Forthcoming Events and Lecture on Sexuality – November 2016

I will be giving the next Honest Theology lecture on Sunday 20th November at 7.45 for 8pm.

The topic will be ‘What is the Meaning and Purpose of Jewish Education?’ and it will be an exploration of the types of Jewish values we wish to bequeath to our children.  It will be an exploration of the core values of both education and Judaism, and it will challenge conventional understandings of both.  Do join us for another excellent evening of thinking and discussion.

The venue is Central Square Minyan Hall, Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11 7AH.  Booking is advised, but not essential.

Tickets and more info can be found here: http://louisjacobs.org/news/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-6/.

The previous lecture, an exploration of the complex relationship between Judaism and sexuality, can now be viewed online here:

http://louisjacobs.org/eventseries/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-5/

By way of a teaser passage, here is a short selection from it:

Humans have a powerful desire to know the answer to sex, for a book to tell them what it means.  But it just doesn’t work like that, sex is a mystery, it is a source of revelation to us, it shows us who we are, however uncomfortable that might sometimes be.  There is no right and wrong, and it cannot be reduced to another thing, to be contained, whether in the language of biology or psychology or in terms of religion and morality.  Sex lives, as we live, and it will always leave us with more questions than answers, it will always challenge what we think of ourselves and the world around us.  

Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.

 

Why Bnei Akiva Needs Biblical Criticism

As it becomes increasinly clear to most of us that we need to be moving towards peace, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our thinking is open, flexible and creative.  Ancient Texts carry immense power and can be used, by all sides, in very dangerous ways.

The recent Bnei Akiva scandal raised some of these issues, but they really go deeper and further than just Bnei Akiva.

My thanks to the team at thetorah.com for embracing this piece and for helping me to substantially improve it.  I’d love to hear any thoughts.

http://thetorah.com/why-bnei-akiva-needs-biblical-criticism/

Exploring the Jewish Psyche – The Educational Challenge of Zionism

(This was originally presented orally to a set of Bnei Akiva parents on Shabbat 22nd June 2014 at Seuda Shelishit.  I was planning to develop it further, but current events, including the Bnei Akiva controversy, have made me feel that it is important to share with only minor editing.)

Over two and a half thousand years ago, in 597 BCE, the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar cemented his new found power in the Ancient World by conquering the land of Israel.  He overpowered the final remnants of the kingdom of Judah and installed a puppet leader in place of the Monarch.  Unwilling to heed the sober political advice of the prophet Jeremiah, the residents of Jerusalem launched a rebellion against the Empire and tried to free themselves from its grip.

There was no fairytale ending.  Babylon used the uprising as a pretext to show its fearsome power and to deter other provinces from rebelling in kind.  In 586 BCE they put Jerusalem under siege, attempting to conquer the city through starvation.  Men, woman and children perished in this gruesome episode; we can only hope that Lamentations was exaggerating when it says that parents were forced into eating the flesh of their dead babies.

As the people weakened, Nebuchadnezzar moved in for the kill.  The walls were breached on the 17th of Tammuz and the army entered the walled city.  Taking control and continuing the slaughter, they completed their rout through the symbolically charged act of defiling the temple and setting it alight.

As the Temple burned in the eyes of the remaining people, they realised in their humiliation that the dream of a republic in Judah had come to a close, around 400 years after King David had initiated it.   Their God would no longer have a home, their worship would no longer have a centre of focus, they would have nowhere to bring their offerings of atonement and thanksgiving.

A dark age of homelessness was beginning.

Unwilling even to allow the orphaned and bereft people to remain in their land, the Babylonians exiled them, taking many civilians – including the brightest and best – with them to Babylon, where they would be put to work in the service of the Empire.  For those who were willing to comply, there was the possibility of a decent life, with opportunities for power, influence and financial reward.  Some no doubt embraced this opportunity, leaving behind the heartache and nightmare that Judean history had become.  Memory was exchanged for membership in a new dynasty, and this willingness to adapt and change yielded favourable results.

For some however, moving on was not so straightforward.  One of the educated scribes and musicians of the time sat on the banks of Babel’s rivers and poured his heart into a paean to the lost world.  Taunted by his captors to provide entertainment with the songs of Zion, he found himself choked and unable, the mere thought of Jerusalem bringing him to tears.  How, he asked, could one possibly sing the songs of the Lord in a strange and alien land.  The music of majesty and splendour could not be recreated in the shattered world of exile, in the uncertainty and rootlessness of ruin.

Binding himself instead to his pain, nursing it with his creativity, he instead composed a new form of music, tragic and broken in tone, a hymn of exile which put loss and longing at its centre.

‘If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand, the symbol and source of my power, be forgotten. 

May I lose the capacity for poetry and song, for music and joy, and may my tongue become stuck in the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember thee, if I fail to place the shadow of Jerusalem at the apex of my life, if I fail to recall her even in my highest moments of joy. 

Joy, indeed, has been stolen from me, perhaps in the future we will love and dance again, the happy voices of bride and groom will return to Judah, but for now it barely seems possible, our souls are frozen in mourning, our hearts devastated by their condition of despair.’ 

