Fighting Inequality is a core Jewish Value – Election 2015

This article appeared originally in Haaretz on 01/05/2015  - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.654494

 

The Jewish story begins when a privileged Egyptian prince becomes sensitized to the hardships inflicted on the local slave people. Finding the imaginative capacity to sympathize with them, he eventually decides to liberate this people, irrespective of the cost to his own wellbeing. The ultimate lesson he repeatedly bequeaths to us through his Torah is simple – our fate is bound up with those who are suffering.

It cannot be stated clearly enough: Judaism stands for justice, compassion and equality of opportunity.

So I am deeply perplexed when people tell me that the only legitimate Jewish choice in next week’s U.K. election is to vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives.

And this is not mere anecdote. A recent survey found that only 22% of Jews are planning to vote Labour, with 69% backing the Conservatives.

This is a recent development, for in 2010 the Jewish population was roughly evenly split, with Labour on 31% and the Conservatives on 30%.

The popular account of this is that David Cameron has been a vocal supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, whereas the positions of Ed Miliband have been, in the eyes of many, far less friendly. There is, however, no evidence at all that Labour would respond any differently to the needs of the community, as their previous track record more than amply demonstrates. And questioning Israeli policy is very different from delegitimizing or demonizing it, which Miliband has absolutely not done.

But this election is not about Israel, it is about Britain.

It is about a country where the shape of society is changing, where it is becoming increasingly unequal. And this is the fundamental question in this election: Is one happy about this or does one wish to change it?

Inequality is different from poverty. Helping those in poverty sounds like an optional good deed, and may well be something one does through private means and donations. Perhaps one feels that politics is not the arena in which to be charitable.

Inequality is to do with the distribution of wealth and opportunity in society, which can be measured and tracked statistically. And it appears to be moving in only one direction.

This structural issue is not something that any one person can affect through charity; it is something that only government has the power to tackle.

Only the state can counterbalance the indifferent neutrality of the market economy. Only the law can prevent people being dominated by powerful corporate interests.

And everyone is affected by inequality.

As shown in the 2009’s “The Spirit Level,” unequal societies do worse on nearly every measure. This is because inequality heightens the sense of competition and aggression between people, and makes us relentlessly insecure about the ways we live and the futures we can look forward to.

Inequality is what makes us uneasy when we worry about providing education and health care for our children, about the sorts of opportunities that await them.

The Conservatives have not really engaged with this, sticking to the tired mantra that wealth will somehow trickle down to help everyone.

It doesn’t.

Wealth, like power, has a tendency to concentrate. Once you have some, it becomes a whole lot easier to get more as demonstrated in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital.”

Having wealth allows one to make riskier investments, to employ economies of scale, to undercut the profit margins of competitors. It will often bring influence and access that create subtle but significant advantages.

The only way to tackle this phenomenon is to focus on taxing wealth, as opposed to income. This incentivizes work, whilst reducing the negative and demoralizing effects of aggregation.

This is where the idea of a mansion tax comes in.

There are certainly problems with the mansion tax. It is not clear, for example, why one should tax property rather than other forms of investment.

That said, it is nonetheless a step in the direction towards a society where more people have a chance, where one’s starting point in life doesn’t wholly determine one’s fortunes.

From a Jewish point of view, one could claim that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the Biblical vision, the entire nation’s wealth would be reset every 50 years, via the Jubilee mechanism. Everyone would start again with equal opportunities, whatever the misfortunes and errors of their fathers.

The mansion tax may not be good for Jews, but it certainly has good Jewish pedigree.

For the many Jewish voters in the Finchley and Golders Green constituency, a further twist in the tale finds Labour’s candidate Sarah Sackman to be a committed Jew and a lover of Israel. Sarah explains her own considered perspective by reference to a famous teaching of Hillel that her grandfather drummed into her: “If I am not for me, who will be for me. But if I am only for me, what have I become?”

She interprets this as charging us with a sense of civil responsibility, with ensuring that one’s politics never become solely about the protection of narrow interests.

And it seems to me that the community would do well to reflect on Hillel’s point. Whilst concern about Israel and the community are certainly admirable, if they are all we can worry about, then, truly, what have we become.

Moses didn’t turn up his nose at those less fortunate, but with courage and faith he managed to change the course of human history, in ways that have echoed and reverberated across the centuries.

To be a Jew is to demand no less of ourselves, and to rise to the challenge of in some small way perfecting our world.

The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski has written an article against Partnership Minyanim which I have responded to in Haaretz.  http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

I’d like to add a few further reflections based on his citing ‘meta-halakhic’ considerations in favour of his argument.

I am bothered by this move for many reasons, not least becasue I do not believe he has done justice to the richness of this topic.   I am thus outlining here 13 principles of meta halakha which seem to be relevant to the discussion.  There are links to where I have already written on some of them at greater length.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can begin to help people think about some of the issues involved.

  1. A founding principle of all meta-halakha must be the conviction that there is a spirit and a set of principles which inform halakha, that rigid interpretation will never be enough.  This is the essence of the ongoing debate between Hillel and Shammai as depicted in the Talmud.  Hillel is capable of a more poetic reading, Shammai’s approach is rooted in anxiety and anger.
  2. In a similar vein, that Mishna teaches that we must reflect seriously upon our connection to the Divine before we submit to the rule of the commandments, the mitzvot.  Unthinking rule following is not the aim of halakha.
  3. There is a danger in being  too strict in the way we apply the law, doing so upsets the balance it is supposed to bring too life.
  4. The law should be approached with love, and not only fear.  Excessive caution and the erection of too many boundaries can undermine the purpose and spirit of the law.
  5. There will always be a need for engaged interpretation of the law, the text alone cannot provide definitive answers:      “The relationship between Oral and Written Torah is complex, their side by side existence seems to bespeak the realisation that any written text will always need a living and engaged interpretation, that truth can never be expressed unequivocally once and for all time.The famous story of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s lecture (Menachot 29b) embodies this spirit. Rabbi Akiva is innovatively expounding hundreds of new ideas from the written Biblical text and Moses doesn’t recognise any of them. He starts to weaken out of confusion and distress, before Rabbi Akiva explains to one of his inquisitive students that all of these ideas are ‘Halakha Le’Moses Mi’Sinai’ – ‘a tradition of Moses from Sinai’. Moses recovers his strength, and expresses newfound appreciation for the genius of Rabbi Akiva.          There is a paradox revealed here which lies at the core of Torah – there was a singular moment when God revealed something of his will and vision to Moses and the people at Sinai, but this truth could only ever be partial and would need, by design, to be constantly expounded and renewed by the intellect and creativity of human beings. There must always be variety, for the limits of language are such that no words can ever maintain consistent meaning and purpose across time, their usage and context are forever shifting.”  (from an article I wrote on Limmud, which has other things to say about the abuse of Rabbinic Authority.)
  6.  Compassion must play a major role in our approach to religious life and halakha.  Love and tolerance are vital for Rabbinic leadership, as shown by the failings of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.  (See the section on Shabbat 33.)
  7. Rabbinic authority must be handled with sensitivity and mindfulness.  Placing too many burdens upon the people misses the point and will result in a justified uprising.  This was the undoing of Rabban Gamliel.  His overthrow revealed how damaging his spirit of aristocratic disdain had been.
  8. In line with this, there is a democratic ethos at the core of halakha, it is not divorced from the ongoing and continuous unfolding of the human spirit.
  9. The principle of human dignity – kavod habriyot – is foundational .  It cannot straightforwardly be discarded or limited in scope as the Frimers have argued.
  10. The Halakha is not in heaven, but for human beings to interpret and live.  I have not written up my teachings on this topic, but will offer this quote from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.  I would only add that the famous narrative on Bava Metzia 59b is, for all its radicality, in some ways less shocking than the original formulation of the idea in Deuteronomy 30.  The suggestion there is that it is within reach of every human being, to be found in our hearts and in our mouths.  It is not necessarily subject to the filtering of any authority, Rabbinic or otherwise.

