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.

On Circumcision

As many of you will have noticed, I’ve fallen a bit behind with the Daf Yomi of late.  Part of the reason for that has been the birth of a new son, our third, which has been a wonderful and inspiring period.  (And yes, a little bit tiring too…)

A new son means another circumcision, and I found it to be an extremely traumatic experience, with no easy resolution whatsoever.  I wrote a piece on it which was published in The Forward, an American Jewish newspaper with a long and proud heritage of being socially engaged.  The piece is certainly not the final word on the matter, but it’s an honest account of how I experienced the event of the circumcision itself.  There is a lot more to be thought about, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to want to stay in anyone’s mind.  If you haven’t already, please read it, and I’d be delighted to hear any thoughts about the piece or the topic.

http://forward.com/articles/176023/a-fathers-pain-at-overseeing-sons-circumcision/

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice.  Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.  I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes  from a tree,  except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents,  except flax.

I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound.  Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.

It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that.  From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.

I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:

Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing.  Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task.  The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst.  To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.

To rest is to accept that we have limits.  This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.

And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments.  We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.

Shabbat 29

Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted.  The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.

The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.

Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:

(1) You are aware that you are doing the action

(2) You intend for the action to take place

(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect

(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done

(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place

(8) You do the action using only those people necessary

(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)

This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.

This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.

The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety.  The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.

Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.

Shabbat 30

There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated.  The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:

A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].

We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.

In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.

We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.

Shabbat 31

Hillel and Shammai.  I’m glad we already discussed this a little, it would be too upsetting to not discuss the significance of their differences at length.

And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.

He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah.  His response was as follows:

On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet].  On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.

‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.

‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now?  Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.

A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.

Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.

It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.

There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit.  We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.

Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace.  The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.

Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.

We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live.  We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.

Shabbat 32

We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.

One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.

I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.

We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.

And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’.  But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.

Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.

Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.

We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.

It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.

Shabbat 33

And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.

(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)

On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:

‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.

Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement.  Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation.  He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans.  His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.

He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.

When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.

Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.

On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.

We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.

Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice.  On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:

‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’

With this their minds found peace.

After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.

He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.

Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.

It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.

We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.

May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.

Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.

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. 

Hidden and Revealed: The True Gift of Shabbat Shabbat 9,10

Finally.  After nine and a half pages (yes, pages, not weeks) of halakhic discussion which I have sometimes experienced as tortuous and torturous, we are at long last thrown a bone.  Someone has something nice to say about Shabbat:

God said to Moses:  I have a fine gift in my secret treasure chamber, and her name is Shabbat.  I want to give her to Israel, go and tell them. 

I like this, it really is how it feels, it’s a gift.  And it is a gift that is good, that is fine.  It is also something that is mysterious and elusive, its origins are shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness.

It is a relief to hear this, to be reminded that in grappling with Shabbat we are grappling with the construction of a detailed and elaborate sacred space.  It could become easy to forget this, to focus on the laws purely for their own sake, to presume that the laws are the essence, to forget that they are signposts guiding us towards something more profound.

And it goes both ways.  One could read the poetry and liturgy of Shabbat and think that one has a feel for it, that one has grasped its essence.  And perhaps it is true that one may be able to relate to it from the outside, to connect it with other similar experiences of peace, of rest, of silence.  But for most of us, it is the laws, the detail, which create the mood and atmosphere of the day.

To experience Shabbat is to live it, to pay attention to it, to inhabit it like a complex piece of music or literature.

The Talmud develops these themes further, in qualifying the type of secret involved in Shabbat:

The experience of its reward is not something that it is possible to reveal. 

It takes work to get inside Shabbat, perhaps what I said just now is not quite right, the laws and restrictions are not enough on their own to generate the feeling and spirit of Shabbat.  They can create an important space, they can present us with an opportunity.   But we must then do something with that space, we must go out to greet Shabbat – come, my beloved – we must welcome it into our hearts and our homes.

Shabbat, paradoxically, can be quite exhausting.  We must engage our spirit with the day, we must pour something of ourselves into it, only then can we taste the deep rejuvenation and re-orientation that it bequeaths us.

Our bodies may be left tired in the aftermath of this spiritual exertion, but they can recover, they are good at taking care of themselves.  The spirit is not so clever, we must consciously and intentionally tend to it, mindfully provide it with the nourishment and homeliness it needs to re-root.