In that moment a new Judaism was born.  Not since Abraham bound his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and lifted his knife to murder him, had the Jews had such a vivid sense that their national aspirations might fail to be realised, that the vision of a strong and powerful kingdom might not be their fate.  Moses, in spite of ultimate personal frustration, never doubted that the people would be a powerful Sovereign entity; David and Solomon inherited his vision of historic certitude and laid down the foundations for greatness.  Doubt was banished, their faith in God was strongly aligned with their faith in the triumph of Judaic Civilisation.

Indeed, one might say that Zionism was actually initiated at that moment in Babylon, for only as a lost homeland, as a place to which return was impossible, did the symbolic power of Zion take root in the Jewish Imagination.  From that point on, Jews would cast their mind’s eye towards the Promised Land and dream of happier times, of the return of Divine Protection, of completeness, wholeness and redemption.

But more than the hope of return, it was the sense of loss and incompleteness which had the strongest impact on Jewish civilisation.  We were a people with a full consciousness of our pain, chosen but apparently forgotten, Divinely empowered, and yet, by all worldly measures, utterly powerless.

Perhaps we hoped that in our commitment to remember Jerusalem we would encourage God not to forget us, to keep in mind the fragmented remnant of Israel.

We enacted our pain ritually, at every wedding we quite literally placed Jerusalem above our joy, singing these words – ‘Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim’ – in a variety of haunting melodies before shattering a glass underfoot.  This helped remind ourselves that something about us was broken, something distant and external, but something deep in our souls as well.

When we built a house we left a corner unpainted, for how could we lavishly decorate our own palace while the Divine presence remained homeless and exiled, whilst Its Sanctuary and Temple lay in ruins?

Another moment at which we paused to recall Jerusalem was at moments just like the one we are sharing now, at Seuda Shelishit, the third and final meal of Shabbat.

Shabbat, originally a day of ascetic restraint and even fasting, became for the Jews in exile a day of replenishment and rejuvenation, on the spiritual, emotional and even physical planes.  It came to be described as a taste of the world to come, a temporary refuge in time and space wherein weary and exhausted Jews could pause from their daily lives, a day with an otherworldly feel, wherein the anxieties and concerns of one’s routine could be briefly forgotten, wherein a greater sense of wholeness and completeness could be felt.

The day was welcomed in with enthusiasm and joy, a custom developed wherein people would go out to the fields to welcome the bride, a tradition which lives on in our singing of Lekah Dodi Li’krat Kalah, ‘come my beloved to welcome the Bride’.

But on the other side of Shabbat, as the sun hung low in the sky and the people sensed that Shabbat would soon be leaving them, a different mood set in.  The fullness and temporary sense of redemption would be replaced by the reminder that it must leave them, that the world they inhabited was far from perfect, that pain and longing were the more usual tone of their lives.

At this juncture of transition, a sense of tragedy would overtake them, and songs of melancholy and pining became the order of the moment.  In this mood the mind’s eye turned towards Jerusalem and felt a strong sense of solidarity with its state of ruin, with the sense that it was awaiting the return of its people and God, that it was a deeply unrequited lover.

Im eshkachaich Yerushalayim, If I forget thee Jerusalem, became the finale of this bittersweet medley, leading into psalm 130, which looked forward to the return to Zion.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that one of my strongest and most enduring Bnei Akiva memories is of sitting in a tent in Somerset, barely able to see the person sitting next to me for the darkness, and singing these songs at Seuda Shelishit: Veli’yerushalayim Irkha, Kol Be’rama Nishma, and culminating in Im Eshkachaich.

Jews stayed close to this sense of the tragic, and it served them well for the next 2500 years.

It is hard to sufficiently emphasise the paradoxical notion that this tragedy was the best thing that ever happened to the Jews.  There is a sense in which the entire purpose of the religion was to teach man that he is not omnipotent and invincible, to approach the world with a bearing of humility and respect, which might sometimes become awe and wonder.  It seems however that the temple and its offerings were not quite able to effect this change in the heart of humanity.  Excessive pride in military conquest and inflated arrogance at their own feats of building combined with the corruption of a ruling elite and the complacency of economic success.  All of this served to blunt any capacity for spiritual sensitivity and awareness.

The destruction of the temple however, the memory of crushing defeat and brutal humiliation, these seemed to sow a seed in Judaic consciousness which neither Moses nor Samuel, Hoshea nor Isaiah could effect through their teachings.

Suddenly an awareness was born that we are not entirely masters of our destiny, that we will always be subject to forces beyond our control, that pride and independence might be better replaced with gratitude.  An inner call arose for a more honest reckoning of all the ways in which we are thoroughly and helplessly dependent.

With this new attitude, the people’s ear suddenly learned to hear the words of their prophets and were able to better attend to the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, to the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the wounded.

The tradition recorded many senses in which this new condition of brokenness represented a positive development in the religion:

There is nothing so complete in the eyes of God as a broken heart, said one Hasidic Master.

The Talmud tells us that following the destruction of the Temple the gates of prayer were closed, but that tears alone had the power to open them.

Or, as the contemporary Jewish prophet Leonard Cohen puts it, in every thing there is a crack, that’s how the light gets in.

Another contemporary Jew, Sigmund Freud, writes in his paper Mourning and Melancholia of the importance of a thorough and rigorous process of mourning, of how attending to our sense of loss can prevent the amnesia and arrogance which lead to depression.  One might say that only a Jew could have had this insight, that it is perhaps the singular summation of a profound and important undertone of our civilisation.  The Jew never forgot to mourn, never forgot that loss is a part of life, and that if it can’t be borne it will ruin us.

