What is Wealth? Shabbat 22-27

A theme of financial concern runs through these pages of the Talmud, made particularly explicit in the following question on 25b:

Who is rich?

We are given a variety of Rabbinic responses, and I’d like to reflect on them, and to link them to some of the surrounding passages.

First up we have Rabbi Meir’s answer:

Whoever finds peace of spirit in his wealth. 

At a first glance, this sounds very similar to Ben Zoma’s idea from Avot 4:1, that the rich person is one who rejoices in his lot.  And they are clearly coming from a similar place, they are both responding with the counter-intuitive notion that wealth is measured by one’s attitude, not by one’s possessions; by the spirit rather than the material.

That said, I think Rabbi Meir is perhaps less optimistic than Ben Zoma, perhaps slightly more conscious of the difficulty in always rejoicing in one’s lot.  He talks of one who is happy, who finds peace, Ben Zoma talks of an active imperative, of making an effort to attain happiness, that it is something which can be worked at.  Rabbi Meir is perhaps suggesting that one does need a certain level of sustenance, of financial security to be at peace in the world.  But the important thing is to remember that peace is the end point, that the wealth is a means to achieving that.

He may be suggesting that one needs to be especially conscious of the different emotions that accompany one’s differing material conditions, and to ensure that one is able to find a level of comfort wherein one’s worries actually abate and an internal sense of wellbeing comes to the fore.

When one does not achieve this, something has gone wrong, something has been missed.  There are many ways this can happen.

In some cases the anxiety which spurred one to generate the wealth, which was perhaps helpful in fuelling the work ethic, might still persist once financial success has been achieved.  It may in fact even get stronger; the challenge to attain a certain level of security might have been helpful in containing a person’s anxiety, it might have acted as a vessel for it, given it an outlet.  Without that yolk to harness it, without such an apparently urgent task to absorb one’s energies, one may find oneself quite lost, overrun with anxiety, eaten up by a mysterious restlessness, by a sense of unease and disquiet which don’t seem to have any intelligible source.

The anxiety must be worked on; one must find the level of peace to enable genuine enjoyment of one’s bounty.

In a similar manner, one may have been spurred on by envy or competition, which again might have served a certain purpose.  But if they are left untended once that purpose is served, once one has in some sense made enough, or made it onto the path towards enough, then they will again torment and undo a person.

Envy is a powerful toxin to the mind, a destructive hatred which can only bring misery and keep happiness at bay.

And being competitive, whilst less incorrigibly ruinous, and whilst more easily harnessed to constructive ends, can also be a major thorn in one’s side if it is left unchecked, if it comes to exist as an absolute force in one’s life.  If one is perpetually setting oneself up in opposition to others, if one’s sense of self is only secured through triumph and conquest, through perceived supremacy, then it is not really a sense of self at all.  It is a sense of not-other, of better-than-other, and perhaps a misplaced sense at that .

It is the mark of a being that is fleeing, searching, forever looking outwards for affirmation.  It suggest one is either unable or lacking the courage to look for that affirmation within, to learn to be intimate and comfortable with oneself.

There is another danger to prosperity, another block to it providing one with the contentment that it seems to promise.  This is the inability to have a sense of ‘enough’, to sense that one has reached a level whereby having more might be more trouble than it is worth.  ‘More’ can become a compulsion, something insatiable, something which unsettles the mind and makes peace an ever more distant prospect.

This consciousness seems to animate an earlier discussion on 22a:

Rav Yehuda said that Rav Asi said that Rav said:  It is forbidden to count money opposite the Channuka lights.

When I said this to Shmuel, he said to me:  And do the Channuka lights have such intrinsic sanctity? 

Shmuel seems to be assuming that if the Channuka lights did have sanctity, kedusha, that it would be understandable that their light would be incompatible with such a use.  Kedusha seems to be at odds with counting money, with the anxious weighing and measuring of one’s wealth.  Again, it is not the having of money that is the problem, it is the obsessing over it, it is the possibility that it does not bring one peace – nachat ruach – that it continues to torment one long after the battle is won.

