are supernatural claims, claims to do with the realm of miracles or disrupting nature.

It is the wisdom of our tradition to understand how hard prayer is, and yet how supremely important the role it may play in our lives.  When we read the rules around it as stage directions, as experiential aids, then I think we are better able to accept them with gratitude, to acknowledge that we are part of a long chain of people who have forever been struggling to pray.

Let us pray well, and let us be aware enough to detect whether our prayers have been accepted or not.

For He Is Merciful, no matter what they say… Berakhot 33

We have been getting quite deeply involved in the emotions and the psyche of late, perhaps it’s been a bit too much for some people, perhaps people feel that prayer needn’t be quite such a voyage of the spirit.  Even in the Talmud we hear voices who think that all this talk of meditation and reflection might be a little too ethereal:

If he did not focus his attention initially, we beat him with a blacksmith’s hammer until he focuses his attention.

As Spud says in Trainspotting, extolling Begbie’s powers of communication, sometimes you’ve just got to get the message across.

We encounter today one of the more troublesome texts in the Talmud, one of those nuggets that is often seized upon for all the wrong reasons.  The Mishna says:

One who says [in his prayers] “You extended your mercy to a bird’s nest”, “May your name be remembered for the good” or “We give thanks, we give thanks”, we silence him.

The reference to the bird’s nest is referring to the law wherein we are commanded to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from her nest, something that looks to be emblematically merciful.

Why should this declaration of praise be problematic?

The Talmud ponders this, and declares that there were two Amoraim arguing about this, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida.

One said, because he might make the rest of creation jealous, [i.e. that God only showed mercy to the birds]. 

This is a harmless enough opinion, nothing offensive about it.

The other said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One into manifestations of mercy, whereas they are nothing but decrees.

Ouch, God is not merciful, all He does is issue arbitrary decrees.

This is the plain meaning of this opinion, and people fall over themselves to bring it up in debate, in an attempt to prove all sorts of things.

Some people learn from it that we are forbidden to enquire into the reasons for the Miztvot, that any such enquiry is both dangerous and doomed.

Others learn from it the more noxious idea that we cannot presume there to be a predominantly compassionate and merciful theme running through the Jewish religion.  We must treat the entire culture as made up of arbitrary decrees, our sympathetic and moral understandings are of no value whatsoever.

We have discussed this point of view in our very first post, and at various points since then we have seen quite how important the spirit of the law is, how powerfully the prophetic underpinnings of the law continue to resonate throughout its discussion and application.

I might even go so far as to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how little there has been to suggest otherwise, how little of this ‘arbitrary religion’ has actually been depicted in the Talmud.

And now, as this problematic little opinion rears its head, I am inclined to say that it is something of an anti-climax.

The Talmud just mentions it and leaves it, it doesn’t treat it as a big deal, it doesn’t declare that we have just been told of a revolutionary and counterintuitive principle.  Even semi-controversial points are often tested and refined by bringing an array of counter-indicative scriptural verses and rabbinic sources.  There is none of that here, we just see it, we’re not even sure which of the Amoraim actually said it, and then we leave it.

Even the story afterwards doesn’t support this principle, all we know is that Abaye was suspicious of someone who mentioned mercy and the nest.  On a simple level, it sounds like his uncle Rabah might actually have thought it was permitted; only a later Talmudic rendition suggests that he agreed with Abaye and was testing him.

We make no effort to square this principle with those of Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, with the endless verses in the Bible which talk about God’s mercy and love.

I’m not saying we have to remove it from the text, but I will say that if someone wishes to build a philosophy of Judaism out of this one lone opinion then they really have their work cut out.  The burden of evidence is firmly in their court, they must marshal many more sources and principles if they wish to justify a hyper-nomian vision of the Jewish religion.

Clearly I’m very worked up about this, why does it bother me so much?

It bothers me on many levels.

For a start, it makes the whole project of the study of Torah devoid of meaning.  If Torah has no moral core, no genuinely Divine ethos, then it is much harder to understand the purpose and value of immersing ourselves in it.

It becomes a purely argumentative and aggressive discipline, a form of jousting, and as we saw in the deposing of Gamilel the other day, that model is simply not acceptable.