So, what has all this to do with Zionism and Education?

There is a sense in which Jewish Education began with destruction.  In the dying days of the second temple, around 69CE, the Romans had Jerusalem under siege and were attempting to starve the people into surrender.  The Jews responded as only Jews could , engaging in internal battles and strife.  These culminated in the militant mob, the Biryoni,  burning down the remaining storehouses of grain.

Witnessing this madness, this utter failure of leadership and responsibility, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the Pharisee leaders engaged in diplomacy with the Romans, managed to escape the walled city.  This required his faking his death and leaving in a coffin, a metaphor for his understanding of Judaism at that moment: snowballing suicidally towards its own death, and, to all external appearances, succeeding in self destructing.

Impressing the Roman Emperor Vespasian with his political acumen and foresight, Yochanan ben Zakkai was granted three wishes.  In a moment which sent Judaism in a radically different direction, which gave birth to the religion we now know and practice, he decided to give up hope on Jerusalem and to request, in its stead, permission to establish a small academy of scholars at Yavneh.

Judaism ceased to be a nationalist concern, centred around a temple with a corrupt ruling elite, and became a democratic culture with study and domestic practice at its core.  Suddenly everyone had access to the wisdom and rituals which might enable mankind to engage the Divine, even the humblest amongst them were encouraged to find a teacher and to learn.

Study was a form of nourishment, a way in which a spark of the Divine might find its way into the mind and soul of every individual, a furnace in which the personality and spirit could be refined and improved.  Zion and Jerusalem were lamented, but the religious imagination gradually transformed them into symbols and metaphors, personal ideals which might nourish a person on their own journey through the wilderness.

Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, comments favourably on this as an ‘advance in intellectuality’ for the culture, and even suggests that it had its origins in the prohibition against the formation and worship of physical images of God.  For as long as God is not physical, he must be grasped through the intellect, which will forever stretch our powers of thought and imagination.  Indeed, Yochanan ben Zakkai was perhaps suggesting that the Temple had become another idol, a failed attempt to concretise the Divine in space and time.

So the ideals of Talmud Torah, of the study of God’s Law and Will, are born at this moment in Yavneh, and probably had very little precedent in the earlier life of Israel.  The Talmud may mythologise King David as studying Torah all night long between battles, but we may permit ourselves the understanding that they were projecting their values back into the past.  It seems likely that by the time the great academies of Babylon had been established in 600CE, wherein study and meditation had become the supreme value in Jewish life, it would have seemed incredulous to them that King David could have felt otherwise.

Yochanan ben Zakkai is preparing the Jews once more for exile, for a different sort of life, one which will allow them to survive and grow in the different cultures they would inhabit and to make positive contributions to a broader society.  The universalism of Isaiah might once more triumph over the nationalistic narrowness of Ezra and Nechemiah, who had led the Jews in the early days of the Second Temple and had embarked on a quest for racial purity and exclusion.

For eighteen hundred years this culture of study and practice flourished, absorbing and influencing a wide variety of host cultures, sustaining the Jews and enabling them to lay down roots wherever their travels took them.

In the late nineteenth century, as Jews began to despair of diaspora life and started to dare to dream of an actual physical return to Zion, this culture of personal study and development was threatened.  Its symbolic code, its map of the interior world, borrowed as they were from the images of Zion, Jerusalem and the Temple, were suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

A burning question suddenly emerged – could the culture survive this re-materialisation of its objects?  The national religion of the Israelites had been transformed into Judaism through a process of de-Zionisation.  Could it survive a very material and literal re-Zionising?

Or, to frame it differently, Yochanan ben Zakkai had shifted the focus of the religion from the Bible to the Talmud.  How would we survive the return to the Biblical landscape, to the temptations of Biblical thinking?

The earliest signals were not good.  The majority of the early Zionists did indeed view the new movement as replacing any need for the pieties and tenderness of what came to be known as ‘the old Judaism’.  As well as the physical efforts and sacrifice to settle the land, there was a blossoming intellectual and spiritual renaissance amongst the Zionists, which largely ignored the rich inner world cultivated in the diaspora past.  Some amongst them viewed their project as a Nietzschean overcoming of Jewish weakness and victimhood, and found it difficult to even speak of the ravages of Jewish History.

Judaism was to be forgotten, and it would be replaced with the spirit of the Ancient Israelites.  Any sense of loss and incompleteness was banished, and a Secular Messianism,  a Nationalist Utopian vision took root in its place.

For the most part, the Jews of Europe viewed this as a straightforward alternative, one became a Zionist or one stayed religious.  There were, to be sure, pockets of support amongst traditional communities for the Zionist project, but there was little serious attempt to tackle the educational and religious challenge it presented.

One notable exception to this trend was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Born in modern day Latvia in 1865, he was recognised early on as a Talmudic prodigy and went to study at the radical and ground-breaking Volozhin yeshiva.  Even before he arrived in Israel in 1904, he was fascinated by the Zionist phenomenon, though he couldn’t quite agree with its self-understanding as a movement divorced from the Jewish Religion.

He was profoundly moved by the vision of young Jews jeopardising their lives to resettle the land of Israel, to drain swamps and endure hostility, to establish communes with an agenda of radical social justice.  They seemed to embody the best of the Biblical Spirit, and he could neither disdain nor feel threatened by this.