The Divine Presence cannot come to rest with a person when they are forever concerned with how much they have, with how they stack up against their neighbours.  There is simply not room in such a mind, one is distracted and out of sync with peace.

The Gemara rejects Shmuel’s idea about Kedusha, and instead offers a different reasoning for the ruling:

That the mitzvot should not be disgraced in his eyes, shameful.

I think this is a more profound idea, that if one is using the mitzvah of Channuka to count his wealth, making the light of the miracle subordinate to one’s material hunger, then one has lost perspective on the meaning of the ritual, on the subtle sense of faith it embodies.

The light is the symbol of a spiritual uprising, of a battle for sanctity in the war of cultures.  It stands for our rejection of a culture which –as Nietzsche suggests – had become decadent and decayed through its wealth and success, which had thoroughly lost touch with its earliest lofty ideals.

The light is designed to bring peace to a household, to one’s soul; and if it fails to achieve that, if it becomes an instrument towards further anxiety and unease, then one has truly disgraced and shamed the mitzvah.  It has been defiled, corrupted.

So, that’s the first take on the meaning of wealth, Rabbi Meir’s view.

Rabbi Tarfon has a much more conventional take on things, one which requires considerably less thought and imagination:

Who is wealthy? – One who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields, and a hundred slaves to work in them.

Rabbi Tarfon was a wealthy man, but perhaps his comment is not as superficial as it might seem, perhaps he is trying to give an answer to that elusive question:  ‘Just how much is enough?’.

He is perhaps saying that there is an objective scale in play, and that one should know that at a certain point one may be overstepping a certain line and over reaching.  He might be trying to objectify greed, to give gluttony a measure.

Either way, we are probably tempted to take with a pinch of salt his famous injunction on 24b:

Rabbi Tarfon said:  One may only light with olive oil.

That’s nice if you can afford it.

I don’t want to get heavily into it, but it’s interesting that his views on wealth come shortly after a discussion on 23b about Pe’ah, the injunction to leave the corner of one’s field for the poor.  The concern there is to ensure that this remarkably progressive biblical idea is executed in a spirit of fairness, and that both landowner and pauper maintain their dignity through its enactment.

One may have a hundred fields, but with that comes greater responsibility, a greater need to be mindful of those less fortunate.

Following the opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, we hear from Rabbi Akiva:

The rich man is one who has a wife who embodies beauty in her actions.

Rabbi Akiva was more conscious than most of his dependence upon his wife, upon the faith, ambition and forbearance with which she supported him.  He sensed that all the money in the world was worthless if one didn’t have a house filled with warmth and peace, if one’s partner in life was dominated by envy and all too keen to turn against the other when things became tough.

The woman, for Rabbi Akiva, creates everything that is of value: the home, the family, the friendships and the fabric of community.  And she is also the source of specifically female wisdom and insight, of a maternal concern somewhat alien to men.

To be blessed is to live in the shadow of this, to be subsumed under its wings.

Last, and most prosaically, is the view of Rabbi Yosei:

Who is rich? – The person who has a toilet close to his table. 

Some suggest that he suffered from intestine trouble, and was expressing his needs directly.  Another view might be that he is defining wealth by utility alone, and emphasising this by reducing it to its most basic functionality.  Wealth in his eyes, is about being able to service one’s bodily needs when necessary, to conflate it into something more than that, into a measure of one’s worth or success in life, is to ask for trouble.  That path is an easy one to begin on, but it is a hard one to leave, a difficult illusion to outrun.  Better not to be seduced by it, to keep one’s eyes firmly on the toilet.

Four men, four visions of the possibilities and dangers of wealth.  In our affluent society, we might be particularly sensitive to these questions, and we might find ourselves particularly grateful for their encouragement to think about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is made explicit by Rav Ashi:

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

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

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

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

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

Through shattering, rebirth; through dissolution, regeneration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Fear or Love? Shabbat 11, 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘hilkhta rabata l’shabata’

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

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

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

The Need to Respect the Private Shabbat 6, 7, 8

We are continuing to get to grips with the definitions of boundaries in Shabbat, and following from our attempt to understand movement and transition, we are now focussing on understanding the difference between the public realm and the private realm.