To study Torah is both to shed light on it and to be enlightened by it.  It would be a sorry state of affairs if we felt that we were constantly having to justify and apologise on its behalf, that it was offering us nothing in return, that we were not inspired by it.

There is a terrible weakness of faith expressed by those who state that we must not look for the light inside the commandments, out of fear that when we occasionally fail to see it our whole commitment structure will shatter.

And this brings us to the next point – what happens when laws and rules do strike us as offensive, when they do sound morally problematic to us?

The vast majority of what we’ve seen so far in the Talmud suggests that people speak up for what they believe in, that their personal understanding of the religion guides and shapes how they recommend its practice.  Rarely – if ever – have we heard someone say “It strikes me that the essence and spirit of the Law dictate one practice, but I have a tradition of following an opposing one.”  It just doesn’t work that way, they didn’t have the gap between sentiment and obedience that seems to have crept into observant life nowadays.

They had no truck with the idea that understanding was a dangerous game, that probing the moral fabric of a practice would lead to anarchy.

The entrenched resistance we encounter nowadays to genuine and necessary halakhic change, in areas such as agunot, woman’s rights and acceptance of homosexuality, has its roots in the orientation which gives primacy to this one opinion in the text.  The less faith one has in one’s moral compass, the less confident and bold one will be in one’s halakhic innovation.

(I’ve just spotted another level of irony, that the opinion itself is trying to explain a law, that of silencing the utterer.  Perhaps they should have just left that law alone, not presumed to explain it?)

Perhaps I am crying out in vain, perhaps those who wish to cling to that way of thinking will always find justification for doing so.  But for those of us who have greater faith, who believe that faith is something which lives alongside our ethical and intellectual refinement, that it grows as they do, it is important to engage with this text and defuse its potential import.

Coming at it differently, I read recently that Ramban interprets this problematic idea as follows:  God didn’t give us the commandment because of His mercy towards the bird, but because He wishes humans to develop sensitivity and compassion towards the bird.

This is a beautiful way of dealing with this puzzling dictum, Ramban turns the surface reading of God not being concerned with mercy on its head: God is so concerned with mercy that he does not just act to bring it about, or command us to effect it.  Rather, he carefully sculpts his commandments such that they will deeply and genuinely instil this value in us.

May we take the Ramban’s words to heart, may we always experience and emulate the Mercy which is such an important Divine attribute.

And more than this, may we share the Ramban’s faith that Torah is neither offensive nor repugnant, that it is always possible to apprehend the Truth and Beauty at Its core.

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.

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.

What is the self? Berakhot 15

It is one of the founding principles of psychoanalysis that we are not transparent to ourselves.

The more one reflects upon this, the more surprising it becomes that we ever thought that we might be.

More than this, it becomes increasingly astonishing that most people generally still think that they know themselves, that they have unique access to the thing they call the ‘self’.

One of the insights I got from Wittgenstein, and which pushed me in the direction of psychoanalytic thinking, was that the concept of a ‘self’ is significantly more complex than it first appears.  There is not necessarily a single unifying factor manifest in our behaviour or thought, we seem, at times, to simply be a succession of unrelated actions, utterances and inner voices.

Listen to the series of thoughts that pop into your head – where are they coming from?  How consistent and uniform are they?  Is the source of those thoughts the thing we call the self?

To push it further, how would you describe the difference between the place that they come from and the person that hears them, the listening subject?  Aren’t there at least two ‘persons’ here, a mysterious narrator and a somewhat perplexed audience?

For the most part, there is a workable level of unity, of coherence, of integration, detectable in our behaviour.  And, though here it’s more private and murky, that’s probably true of our thoughts too.

In as much as there is meaning to the term sanity, one aspect of it is the extent to which we are able to see this unity in another person, to experience it in ourselves.  Schizophrenia, very roughly, is the case where that unity has been deeply fractured, where the person themselves no longer experiences their thoughts and behaviour as unified.  Bi-polar, another term I don’t especially like, is a way of describing behaviour and thought that seems to oscillate too wildly, that lacks a unifying centre, a coherent core.

