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

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

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

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

By way of taster:

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

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

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

A sample of the opening reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Does Kashrut Breed Racism?

This post originally appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday 28th September.    For those who don’t have a subscription, here it is:

On a recent trip to Israel my family and I arrived at our destination at around 11.15 P.M. Our hostess – whose house we would be renting – was extremely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by our arriving even later than planned. She had gone to the extra trouble of ensuring that we would have food for breakfast in the morning and had even prepared a couple of salads for us to enjoy. It was a truly Israeli welcome in the very best sense.

But when she saw my kippah she was suddenly overcome with worry. ”Oh dear,” she said, “I think we have a problem. My kitchen isn’t kosher.”

I was quite taken aback by her presumption that this would be a deal breaker, and quickly re-assured her that we would manage, that we’d often holidayed in houses in France and Spain where there had been no question of the owners bequeathing us a kosher kitchen. She helpfully showed me where we might find some aluminium cooking trays, and seemed reassured that we would be OK.

The episode stuck with me, as I discovered that the divisions between Jewish communities in Israel can be wider than those where I come from. In some ways, they have become emblematic of something I noticed about Israeli society.

I was upset by my host’s feeling that her kitchen would somehow not be good enough for us, that we would look down on her house based on its standard of kashrut. As a Diaspora Jew, I don’t expect other people to consider my dietary needs: If I have a concern, I expect to attend to it myself. Kashrut is a personal and private matter, a practice that I keep to myself; not something I wish to broadcast through vibes of separateness, awkwardness and disdain.

Now, this may not be the classical view of kashrut. For many people and in many periods, the purpose of kashrut was to keep Jews separate from their surrounding communities. In ancient times it may have been a bulwark against idolatrous practice, and in more recent times it served to prevent interaction and assimilation with the broader populace.

That said, I can’t help but feeling that in today’s world things have changed.

In a country where Jews are in the majority and there have been alarming indications of racist undercurrents toward Israeli citizens of Arab origin it feels important to cultivate a Jewish mindset that is different from that embodied in “exclusionary” or ”ghetto” kashrut.

If kashrut is rooted in a sense of “us and them,” of “chosen and not chosen,” then it may, under present conditions, contribute to a dangerous and inflammatory state of mind. Fostering ethnic and racial superiority is always problematic, and, with the challenges Israel presently faces regarding racism, it is particularly unwelcome. Evidence of this social poison can be seen in the rise of anti-Arab group Lehava and in the protests at the recent marriage between Morel Malka and Mahmoud Mansour, encapsulated in the disturbing slogan: ”Arab watch out, my sister is not public property.”

It seems clear that an ongoing challenge to the Jewish-Israeli psyche is the transition from traumatized and persecuted victim to a mindset of sovereign responsibility and a civilised wielding of power.

Kashrut may feel trivial in the face of this task, but the manner in which it is embraced can play a key part in shaping psychological attitudes. If the aim of our kashrut observance is to erect barriers, to separate communities, to distance ourselves from other citizens, then our observance might indeed be contributing to the mindset of separation, both among Jews and between Jews and other Israeli citizens.

If, on the other hand, we embrace kashrut – as other voices in the tradition suggest – to refine our capacity for gratitude, to distance ourselves from violence and hatred, to overcome our tendencies toward indulgence and gluttony, then we Jews as the majority population in Israel might move in a more positive direction.

Freud famously understood some forms of religious practice as instances of obsessional neurosis, as answering a deeply human need to overcome anxiety. The anxiety of difference, of encountering those who do not share our history or values, who look unfamiliar or talk differently from us, is a major part of modern multi-cultural life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Whilst it might be tempting to respond to difference-anxiety by insisting upon ever-stricter regulations and adherence to kashrut, we should be wary of thoughtlessly falling into this pattern. Rather, we should engage the attentive thoughtfulness kashrut might cultivate, and make every effort to explore and overcome our anxieties about difference.

As a practical example, we might revise the legal status of Israeli Arabs with regard to kashrut. The status quo in Jewish law has been to view them as gentiles, which serves to limit consumption of their food produce. This may have been historically necessary to protect a Jewish minority, but a Jewish majority can be bolder, and find a new legal status that teaches greater respect toward Arab citizens.

Kashrut need not be a place where we express our feelings of being threatened. Positively encouraging Jews and Arabs to break bread together might help re-balance a society struggling to balance Jewish particularism with the universal ideals of Abraham and Isaiah.

It is my hope that the Jewish vision of purity of soul neither reveals nor encourages racist and xenophobic sentiments. We can and must find ways of retaining allegiance with our past that neither diminish our humanitarian sensitivities nor jeopardise our political aspirations in the present.

 

Prioritising the Voluntary – Parshat Teruma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

On Circumcision

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

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

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

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

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

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat 29

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

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

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

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

(2) You intend for the action to take place

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

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat 30

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

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

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

Shabbat 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this their minds found peace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With what may we light? Shabbat 18-21

We begin the second chapter of Shabbat with some words we are all too familiar with:

Bameh madlikin uvameh ein madlikin – With what may we light and with what may we not light?

The question is a good one:  what is it that kindles our fire, and what does not?  What is it that brings us enlightenment, and what does not?  With what are we brought to life and what causes our flame to peter out, to turn to charcoal and ash?

We ask this question every Friday night as part of our prayers, and I think it is a good question with which to commence Shabbat, with which to begin our day of spiritual rejuvenation.