The Talmud sees fit to spend quite a few pages on this, as opposed to a few lines, and it seems to take it pretty seriously.  These are not pages filled with humour and wit, they are Rabbinic Legalism at its purest.

As ever in these situations, I find myself wondering what it was that was underlying these discussions, what themes and ideas were in play which made it feel like establishing these boundaries was so critical.

I think that in this case there is actually quite a lot to be thinking about.

Being able to navigate the difference between what is public and what is private is a central issue in religious life.

At the simplest level, Judaism is a religion which emphasises and exists by virtue of community.  For a community to exist, there must be a sense of something shared amongst people, a feeling that there are ideals, values and practices which bind them together.

In a perfect world, a community might naturally emerge, people might simply discover that they have a lot in common and that they fare better by inhabiting a more interactive space, a public realm that has a richer texture.  And to some extent this is what happens.

But it is not always this simple, sometimes individuals will feel frustrated and disillusioned, and will find it harder to exist in the public communal space whilst still expressing fidelity to its ideals.  Things may be going on for them, or they may just be experiencing a period of doubt or exhaustion.  At these points public life can just seem a lot harder.

This is a part of life, and as far as Judaism is concerned it is to be understood and appreciated.  One of the categories of person who was historically excluded from the community was one who ‘violated the Sabbath in public’.  Struggling to maintain observance of Shabbat in one’s private space is one thing, it is a much more serious problem for the community when someone makes a public demonstration of their rejection of Shabbat.

Putting it differently, we might say that a large part of what makes Shabbat is the communal commitment to it, the creation of a public space that is free of work and worldly concerns, that is dedicated to the restoration of the spirit and the recollection of values.  If people are not able to respect this, then they have misunderstood the essence of community, they have automatically excluded themselves from its workings.

What we are therefore advocating is a strong sensitivity to the public space, and an awareness of how it differs from one’s private space.  We respect the private space, the haven wherein one might have more flexibility and room to express one’s dissent and ambivalence.

This is not to say that we wish to encourage a community based on hypocrisy, a lifestyle fuelled solely by people ‘keeping up appearances’.  It is simply to register that the communal space is somewhat sacrosanct, and that maintaining this is challenging.  When one isn’t up for the challenge, one should make use of the breathing space that the private realm offers, wherein one can act out one’s different feelings to less destructive effect.

Continuing deeper into the exploration of the public and private, what applies at the level of community also applies at the level of the relational or interpersonal.  Whilst honesty and frankness are important, it is not always the case that everything which is felt or thought should be acted upon.  We are sometimes overcome with anger or hatred, and it can seem like the most natural thing in the world to act on these impulses.  And that may sometimes be the right thing to do.  But sometimes it will not be, sometimes the person in front of us will not be the one who is really making us angry, they will not be the root of our hatred, and we risk doing irreparable damage to the relationship by acting out our fury.

Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, we may sometimes find ourselves inclined towards inappropriate intimacies, be they sexual or otherwise.  Here too we are asked to distinguish between the private realm, wherein we may consider and reflect upon these desires, and the public realm, wherein the deed reigns supreme, and is rarely easily undone.

Therapy occupies an interesting space on this continuum, something like the ‘karmelit’ that the Talmud speaks of, which is neither public nor private, yet has something in common with both.  It is private enough such that everything can be safely expressed and explored within its boundaries.  On the other hand it is more public than being left alone with one’s torments, with the ravages of one’s potentially punitive conscience.  By shedding a little of the public light on one’s problems, they can begin to be unpicked, one can start to understand them with better perspective.

And at this point we arrive at the most important of the distinctions between public and private, the one which we spend the whole of our lives trying to untangle, which we may never truly overcome.

Put simply, and it is a devilishly hard thing to grasp, it is the difference between what we think we are feeling, perceiving and experiencing and the true reality of those feelings, perceptions and experiences.

At this point, confusingly, it is important to note that the ‘reality’ of those feelings is actually deeply buried in the private realm and the way we perceive them is actually more reminiscent of the public realm.  ‘Public’ in this sense is what we are conscious of, ‘private’ is what is unconscious.

