Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.

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.

Truly, How Beautiful Berakhot 53, 54 and 55

Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure.  At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task?  Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?

So I tried to resist.  But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep.  It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.

But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me.  It was the Day.

The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.

There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .

There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange.  And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.

So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense.  And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:

The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).

Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai?  They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

In a similar spirit:

The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes.  They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.

One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.    

It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it,  we must become enlightened.

One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.

What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.

If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.

They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof.  They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. 

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.  Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress.  He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still.  Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven.  They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind.   (Psalms 127:23-31).

It is sometimes when we are wrestling  in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.

Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table?  [asked of a verse in Eziekel]

Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.

Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.

Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?

Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel.  The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.

Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.

To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.

Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.

We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.

Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.

I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity.  How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?

And yet, interpretation is not everything:

A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.

Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.

And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it.  How would this be done?

They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.

May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.

Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.

Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.

Rabbi Yochanan said:  If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.

In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.

This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.

How far are we from Goodness? Berakhot 49 and 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we running on empty? Berakhot 40 and 41

Rabbi Zeira, and some say Rabbi Ĥinnana bar Pappa, said: Come and see that the attribute of flesh and blood is unlike the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

The attribute of flesh and blood is that an empty vessel holds that which is placed within it, while a full vessel does not hold it.

The attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, however, is not so, as if God adds to a person who is a full vessel in terms of knowledge or good attributes, he will hold it; a person who is an empty vessel will not hold it.

It is difficult to speak about the state of one’s spirit, of the plane of emotion that runs deeper than the surface.  We are forever employing forms of metaphor that only hint at the feelings, and we hope that we make ourselves understood through their use.

We speak of being high or low, open or closed, sensitive or numb.  And another of the key distinctions we use is between feeling full and empty.

We speak of fullness in terms of an abundance, of love, of energy, of will.  And it can also denote a certain contentment, completeness, peacefulness.

And we make speak of emptiness in terms of exhaustion and lethargy, and also in terms of impatience, irritability and a lack of concern.

What is quite perplexing though, and what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan particularly emphasised, is that out of this absence, out of this emptiness, often emerges desire.  We might have thought that desire springs from a fullness of life, out of a sense of strength and of energy.   But no, it is not so;  in his view desire is born out of emptiness, out of a lack.

We should probably clarify what we mean here by desire.  Desire is not the healthy activity of fulfilling our genuine needs that comes about naturally, that is a basic expression of our personality and life force.  No, desire here is something more alien, something which is sought out in order to fill a void, in order to overcome the emptiness, in order to make us feel real.

Desire in this sense is seeking out stimulation, provocation, excitement, but doing it because we are otherwise too dead, because we are unable to connect with genuine energy, because the reality of our life is simply not what we want it to be, it doesn’t motivate us sufficiently.

To be sure, it is not always easy to distinguish between the healthy activity born of fullness and the desperate desire born out of emptiness.  It is perhaps the hardest thing in life to be able to read our own desire and know whether or not it is real, to discern whether it comes from a place of happiness or a river of sadness.  The words, the ideas, they can help, they are tools, but they never do the job on their own, the work is truly never completed.

But let us leave the question of desire for now and return to the idea of emptiness per se.  As the Talmud observes, physical emptiness is something very different from spiritual emptiness.  Physical emptiness is easily filled, and indeed, once filled, can be filled no more.  There are limits to what can be contained, if we are existing on the purely physical plane.

In the realm of the spirit however, emptiness is not so easily corrected, it becomes a rut, a trap, an inescapable vortex of negative energy.

Fullness however, has a very different dynamic.  Once it is attained, once the winds of inspiration have lifted us, it can continue to grow, to develop, to become richer.

But we can say more than this.  The key to physical containment, to being able to hold on to the love and energy which animate us at times, is the ability to give it spiritual expression.  When we successfully connect the two realms, when we are able to pour ourselves into something much bigger, into something which is greater than us yet intimately related to us, we achieve, quite literally, an expansion of our self.

The vastness of nature, the sense of the sublime, religious imagery of grandeur and infinity –  all of these allow us to stretch out our imaginative muscles, to experience an expansiveness which our purely physical existence precludes.