Not in Heaven – Eliezer Berkovits                The law has to formulate general principles; but life situations are always particulars, there is something unique about each of them.  In this sense, every law is to some extent “inhuman”.  The problem is much more serious when the basis of the law is the revealed Word of God, which by its very nature is timeless.  How can an eternal truth and command take notice of the forever-changing needs of the fleetingly uncertain human condition.  God’s revelation was not the absolute Word of God – which could not be received by any human being – but the Word of God addressed to man.   However, if that should have any sense, would it not mean the relativization of the Absolute?

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the process of the application of the Torah to life all through the history of the Jewish people had to be entrusted to man.  It had to be because “the Torah was not given to God’s ministering angels” but to mere man.  Once the Torah was revealed to the children of Israel, its realization on earth became their responsibility, to be shouldered by human ability and human insight.  That is, we suggest, the ultimate meaning of Rabbi Y’hoshua’s bold stand: “The Torah is no longer in Heaven!”  One pays no attention to the voice from heaven in matters of Torah realization on earth.  So it is intended and explicitly stated in the Torah itself.  It could not be otherwise.  The divine truth had to be poured into human vessels; it had to be “humanized”.  Having left its heavenly abode, it had to be accommodated in the modest cottages of human uncertainty and inadequacy.  This, in essence, is the task of the Halakha.  The “humanization” of the word of God requires that in applying Torah to the human condition, one takes into consideration human natures and its needs, human character and its problems, the human condition in its forever-fluctuating dimension, the Jew and the Jewish people in their unique historical reality.

11.  Midrash and Rabbinic interpretation does not always align straightforwardly with Biblical texts, but often radically undermines their meaning.  This should be kept in mind when we think about the ways we approach both Rabbinic and Biblical texts.

“Rabbinic Midrash initiates a subtle game that both pledges a certain allegiance to the biblical text and yet in places radically subverts its original meaning.  A good and pertinent example relates to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai.  In Exodus 19 and 20 it is a thunderous, terrifying and life threatening encounter with God’s singular voice or presence appearing to annihilate the people.  In Shemot Rabba (5:9) and Shir HaShirim Rabba (5:16) the voice is no longer overpowering and singular, but it is heard differently by every individual, and God is suddenly very aware of the potentially destructive power of his communications.

Revelation is thus transformed from a fearsome encounter with an alien force into a more humane and measured encounter with a loving aspect of the Divine, one much more attuned to and aligned with our earthly experience and nature.  There is a deliberate attempt to render the text more human, to validate what every individual makes of his or her experience.  This should be read as a warning against singular and literal appropriations of the Bible:  if God Himself had to revise and recondition his presentation of the materials, surely it is incumbent upon us as readers and educators, and especially as leaders and politicians, to do the same.

The Rabbis are warning that the word of God can be deadly, that it must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility.  They did not appear to adopt the second option espoused in the Facebook conversation – ‘find another book’ – but in many ways that’s exactly what they did: they re-appropriated and re-constituted the Bible through their own readings in the Mishna, Talmud and midrashim, keeping the words of the text, but turning it into a different book.”  (from my essay on how to read the Bible)

12.   The rewards of adhering to halakha can be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, something administered by a Grand Divine Adjudicator.

13.  The Rabbis of ancient times were not always able to fully transcend their environment – no one is – and think critically about the role of women in their world.  I have explored this in these four discussions:

(a)    Regarding time bound mitzvot

(b)   Regarding grace and inclusion

(c)    On the projection of all femininity into Torah, rather than actual women

(d)   On hysteria and the theft of female fertility

 

Exploring the Jewish Psyche – The Educational Challenge of Zionism

(This was originally presented orally to a set of Bnei Akiva parents on Shabbat 22nd June 2014 at Seuda Shelishit.  I was planning to develop it further, but current events, including the Bnei Akiva controversy, have made me feel that it is important to share with only minor editing.)

Over two and a half thousand years ago, in 597 BCE, the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar cemented his new found power in the Ancient World by conquering the land of Israel.  He overpowered the final remnants of the kingdom of Judah and installed a puppet leader in place of the Monarch.  Unwilling to heed the sober political advice of the prophet Jeremiah, the residents of Jerusalem launched a rebellion against the Empire and tried to free themselves from its grip.

There was no fairytale ending.  Babylon used the uprising as a pretext to show its fearsome power and to deter other provinces from rebelling in kind.  In 586 BCE they put Jerusalem under siege, attempting to conquer the city through starvation.  Men, woman and children perished in this gruesome episode; we can only hope that Lamentations was exaggerating when it says that parents were forced into eating the flesh of their dead babies.

As the people weakened, Nebuchadnezzar moved in for the kill.  The walls were breached on the 17th of Tammuz and the army entered the walled city.  Taking control and continuing the slaughter, they completed their rout through the symbolically charged act of defiling the temple and setting it alight.

As the Temple burned in the eyes of the remaining people, they realised in their humiliation that the dream of a republic in Judah had come to a close, around 400 years after King David had initiated it.   Their God would no longer have a home, their worship would no longer have a centre of focus, they would have nowhere to bring their offerings of atonement and thanksgiving.

A dark age of homelessness was beginning.

Unwilling even to allow the orphaned and bereft people to remain in their land, the Babylonians exiled them, taking many civilians – including the brightest and best – with them to Babylon, where they would be put to work in the service of the Empire.  For those who were willing to comply, there was the possibility of a decent life, with opportunities for power, influence and financial reward.  Some no doubt embraced this opportunity, leaving behind the heartache and nightmare that Judean history had become.  Memory was exchanged for membership in a new dynasty, and this willingness to adapt and change yielded favourable results.

For some however, moving on was not so straightforward.  One of the educated scribes and musicians of the time sat on the banks of Babel’s rivers and poured his heart into a paean to the lost world.  Taunted by his captors to provide entertainment with the songs of Zion, he found himself choked and unable, the mere thought of Jerusalem bringing him to tears.  How, he asked, could one possibly sing the songs of the Lord in a strange and alien land.  The music of majesty and splendour could not be recreated in the shattered world of exile, in the uncertainty and rootlessness of ruin.

Binding himself instead to his pain, nursing it with his creativity, he instead composed a new form of music, tragic and broken in tone, a hymn of exile which put loss and longing at its centre.

‘If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand, the symbol and source of my power, be forgotten. 