An example will help us to get a handle on this.  Imagine a child brought up by parents he could never quite manage to please, who were angry and hostile with him almost indiscriminately, certainly not in any measured sense.  This child will never have been given the confidence to act naturally in the world, he will forever be trying to figure out what might make the people around him happy, and using that as the basis for action.  When he does not succeed in pleasing these people, or even thinks he perceives that this is the case, he will experience this as a grave and serious failing, even if it was in fact nothing of the sort.

In the public realm of his conscious mind, he is trying to please his boss, or perhaps his wife, and he is pretty sure that their demands are reasonable.  But in the private realm of his unconscious he is reliving the torment of his young childhood, he is trying to please a hostile or disinterested father, trying to win over an angry or depressed mother.

This is why he feels so unduly invested in the outcomes of these ‘real-world’ events, why the approval of his boss feels so weighty and significant to him, why his wife’s fury over something trivial cuts him to the core.

For he is still trying to redeem the child inside that was never adequately welcomed into the world.  He engaged in an ongoing battle with the forces of hostility that gave him his earliest orientation in life, which forever tarnished his perceptions of human interaction.

It is not that there is an easy fix for this confusion, overcoming this difficult start in life is a mammoth task.  But one of the ways to begin is by trying to understand the difference between what is private here and what is public, what is being enacted or lived unconsciously and what appears to be happening to the conscious mind.

And I would like to emphasise that this situation is not unique to people with a difficult childhood (everyone?)  or to those who suffered other traumas or setbacks in life.  We are all made up of the history of our experiences, our patterns of behaviour and feeling are built up like the layers we might find in an archaeological dig.  It will be rare that anything we do or think has no connection with the deeper strata of our mind’s formation; acknowledging this is an early step in moving towards an easing of the tension that eats away at us.

People sometimes protest that this is a reductive way of looking at people, that it is crude and deterministic in its assessment of personality.  And I get this, I can see that it is hard to accept that we neither know nor control ourselves nearly as well as we think.

But ultimately I find this outlook really quite liberating, a source of tremendous optimism.  If at least some of the troubles we face in life have their source within us, if we partially create them as a result of unrecognised or unresolved needs or patterns in our psyche, then we have reason to believe that we can change.

And this change is not necessarily moral, it may sometimes actually involve giving up what was perceived as a profound moral challenge.  Nonetheless, it may well be  a change which enables us to experience greater harmony and unity, which can overcome some of the discord and alienation dividing our psyche.

Going back to the daf, Rav Chiyya bar Rav and Rav Ashi are debating whether a pile of excrement in the street is considered to a public or a private domain.

This may sound grotesque or absurd, but my experience of therapy tells me that this is actually the biggest question we face in life.  The shit in our lives: is it part of the outer world or is it part of our inner world?  Is it the external reality of a situation which is genuinely unbearable or is it something in us which is interpreting it negatively;  is a fairly benign person or event triggering a strange overreaction in us, tapping into something primal and infantile which were heretofore unaware of?

We are concerned with what is within and what is without.   And in the case where they cannot be so easily disentangled,  we try to learn from weighing up the public and private contributions to the whole.

The Talmud was right to spend a long time on this distinction; there is ultimately no deeper nor more rewarding question for us to live by.

A Very Peaceful Ending… Berakhot 62, 63, 64

There’s something remarkable about choosing to end this volume of Talmud with such a serious meditation upon peace.  After 64 pages of dispute and argumentation, encompassing excommunications and numerous altercations, the following claim might seem a little bit hopeful:

Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ĥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world.

Really?  Don’t they just increase strife and fractiousness?

I remember Rav Yehuda Amital citing Rav Kook as explaining this idea in the following way.  Torah Scholars are indeed a combative lot, and we are right to be concerned that sometimes they may get carried away with themselves, that their aggression might become overheated and excessive.   But that notwithstanding, when people are engaged in the study of Torah, when people are ‘breaking themselves’ to understand the meaning and spirit of the Divine word, and when they are truly arguing for the sake of Heaven – l’shem Shamayim –then the powerful energy they bring to it serves an important purpose.