Rachel Elior suggests that the intricate mystical constructs of the Kabbalists came out of a Spanish Jewry which was oppressed and constricted  by the ravages of the Inquisition.  The physical reality of their lives was so limited, so difficult, that it was only through growing new fields in the imagination that they were able to keep their spirit alive.

Our circumstances are different, but the demands of contemporary life often seem endless and thankless, and we too, in spite of our physical affluence and abundance can often be left trapped and empty.  We too can find nourishment and space by engaging with the world of the spirit, by attempting to connect with something  larger.

One of the things we desperately cry out for at this time of year, in the heightened emotion of the Selichot service, is that God should not take his Holy Spirit away from us – ‘v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu’.  We do not wish to be left abandoned, forsaken, we want to be full, to be complete, to be connected.  We need the possibility of a spiritual grounding in order to maintain and to root our physical lives.

Indeed, we say every day in the Amida, ‘umilfanecha malkeinu raykam al t’shiveinu’ – ‘and from before you, our Majesty, do not return us empty’.  The Divine presence is not something incidental, something that merely surrounds us.  It is something we need to bring inside us, something to combat the emptiness which can otherwise wreak havoc on us and unleash all manner of unholy desires.

And I think it is no co-incidence that we stumble into this discussion in the midst of a discussion of how to say grace after meals.  We seek fullness and satisfaction from food, and to an extent that is of course necessary and right.  But there is always a danger lurking, the possibility that we confuse our spiritual thirst and hunger for something physical, and that we eat in the wrong way, and use food to fill the wrong holes.

In the discourse of fullness and emptiness, the worlds of the physical and the spiritual become enmeshed and entangled.  The Talmud shows awareness of this, and recommends that we always listen, that we attend to what is really happening, and ensure that our responses are the right ones, the wise ones.

The Theatre of Prayer Berakhot 34

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

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

The officer said to him: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage directions continue today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For He Is Merciful, no matter what they say… Berakhot 33

We have been getting quite deeply involved in the emotions and the psyche of late, perhaps it’s been a bit too much for some people, perhaps people feel that prayer needn’t be quite such a voyage of the spirit.  Even in the Talmud we hear voices who think that all this talk of meditation and reflection might be a little too ethereal:

If he did not focus his attention initially, we beat him with a blacksmith’s hammer until he focuses his attention.

As Spud says in Trainspotting, extolling Begbie’s powers of communication, sometimes you’ve just got to get the message across.

We encounter today one of the more troublesome texts in the Talmud, one of those nuggets that is often seized upon for all the wrong reasons.  The Mishna says:

One who says [in his prayers] “You extended your mercy to a bird’s nest”, “May your name be remembered for the good” or “We give thanks, we give thanks”, we silence him.

The reference to the bird’s nest is referring to the law wherein we are commanded to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from her nest, something that looks to be emblematically merciful.

Why should this declaration of praise be problematic?

The Talmud ponders this, and declares that there were two Amoraim arguing about this, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida.

One said, because he might make the rest of creation jealous, [i.e. that God only showed mercy to the birds]. 

This is a harmless enough opinion, nothing offensive about it.

The other said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One into manifestations of mercy, whereas they are nothing but decrees.

Ouch, God is not merciful, all He does is issue arbitrary decrees.

This is the plain meaning of this opinion, and people fall over themselves to bring it up in debate, in an attempt to prove all sorts of things.

Some people learn from it that we are forbidden to enquire into the reasons for the Miztvot, that any such enquiry is both dangerous and doomed.

Others learn from it the more noxious idea that we cannot presume there to be a predominantly compassionate and merciful theme running through the Jewish religion.  We must treat the entire culture as made up of arbitrary decrees, our sympathetic and moral understandings are of no value whatsoever.

We have discussed this point of view in our very first post, and at various points since then we have seen quite how important the spirit of the law is, how powerfully the prophetic underpinnings of the law continue to resonate throughout its discussion and application.

I might even go so far as to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how little there has been to suggest otherwise, how little of this ‘arbitrary religion’ has actually been depicted in the Talmud.

