Rosh Hashana 5776 – What does it mean to be judged?

(This originally appeared in Ha’aretz Jewish Thinker Column, on Monday 7th September: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.674949)

Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.

The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.

Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here.  He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.

Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death.  These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.

When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.

Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.

One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.

I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.

One is reminded of Yeats’ words that “the centre cannot hold…whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.

For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.

For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.

God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape.  He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.

As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.

 

 

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.

 

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. 

How far are we from Goodness? Berakhot 49 and 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude. An attitude in need of restitution. Berakhot 35

We move today into chapter six, leaving behind prayer and starting to discuss actual ‘berakhot’, the ‘blessings’ we recite before and after food.  (I don’t much like calling them ‘blessings’, I think it misses the point, so I’ll refer to them as berakhot, or to an individual berakha. I’ve always liked the link between berakha and beraikha, a spring, a source of life.  The root in Hebrew is the same, suggesting there is a link there.)

The Mishna discusses some of the berakhot we say, and the Gemara proceeds to investigate the source of this idea.  From where do we know that we should say berakhot?  What is the meaning of a berakha?

The ensuing passage is a masterpiece of Talmudic baroque, with all sorts of twists and turns and logical hairsplittings.  Verses are read in all kinds of strange ways and yet we keep track of those readings with incredible precision.

In the end though, the Talmud comes to a very simple conclusion.  There is no source, no verse, no authority which tells us to make berakhot.  Rather, it is plain common sense:

It is founded upon reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.

This is so much more powerful than if it was given a source, if we were somehow commanded or instructed to say them.  This way it is spontaneous, voluntary, it comes about because we see that we need it, because it would be all wrong for us to enjoy the world without appreciating it.

And this is what  a berakha is.  It’s an act of appreciation.  To translate it as a ‘blessing’ is a confusion, its purpose is not to bless God.  It exists so that we may give an outlet to our deeply felt need to express praise.  Through giving voice to that, we aim to keep the sentiment alive.  Even more than that, we hope to broaden its sphere of influence, for it to colour the rest of our personality.

It is a core belief of mine that religion is about the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.

I always find it hard to express just how important gratitude is, how different is the person who exhibits and embodies it from one who exudes either deservingness or permanent dissatisfaction.  It is a fundamentally different orientation of the soul, and the effects it has one one’s life are profound and significant.

I was recently very excited to discover that gratitude has become something of a hot topic in experimental psychological research, and that the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.  They seem to back up everything religion has taught for thousands of years about the importance of not viewing oneself as the centre of one’s world, as the source of one’s own wellbeing or good fortune.  Religion is about allowing space for otherness, about reducing one’s pride and hubris.

In his book “Thanks!”, outlining some of this research, Robert A. Emmons says the following:

Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism… when people experience gratitude they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God.  Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives.  Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’. ..

Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms.  People are moved, opened, and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude.  Gratitude provides life with meaning by encapsulating life itself as a gift.  (page 12)

Amen to all of that.

Gratitude is good, and a berakha is the moment wherein we pause and enact it.  And we do it both before we eat, when we are experiencing lack, and after we eat, when we experience satiety.  At both of these points there is a need to remember, to reflect on how fortunate we are that our needs are about to be met, and perhaps to reflect on how easily satisfied we are, how are troubles are minor in the greater scheme of things.

We make berakhot part of the rhythm of our life, not because we have childish or naïve beliefs, but because we have a very mature and adult understanding of just how easy it is to lose touch with gratitude.  We know that we can get carried away with how much we deserve what we have, with the sense in which we are the authors of our success.

Is there really such a problem with this idea of ‘deserving’, are we not entitled to expect something form the world?

I’m reluctant to say we shouldn’t expect anything, a ‘good enough’ upbringing leads a person to live as if they expect the world to provide a loving and nurturing environment.

But ‘deserve’, maybe that’s going too far, maybe that’s when we expect on the basis of our ego, we expect love not because the world is loving, but because we, as individuals, as egos, are special, are deserving.  We are, at that point, a little too in love with ourselves.

The corrective medicine is a chunky dose of gratitude, wherein we appreciate and continue to expect good things, but never because we deserve them, never because we are special and chosen, never because of our natural or hard earned superiority.

Gratitude is the anti-inflammatory of the ego, it helps it find the right size again, it restores it to a healthy level of operation.

“Blessed are You, God”.  In this formulation, there is a radical definition of God.  God is simply ‘you’, something other than ‘me’.