When opposing scholars lock horns in this way, they force each other to question and clarify the truth that they lay claim to, the heat of their argument acts to refine and purify their ideas.  What emerges from this cauldron of debate is a higher form of Truth, an expression of ideals which was much greater than either of the participants could have arrived at on their own.  It is a Truth which is richer, more multi-faceted and more illuminating.  And, claims Rav Kook, it is only with such a Truth that genuine peace is established.

There is always the possibility of a partial peace, of an apparent peace, of a peace which is brought about through the suppression and denial of difference.  But it is a weak peace, its roots are not sufficiently deep, the slightest inflammation of the underlying tension will cause a new eruption of acrimony.

Real peace, lasting peace, must come about through the resolution of difference, through a serious and thorough engagement with the issues which divide.  Rav Kook is expressing a tremendous optimism here both in the power of dialogue and in the power of ideas.  He is asserting that underlying the most apparently intractable disagreements there is a harmonious synthesis which can emerge under the right conditions.

And he is making the perhaps even bolder claim that this deeper and larger Truth will almost of necessity change the ways in which people interact and conduct themselves.  He is asserting that Truth really is the beacon by which people live their lives, that even the most hard minded of thinkers take their lead from the suffused subtleties of the Divine Light.

Bringing this idea to the therapeutic arena, anyone who has experienced half decent therapy knows that a good therapist draws something out of a person, that they act as a catalyst for an individual to give voice to the conflicts and confusions which have been unsettling them.  And through facilitating this expression of the unconscious, through enabling a new level of articulation to be reached, they help a person attain a new level of clarity, they foster greater insight into the troubles which have been distressing us.

The therapist will often do this through the gentlest of touches, through the smoothest of gestures, though sometimes the more combative approach will also have its place, as we’ve touched on lately.

There is another aspect of peace which I would like to consider, the sense in which it is connected to completeness, to wholeness.  In the Hebrew language, peace – shalom – is rooted in the idea of being complete – shalem.

A sense of fullness, of completeness, of profound satiety; these are the benefits I have been granted through this demanding engagement with the Talmud, through immersing myself in the currents of history which flow through its pages.  It is not, on the surface, an easy read, and yet, in a very surprising way, it brings peace to my mind in a manner that other reading material does not.  It is different from losing oneself in the narrative of a novel, nor is it the same as being assaulted by a heavy tract of theory.  It is more like becoming part of a conversation, one which stretches across hundreds of generations.  It feels like one is taking a seat on a bench in the study hall of Hillel and Shammai, of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva, of Rav and Shmuel.  The text has an almost musical quality, one’s concentration isn’t linear, it’s more dynamic than that, more wave like, more rhythmical.

There is something alive in it, it is not one voice, with the harmonious and integrated drive that would follow from that.  It is more like a symphony, a wide range of voices, and on every page we are in suspense as we wait to see who we will stumble across, who will cross our path and how long they will stay for.

This experience is described by the following verse, one of the last words of the Tractate:

A great peace awaits those who love your Torah, they will no longer stumble and fall.  (Ps. 119.165)

To love the Torah, to engage in it with an open heart, is to have the possibility of this peace, of a rooted completeness which will prevent one from stumbling, from becoming lost.

May we blessed to experience more of this as we continue our voyage through the Talmud, may the spirit of a well earned peace permeate the whole of our being and all of our relationships.

Does Religion Reward Us? Berakhot 58, 59, 60

One of the thorniest issues in discussing religion is the question of reward and punishment.  For some people, religion is all about its rewards; if there was not a God who was rewarding us for our good deeds then there would be no foundation to religion.

Other people are affronted by the idea that we would act morally because we were looking to be rewarded.  They would make the valid point that to be incentivised in this somewhat childish way would somehow undermine the ethical stature of our actions, they would somehow be less commendable, less worthy, less inspiring.

And they would surely be somewhat right in this.