May I lose the capacity for poetry and song, for music and joy, and may my tongue become stuck in the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember thee, if I fail to place the shadow of Jerusalem at the apex of my life, if I fail to recall her even in my highest moments of joy. 

Joy, indeed, has been stolen from me, perhaps in the future we will love and dance again, the happy voices of bride and groom will return to Judah, but for now it barely seems possible, our souls are frozen in mourning, our hearts devastated by their condition of despair.’ 

In that moment a new Judaism was born.  Not since Abraham bound his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and lifted his knife to murder him, had the Jews had such a vivid sense that their national aspirations might fail to be realised, that the vision of a strong and powerful kingdom might not be their fate.  Moses, in spite of ultimate personal frustration, never doubted that the people would be a powerful Sovereign entity; David and Solomon inherited his vision of historic certitude and laid down the foundations for greatness.  Doubt was banished, their faith in God was strongly aligned with their faith in the triumph of Judaic Civilisation.

Indeed, one might say that Zionism was actually initiated at that moment in Babylon, for only as a lost homeland, as a place to which return was impossible, did the symbolic power of Zion take root in the Jewish Imagination.  From that point on, Jews would cast their mind’s eye towards the Promised Land and dream of happier times, of the return of Divine Protection, of completeness, wholeness and redemption.

But more than the hope of return, it was the sense of loss and incompleteness which had the strongest impact on Jewish civilisation.  We were a people with a full consciousness of our pain, chosen but apparently forgotten, Divinely empowered, and yet, by all worldly measures, utterly powerless.

Perhaps we hoped that in our commitment to remember Jerusalem we would encourage God not to forget us, to keep in mind the fragmented remnant of Israel.

We enacted our pain ritually, at every wedding we quite literally placed Jerusalem above our joy, singing these words – ‘Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim’ – in a variety of haunting melodies before shattering a glass underfoot.  This helped remind ourselves that something about us was broken, something distant and external, but something deep in our souls as well.

When we built a house we left a corner unpainted, for how could we lavishly decorate our own palace while the Divine presence remained homeless and exiled, whilst Its Sanctuary and Temple lay in ruins?

Another moment at which we paused to recall Jerusalem was at moments just like the one we are sharing now, at Seuda Shelishit, the third and final meal of Shabbat.

Shabbat, originally a day of ascetic restraint and even fasting, became for the Jews in exile a day of replenishment and rejuvenation, on the spiritual, emotional and even physical planes.  It came to be described as a taste of the world to come, a temporary refuge in time and space wherein weary and exhausted Jews could pause from their daily lives, a day with an otherworldly feel, wherein the anxieties and concerns of one’s routine could be briefly forgotten, wherein a greater sense of wholeness and completeness could be felt.

The day was welcomed in with enthusiasm and joy, a custom developed wherein people would go out to the fields to welcome the bride, a tradition which lives on in our singing of Lekah Dodi Li’krat Kalah, ‘come my beloved to welcome the Bride’.

But on the other side of Shabbat, as the sun hung low in the sky and the people sensed that Shabbat would soon be leaving them, a different mood set in.  The fullness and temporary sense of redemption would be replaced by the reminder that it must leave them, that the world they inhabited was far from perfect, that pain and longing were the more usual tone of their lives.

At this juncture of transition, a sense of tragedy would overtake them, and songs of melancholy and pining became the order of the moment.  In this mood the mind’s eye turned towards Jerusalem and felt a strong sense of solidarity with its state of ruin, with the sense that it was awaiting the return of its people and God, that it was a deeply unrequited lover.

Im eshkachaich Yerushalayim, If I forget thee Jerusalem, became the finale of this bittersweet medley, leading into psalm 130, which looked forward to the return to Zion.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that one of my strongest and most enduring Bnei Akiva memories is of sitting in a tent in Somerset, barely able to see the person sitting next to me for the darkness, and singing these songs at Seuda Shelishit: Veli’yerushalayim Irkha, Kol Be’rama Nishma, and culminating in Im Eshkachaich.

Jews stayed close to this sense of the tragic, and it served them well for the next 2500 years.

It is hard to sufficiently emphasise the paradoxical notion that this tragedy was the best thing that ever happened to the Jews.  There is a sense in which the entire purpose of the religion was to teach man that he is not omnipotent and invincible, to approach the world with a bearing of humility and respect, which might sometimes become awe and wonder.  It seems however that the temple and its offerings were not quite able to effect this change in the heart of humanity.  Excessive pride in military conquest and inflated arrogance at their own feats of building combined with the corruption of a ruling elite and the complacency of economic success.  All of this served to blunt any capacity for spiritual sensitivity and awareness.

The destruction of the temple however, the memory of crushing defeat and brutal humiliation, these seemed to sow a seed in Judaic consciousness which neither Moses nor Samuel, Hoshea nor Isaiah could effect through their teachings.

Suddenly an awareness was born that we are not entirely masters of our destiny, that we will always be subject to forces beyond our control, that pride and independence might be better replaced with gratitude.  An inner call arose for a more honest reckoning of all the ways in which we are thoroughly and helplessly dependent.

With this new attitude, the people’s ear suddenly learned to hear the words of their prophets and were able to better attend to the needs of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, to the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the wounded.

The tradition recorded many senses in which this new condition of brokenness represented a positive development in the religion:

There is nothing so complete in the eyes of God as a broken heart, said one Hasidic Master.

The Talmud tells us that following the destruction of the Temple the gates of prayer were closed, but that tears alone had the power to open them.

Or, as the contemporary Jewish prophet Leonard Cohen puts it, in every thing there is a crack, that’s how the light gets in.

Another contemporary Jew, Sigmund Freud, writes in his paper Mourning and Melancholia of the importance of a thorough and rigorous process of mourning, of how attending to our sense of loss can prevent the amnesia and arrogance which lead to depression.  One might say that only a Jew could have had this insight, that it is perhaps the singular summation of a profound and important undertone of our civilisation.  The Jew never forgot to mourn, never forgot that loss is a part of life, and that if it can’t be borne it will ruin us.

So, what has all this to do with Zionism and Education?

There is a sense in which Jewish Education began with destruction.  In the dying days of the second temple, around 69CE, the Romans had Jerusalem under siege and were attempting to starve the people into surrender.  The Jews responded as only Jews could , engaging in internal battles and strife.  These culminated in the militant mob, the Biryoni,  burning down the remaining storehouses of grain.

Witnessing this madness, this utter failure of leadership and responsibility, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the Pharisee leaders engaged in diplomacy with the Romans, managed to escape the walled city.  This required his faking his death and leaving in a coffin, a metaphor for his understanding of Judaism at that moment: snowballing suicidally towards its own death, and, to all external appearances, succeeding in self destructing.

Impressing the Roman Emperor Vespasian with his political acumen and foresight, Yochanan ben Zakkai was granted three wishes.  In a moment which sent Judaism in a radically different direction, which gave birth to the religion we now know and practice, he decided to give up hope on Jerusalem and to request, in its stead, permission to establish a small academy of scholars at Yavneh.