On the other hand, he was very conscious of what was being discarded by the Zionist movement, of the part of their heritage they were sacrificing.  He could see that in their youthful impatience, in their passion for accessing the spiritual through physical labour, they couldn’t begin to fathom the value of the Jewish life of their Diaspora ancestors, that it seemed petty, limiting, superstitious.

Familiar with the ideas of Hegel, he suggested that Judaism found itself at a moment of critical historical tension.  In a sweeping vision of Jewish History, he proposed that the Israelites of the Bible had been doomed to failure because their religion was always cultic and external, rooted in physicality, it had never found its way into their hearts, into the rhythms and textures of everyday life.

The long and difficult exile, fuelled by the sense of longing and loss, had allowed something deeper and richer to develop.  The challenge now was to bring these two worlds together, Biblical and Talmudic Judaism, the religions of the Israelites and that of the Rabbis.  If it could be done, then something beautiful and redemptive could be achieved, but it would be a struggle, and would require willing, effort and understanding from both sides.

Eventually becoming the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Rav Kook’s ideas were appreciated and welcomed by many in Israel, from all the diverse strands of society.  But whilst he foresaw the challenges that lay ahead, his uniquely imaginative and inclusive vision were not granted to Israel for long enough, dying as he did in 1935, just as matters in Europe and Palestine were becoming critical.

Some of you may be surprised to hear me speak of Rav Kook as sensitive to this tension, for his name has become identified with the Settler movement and the branch of Religious Zionism which holds the complete Land of Israel as an unimpeachable and absolute value.  This right wing tendency would seem to be an instance of the powers of Zionism overcoming the patient spiritual discipline of Diaspora Judaism, of Messianic fervour erupting which leaves no place for the pining and humility which became the hallmark of Jewish Civilisation.  In our basic terms, it seems to priorities Zionism over Education, the Land over the Spirit.

But before we consider the tale of how his followers were seduced by the physicality of the Land, how it became – some controversially claimed – a new idol for them, a contemporary Golden Calf, let us consider its allure and appeal even to the most hardened secularists in the Zionist movement.

An illustrative moment here is the conquest of Jerusalem as part of the six day war in 1967.  Whilst we tend to remember the war as a glorious victory, which brought territorial gains and a resurgence of national confidence to the people, we sometimes forget the extent to which it was a battle for the survival of the state and its people.  With survival the first priority for the political and military leadership there were many among them who did not see any value in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites.  Yet other protagonists, particularly those who found themselves drawing physically close to the Old City, were suddenly overwhelmed by the notion of Jews returning to the Temple Mount, and found themselves helpless to resist its pull.

In a recent book describing these events and their aftermath, Yossi Klein Halevi describes the moment that General Motta Gur, who was leading the legendary Paratroopers,  first glimpsed the Temple Mount from a distance:

Motta sat on the ground and gazed at the walled city. It was a bright, cool morning, and the sun was on his back. The gold and silver domes of the Temple Mount glowed before him. He closed his eyes, as if in prayer. He was about to enter the Jewish pantheon, along with King David, who’d conquered Jerusalem and turned it into his capital; Judah the Maccabee, who’d purified the Temple after its desecration by the Hellenists; Bar Kochba, who’d thrown himself against Rome and lost the Jews’ last desperate battle for Jerusalem. Then came the centuries of enforced separation, landscape transformed into memory. And now landscape was re-emerging from dream, shimmering back into tangible reach.

His was not the only secular heart to melt on beholding this mythical vision.  As the first of the Paratroopers arrived on the Temple Mount they placed an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock.  This was sacred Jewish ground, they felt, and they were going to pronounce it loudly.  It was only when Defence Minister Moshe Dayan saw the flag that he insisted they take it down, for he knew that this could bring the whole Middle East into the flames of a holy war.

But it was not only the Muslim world he should have  worried about, for within the Jewish world the re-unification of Jerusalem signalled the beginnings of national division.  It gave rise amongst some to a Messianic spirit, an absolutist overconfidence and impatient omnipotence which left no room, as it never does, for the more humdrum and domestic tasks of building a nation.  The vision of a people centred around a rich humanism, exemplifying the spiritual sensitivity cultivated in Exile, couldn’t satisfy the demand for the history-shattering total-redemption of the Messianic Imagination.

It was a case of Apocalypse Now, for the intentions of God had become clear to The Chosen.

Returning to Rav Kook, his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook became the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim, a Movement for the settling and retaining of the entirety of the Holy Land.  Coming from the opposite direction, my own Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, emphasised a different aspect of the elder Rav Kook’s teaching, and emphasised the balancing of values, with the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people, anchored in the depths of the Torah’s wisdom, occupying a much more prominent role.

These splits didn’t happen overnight, but unfolded over the course of many years.  A watershed moment in its development was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  Rabin was the warrior turned peace maker, the Army Chief of Staff in 1967 who had dared to begin a process wherein territorial concession might bring about a new era in the Middle East.

The assassin, a religious Zionist former yeshiva student named Yigal Amir, had been goaded by a string of Rabbis of right wing orientation.  They had labelled Rabin a rodef, or a moser, one who endangers Jewish lives or betrays Jewish values.