We often speak of experiencing the Divine presence, of being touched or filled by something elusive and otherly.  Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, of grace, is the sine qua non for this experience.  Being grateful keeps us open, only in that condition may we be entered by something greater than ourselves.

The Gemara hints at some of this in its alternative phrasing of the logic of berakhot:

Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a berakha, and if one enjoys anything of this world without a berakha, he commits sacrilege. 

What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man.

What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offence! — Said Raba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him berakhot and he should not commit sacrilege.

Why does it require a wise man to teach berakhot, nowadays there are simple books designed to teach berakhot to children?

No, berakhot are not for children, they are for adults.  They are a brief philosophical interlude in our day, an overture to any enjoyable experience.  And it requires a wise man, or woman, to help us really see and appreciate this, to untangle the web of ego-belief that we all too often find ourselves in.

Berakhot are the hallmark of wisdom, not a remnant of the superstitious mind.

In further discussion we encounter the following verse:

Anyone who steals from his father and mother, declaring ‘It is not a sin’, he is the accomplice to a man of destruction. (Proverbs 28:24)

I think this is brilliantly insightful, and aboundingly relevant.  Ingratitude begins in the attitude towards one’s parents, towards everything they give a person in life.  If a person takes and takes from their parents, without appreciating the generosity and love that lie behind the parental giving, then they are doomed to a life of destruction.  They will never embody gratitude, they will never taste the satisfaction and fulfilment it engenders.

A spoiled child is a ruined child.  If parents fail to help their children find gratitude, if they placate them too easily and thoughtlessly, they are condemning their child to a life of disappointment and dissatisfaction, to a gnawing emptiness of depressing persistence.

Perhaps we come to appreciate our parents much later in life, perhaps when we become parents ourselves.  The important thing is that we should get there, that we do not remain petulant children, forever feeling that we deserve and should have more.

The Gemara then meanders into other topics, which I believe are still connected to the theme of gratitude.

In one debate, we hear opposing voices regarding the optimal balance between Torah study and earning a livelihood.  Abaye concludes it with the following:

Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, [who advocates a healthy balance,] and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [who prioritises Torah exclusively]and it has not been successful.

Might it be that not being engaged in work, in the gathering of the harvest, in the production of value, severely restricts a person’s capacity for gratitude, their awareness that nothing comes easily.  And if so, might this upset the balance needed for proper Torah study, for finding the spirit that sheds light on the tradition?

(I note that this doesn’t sit well with  my explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on 28a.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him!)

As a final point, we are told that, of late, people have been engaged in the avoidance of their taxes, of their ‘tithe obligations’.

This too is the fallout from a prevailing mood of ingratitude; when Atlas believes exclusively in his own powers, it is no surprise that he shrugs at the fate of others.

If what I have is well and truly mine, then charity makes no sense, it becomes a completely voluntary act; indeed my philanthropy then only enhances my own sense of merit, and I actually deserve what I have all the more.

If I am fortunate and blessed, then it makes sense for me not to hold on to my possessions too tightly, to give naturally wherever and however possible.

Gratitude is both the engine and the achievement of religious life.  When we engage with berakhot we try to keep its spirit alive.

May we be blessed to make meaningful berakhot, for it is us, not Him, who are deeply in need of them.

The Theatre of Prayer Berakhot 34

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

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

The officer said to him: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage directions continue today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born again Jews? Really? Berakhot 32

We open today with a great verse:

 “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

This is cited as one of the Divine gestures which saved Israel from being destroyed, from being lost to the annals of history.

This ties in very closely with what we were saying yesterday:  in some of our profoundest emotional moments, we have the sense that something deep and mysterious is happening to us, that it is not simply a random series of feelings, but that it is significant in ways we struggle to describe.

God here is the source of a ‘new heart’, a new emotional vista and space.  He is also the source of a ‘new spirit’, a renewed appreciation for life, a fresh vigour and sense of purpose about us.

And we do not mean that God is a being or agent who decides to act in this way, to grant us something.  We mean, rather, that these events have a deep reality, that they alert us to a dynamic in the structure of existence that we had not previously been aware of.  We have, very literally, a new sense of possibility, our ‘being-in-the-world’ looks very different.

Of course, we are not obliged to use theological language to describe these events.  But we do struggle to find the right language – it is very unsatisfying from a psychoanalytic or existential perspective to simply speak of them as random events, as lacking any structure or meaningful framework.  The idea that we one day feel reborn, that we have a new heart, it is simply not enough to say that ‘things happen’; we want to try to understand the whys and hows of that, so that the event has some sense and to give ourselves some theoretical orientation.