Judaism ceased to be a nationalist concern, centred around a temple with a corrupt ruling elite, and became a democratic culture with study and domestic practice at its core.  Suddenly everyone had access to the wisdom and rituals which might enable mankind to engage the Divine, even the humblest amongst them were encouraged to find a teacher and to learn.

Study was a form of nourishment, a way in which a spark of the Divine might find its way into the mind and soul of every individual, a furnace in which the personality and spirit could be refined and improved.  Zion and Jerusalem were lamented, but the religious imagination gradually transformed them into symbols and metaphors, personal ideals which might nourish a person on their own journey through the wilderness.

Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, comments favourably on this as an ‘advance in intellectuality’ for the culture, and even suggests that it had its origins in the prohibition against the formation and worship of physical images of God.  For as long as God is not physical, he must be grasped through the intellect, which will forever stretch our powers of thought and imagination.  Indeed, Yochanan ben Zakkai was perhaps suggesting that the Temple had become another idol, a failed attempt to concretise the Divine in space and time.

So the ideals of Talmud Torah, of the study of God’s Law and Will, are born at this moment in Yavneh, and probably had very little precedent in the earlier life of Israel.  The Talmud may mythologise King David as studying Torah all night long between battles, but we may permit ourselves the understanding that they were projecting their values back into the past.  It seems likely that by the time the great academies of Babylon had been established in 600CE, wherein study and meditation had become the supreme value in Jewish life, it would have seemed incredulous to them that King David could have felt otherwise.

Yochanan ben Zakkai is preparing the Jews once more for exile, for a different sort of life, one which will allow them to survive and grow in the different cultures they would inhabit and to make positive contributions to a broader society.  The universalism of Isaiah might once more triumph over the nationalistic narrowness of Ezra and Nechemiah, who had led the Jews in the early days of the Second Temple and had embarked on a quest for racial purity and exclusion.

For eighteen hundred years this culture of study and practice flourished, absorbing and influencing a wide variety of host cultures, sustaining the Jews and enabling them to lay down roots wherever their travels took them.

In the late nineteenth century, as Jews began to despair of diaspora life and started to dare to dream of an actual physical return to Zion, this culture of personal study and development was threatened.  Its symbolic code, its map of the interior world, borrowed as they were from the images of Zion, Jerusalem and the Temple, were suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

A burning question suddenly emerged – could the culture survive this re-materialisation of its objects?  The national religion of the Israelites had been transformed into Judaism through a process of de-Zionisation.  Could it survive a very material and literal re-Zionising?

Or, to frame it differently, Yochanan ben Zakkai had shifted the focus of the religion from the Bible to the Talmud.  How would we survive the return to the Biblical landscape, to the temptations of Biblical thinking?

The earliest signals were not good.  The majority of the early Zionists did indeed view the new movement as replacing any need for the pieties and tenderness of what came to be known as ‘the old Judaism’.  As well as the physical efforts and sacrifice to settle the land, there was a blossoming intellectual and spiritual renaissance amongst the Zionists, which largely ignored the rich inner world cultivated in the diaspora past.  Some amongst them viewed their project as a Nietzschean overcoming of Jewish weakness and victimhood, and found it difficult to even speak of the ravages of Jewish History.

Judaism was to be forgotten, and it would be replaced with the spirit of the Ancient Israelites.  Any sense of loss and incompleteness was banished, and a Secular Messianism,  a Nationalist Utopian vision took root in its place.

For the most part, the Jews of Europe viewed this as a straightforward alternative, one became a Zionist or one stayed religious.  There were, to be sure, pockets of support amongst traditional communities for the Zionist project, but there was little serious attempt to tackle the educational and religious challenge it presented.

One notable exception to this trend was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Born in modern day Latvia in 1865, he was recognised early on as a Talmudic prodigy and went to study at the radical and ground-breaking Volozhin yeshiva.  Even before he arrived in Israel in 1904, he was fascinated by the Zionist phenomenon, though he couldn’t quite agree with its self-understanding as a movement divorced from the Jewish Religion.

He was profoundly moved by the vision of young Jews jeopardising their lives to resettle the land of Israel, to drain swamps and endure hostility, to establish communes with an agenda of radical social justice.  They seemed to embody the best of the Biblical Spirit, and he could neither disdain nor feel threatened by this.

On the other hand, he was very conscious of what was being discarded by the Zionist movement, of the part of their heritage they were sacrificing.  He could see that in their youthful impatience, in their passion for accessing the spiritual through physical labour, they couldn’t begin to fathom the value of the Jewish life of their Diaspora ancestors, that it seemed petty, limiting, superstitious.

Familiar with the ideas of Hegel, he suggested that Judaism found itself at a moment of critical historical tension.  In a sweeping vision of Jewish History, he proposed that the Israelites of the Bible had been doomed to failure because their religion was always cultic and external, rooted in physicality, it had never found its way into their hearts, into the rhythms and textures of everyday life.

The long and difficult exile, fuelled by the sense of longing and loss, had allowed something deeper and richer to develop.  The challenge now was to bring these two worlds together, Biblical and Talmudic Judaism, the religions of the Israelites and that of the Rabbis.  If it could be done, then something beautiful and redemptive could be achieved, but it would be a struggle, and would require willing, effort and understanding from both sides.

Eventually becoming the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Rav Kook’s ideas were appreciated and welcomed by many in Israel, from all the diverse strands of society.  But whilst he foresaw the challenges that lay ahead, his uniquely imaginative and inclusive vision were not granted to Israel for long enough, dying as he did in 1935, just as matters in Europe and Palestine were becoming critical.

Some of you may be surprised to hear me speak of Rav Kook as sensitive to this tension, for his name has become identified with the Settler movement and the branch of Religious Zionism which holds the complete Land of Israel as an unimpeachable and absolute value.  This right wing tendency would seem to be an instance of the powers of Zionism overcoming the patient spiritual discipline of Diaspora Judaism, of Messianic fervour erupting which leaves no place for the pining and humility which became the hallmark of Jewish Civilisation.  In our basic terms, it seems to priorities Zionism over Education, the Land over the Spirit.

But before we consider the tale of how his followers were seduced by the physicality of the Land, how it became – some controversially claimed – a new idol for them, a contemporary Golden Calf, let us consider its allure and appeal even to the most hardened secularists in the Zionist movement.

An illustrative moment here is the conquest of Jerusalem as part of the six day war in 1967.  Whilst we tend to remember the war as a glorious victory, which brought territorial gains and a resurgence of national confidence to the people, we sometimes forget the extent to which it was a battle for the survival of the state and its people.  With survival the first priority for the political and military leadership there were many among them who did not see any value in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites.  Yet other protagonists, particularly those who found themselves drawing physically close to the Old City, were suddenly overwhelmed by the notion of Jews returning to the Temple Mount, and found themselves helpless to resist its pull.

In a recent book describing these events and their aftermath, Yossi Klein Halevi describes the moment that General Motta Gur, who was leading the legendary Paratroopers,  first glimpsed the Temple Mount from a distance:

Motta sat on the ground and gazed at the walled city. It was a bright, cool morning, and the sun was on his back. The gold and silver domes of the Temple Mount glowed before him. He closed his eyes, as if in prayer. He was about to enter the Jewish pantheon, along with King David, who’d conquered Jerusalem and turned it into his capital; Judah the Maccabee, who’d purified the Temple after its desecration by the Hellenists; Bar Kochba, who’d thrown himself against Rome and lost the Jews’ last desperate battle for Jerusalem. Then came the centuries of enforced separation, landscape transformed into memory. And now landscape was re-emerging from dream, shimmering back into tangible reach.