Perhaps the darkest hour in Religious Zionist history, with echoes of those dark days of the Second Temple, the nation was threatening to fall apart.  I remember visiting the coffin in waiting of Yitzchak Rabin as it lay outside the Knesset for 24 hours.  I felt deeply self-conscious and uncomfortable in my kipa sruga, my knitted kipa, the identifying sign of the Religious Zionists.  As secular Israelis sat around candlelit vigils and shed tears, I felt the divide sharply, as an internal spiritual crisis, and also as a call for serious soul searching.

I remember feeling proud and relieved when Rav Amital was called by the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres into the Cabinet, and was tasked with rebuilding relations amongst the Jews, of promoting dialogue and understanding amongst both sides.

In spite of some successes, the tensions continue to this day, and it is deeply saddening that the current situation has only inflamed some of these antagonisms, and has seen the emergence of racism, hate, and vengefulness in some – and not only the religious – strands of Israeli society.  A perception of  the split nation has led some commentators to speak of a divide between the State of Jerusalem and the State of Tel Aviv.

But I am not here to speak about politics, I am here to speak about education, in as much as the two can be kept apart.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am interested in the kind of education, and of religiously oriented education in particular, which can promote a politics of healing and togetherness, which can bridge the rifts in the Jewish world and return us to the vision of Yochanan ben Zakkai.  He understood that the disagreements of scholars, the spiritual depths developed through the dialectics of study, could actually bring peace to the world, and could overcome the tendency towards infighting and self destruction.

But returning to our starting point, to our vision of the  young poet sitting on the banks of the River Babylon, I also want to resist the idea that all of education should become subservient to political and nationalist aims, however noble and conciliatory they might be.  Education is the legacy we bequeath to our children, and the milk with which we continue to nourish ourselves as adults.

It is the medium wherein we learn as children to approach the world with hope and optimism, but wherein we also come to terms with the inevitable disappointments and tragedies that befall us, with the sense that life will never be complete, that the Messiah might be perpetually delayed.

It is the nurturing environment in which we come to actualise the full potentiality of our talents and capabilities, but also the one wherein we accept that we cannot do everything, that we are not omnipotent, that our strength and daring will not be able to overcome all obstacles.

It is the fertile soil wherein we proudly celebrate the remarkable achievements of great individuals and civilisations, wherein we learn pride in our own endeavours, but wherein we also become acquainted with humility and gratitude, with the capacity to cope with disappointment.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke of child rearing as beginning with a process of generating illusion followed by a phase of gradual disillusionment.  We need to fill children with love and energy and faith in the future, and in their earliest years we do this without reservation, hoping to securely anchor them in the world and ensure their psychic survival.

But at a certain point, the kindest thing we must do for them is to facilitate their disillusionment, their realisation that life is not a series of fairy tales, that whilst they might be mummy or daddy’s special princess, the world will not always be so abundantly hospitable towards them.  We offer them this gradual disillusionment to avoid the alternative: a sudden and catastrophic disillusionment in the future.

As Jews, in whom the spirit of the religion and of Zionism burn strongly, as creatures who inhabit a world of complex and intricate myth and legend, we are forever walking the tightrope between an excess and a deficit of illusion.  We may stroll through the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem, yet in our minds and prayers there is a symbolic Jerusalem lying in ruins, an abandoned and forgotten widow.

There are no easy answers for how to walk this tightrope, and nor should there be, but it is my hope and prayer that through becoming conscious of this complexity, through exploring and engaging with the richness of our history and philosophy, that we might navigate it in a way which lives up to our tradition’s loftiest aspirations.

‘Lo alekha ha’melakha ligmor’ said Rabbi Tarfon, ‘the task is not yours to complete’, a powerful warning from a man who witnessed the destruction of the second Temple.  Not only should you not expect to complete it, but perhaps completion is not even the proper aim and endpoint, perhaps there must always be room for an enduring sense of incompleteness.

‘But’, he continues, ‘ve lo ata ben chorin le’hibatel mimena’, but neither are you free to desist from it, to abandon it, to forget about the project and engage in trivial pursuits which squander your gifts and resources.

Education never ends, neither the education of our children nor the education of ourselves.  May we be blessed to make a modicum of humble progress, finding space for the symbols of history and the realities of the present, balancing the demands of the nation with the spiritual development of the individual.  May our Zionism only serve to enhance our Education, and may our attachment to our nation and children only deepen our resolve to improve the world at large.

 

I wish to thank Professor Aaron Koller for some helpful suggestions, and Professor William Kolbrener for many discussions on these themes.  And, as ever, my wonderful wife Emily Simon, for everything. 

Prioritising the Voluntary – Parshat Teruma

We read this week about the instructions to build a mishkan, the temporary sanctuary which the Jews took with them throughout their wilderness wanderings.

It is safe to say that there is nothing which makes sense about the miskhan.

In the second commandment we are told not to make any carved images of anything resembling anything on heaven and earth, yet in the miskhan we have the ark being appointed with cherubim, two angelic figures resembling young children.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ten Commandments we are again warned about making sacred objects of gold or silver, and are instructed instead to build an altar out of earth, or perhaps out of stone.  This is a very far cry from the opulent abundance of the mishkan, wherein every sort of fine material and precious substance is collected and shaped into a house of worship.

There is something discontinuous about the narrative, something doesn’t seem to flow, the mishkan does not seem to have been part of the original plan.