And now, as this problematic little opinion rears its head, I am inclined to say that it is something of an anti-climax.

The Talmud just mentions it and leaves it, it doesn’t treat it as a big deal, it doesn’t declare that we have just been told of a revolutionary and counterintuitive principle.  Even semi-controversial points are often tested and refined by bringing an array of counter-indicative scriptural verses and rabbinic sources.  There is none of that here, we just see it, we’re not even sure which of the Amoraim actually said it, and then we leave it.

Even the story afterwards doesn’t support this principle, all we know is that Abaye was suspicious of someone who mentioned mercy and the nest.  On a simple level, it sounds like his uncle Rabah might actually have thought it was permitted; only a later Talmudic rendition suggests that he agreed with Abaye and was testing him.

We make no effort to square this principle with those of Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, with the endless verses in the Bible which talk about God’s mercy and love.

I’m not saying we have to remove it from the text, but I will say that if someone wishes to build a philosophy of Judaism out of this one lone opinion then they really have their work cut out.  The burden of evidence is firmly in their court, they must marshal many more sources and principles if they wish to justify a hyper-nomian vision of the Jewish religion.

Clearly I’m very worked up about this, why does it bother me so much?

It bothers me on many levels.

For a start, it makes the whole project of the study of Torah devoid of meaning.  If Torah has no moral core, no genuinely Divine ethos, then it is much harder to understand the purpose and value of immersing ourselves in it.

It becomes a purely argumentative and aggressive discipline, a form of jousting, and as we saw in the deposing of Gamilel the other day, that model is simply not acceptable.

To study Torah is both to shed light on it and to be enlightened by it.  It would be a sorry state of affairs if we felt that we were constantly having to justify and apologise on its behalf, that it was offering us nothing in return, that we were not inspired by it.

There is a terrible weakness of faith expressed by those who state that we must not look for the light inside the commandments, out of fear that when we occasionally fail to see it our whole commitment structure will shatter.

And this brings us to the next point – what happens when laws and rules do strike us as offensive, when they do sound morally problematic to us?

The vast majority of what we’ve seen so far in the Talmud suggests that people speak up for what they believe in, that their personal understanding of the religion guides and shapes how they recommend its practice.  Rarely – if ever – have we heard someone say “It strikes me that the essence and spirit of the Law dictate one practice, but I have a tradition of following an opposing one.”  It just doesn’t work that way, they didn’t have the gap between sentiment and obedience that seems to have crept into observant life nowadays.

They had no truck with the idea that understanding was a dangerous game, that probing the moral fabric of a practice would lead to anarchy.

The entrenched resistance we encounter nowadays to genuine and necessary halakhic change, in areas such as agunot, woman’s rights and acceptance of homosexuality, has its roots in the orientation which gives primacy to this one opinion in the text.  The less faith one has in one’s moral compass, the less confident and bold one will be in one’s halakhic innovation.

(I’ve just spotted another level of irony, that the opinion itself is trying to explain a law, that of silencing the utterer.  Perhaps they should have just left that law alone, not presumed to explain it?)

Perhaps I am crying out in vain, perhaps those who wish to cling to that way of thinking will always find justification for doing so.  But for those of us who have greater faith, who believe that faith is something which lives alongside our ethical and intellectual refinement, that it grows as they do, it is important to engage with this text and defuse its potential import.

Coming at it differently, I read recently that Ramban interprets this problematic idea as follows:  God didn’t give us the commandment because of His mercy towards the bird, but because He wishes humans to develop sensitivity and compassion towards the bird.

This is a beautiful way of dealing with this puzzling dictum, Ramban turns the surface reading of God not being concerned with mercy on its head: God is so concerned with mercy that he does not just act to bring it about, or command us to effect it.  Rather, he carefully sculpts his commandments such that they will deeply and genuinely instil this value in us.

May we take the Ramban’s words to heart, may we always experience and emulate the Mercy which is such an important Divine attribute.

And more than this, may we share the Ramban’s faith that Torah is neither offensive nor repugnant, that it is always possible to apprehend the Truth and Beauty at Its core.