His was not the only secular heart to melt on beholding this mythical vision.  As the first of the Paratroopers arrived on the Temple Mount they placed an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock.  This was sacred Jewish ground, they felt, and they were going to pronounce it loudly.  It was only when Defence Minister Moshe Dayan saw the flag that he insisted they take it down, for he knew that this could bring the whole Middle East into the flames of a holy war.

But it was not only the Muslim world he should have  worried about, for within the Jewish world the re-unification of Jerusalem signalled the beginnings of national division.  It gave rise amongst some to a Messianic spirit, an absolutist overconfidence and impatient omnipotence which left no room, as it never does, for the more humdrum and domestic tasks of building a nation.  The vision of a people centred around a rich humanism, exemplifying the spiritual sensitivity cultivated in Exile, couldn’t satisfy the demand for the history-shattering total-redemption of the Messianic Imagination.

It was a case of Apocalypse Now, for the intentions of God had become clear to The Chosen.

Returning to Rav Kook, his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook became the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim, a Movement for the settling and retaining of the entirety of the Holy Land.  Coming from the opposite direction, my own Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, emphasised a different aspect of the elder Rav Kook’s teaching, and emphasised the balancing of values, with the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish people, anchored in the depths of the Torah’s wisdom, occupying a much more prominent role.

These splits didn’t happen overnight, but unfolded over the course of many years.  A watershed moment in its development was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  Rabin was the warrior turned peace maker, the Army Chief of Staff in 1967 who had dared to begin a process wherein territorial concession might bring about a new era in the Middle East.

The assassin, a religious Zionist former yeshiva student named Yigal Amir, had been goaded by a string of Rabbis of right wing orientation.  They had labelled Rabin a rodef, or a moser, one who endangers Jewish lives or betrays Jewish values.

Perhaps the darkest hour in Religious Zionist history, with echoes of those dark days of the Second Temple, the nation was threatening to fall apart.  I remember visiting the coffin in waiting of Yitzchak Rabin as it lay outside the Knesset for 24 hours.  I felt deeply self-conscious and uncomfortable in my kipa sruga, my knitted kipa, the identifying sign of the Religious Zionists.  As secular Israelis sat around candlelit vigils and shed tears, I felt the divide sharply, as an internal spiritual crisis, and also as a call for serious soul searching.

I remember feeling proud and relieved when Rav Amital was called by the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres into the Cabinet, and was tasked with rebuilding relations amongst the Jews, of promoting dialogue and understanding amongst both sides.

In spite of some successes, the tensions continue to this day, and it is deeply saddening that the current situation has only inflamed some of these antagonisms, and has seen the emergence of racism, hate, and vengefulness in some – and not only the religious – strands of Israeli society.  A perception of  the split nation has led some commentators to speak of a divide between the State of Jerusalem and the State of Tel Aviv.

But I am not here to speak about politics, I am here to speak about education, in as much as the two can be kept apart.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am interested in the kind of education, and of religiously oriented education in particular, which can promote a politics of healing and togetherness, which can bridge the rifts in the Jewish world and return us to the vision of Yochanan ben Zakkai.  He understood that the disagreements of scholars, the spiritual depths developed through the dialectics of study, could actually bring peace to the world, and could overcome the tendency towards infighting and self destruction.

But returning to our starting point, to our vision of the  young poet sitting on the banks of the River Babylon, I also want to resist the idea that all of education should become subservient to political and nationalist aims, however noble and conciliatory they might be.  Education is the legacy we bequeath to our children, and the milk with which we continue to nourish ourselves as adults.

It is the medium wherein we learn as children to approach the world with hope and optimism, but wherein we also come to terms with the inevitable disappointments and tragedies that befall us, with the sense that life will never be complete, that the Messiah might be perpetually delayed.

It is the nurturing environment in which we come to actualise the full potentiality of our talents and capabilities, but also the one wherein we accept that we cannot do everything, that we are not omnipotent, that our strength and daring will not be able to overcome all obstacles.

It is the fertile soil wherein we proudly celebrate the remarkable achievements of great individuals and civilisations, wherein we learn pride in our own endeavours, but wherein we also become acquainted with humility and gratitude, with the capacity to cope with disappointment.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke of child rearing as beginning with a process of generating illusion followed by a phase of gradual disillusionment.  We need to fill children with love and energy and faith in the future, and in their earliest years we do this without reservation, hoping to securely anchor them in the world and ensure their psychic survival.

But at a certain point, the kindest thing we must do for them is to facilitate their disillusionment, their realisation that life is not a series of fairy tales, that whilst they might be mummy or daddy’s special princess, the world will not always be so abundantly hospitable towards them.  We offer them this gradual disillusionment to avoid the alternative: a sudden and catastrophic disillusionment in the future.

As Jews, in whom the spirit of the religion and of Zionism burn strongly, as creatures who inhabit a world of complex and intricate myth and legend, we are forever walking the tightrope between an excess and a deficit of illusion.  We may stroll through the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem, yet in our minds and prayers there is a symbolic Jerusalem lying in ruins, an abandoned and forgotten widow.

There are no easy answers for how to walk this tightrope, and nor should there be, but it is my hope and prayer that through becoming conscious of this complexity, through exploring and engaging with the richness of our history and philosophy, that we might navigate it in a way which lives up to our tradition’s loftiest aspirations.

‘Lo alekha ha’melakha ligmor’ said Rabbi Tarfon, ‘the task is not yours to complete’, a powerful warning from a man who witnessed the destruction of the second Temple.  Not only should you not expect to complete it, but perhaps completion is not even the proper aim and endpoint, perhaps there must always be room for an enduring sense of incompleteness.

‘But’, he continues, ‘ve lo ata ben chorin le’hibatel mimena’, but neither are you free to desist from it, to abandon it, to forget about the project and engage in trivial pursuits which squander your gifts and resources.

Education never ends, neither the education of our children nor the education of ourselves.  May we be blessed to make a modicum of humble progress, finding space for the symbols of history and the realities of the present, balancing the demands of the nation with the spiritual development of the individual.  May our Zionism only serve to enhance our Education, and may our attachment to our nation and children only deepen our resolve to improve the world at large.

 

I wish to thank Professor Aaron Koller for some helpful suggestions, and Professor William Kolbrener for many discussions on these themes.  And, as ever, my wonderful wife Emily Simon, for everything. 

On Hating Margaret Thatcher (not directly Talmud related…)

In Greek mythology, Pandora is famous for opening a box which unleashed greed, envy and hate upon the world.  Once they were out the box, there was no way to get them back in again, and they became an enduring part of the fabric of human existence.  We are all plagued by them, and as the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis has shown us, they are so perniciously ubiquitous that our only response can be to live in constant denial of them.

Klein also showed that we all hate the parts of us that are hateful, and that we disown them and project them onto others.  Rather than own the hate/envy we feel, it is much more palatable to claim that some other person is envious/hateful, that they are the real problem and troublemaker.