The Ramban goes to great lengths to emphasise how the mishkan was the natural continuation of the revelation at Sinai, after the exalted otherworldly nature of that moment, there was a need for something solid and concrete on earth, something to offer the people a lasting and stable reminder of God’s presence on earth.

The lengths he goes to suggest that he is not entirely convinced, we may start to suspect that the lady doth protest too much.

If it wasn’t part of the original plan, then we are faced with the puzzling question – what brought about the change in plan?

The obvious answer leaps out at us just a few chapters later, when we encounter the episode of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel.

The parallels between the episodes are striking:  the communal donations of gold, the offerings of sacrifices, the celebrations to dedicate the new form of worship.  Looking more closely, we see that the lead designer is to be Bezalel, the grandson of Chur, who the midrash suggests was killed due to his resistance to the building of the Egel.

It makes good sense to suggest that the mishkan is a response to the building of the egel, a concession to the need for a more festive and physicalised form of religious worship.  This was after all a people who had been surrounded by the various paganisms present in Egyptian society and who were perhaps not quite ready for the severe and august monotheism that Moses was trying to foist upon them.

But we are left with the troubling point?  Why does the Torah tell us about the mishkan before the egel.  And, also troubling, how did both God and Moses get the Israelites so wrong, how did they not see such a disaster coming?

Rashi offers a simple solution – ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah – the Torah does not always tell us things in chronological order, and in this instance it decided to tell us about the mishkan first.  But, we might still ask, why should it do that?  If it has left enough clues for us to figure it out, then why should it try to disguise the reality, and leave us with such a perplexing narrative.

The answer I think lies in the essential principle which underpins the mishkan.  Rambam sees the mishkan as a concession to physical worship of sacrifices, and we might also think it is simply to do with having a sensory location for the sacred presence, both of which seem reasonable.

But I believe the more important principle is mentioned in the opening verses of our parsha.  Moses is to take a teruma, a donation, ‘me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo’, from every individual according to the voluntary spirit of their heart.  The mishkan is to be founded in the passion of the individual, it is to be rooted in the harnessing of their animal spirits, of their powerful preconscious drives, and is to channel them into a form of worship that will contain and symbolise these energies.

The original 10 commandments did not leave any room for this spirit, they were a deep and total prohibition of mankind’s most basic impulses.  God adopts the same language he did with Adam in Genesis 2, where the harshness of the command made the ensuing sin almost inevitable.  The Ten Commandments are about what we must not do, what we must stifle and suppress in ourselves – do not murder, steal or indulge your carnal appetites.  Do not behave falsely and, while you’re at it, banish all traces of jealousy and envy.

When the people told Moses they couldn’t bear the word of God, it was not just the power and volume of the experience that repelled them, it was the absolute and unforgiving attitude to their nature.  The commandments seemed to be cutting them off at their roots, leaving them no breathing space whatsoever, and this atmosphere of privation was too much for them to bear.

The people needed an outlet for their passion, for their visceral drives and aggressive impulses.  The Golden Calf gave them such an outlet, but in spite of Aharon’s best efforts it was not an acceptable form of worship, it was too close to the Egyptian cults they had left behind.

The mishkan exists to give such an opportunity, and to ensure that the people have ample means of expression, are able to search their own spirits and find new and original ways of contributing to and shaping Divine Worship.

And this is perhaps the difference between religion and mere ethics.  Ethics simply tells us what to do, or what we can’t do, religion takes a more sympathetic view of the human condition and gives structure and the possibility of redemption to the totality of the personality, to even the darkest forces that lurk in our soul.

After the flood God sees that man will always have evil lurking in his soul, and he realises that he needs Avraham to develop a religion capable of wrestling with that and transforming it.

If all of this is true, then it makes sense that we must be told of the mishkan before the chet ha’egel.  If the narrative made it obvious that the mishkan was a correction for the chet then the lesson of the importance of the voluntary would ring very false, it would be hollow and unconvincing.  A concession can never be convincing as an invitation to volunteer, the balance of power has been lost.

By putting the mishkan first, the Torah is subtly conceding that God got it wrong, but is suggesting that the corrective was close to hand, and that there somewhere existed the wisdom which knew that the Jews could not subsist on prohibition alone.  The power and passion of the human being needed to be given expression through religious structure, and the mishkan gave them that opportunity in their time.

The idea that the mishkan is about our inner life, rather than about physical space is poetically expressed in the late 16th century by Rav Elazar Azkiri with his idea of ‘bilvavi mishkan evneh’.  The aspiration is to build an internal mishkan in the midst of our heart, thereby giving structure and form to the necessary sacrifices we must make in the pursuit of a balanced and compassionate society.  Through the pain and majesty of our relinquishing of egotistical drives the Glory of God becomes revealed in the world, and a sacred space of authentic beauty might come into being.

May we be blessed with strength in the face of these challenges, and may our building of the mishkan sanctify and redeem the totality of our unique personalities.

 

Elie is teaching this term on Faith after Freud at LSJS, and courses on Talmudic Narrative and God for Grown Ups at JW3.

More on Limmud: A response to a friend…

A friend made some comments to me about Limmud, which provoked me to write a bit more on the topic.  This is over and above what I initially wrote for the Times of Israel on the topic.    It goes without saying that this response might equally apply to many others who have commented upon Limmud.  