And, from the other direction, if we find ourselves enmeshed in this theological language, in a religious culture, then surely we want to find the most meaningful and profound ways of understanding the words and images, surely we want to push them to their limits and see what work they might do for us.

In a similar vein, we encounter the following verse, as another foundation of Judaism:

“And I will place My spirit within you and I will cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will observe My decrees and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27).

Again, something beyond us brings about significant internal change, our behaviour is radically altered by it.

These epiphanies, these sudden shifts or changes of heart, I think we tend to trivialise them much more than previous generations did.  Has our learning made us coarse?

And all of this also chimes with what we said about freedom, that our lack of real freedom might make us more receptive to external assistance.   (Just reading that phrase ‘external assistance’, it’s so clunky, one can see ‘Divine support’ would be the more poetic choice.  The fate of the philosopher, destined to shun poetry in the name of clarity…)

In this vein, we have a memorable parable for just how dangerous it is to rely on our will to suddenly show unprecedented and unfounded strength:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: This is comparable to a person who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him with oil, fed him and gave him drink, and hung a purse of money around his neck. Then, he brought his son to the entrance of a brothel. What could the son do to avoid sinning?

What, indeed, could he do?  The flesh is weak, and it’s all too easy to make it weaker.

Further exploring the link between satiety and corruption, we encounter the verse:

And your heart will expand, become raised, and you will forget God. (Deut. 8:14)

I read ‘heart’ here as ego, when the ego becomes excessively present, dominant, rich, at that point it is hard for a person to retain a sense of what lies beyond himself.  And from that point, one’s awareness of others and sensitivity to their needs tends to go downhill.

From a purely individualistic point of view too, as one becomes cocky and overconfident, one tends to lose sight of one’s real needs, to fall prey once more to that ever seductive sense of omnipotence.

Let us end with a classic piece of Talmud from the daf, which it would be wrong not to mention:

Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, as it is said in lamentation of the Temple’s destruction: “Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8)  Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked as it is stated: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears” (Ps. 39:13).

We may be sceptical about the efficacy of prayer, but we harbour no reservations about the impact of our tears.  When we are truly moved by our need, when we connect with the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, at that point all gates are unlocked for us, at that point we might just become complete again.

Prayer – what are we hoping for? Berakhot 30 and 31

We continue today with the idea that prayer requires a certain level of concentration, that it’s about aiming for a certain emotional note.

We have a concrete example of how seriously this was taken:

R. Eleazar said: A man should always take stock of himself: if he can focus his attention and concentrate he should say the Tefillah, but if not he should not say it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone in shul get up to say the Amida then sit back down again, realising that he’s just not up to it.  What a generation we are!  What tremendous powers of focus and concentration we have been granted!

Interestingly, this dictum is actually brought as proof that someone could not possibly have prayed without concentration.  They would have known about this saying and simply not prayed.  So it seems that it was taken quite seriously, people really lived by it.

In another example Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi rules that it is preferable  to continue riding on one’s donkey and pray rather than to get off and pray quickly.  Knowing human nature, he figures that if one gets off to pray in the middle of one’s journey, one’s commute, that a person will just rush through it whilst worrying about the time.  There will be nothing resembling reflection or contemplation;  one’s connection to one’s spiritual anchor will in no way be strengthened.

In such a case, it seems, we might just be best to utter the following very short prayer:

The needs of Thy people Israel are many and their da’at – understanding, awareness –  is small.  May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to give to each one his sustenance and to each body what it lacks. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who listens to prayer.

This truly is a micro-prayer, to be said when time is virtually non-existent.  No build up, no warm down, just straight to the point.

And yet, it’s remarkably perceptive, it gets to the core of things very directly.

At one level, it simply says that we don’t have time to stop to articulate our needs, so please, God, you know what they are, you figure them out, and take care of them.

But on another level it’s saying more than this, it’s saying that we don’t ever really know what our needs are, that fundamentally we are out of touch with the unconscious yearnings and cravings which genuinely drive us.  We don’t really have the faintest inkling of what we lack, of what’s behind the emptiness in our soul.

Even when we do pray, we might conjecture, we are trying to grapple with this, trying to figure it out.  As we said yesterday, we are trying to become more conscious in prayer, we are trying to see ourselves more clearly, to gain a better sense of the need that defines us.