Be wary of the one who points out hate in everyone, for it may be their own hatred that they are struggling with.

I have been taken with the idea that Margaret Thatcher turned out to be something of a Pandora figure in our recent history.  Whether wittingly or not, she helped frame an economic ideology which allowed people to justify and celebrate greed, selfishness and avarice.  Under her watch it became popular to believe that everyone should only worry about themselves, that society was not as important as assumed, that the market would take care of everything.

Again, she may not have intended this, but so it happened, and it was certainly not a co-incidence.

I’m not really interested in the various counterfactual histories that have been flying around over the past ten days – ‘If she hadn’t done this, where would we be?’ or ‘The trade unions and inefficient industry would have destroyed this country’.  It seems clear to me that we can never and will never know quite how much truth or falsehood resides in these claims – economic history of actual events is hard enough, let alone that of imagined events.

I will say though that the idea that ‘she did what was necessary’ irks a little; the assumptions in this Thatcherite thought reveal how economic thinking gradually came to trump and overpower human and social thinking.  This paved the way for the legitimisation of the socially destructive emotions outlined above.

But I digress.  What I want to say is that these emotional ills were not unleashed upon the world in abstract, but they were unleashed within each and every one of us.  Growing up – as I did – in the world where ‘greed is good’ – meant that we were actually encouraged to find and feed the greed inside of us, to find the aggressive and demanding voice which wanted to just take and take from the world.

I’m aware that it was actually the fictional Gordon Gekko who uttered those words, and that Oliver Stone intended them to be taken as satire, but the fact is that they stuck, and they stuck because they captured the spirit of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America.

Once greed is unleashed it triggers a nasty and vicious cycle of competitive selfishness, where if one person isn’t keen enough to further their interests, and wastes too much time dreaming about helping the unfortunate other, they are only going to fall behind and suffer.  Greed snowballs, and leads to the disintegration of the co-operative and collective spirit needed to preserve and better society.

But again, it’s not her that we hate, it’s what she made us into, what she made us become – selfish, rational economic agents, who knew and understood that the bottom line was that money mattered, that the markets were God.

When we hate her we are hating an unattractive and difficult aspect of ourselves, the darkness inside, and she becomes a convenient scapegoat, because she helped create the conditions which allowed us to become tainted in our own eyes.

We project our unpalatable self-hatred onto the helpless image of a now deceased politician.

When I think about Thatcher I can think about the deep recession she presided over which closed down our family business and left my father out of work.  And I can think about the subtle ways the ideology she ushered in helped persuade me to give up my Philosophy PhD and follow Gordon Gekko into the world of finance.  And it’d be tempting to jump on the hatred bandwagon.  But ultimately I now see that it’s my own failing I’m uncomfortable with, my own sense of maybe things should have been different, that maybe I could have done better.

It’d be great to have a figure of evil in the world, a source of all wrongdoing which abdicated us of the responsibility for our failures.  But there isn’t, we all exist on a precipice, and we are always going to be challenged and sometimes overwhelmed by the forces of evil that reside in us.  We need to own and understand those, for only then can we be alive to the one thing that was left in Pandora’s box – the promising possibility of hope.

You gotta fight – for your right – to party Berakhot 9

The other week I found myself reading the obituaries section of the Jewish Chronicle – insert opinion of said paper at this point – and couldn’t help but notice the strange incongruence of the two people being written about.  On top was Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a prominent Haredi rabbi in Israel.  Underneath him was Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, a hip hop band that came out of New York in the 80s – no surprise – made up of white Jewish kids who had attended MTA – pretty suprising.

Sober, monastic Rabbi – outgoing colourful Hip Hop star.  Can we imagine a greater contrast?  Rabbis aren’t into partying, are they?

Maybe not so much nowadays.  But I’ve noticed in the Talmud that there seems to be quite a lot of it going on, and no one seems to be making much attempt to cover it up.

Going back to the very first Mishna – the text in which the Oral Law begins to be written down, the moment wherein Rabbinic Judaism is born – and we find nothing less than Rabban Gamliel’s sons returning from a ‘house of drinking’.  Some seem to translate it as a ‘wedding feast’, I’m not sure why, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that it must have been quite a party.  When they asked their father if they could still say the Shema, his response was:

If the dawn has not yet broken, you are obligated to recite it.

If the dawn has not yet broken!  This was a late one indeed! Oh to be young again, partying til the break of dawn!

Is it irreverent that I’m reminded of Jim Morrison’s words ‘No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn’?  It seems that Rabban Gamliel’s sons didn’t intend to waste the dawn, they were going to get on with it and say Keriat Shema, so long as their father would allow them.

What does all of this mean?  We begin the Talmud with a discussion of the Shema, whose themes of love, memory and Divine intimacy I’ve expounded at length in recent days.  Then, in the first story we choose to tell, we put it in the context of some young Rabbinic aristocrats who like to party.  Forgive me for insisting that there’s a message here, but either deliberately or unconsciously, this mishna reveals something about the early Rabbinic attitude towards life.

What we are seeing here is the complete continuity and includedness of all of the emotions we might experience in life.  We have moments of quiet reflection, periods whose stillness and seriousness give us a glimpse of a shadow of the Divine.  And then there are boisterous moments, loud and colourful and exuberant moments, wherein our spirits soar, our self consciousness wanes and something of our earnest piety simply fades away.

It’s not that we (necessarily) embark on a rampage of illicit and deviant behaviour, it’s simply that we’re no longer in such close contact with the part of the soul that lives and feels in that way.  We’re in a different world, a different rhythm and dynamic is enlivening us, fresh and alluring possibilities seem to be opening up in front of us.

There’s something suspicious about people who don’t know how to party.  I have a wise friend who once said that she didn’t trust anyone until she’d seen them drunk.  What are people afraid of?  What unknown parts of themselves do they not dare bring to the light of day?

Perhaps the Rabbis sensed that the greatest challenge to religion, to moral and spiritual development, is not heresy, nor is it even nihilism.  Rather, it is simply high spirits, the good life, an easy happiness fuelled by alcohol, music, dance and whatever else might come into the mix.

And so, from the beginning, they grappled with this.  What they’re saying in this story is : ‘What do we do about the youth of today, all they like doing is drinking and partying?  How can we bridge these seeming incompatible modes of living?’

And the answer?  Simple.  There is no incompatibility.  Rabban Gamliel says:

“You went to the party.  Good.  You had fun.  Good.  You burned it up until nearly dawn.  Good.  If it isn’t dawn yet, say the Shema – what did you think, that God isn’t interested in those who party?  Do you think there is no connection, no compatibilty between your highest Joy and the love of your Creator, the love of life which manifests itself most fully in euphoric happiness?

Do you not see that you are perhaps never better qualified than now, when you hearts have been purified through the rigours of music and dancing to sing the praises of the Divine, to connect with and cleave to your highest ideals?  Verily, young men, Jim Morrison was right, do not waste this dawn, in this very moment you may find your eternal reward, you may have had a taste of something sublime to which you might now give expression through the Shema.”

Amen to that Rabban Gamilel!