My dear friend, I need to begin by apologising to any of my non-orthodox friends and colleagues who might have read what you wrote about their movements and their Rabbis. I personally find it deeply offensive and objectionable, I can only begin to imagine how it made them feel. Moreover, I can only square the disrespectful tone of your writing with all of your positive traits by imagining that you do not personally know any of the Masorti/Conservative/Reform/Liberal leaders of which you speak and have not spent much time in their presence. I personally consider many of them, both dead and alive, as deeply insiprational thinkers and human beings. Indeed, this abstract and unreal quality, rooted in a-priori ‘halakhic/hashkafic’ theory and intellectualised sociology, permeates your discussion of Limmud and makes it very difficult for me to know what to say to you. I have basically three words for you. Come to Limmud.
You will then see that it is not the dangerous monster that you and others seems to see it as. It is not a threat to the Jewish people, it is an incredible and unprecedented source and inspiration for Jewish creativity, renewal and regeneration. I will speak personally and state that there were times in my Jewish journey, when the clear air and open minded welcomingness of Limmud was the only Jewish atmosphere which I did not find to be claustrophobic and oppressive. This may be an extreme case, but there can be no doubt that Limmud has had a positive influence on the Jewish lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. The idea that people walk away from Limmud with their Judaism shaken and weakened, with their commitment diminished and stifled, has simply no bearing in reality. Again, come to Limmud. See the joy in people’s faces, the spring in their step, the life returning to their forgotten neshamot. You will see the true power of the Divine, the sense in which He attends to every place where his name is called and makes his presence known there.
Are there challenging sessions at Limmud? Yes. Is anyone forced to go to them? No. Is intellectual challenge a bad thing? Absolutely not. In my understanding faith is deepened through challenge, and Judaism as religion, culture and civilisation has absolutely nothing to fear from philosophical, historical, inter faith and inter-denominational challenge and argument. Judiasm is robust, it is strong, it is flexible and it has the internal resources to re-imagine itself through its own exegetical fertility. Rabbi Akiva was not rocked in the philosophical storm of the mystical orchard because he could interpret every crown of every letter in Torah, in a way that stunned even Moses himself. Interpretation is our lifeblood, not a threat.
You acknowledge that we could all bring our sources of support, and there is some truth to that. I’m interested in why we bring the sources we do, why some of our leaders choose to bring fearful, exclusive and excluding sources, sources which they claim show small mindedness and an aura of paranoid threatenedness. Why does that seem like the answer to the problems we face today? And what does it tell us about their conception of leadership?
But, let me say something about your sources. You dare to bring Maimonides, the heilige Rambam, as part of an argument against intellectual honesty, as a messenger of close mindedness?
I don’t even know where to begin with that. Maimonides was the philosopher and re-interpreter par excellence, and stated clearly in the Guide that if Aristotle had proven the eternity of the world he would have re-interpreted Genesis allegorically in light of that. The whole project in the Guide was to show how our traditions could weather any perceived threat, how they were rich enough to be an ongoing source of wisdom and moral improvement. Truth was truth, and as he said in Shemona Perakim, we should hear the truth from whosoever is blessed enough to speak it.
More generally, the medieval philosophers were excited by, well, philosophy. They believed in Truth, that it was the hallmark and stamp of the Jewish God – as the Talmud states in Shabbat – and that the idea of incompatibility between Truth and Religion was a confusion. Truth brings us closer to God, it’s part of the difficult and challenging journey that it is required of anyone who wishes to engage with the Divine. One may – following the Ra’avad in his critique of Maimonides- choose not to go down this path, but please do not pretend that such a person is taking the only Jewishly or intellectually defensible path.
Proposing that Torah and historical truth or philosophical truth are incompatible is not a statement of faith, it is a statement of faithlessness, and a surrender to the dangers of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
And it’s not just about philosophy. Bertrand Russell used to ask Ludwig Wittgenstein as he was agitatedly pacing his rooms “Are you thinking about Logic or your sins?”. Wittgenstein replied angrily “Both!”. The idea that we can be better people, that we can act with more clarity, more compassion, more integrity without welcoming the power of truth into the inner sanctum of our personalities is a non-starter. Whatever Freud may have got wrong, he saw clearly that truthful reflection and self understanding was the only path to overcoming the demons which threatened to destroy our personalities and our lives. And so did Rav Nachman, and the Kotzker, and Reb Yisrael Salanter and Rav Dessler. Not to mention the Rambam, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva.
Again, come to Limmud. Or don’t. Perhaps you do not fancy it. Well that’s fair enough, Limmud doesn’t proselytize, it doesn’t harangue people into coming. And, thanks to Dayan Ehrentrau and Rabbi Kimche, it doesn’t need to spend much on advertising either. But if you don’t come, if you don’t want to come, please don’t issue proclamations about what it is, about its dangers, about the destruction some of its most valued and well-loved teachers have brought upon the world. You do yourself a disservice, and you bring much more discord and pain upon Am Yisrael than is appropriate at this moment.

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Being Open – The History of Purity Shabbat 15, 16, 17

The pages we’ve been looking at lately have been particularly rich for the historically minded reader of the Talmud.  Some days everything is anonymous, and we’re left with the feeling that we’re being presented with the recorded discussions from a Babylonian study hall in the 5th Century.  Not that we should knock that, that’s still going pretty far back.