So where does Judaism stand on this point?

I take it as fairly incontrovertible that it takes the personality to be deep, complex and multi layered.  That if there is unity there, it is something we must work towards, and, once achieved, requires steady maintenance.

For these reasons, Rabbinic culture offers its citizens a wide array of rituals, structures and ideas.  By making all of these part of one’s life, part of one’s personality, some profound and serious work is done on one’s unconscious, work one doesn’t need to be much aware of.  By simply swimming in the culture, one imbibes a certain type of character, and hopefully it is one that is unified and productive.

Put differently, it is often assumed that religion takes man to be strong, to be a creature of will.  It gives him challenges to test that will, and basically scores him depending on how well he does.

I take the opposing view.  Religion views man as deeply weak, and understands the ‘will’ as somewhat illusory.  It sees it as a wishful expression of how much self control we would like to have, not how much we really do have.

It meets man in his weakness, and tries, in a colourful variety of ways, to help him flourish nonetheless.

To the daf.  Today we have an extended discussion on whether a person needs to say the Shema aloud.  The alternative is that we simply recite it silently, or internally, and concentrate on it in that way.

It seems to me that the discussion may be centred around exactly the positions outlined above.  If one believes that the Shema can simply be recited internally, then one leans towards thinking that the personality is reasonably unified, and that its deeper recesses are quite easily accessible.

If one thinks we need to recite it aloud, to separate ourselves into physical performer and attentive listener, emphasising the need to hear it, then I think one is viewing the personality as more complex and fractured.  One is acknowledging that making contact with the unconscious is a mighty tricky business, and that giving parts of the personality different roles might be a very effective way to do this.  It strives to make the situation engage more energy, to seem more real.  It will also hopefully diminish some of the resistance and self consciousness that otherwise stands in the way of contact.

In the end, we follow the opinion who says we should say it aloud, the voice who tells us that we are deeply mysterious unto ourselves.

And, paradoxically, the message that we try to get across, as we saw on page 13, is unity.  We can now understand that this has psychological as well as theological implications, that the unity we strive for in ourselves is a reflection of the unity we seek out in life.

So the Shema, and prayer generally, are a profound piece of theatre, with the Rabbis are directing events from behind the scenes.

When the curtain rises we engage in soliloquy, and, in the next moment, we realise that there is an audience of one, and that that one is a different part of us.

Through deliberately splitting the personality, through opening it up like a surgeon, we hope to arrive at a more thorough and profound unity.

Listen, O Israel, for the Unity, and know that the Unity is Divine.

Nihilism, Civilisation and the Divine Berakhot 13

From what we’ve said up until now, the Shema is supposed to be a meaningful meditation on love.  So when the rabbis ask “how much of the Shema do we need to concentrate on?”, we’re right to be a little surprised.

Two things to say on this.

Firstly, relief.

As much as I do wholeheartedly believe that the recital of the Shema is a tremendous opportunity for bi- or tri-daily reflectiveness, I know myself and reality well enough to know that it ain’t always going to happen.  It’s therefore heartening to know that the early Rabbis also experienced this.  It’s nice to hear that they too knew the difficulty in always maintaining a profound level of concentration on what becomes an everyday occurrence.

It’s a classic bind, the idea is to use ritual to orientate the mundane, but through making ritual routine, something of its magic and charm is lost.  It’s good to see that the Rabbis understood this from the beginning, that they had no illusions about the tensions in the culture they were creating.

Secondly, even though they got this, they still saw the value in reading alone, thoughtlessly, in enacting mindless ritual.

We spoke on page 3 of the Shema as a transitional object.  Part of the way that profound and significant level of connection is established is through thoughtless interaction with the object.  One doesn’t set out to establish a transitional object through conscious thought, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would be self-defeating.

Ritual, even without thought, roots and anchors us in the world.  It can stabilise the psyche, and provide a cathartic channel for all sorts of energies that we’re not at all aware of.  I’ve often felt better after even the most mindless prayer sessions, wherein I’ve utterly failed to connect to the meanings and ideas in the words.