Here on page 9, we encounter another story of drunken Shema inquiries.  A pair of Sages got drunk at the wedding of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s son and either fell asleep or were too drunk to say the Shema.  Later on, they asked the Rabbi if they could still say the Shema.  Again, his answer was ‘yes’.  Without any hint of disapproval or rebuke, the answer is a simple ‘yes’.  You performed a great mitzva by rejoicing at my son’s wedding, now you may perform another one by reciting the Shema.  God is there for the broken hearted, but do not make the mistake of thinking that those are the only ones whom he holds dear.

In the Shema we remember, and it is a tremendous shame if we only engage with memory in difficult times, in sober times, at points in our lives when we are needy.  Let us remember when we are happy, when we have partied, let us use the sunshine of those moments to shed light and colour on all that we might encounter in the deep rivers of memory.

Later on the Daf we encounter further support for this sentiment:

R. Ela said to ‘Ulla: When you go to Babylonia,give my greeting to my brother Rav Berona in the presence of the whole college, for he is a great man and rejoices to perform a mitzva properly.  Once he succeeded in joining prayer and redemption,  and a joyous smile did not leave his lips the whole day. 

Joy can improve our prayer, and prayer can be redemptive and lead to joy.  Rav Soloveitchik gives a profound analysis of this prayer/redemption connection in Prayer, Redemption and Talmud Torah.  But I’m pretty sure Rav Berona wasn’t thinking any of that, he was simply overwhelmed with joy.  In his wisdom he knew that that joy would only bring him closer to the Divine, that it was the perfect complement to a life of appreciation and thoughtfulness.

God wrestles with His anger – Berakhot 7

R. Johanan says in the name of R. Jose: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.

It is not said, ‘their prayer’, but ‘My prayer’; hence you learn that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers.

So God prays.  On one level we may read this as fanciful projection, a kind of anthropo-what, anthropopractice?

But one another level there’s something interesting here.  If prayer is simply presenting requests to the all powerful God then this makes no sense.  But if prayer is a confession of vulnerability, of fallibility, of neediness, then it makes more sense.  God is no more complete than we are, the Kabbalists tell us that that’s precisely why he created mankind.  God cries out because he senses his need, and we too cry out for the same reason, because we need to cry out, not because we know what happens to our cries.

And in the place of prayer, joy.  We may pray in distress, but somehow, in its wake, we are left with joy.

What does He pray? — R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My other attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice’.

Wow.  God is indeed a tortured soul, wrestling with his anger, trying hard to find the compassion which might keep it in check.

God’s anger is a difficult concept, again, we are often tempted to view it as anthropopathy, the wrongful projection of our own failings.

Abraham Joshua Heschel takes a different view, something I found very pertinent this year on Tisha B’Av:

The wrath of God is a lamentation…God is not indifferent to evil.

He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man.

This is one of the meanings of the anger of God:  the end of indifference.  (The Prophets p365)

God’s anger speaks of the reality of the reaction against evil.  To not react is to be complicit, to embrace a genuine nihilism.  As long as we react, as we long as experience some sting in the face of injustice, there is hope, the Divine has not entirely left us.

And later on we see an awareness of the power and importance of this conscience:

R. Johanan further said in the name of R. Jose: Better is one self-reproach in the heart of a man than many lashes, for it is said: And she shall run after her lovers … then shall she say, I shall go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now.

R. Simon b. Lakish says: It is better than a hundred lashes, for it is said: A rebuke enters deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred stripes into a fool.

The theme of anger continues, we are told that it is not wise to placate a person whilst he is in the throes of his anger.

A person’s anger is always a reaction to something.  Only once they have acted it out, experienced it, moved beyond it, can they begin to understand it.

What we don’t give expression to will always remain somewhat unconscious.  In therapy we try to bring things to life, only then can we analyse and understand them.

In a later discussion, there is the woeful suggestion that there is an explanation for the suffering of the righteous.  It pains me to report it, but the suggestion is that either they are being punished for the sins of their fathers, or that they are not in fact completely righteous.

I can’t tell you how relieved I am that Rabbi Meir rejects this opinion:

For R. Meir said: ‘And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious’, although he may not deserve it, ‘And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’,  although he may not deserve it.

The inscrutability of the Divine, of life as we know it, is left, respectfully, intact.

I suppose that in theory there is something noble in the insistence of justice in the world, in the conviction that the righteous can’t just suffer meaninglessly.  Maybe in theory.  In practice, it just comes across as grotesque, as an insult to everything that is true and good in life.

Why when I called, was there no answer? – Berakhot 6

Different approach today, just some little things from the Daf which caught my eye.

The page picks up a discussion started on 5b:

When two people enter a Synagogue to pray, and one of them finishes his prayer first and does not wait for the other but leaves, his prayer is torn up before his face.

On one level the Talmud is hinting at a level of physical danger, but I also think it’s talking about some kind of existential isolation, the destruction of communion.  There are moments in religious life for going it alone, but when two people begin something together, the idea seems to be that the communal spirit and energy is essential to its completion, one should stick around and wait for his friend.

What is the benefit of waiting?  The blessings of this verse:

If only you had listened to My mitzvoth then your peace would be as a river, and your righteousness as the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:18)

Great imagery, and a real emphasis on the value of patient compassion, ‘if only…’.  There’s an injunction to slow down, to alter the pace of our attentions and expectations.

The method of the Talmud really strikes me here. It makes this abstract value very concrete, and hence, I believe, much more memorable.  We may well quickly forget a discourse on ‘patient compassion’, but the image of the guy abandoning his friend in shul will linger for a while.

On another note – this time finding some virtue in being alone:

And how do you know that even if one man sits and studies the Torah the Divine Presence is with him? For it is said: In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and I will bless you.

This contrasts with previous verses in the discussion, where God seems to already be present where people study.  In this case, for one individual studying on his or her own, God makes the effort to come to them and bless them, He makes the move.  I like that, the concern of the Alone for the alone, the warm maternal embrace one can find through engagement.

Another thing.  About a year ago I left my job, and was suddenly able to start attending shul again on weekdays morning, something I very much enjoyed.  At first I felt a bit of a stranger, people assumed it was a brief flirtation, but after a while they realised I was likely to be around for a while.  One day, I came home and told my wife that I knew I was part of the crowd now, I’d been accepted.  She asked how I knew, and I said ‘simple, today they started abusing me for being late!’.

That morning camaraderie is captured in the following:

If a man is accustomed to attend Synagogue daily and one day does not go, the Holy One, blessed be He, makes inquiry about him.

Brilliant – God Himself is paying close attention to who is and isn’t turning up at minyan!

It goes without saying that we have to read this in the right spirit, neither too literally nor punitively.  But I think there is truth here, that some part of the group dynamic, the community spirit, is disturbed even by one person not turning up.  When the group is well, something Divine is in their midst.

And again – ‘If a man is accustomed…’.  This only applies if you’re already in the game, if you’re playing.  We’re not legislating universally here, we’re just reflecting on the shared experience of an extremely particular culture, a quite unique form of life.  This is how it is for us.  That’s all.