But when we start hearing today from Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan, the first of the Zugot, who were around in the times of the Maccabee Dynasty, c.170 BCE, it feels like we are taking things to a whole new level.  We are no longer simply immersed in Rabbinic Judaism, we are going way back into its pre-history, into the realm of myth, to the point where scholars fear to tread.

And the thing that I find particularly endearing is that I have the sense that those participating in the Talmud’s discussion, fledgling early Amoraim such as Shmuel and Rav Huna, were also particularly awed by the historical weight of the discussion.  It’s not something we often see much self-consciousness of in the text, the richness of the history we are dealing with.  We certainly see people from the past being treated with respect, as voices of authority, but this is something different.  This is pure reverence, almost giddiness;  a genuine response to the experience of reaching about as far back into the recesses of Rabbinic Judaism as is possible.

What I’m trying to say is that the Rabbis rarely exhibit a historical sensibility or consciousness; or at least that’s how it generally strikes me.  Perhaps in their attempts to establish continuity, to preserve the tradition, they fail to emphasise the extent to which people living seven hundred years apart are simply separate, different, other.  And it’s only maybe only once that is granted, once the reality of difference is acknowledged, that the significance of any continuity we might share with these people is really felt, is really appreciated.

It’s a powerful thing history, and our ability to be open to it is an important mark of where we are with ourselves, of how comfortable we are in our lives.  I had a great conversation with an old friend tonight, someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time.  Something had come between us, and whilst the thing itself had faded, the distance had set in, a block had arisen.  We both acknowledged that this blockage was tiring, exhausting, that it needed energy to maintain itself which neither of us wanted to put in.  What we wanted was to be able to be open, to the rich history we’d shared, to each other as real beings, and to whatever the future might hold.

And it felt good to begin to fix that, to do some work towards opening ourselves up again.

I remember a drug induced experience once when I was able to actually feel my anger towards someone solidify and freeze up into hatred, where this transition from a live emotion into a dead attitude was sensorily palpable.  I became aware of how locked and stuck it made me feel, how suddenly other parts of my mind were forced to switch off, to join in the deadness.  It simply made me closed; somewhat closed off from the outside world, but, more importantly, closed off to myself.  And in that closed state, I sensed that I could neither be nor perceive, that my thinking was clouded and limited, that things were not revealed to me in the way that they usually are.

I was angry, and I turned the anger into hatred.  And whilst the object of my wrath was completely unaware of any of this – I don’t think they were even present – I was left to suffer, it was me who ended up paying the price.  To be full of hate is its own curse, it needs no further punishment or consequence.

We were discussing Heidegger in a seminar last night, and, inevitably, someone asked the seminar leader what was meant by Dasein, by Being, a term that sits at the core of Heidegger’s philosophy.

It struck me that in the sections we’d been reading Heidegger’s main concern was with whether or not we were open to Being, to a situation, to an emergent reality.  He was less concerned with what Being might actually be.  Being alive meant being open, and if one was open, one’s possibilities for inspiration and relationship were significantly enhanced.

With all of this in mind, it seems very interesting that one of the things we hear of Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan is their decree that glass has the potential to become impure.

Glass is a symbol of transparency, of openness, and they are warning us, reminding us, that whilst it is essential to be open and receptive like glass, that there are also risks involved.  To be that clear, to be so apparently unprotected from life means that one is susceptible to being corrupted, that one is liable to be led astray from time to time.

So we are warned.  Openness is still the ideal, but we do not surrender to it totally, unthinkingly.

This is made explicit by Rav Ashi:

And regarding your concern that a glass vessel should not become entirely impure simply by touching an impure object, you should understand that glass is different, and does become impure more easily, because its inside looks like its outside. 

Its transparent nature makes it particularly susceptible to impurity; its thoroughgoing integrity, its honest authenticity leave it exposed to perversion.

Their decree, however, has its limits, it does not go quite as far as other decrees with regard to impurity.  When an impure metal vessel is broken, it temporarily loses its impure status.  But if it is reassembled it regains that impure status: the change in status was only temporary.

With glass we rule differently.  Glass doesn’t just fall apart in the way that a metal object does.  Glass tends to properly break, to shatter, and in that intense fragmentation it is hard to see that impurity could be maintained.

When a person is properly broken, when life has torn them to pieces, when they are in need of serious rebuilding, at that point we may assume that however bad their distress, they have rediscovered something of their original purity.  The collapse of a certain configuration of the ego, of a certain rigidity, allows life to flow once more, allows openness to be rekindled.

Through shattering, rebirth; through dissolution, regeneration.

We pray regularly for openness; at the end of every Amida we say the following:

Open my heart with your Instruction (Torah), and my soul will eagerly follow your commandments. 

When we are open we see what is right, what is good; we grasp it more easily and we respond to it more quickly, more naturally perhaps.

And this ties in with one of the few other things we knew about Yosei ben Yoezer, from all those years ago:

May your house be an open door to the wise; may you cleave to the dust of their feet and may you drink thirstily of their words.  (Avot 1:4)

In being open we are able to connect with more, to reach across history more readily and to allow the wisdom of ancient times to flow more easily into our lives.  We must be wary of the impurities that might come in the wake of this, of the dangers in being so free of spirit, of living with so little anxiety.  But this awareness must not bear on us too heavily, we must be able to carry it at the same time as remaining firmly open.

May our hearts be opened not just to the Torah, but by the Torah too; and may our goodness burst forth brightly as a result.

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.

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.