The process of performance, of putting something in, of attempting to achieve something emotionally significant, has a powerful effect on us.  We would be foolish to abandon the ritual because we’re not hitting the high notes.  The culture is founded on the realisation that we’re only intermittently going to get there.

So, that said, whatever on heaven or earth are we supposed to be concentrating on?

As we said yesterday, that’s exactly what is animating the three way disagreement amongst the Rabbis about concentration.

First up Rabbi Eliezer, we’re talking Tannaic heavyweights today, who says up until ‘ha-aileh’. So that would be:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words…

So it seems to me that he’s emphasising the unity of God – more on that later – and the love of God.

As I’ve mentioned several times, the love of God is not some strange commandment to have  a specific emotion towards a Divine being.  Rather, it is the call for a specific attitude towards life, for a positive, somewhat optimistic openness of spirit.  It is about finding the positive emotions inside us and making them the dominant ones in constituting our basic disposition and modus operandi.  It is about living with the non-expectant yet completely receptive faith of Kierkegaard, of living out Wittgenstein’s tightrope ideal:

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

The commandment to love God, is about loving non-obssessionally, about not fetishizing our love objects, and hence about not making our capacity for love limited and restricted.

It is also an absolute prohibition against cynicism and nihilism.

Nietzsche wrestled with nihilism, he felt duty bound to embrace and explore what he took to be its inevitability.  It led him into madness, and even just reading him can often give one too much of the feeling of things falling apart.  Let’s say he was our sacrifice to that ideology, we can all learn from him that it’s not something we need to surrender to.

Twice a day, just say ‘no’ to nihilism.

Rabbi Akiva, these really are the heavyweights, said we need to concentrate throughout the whole first paragraph.  So he adds the following to our requirement:

…which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Rabbi Akiva is tuned in to what we were saying above, it’s about the institution of a culture.  The explicit content here is a narrative of things becoming increasingly rigid and ritualised. Teaching, then speaking, then reciting, then wearing as a ritual object, and finally, in the perfect image of fixture, nailing them to the doorpost of your house.

So we are not just to focus on the Divine, but to reflect on our culture and its ethos.  We must make the Divine intrinsic to the texture of everyday life, this is the cornerstone of our civilisation.

Rabbi Meir has the final word.  For him, we need only focus on the first line:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

And this is backed up by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi too, for whom this line was the entirety of his recital.

So for these two greats, we must only concentrate on ‘Adonai’ being our God, and on His oneness and unity.

The oneness and unity of the Divine are very tricky concepts, not ones that I think we can relate to easily nowadays.  It’s too abstract, it’s not really clear what it’s supposed to be in opposition too, what it’s rejecting.

As a start, I would say the following.  As you’ll have noticed, I like talking about the Divine, I find it communicates things better than talking about ‘God’.  ‘God’ sounds too much like an object, a person, and try as we might, I don’t think we ever really free ourselves of those associations, no matter how well we know we ought to.

The Divine is different.  The Divine really is about something higher, something beyond, something we catch glimpses of but can only ever aspire to.  And talking of the Divine implies seeing connections, relating our understandings of various ideals such as Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Justice and sensing that there is something common to them, some ideal quality we can only have a vague sense of.

It also requires us to attempt to see meaning in our diverse experiences of life, in its harsh and difficult times as well as its joyful and sublime ones.  To sense that its merciful moments are just a different face from its uncompromising moments, but that they are not absolutely and definitively separate, is to see such unity.

To see unity is to see meaning.  It is the job of the imagination, and it’s not always easy.  Relating to the Divine is not a simple matter of giving lip service to dogma or principles, it’s about making the constant effort to see life differently, to see something bigger in it, some higher possibility latent inside it.

It is not about trivialising life through relating it to a distant Godly being.  It is about thinking of life in the most constructive and imaginative manner possible, and about paying particular attention to just how much goodness and wonder lie hidden in the most remarkable places.

Sensing unity is sensing the Divine, and for Rabbi Meir, that is quite enough for us to be concentrating on.

So we can try to concentrate on a civilisation that opposes nihilism.  But at the very least, we must concentrate on life and try to see the goodness that pervades it.