There is a middle ground, and it’s not quite a compromise, but more of a pleasing synthesis of these apparently incompatible positions.  The significant move in this position is to re-think the idea of reward, to re-imagine the sense in which we might benefit from sticking to our moral guns.

Reward, on this understanding, is not external to the act: we will not be given material bounty or be spared the fires of hell, we will not receive special economic treatment when God does His accounts.

Rather, the reward is intrinsic to the act itself, it follows as the miraculous consequence (it seems to be anything but ‘natural’) of acting in accordance with our ethical aspirations.  When we rise to the occasion, we are left in an elevated spirit – we feel better about ourselves, proud of ourselves, much more comfortable with who we are.  In the simplest possible terms: it’s nice to be nice.

There is a link between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and the aesthetic.  Good actions tend to be beautiful ones, and we are pleased by the sense that our behaviour is in harmony with this vision.

And I maintain that we are often surprised by this.  On one level, we are surprised by how much better we feel after making the extra effort and doing that unnecessary act of kindness we could have so easily shirked.  In a similar vein, we are often taken aback by how inspired and moved we are when we see or hear of someone else acting in an altruistic and thoughtful manner.

I remember being at a point once when I was in possession of a deeply negative and cynical view of human beings.  I’d been steeped in Nietzsche and had been overwhelmed by some of the pessimism he had been expressing.  And there had been other stuff going on in life which had been getting me down.  Then, as chance would have it, I missed the last train that was supposed to take me to meet some friends who were staying in the Highlands of Scotland.  Left with no option, I decided to hitch hike, not especially convinced that I would get there – I had a ferry to catch to get to a remote island – but figuring that I had nothing to lose in trying.

Lo and behold, four hitch hikes and about nine hours later, I was being driven across the sea by a random fisherman and I was re-united with my friends.  I felt lucky, but more than that, much more than that, I was stunned by the goodwill of all the people who had stopped to offer me a lift, in some cases going slightly out their way to help me on my way.  It reminded me of the goodness that lies just below the surface in people, of their willingness to help even complete strangers, when there would be no hint of a suggestion that they would get anything tangible in return.  It restored my faith in humanity, teaching me a lesson that all the Nietzsche in the world couldn’t undo.

The good inspires us, it makes us feel good.  The Stoics based their philosophy of virtue upon this – upright character alone would bring a person to eudaemonia, the highest sense of human happiness and flourishing.  In Judaism we say ‘sekhar mitzvah, mitzva’ – the highest reward for a good deed is to be enveloped in a positive framework of life, to be uplifted and inspired to further good deeds.

This more subtle and mature approach to the consequences of religiously coloured behaviour is at work in a discussion of the following verse:

He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. (Ps. 112:7)

Rava makes a slightly cryptic observation on this verse, suggesting that one might be able to read the clauses in either order in order to understand it differently.  Rashi doesn’t get his point, he doesn’t see the two ways of reading it.

The Rashba does see the distinction.  If one reads it with the second clause first:

His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord;  He shall not be afraid of evil tidings…

then one might understand it as offering a promise or reward – the reward for trusting in God is that one will be spared from the fear of evil news, one will not be troubled by excess anxiety and worry.

Read the other way, in the original structure, one could understand it differently, as describing a reality, a matter of fact.  One who has faith in God, whose heart is strong, will not be susceptible to stray fears, to worries without foundation, to the random anxiety and panic which can trouble a person.

Here the reward is more intrinsic, less of an external affair.

But still, what is this reality, how are we to understand it? What is it to have faith in God other than to believe that he will actually prevent bad things happening, to protect us from harm?

At this point we are close to the core of mature religion, to the kernel of genuine faith that might challenge and maintain us.

The possibility hinted at here is that by living in close proximity to the truth of our lives, by paying close attention to the deepest demands that our being makes of us – at this point a vision of Ibsen’s Brand appears before me –  we will suddenly find that many of the concerns and fears which otherwise trouble us simply fade away.

It is as if we only becomes susceptible to worry when things are not in good order internally, when we are subtly and imperceptibly betraying the highest possibilities in our personality.  When we are distant from our true selves, living a respectable but false life, this is when we are vulnerable and prey to worry.

