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.

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