Isaiah depicts this progression well, the path from restriction through engagement towards reward:

If you keep your feet from breaking Shabbat, from acting out your will on My holy day, and if you call Shabbat a delight, dedicated to enhancing God’s Holiness… 

If you honour it by avoiding your usual patterns, by giving up your restless searching, your endless empty chatter…  

Then you will experience profound joy in the Divine, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth.  I will feed you from the rich inheritance and traditions of Jacob your forefather, the Divine Word will have made its mark.  (58:13-14)

The motif of the gift continues, Rav Hisda was giving gifts to anyone who could share with him some of Rav’s profound teachings.  He gave one to Rava Bar Mehasseya, for sharing the secret of Shabbat with him:

To know that I, God, am the one who facilitates the sacred in your lives. (Exodus 31:13)

But he regrets not having more gifts, for he wishes to give him another one on hearing his follow up:

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

The finer things in life are not obviously pleasurable at first, it takes time and patience to develop a taste for them.  Perhaps sometimes it takes abstinence to really appreciate them, the depth of my love for Shabbat is in part due to the vacuum I often experienced in the periods when I tried to live without it.  I don’t mean that I was depressed or unable to cope with life, simply that the absence of Shabbat was very potent and tangible.  I have a memory of walking through a shopping mall late on a Saturday afternoon and sensing something empty and bleak about it – was this supposed to compare to the exalted experience of people singing mizmor le’david or yedid nefesh at seuda shlishit?

It could not, it never really lasted; with my appreciation for Shabbat renewed, I would always find myself drawn to it once more.

The word abstinence is key here, I always suspected Shabbat couldn’t be bettered, that its richness couldn’t be matched.  But I felt compelled to test this hypothesis, to embrace the ascetic ideal of trying to live without it.

It is interesting to me that this poetic flourish is preceded by some reflection on the essence of the Divine.  We have just been talking about how God is sometimes named, simply, ‘Peace’.  Peace is Divine, to experience peace is to both respond to the Divine Will and to taste something of its essence.

He is also named ‘The Faithful God’, here it is his commitment and dedication to his creatures that we might learn from.

These two values, peace and faith, seem to find their embodiment in the Divine gift that is Shabbat.  It takes tremendous faith, and I mean something more akin to courage than to belief, to abstain on Shabbat from pursuing one’s material needs, from tending to one’s sometimes highly critical business matters.

But if we manage it, and if we make the further move of faith involved in really opening up emotionally to the poetry and imagery of Shabbat, to thoroughly engaging with its songs, prayers and traditions, then a deep and powerful peace will be our reward.  Our spirit might experience something that is genuinely called rest, our soul might actually manage to breathe and restore itself.

Going back further, right back to creation in fact, we are given insight into the spirit that lies at the core of existence:

Any judge who arbitrates one ruling in accordance with the highest standard of truth, even for just one hour, Scripture considers that he has become a partner with the Divine in the act of creation.

This is such a rich idea, but what I particularly like is the connection between judgment, truth and creation.

In the act of judging, truth is created.  God did not, could not, have accounted for all possible truths at the beginning of time.  Truth was left incomplete, in gestation, in potentiality.  And when a person takes upon himself the responsibility to seriously wrestle with truth and to eventually come to his most honest judgment of what is true, he has helped along the creative process with which Genesis begins.

Judaism is certainly a religion of Law.  But we sometimes seem to forget that there also needs to be judgment, to be a deeply considered questioning of the manner and spirit in which the Law is applied.  Truth can never be finalised in a text, or even in a tradition.  It must always be rooted in life, in the subjective domain of the responsible human, of the one who wishes to partner with God in creation.

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

Satisfy us with Your Goodness, and make us joyful in Your salvation.

And may you purify our hearts so that we may serve you in Truth.   

Shabbat is about rest and joy, about peace and rejuvenation, about re-rooting and re-orienting ourselves.  But it is also about truth, about cleansing the spirit so that it is capable of the courage and strength needed to do battle with the forces of untruth in the world.  It is perhaps about learning truth through peace, about the deeper and more honest truth that emerges from the spirit that is not ragged from the chase that sometimes constitutes life.

May we attain all of this through our day of rest, may Truth, Faith and Peace rest upon our being like fine wool, may the bounty of the Divine treasure chest be revealed to us all.

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

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

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickens ends with the point that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciation: Poetry, Nature and Wine Berakhot 42 and 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see this argument first on 40b:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dispute continues in the next Mishna:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, we come to the wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.