Continuing God’s intimate involvement in synagogue life:

R. Johanan says: Whenever the Holy One, blessed be He, comes into a Synagogue and does not find ten people there,  He becomes angry at once.  For it is said: Why, when I came, was no one there? Why when I called, was there no answer?

Good to know that God feels the same way about prayer that we sometimes do – ‘Why was there no answer?’.  It’s a two way thing, both parties need to ‘turn up’ for anything to happen.

Finally, to end on a warm and fuzzy note:

R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greet him, he should greet him first.  For it is said: Seek peace and pursue it.

And if his friend greets him and he does not return the greeting he is called a robber. For it is said: It is you that have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Lessons in social lubrication – the value of approaching friends – and strangers too – with a warm and welcoming disposition.  To spoil the vibe is to ‘eat up the vineyard’, to engage in a form of social stealing, a draining of the well of goodwill which keeps things going.

What can we do about suffering?

Rava, and some say Rav Chisda, proposes the following approach to suffering: ‘If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions, as it is stated ”We will search and examine our ways, and return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).

In the Steinsaltz elucidation the following phrase is added by way of explanation: ‘Generally, suffering comes about as punishment for one’s transgressions.’

This deeply upsets me, on many levels.

First of all, it certainly does not correlate with my experience of reality, nor with my understanding of history.  The righteous have suffered, do suffer and will, in all likelihood, often suffer in the future.  So I take it to be untrue, and certainly not something I should accept as a given.

Secondly, Rava was not suggesting that suffering comes as a result of transgressive behaviour.  To put these words in his mouth is to trivialise the original and profound point he is making.

Rava is suggesting that a creative and constructive response to suffering might be to engage in some meditation on the way one has behaved in one’s life.  Suffering may overwhelm us, it may make us into a victim or kick-start a vicious cycle of depressive paralysis.  He is suggesting that we should avoid this by engaging the active parts of the psyche in some thoughtful introspection.  By moving swiftly back into the role of agent, we may allay the onset of these negative effects.

And perhaps he is saying more than this, perhaps he has noticed that when we suffer we are often quite raw – our thick skin is shed, our inflated ego is a little less inflated and our everyday defences are down.  At such a time, moral reflection might just be particularly effective, we may see things with an honesty that sometimes eludes us.

This is very much borne out by the verse he uses as support, a verse from Lamentations, written in the immediate aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and the first exile of the Jewish people.  This was a period of deep hopelessness, and all one could do was to turn inwards, and try to find an internal way of improving the world.

Yes, there are many prophetic passages suggesting that the Israelites were being punished for their various sinful acts – though even here a careful reading may support the idea that the diminishing of society’s moral fabric was the source of the people’s ruin.  But the mood of Lamentations goes beyond that, I do not believe that the author who writes so movingly about mothers eating the flesh of their children believed that they were doing so as punishment for failing to keep God’s Law.

In the rhythm of the Jewish year, we move almost immediately from commemorating the despair of this destruction into a period of renewed soul searching in preparation for the new year.  That is what we do.  We do not understand suffering, but we do respond to it.  Suffering may trouble us deeply, it may shake our faith in the goodness and love that constitute our world.  But we must find space for that, we must not try to write it out of reality, thinking that we are thereby somehow doing God a service.

If we need to deny meaningless suffering, then I would suggest, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that we need to deny it because we cannot bear it ourselves, because we cannot bear to live in a world where it happens.  I do not think that such denial is irrational or unreasonable.  But we should know that it is denial and we should own it.

So, returning to Steinsaltz, that comment completely distorts the meaning of Rava’s idea.  It both trivialises it and makes it somewhat repugnant.  It turns Rava into a denier of reality and presents him as incapable of responding to suffering with honesty and sensitivity.

What bothers me more, I think, is that I don’t believe for a second that Rav Steinsaltz meant to do this.  He is a prolific scholar whose work in bringing the Talmud to a broader readership has benefitted many thousands, myself included.  But it seems to me that he perhaps makes the comment unthinkingly, and that it reflects what is generally taken to be ‘the religious position’ or ‘the orthodox view’.

As I hope I have made clear, I consider the view of suffering as caused by transgression as deeply problematic, not least because of the punitive and unloving image of God it must assume.  Rava’s view, understood correctly, is a profound contribution to the consideration of suffering, and reflects the best ways that religious thinkers might approach the issue.

The Talmudic discussion continues, and proves to be very rich.

After considering some approaches to soul searching, it concludes that sometimes one will not find anything problematic.  We are surely to read this as a statement of the difficulty and intractability of our moral reflection, it cannot be that the Talmud thinks there are many people who will genuinely not benefit from some consideration of their lives.

That said, the Talmud’s response is fascinating, in such a case ‘he may be confident that these are afflictions given out of love, as it says ‘For God rebukes those that He loves, as does a father the son in whom he delights.’’

This is both baffling and brilliant.  It is baffling that God might choose to chastise those whom He loves.  (The verse may be suggesting that such Divine behaviour might mirror the disciplined and structured love with which a father must raise his child, but it’s still quite baffling.)

And yet it is brilliant.  It is suggesting that when confronted with inexplicable suffering we must avoid the temptation of nihilism, of experiencing the cosmos as cold and uncaring, of feeling the universe to be indifferent and random.  As physicists we might endorse such a view, but as human beings our psyches do not deal in neutrality.  The world is either loving or it is cruel, it is welcoming and inviting or it is forbidding and threatening.  To this dichotomy, to the childlike layer of the unconscious which can only think in this way, the Talmud responds with love.  ‘It may be hard to see, it may be even harder to feel, but believe, if you are to believe anything, that the world is a place of love, that Life is sustained by compassion.  This is the meaning of religion.’

It is a relief to see that the Talmud then discusses how hard it is to maintain such an attitude.  It acknowledges that we will usually fail to attain it.

And then it continues.  We meet Rabbi Yochanan, whose suffering in life included burying ten of his sons.  Rabbi Yochanan is not convinced that this is affliction given out of love, and argues against those who try to convince him that it is so.

The Talmud continues, in its style, to imaginatively play out the argument with Rabbi Yochanan, to come up with proofs that he didn’t mean what he said.  But there is no indication that Rabbi Yochanan would have accepted these arguments, nor, in my opinion, is the Talmud insisting that we accept them.  They are offered, we may take them or leave them.  I personally choose to leave them, I think Rabbi Yochanan has the right to speak honestly of his experience.

And then, in a suggestion that the Talmud – and it’s by now unclear what I mean by this: The redactors?  The text?  The imagined authority that we have by now invested in this book? – accepts his non compliance it relays three fascinating stories.

In all three stories, Rabbi Yochanan is visiting someone sick or is the recipient of such a visit.  In all three stories, the visitor asks the sufferer: ‘Are these sufferings dear to you, are you enjoying them?’.

The sufferer responds: ‘Neither the sufferings, nor their purported benefits, are bringing me much joy’.

At that point, something magical happens, and they are healed.

I love this.  After plumbing the depths of suffering, after suggesting profound approaches to dealing with it, the discussion ends on a very human note:  Suffering is bad and we don’t enjoy it.  We shouldn’t over romanticise it and we shouldn’t pretend it will always bring out the best in us.  Sometimes it sucks, and we just want it to pass.