So there is a very strong tradition of finding the right mood, of prayer not being a rote performance.  This is mythologised further as we start the next chapter:

One may only stand and begin to pray from an approach of gravity and submission.  There is a tradition that the early generations of pious men would wait one hour, in order to reach the solemn frame of mind appropriate for prayer, and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven. Standing in prayer is standing before God and, as such, even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him; and even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt his prayer.

An hour of preparation for prayer!  That would truly be remarkable, and clearly, as even the Mishna seems to recognise, a little unrealistic.  But maybe once in a while, once a month, once a year, we might meditate for an hour before prayer?  Where oh where would that take us, what fresh psychic landscapes might open for us on that journey?

As part of a Shabbat service I was involved in a while ago we tried to meditate before prayer.  It was definitely a help, it made one much more ready to engage with the possibilities that prayer presents.

The Talmud seeks to understand the source of this approach, from where do we learn that the point of prayer is to emotionally challenge us, to help us pierce the crust that forms around our personal holy of holies?

The sources are surprisingly human.  We are not told to meditate on the wonders of creation, nor on the ways that the Divine might be manifest in the unfolding of history, in the gradual raising of humanity’s consciousness.

The first source is the prayer of Hannah, which turns out to be an archetypal prayer on many levels.

Hannah had been unable to have children, and she came to the temple at Shilo to pray:

And she felt anguish in her soul, and she prayed to the Lord and she wept and wept. (I Samuel 1:10)

This must have been an emotionally intense prayer.  To even suggest that we connect with such pain is somewhat audacious; how could we possibly feel in that manner with such regularity?

The Talmud accepts this, it shies away from prescribing this level of feeling, but it doesn’t remove the benchmark altogether.

Next up we turn to King David, there are various verses which suggest that be brought a lot of awe and reverence to his prayer.

But we soon hone in one particular verse, and what’s notable about it is the emotional complexity it seems to both represent and mandate:

Serve the Lord in awe and rejoice with trembling.  (Ps. 2:11)

Awe mixed with joy, combined with or resulting in a ‘trembling’, suggesting a very physical response to the stimulus.

I’m a bit stumped here, I’m not quite sure quite what this means, how we might think about it.

It sounds like a description of some kind of trance, of a person swept away from their everyday concerns and plunging deep into a sea of pure and powerful emotion.  It does sound like something it might take an hour to attain, it’s not the kind of experience we can encounter every day.

Nonetheless, the demand still stands.  Whether we aim for the rawness of Hannah or the rapture of David, the idea is that we do not engage with prayer without attempting to adjust and recalibrate our emotional state.

To pray – le’hitpalel  – can be translated more literally as ‘to assess oneself’.  This is the requirement: ‘have a good look at yourself, try to rediscover something of your seriousness for life in the process’.

One might ask what all of this emotionality has to do with God – isn’t He supposed to be timeless and unmovable, why does he need us to feel all of this?

On a simple level, He doesn’t need it, we do.

On another level, using a more mature concept of God, to have a profound sense of Divine presence requires being extremely well attuned to one’s emotional world.

The more we observe our emotions, the more clearly we see that they are largely happening outwith our control, and the more humbled we are by them.  And that humility, the sense of the self’s smallness in the face of these forces, the sense of their overwhelming reality in the face of our limited and barely real consciousness, that is the starting point for a mode of feeling that might be called ‘religious’.

I contend that in our more elevated moments we are not just high, we are not just experiencing a flood of serotonin. Rather, phenomenologically speaking, we are being lifted, we are connecting with something, we are granted a glimpse, a taste of something elusive, of something utterly beyond our control, of something with its own insouciant reality.  We do not just feel, we encounter;  we no longer contain our emotions, but they expand and transport us.

It is in this sense that the Divine is real, that it is not just a figment of the imagination, an idealised construct brought into being through the power of our desire.  And it is in the build up to prayer, and in the experiences we seek there that we try to remember this.

There is another quote from the Psalms: Prepare their hearts and Your ear will listen (10:17).

I take from this the realisation that the state of our hearts is somewhat beyond us, and that we must hope for some kind of assistance or fortune in even finding the right mood to pray.

Make no mistake:  to pray is to dig deep, it is to re-order the manner in which we understand our realities.  We might call it an ontological wake up call.

We will never attain these profound experiences all the time.  Nonetheless, even at our numbest, may we always remember that it was once our target. 

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

Rabbi Eliezer warns us in the Mishna:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third insight is also interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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