It is as if we project our internal anguish onto the external world: we are pained, we are hazily aware of warnings, but we cannot understand the message coming from the unconscious.  In our confusion we assume that the dangers must lie outside us, in the broader world, in people and circumstances beyond our control.

We can use this perspective to understand another important expression of faith that Rabbi Akiva gives voice to in the following story:

 Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city, he inquired about lodging and they did not give him any. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best. He went and slept in a field, and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best.

That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone, who was not in the city and had no lit candle, noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location, was saved. He said to them: Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does, He does for the best.

The idea that God does everything for the best can be taken in a very infantilising way, it can be understood to be saying that there is a Grand Puppeteer who is orchestrating everything that happens, and that He always knows what he is doing.  Since He is in control, we need not worry, everything will be alright.

But there is a subtler and more profound understanding of this dictum.  By saying that everything happens for the best we are making a conscious attempt to see the positive in things, to wrestle with the dark cloud of negativity which always threatens to overwhelm us and blacken our perceptions.  It is an assertion that life is a never ending struggle between optimism and pessimism, and that we have a tiny arena of choice wherein we might be able to push our mood and expectations in a slightly more upbeat direction.

It is an injunction to work hard to tune into positivity, to possibility and to eschew the deathly lock of a negative spiral of thought and affect.  Neville Symington speaks of being open to a force he identifies as the lifegiver, and it is this relationship we tune into when we are able to see the positive in adverse conditions, when we do not howl out in protest at every turn for the worse.

I would like to share a paradoxical anecdote from Symington which embodies this value:

A friend told me once that the turning point in analysis for him came when he said to his analyst one day that things had been so bad they could only improve.  The analyst replied ‘Or they could get worse’.

The analyst wasn’t encouraging negativity, he was, rather, showing that the patient had fallen too much in love with painting his life as negative, with perceiving everything as terrible and persecutory.  He’s giving him a slap, telling him to get over himself, to realise that really his life is not so bad, that there is plenty that he could be positive about, if only he could find the strength and will to do so, if only he could give up his fashionable pessimism.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easily done, that we can always snap out of negativity as easily as choosing between blue or black socks.  But this is not what the Talmud is suggesting either.  Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that we should always be trying to look for the positive, for it is a difficult job, it requires practice and it requires the development of what we might call a stoical muscle, an ability to weather storms without losing all hope, without slipping into despair.

We are coming to the end of reciting psalm 27, of referring to God as our light and our salvation.  Never is this more true than in adversity, when we sometimes find that in spite of the difficulty that surrounds us there seems to be a mysterious core of light and positivity which we can tune into and which might save us.  It’s as if things can only get real when the chips are down, when what we think we fear is actually realised.  At that point we often see that the fear itself was worse than the reality we feared, that we actually have more capacity to cope than we thought.

Life is good, and fear is often much worse than suffering.  Training ourselves to see the positive, to be suspicious of people who project their negativity into their narratives, these are the real challenges of religion, the injunctions of a religion for grown ups.  And with these challenges more than any other, their reward is intrinsically bound up with their practice, with the extent to which we shape our lives in their image.

There is no greater reward than to live with a strong conviction of positivity, to emit an aura of creativity and possibility wherever one goes.  Graham Greene describes the art critic Herbert Read as having this effect, as embodying this energy:

He would come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming, you noticed only that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly altered, that even the relations of one guest with another had altered.  No one any longer would be talking for effect, and when you looked round for an explanation there he was – complete honesty born of complete experience had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair.  (Ways of Escape p.39)

We must be careful with religious language and ideas, the slightest misinterpretation can transform something of deep profundity into something of childish foolery.  And it is all too clear that there are many nowadays who wish to depict religion in this light, as dishonest silliness for the soft of mind.  But, quite simply, they are wrong; there is a depth to the religious perspective which many of its opponents have not shown themselves capable of grasping.

Let us work hard to maintain faith and retain positivity, to keep a firm grasp on the full armoury of internal resources available to us.  For through them, and them alone, can we be saved from the fear and pessimism which forever lie in wait for us.