What was it in our week which enlivened us, which filled our hearts with love and warmth?  And which parts of our week turned out to be draining, to be an emotional dead end, to lead us into ever greater anxiety?

What surprised us by turning out to be a lot more rewarding than first appearances suggested, and what disappointed us, whispering promise yet leaving us hollow?

And, looking to the future, where should our hearts and minds be directed, where is the truth in our life, what are the things that connect with our depths, which of our cares have nourishing roots in something sustaining?

The first part of the Mishna is concerned with the wick, with the medium that carries the flame and ensures that the fuel is able to reach it.

What is it that makes for a good wick, what part of our personality connects the flame of activity to  the underlying energy which fuels it?

We may find ourselves overwhelmed by anger, by envy, by hatred, by vanity.  And up to a point these feelings might energise us, might give us the strength to achieve things, to make a certain sort of progress.

But they do not make for a good wick, for a wick which will be steady, reliable, consistent, enduring.  They fall into the category of things ‘wherein the flame flickers on them’ and they do not meet the criteria of something ‘wherein the flame ascends of its own accord, rather than being powered by something external’.

Certain emotions endure, they work away quietly in the background, but we do not always give them their due attention and respect.  They perhaps lack the dangerous seduction of others, they are perceived as boring, as homely.  The exotic is often attractive, but that doesn’t mean that it leads to a better place.

It is in this sense that we follow false idols, that we are led astray by the harlots of alien cults.

And this leads us to the second part of the Mishna: what is an appropriate fuel, what aspects of life might be the ones which have legs, which will bring us lasting joy and peace?

It will come as no surprise to hear that  I sometimes get frustrated and irritated with my children.  Even as it’s happening I know that it’s foolish, that my overriding emotion towards them is love and concern, that it’s my tiredness and impatience which are really at fault, that their unwillingness to do exactly as I wish is a healthy reflection of their independent natures.  But it happens nonetheless, and it’s only later, perhaps when they’ve gone to sleep, that I’m able to properly re-connect with those positive emotions, to see that the earlier flare up was very much of the surface, that it lacked any depth.

And when I do remember, I resolve to stay connected to that positivity, to prioritise the tender affection which I feel for them and which they need above all else.

And when the disparity between who I am and how I act hits me particularly hard, (I hope one is allowed to posit such a gap, or we’re all pretty much damned), let’s say after a day of particular moodiness on my part, I can be quite amazed by how alien and unwelcome this alternate personality is, by how clearly I can see that I don’t want to be like that.  The short livedness of it is a blessing, but there are other fuels which seduce us for a much longer spell.

I can sometimes get excited about a project or idea for a few weeks or months, only to find that my interest soon fades, that it no longer stimulates me.  And there is no way in knowing in advance what will or won’t work, what is or is not a good fit for our personality.  Life is about constantly figuring ourselves out, about finding the right fit between self and world, about understanding where our energies will flourish most successfully.

Some people might be lucky, and stumble on the right formula early on, for others it can take longer, and the difficulty of the search can be unbelievably painful, the disorientation can be profoundly damaging.

The enduring flame, the one that burns brightly and cleanly, which will not require constant attention and adjustment, this is what our attention is directed towards, this is what we should be seeking.  And the wick should connect with the fuel, the personality should connect with the deeper currents in life, this is the path towards a redemptive anchoring.

As the nights get longer, as the darkness sets in earlier, we must perhaps be particularly attentive to the manners in which our light might be burning.  Let us ponder the mishna’s question, let us remain open to the surprises it might help us uncover.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

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

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

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

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

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

So I’m warming up to these discussions in Shabbat, to these musings on the boundaries.  And it makes sense, if what I said the other day is right, if rest is about being able to hold strong boundaries and protect the self, then I can understand why all of these early musings are so concerned with the boundary.

Where do we draw the line between the private and the public, and what does it mean to exist in both of these spheres.  For Rabbi Akiva, an object in flight is considered to have come to rest.  The Rabbis differ: for them a being that is forever in flight, whose feet never stop to touch the ground, who is always hovering above reality, is not considered to have come to rest.  To rest is to have roots, to be grounded, to be settled.

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

For him it has two aspects: removing oneself from one place, and coming to rest in another.  And he perhaps emphasises the removing, the uprooting; maybe that is bound up with his personal narrative, with change, with creativity, with yearning until his dying word.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is also concerned with roots: if something lands on the branch of a tree, we look to see where its trunk is located.  The nature of the growth is dictated by the soil it is rooted in.

Is this a natural thing for an aristocrat to say?  Is the class war flaring up again?

Or not.  Perhaps he is a fan of the first psalm:

The righteous one is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither.

Rabbi Yehuda thinks differently about movement: for him it is about entry and exit, it is about transitioning between dimensions, not about an abrupt departure, about wandering.

His life was different from Akiva’s, it was more of a series of smooth passages, less a succession of existential upheavals.

More on movement:  If one runs to catch something, do they abrogate the responsibility of the one who threw it?

People project into us all the time: their hatred, anxieties, jealousies.

How much do we run into these, do we receive them almost willingly?  Can we too easily become complicit in the dark manipulative arts that surround us, can we be too eager to absorb and accept the other’s criticism and insult, no matter how unfounded?

The more we run into it, the more we shape ourselves as a receiver, the more we are liable.

Maintain the boundary, do not allow the other to violate you inappropriately.

Encourage them to contain their own distress, to find the spirit of rest through respect for the boundaries.