Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Appreciation: Poetry, Nature and Wine Berakhot 42 and 43

We spoke recently about gratitude, about how it is at the core of our concern with berakhot, blessings, how it plays a role in the transition between the physical and the spiritual, how it bridges the emotional and the intellectual.

Gratitude is quite profound, it requires perhaps a certain level of seriousness, of mindfulness.

It’s younger, rambunctious cousin, appreciation, is a different beast altogether, albeit one with which it is intimately connected.

Appreciation is perhaps more of a spontaneous aesthetic phenomenon, an instinctive response of the soul.  Gratitude is more of a project, an attitude which we work hard to attain, which requires a curiously balanced blend of intellectual work and emotional grace.

We might imagine that gratitude is the kind of thing that the halakha would aim to inculcate, whereas appreciation might be something it aims to tame, to bring under control, to temper.

In fact, it is not so simple, and it seems that there are voices within the Talmud who believe that appreciation should be cultivated and encouraged, that there is something pure and holy in the  energy and inspiration that we discover when presented with something delicious, something which arrests us with its beauty.

We see this argument first on 40b:

One who saw bread and said: “How pleasant is this bread, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation to recite a blessing. One who saw a date and said: “How pleasant is this date, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yosei says: One who deviates from the formula coined by the Sages in blessings, did not fulfil his obligation.

For Rabbi Meir, the idea that one could be so moved that he spontaneously erupts into blessing and praise, that he is genuinely moved to appreciate creation and its Author, this is commendable and to be encouraged.

Rabbi Yosei is not so sure, for him there might some danger in encouraging this aestheticism, in chancing the fate of the halakha to the whims of one’s inspired responses.  He does not see the opportunity in this moment, he does not see that this natural excitement, this pure emotion which cannot be feigned, can raise the individual to untold heights, can be an opening in their otherwise hard and very closed armour.  He does not see that it holds the promise of a genuine connection, of a profound educational insight, wherein a person might come to understand that praise is something we do because we need to, because it is one of our most basic instincts.

Rabbi Yosei is scared of our subjectivity, for him Halakhic Man represents an ideal of controlled and disciplined objectivity, the chance fluctuations of the spirit are not to be trusted.

I’m pleased to report that the Rambam agrees with Rabbi Meir, and that an individualistic expression of praise, with certain provisions, ‘fulfils the obligation’ of the berakha.  Even the codifier and logical philosopher par excellence allows for this poetic inspiration, for the profoundly inimitable sentiments of appreciation.

The dispute continues in the next Mishna:

If there were many types of food before him, over which food should he recite a blessing first?

Rabbi Yehuda says: If there is one of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael was praised among them, he recites the first blessing over it.

And the Rabbis say: He recites a blessing over whichever of them he wants.

For Rabbi Yehuda berakhot have a purpose, and a rigid framework exists to ensure that goal is met.  We look to a text to establish the rubric, for we need to tame and normalise the experience.  Holiness is ordered, externally mandated.

For the Rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda has lost sight of something.  How can we educate in the ways of gratitude, how can we foster appreciation for the marvels of creation if we begin by ignoring a person’s natural inclination?

No, this inclination is precious, we must encourage and develop it, and we must help the person to deepen the experience with the help of a berakha.  The Rabbis believe in what Schiller called ‘The Aesthetic Education of Man’.

In the Gemara, this point is pushed even further.  The Mishna only considered the case where all the options had the same berakha appropriate to them, and we were choosing which food to make that berakha on.  In the Gemara, Rabbi Yirmeya suggests that even when there are different berakhot, they would prioritise which berakha to say based on personal choice.

This may not sound revolutionary, but the alternative is that there is actually quite a rigid hierarchy of berakhot which we must stick to, and that is the rule that we generally follow.  So Rabbi Yirmeya’s opinion is genuinely quite bold, and again suggests that he saw the wisdom in building the structure of berakhot on the basis of an individual’s idiosyncratic preference, rather than in trying to fight it.

Finally, we come to the wine.

We have the rule that a berakha over bread at the start of a meal covers everything else, that one need not make further berakhot.  There are two exceptions.  Firstly in the case where someone unexpectedly brought some food which had nothing to do with the meal, but which, perhaps, they had just discovered and felt needed to be appreciated.  In that case, a fresh berakha of appreciation is merited.

The second case is wine.  The Gemara asks why this should be, and gives the following answer:

Wine is different, for it stimulates a blessing on its own. 

Wine inspires us, and in that inspiration, we are moved to make a berakha.

I’m not going to put this better than the romantic poet John Keats, so I’ll let him do the talking at this point, I’ll let his berakha on wine speak for us all:

For really ‘t is so fine-it fills the mouth one’s mouth with a gushing freshness-then goes down cool and feverless-then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver-no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape-then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waistcoat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step-Other wines of a heavy and spirituous nature transform a Man to a Silenus; this makes him a Hermes-and gives a Woman the soul and imortality of Ariadne…

We do not stand in the way of the aesthetic currents in man, we engage with them, we ride their waves and we try to ensure that they are not squandered, but are used for the refinement and elevation of the personality.

We may be aiming for gratitude, but we cannot get there without genuine appreciation, and wherever we stumble upon this natural treasure we are obliged to let it sing its own song, to express itself through its own poetry.

Gratitude. An attitude in need of restitution. Berakhot 35

We move today into chapter six, leaving behind prayer and starting to discuss actual ‘berakhot’, the ‘blessings’ we recite before and after food.  (I don’t much like calling them ‘blessings’, I think it misses the point, so I’ll refer to them as berakhot, or to an individual berakha. I’ve always liked the link between berakha and beraikha, a spring, a source of life.  The root in Hebrew is the same, suggesting there is a link there.)

The Mishna discusses some of the berakhot we say, and the Gemara proceeds to investigate the source of this idea.  From where do we know that we should say berakhot?  What is the meaning of a berakha?

The ensuing passage is a masterpiece of Talmudic baroque, with all sorts of twists and turns and logical hairsplittings.  Verses are read in all kinds of strange ways and yet we keep track of those readings with incredible precision.

In the end though, the Talmud comes to a very simple conclusion.  There is no source, no verse, no authority which tells us to make berakhot.  Rather, it is plain common sense:

It is founded upon reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.

This is so much more powerful than if it was given a source, if we were somehow commanded or instructed to say them.  This way it is spontaneous, voluntary, it comes about because we see that we need it, because it would be all wrong for us to enjoy the world without appreciating it.

And this is what  a berakha is.  It’s an act of appreciation.  To translate it as a ‘blessing’ is a confusion, its purpose is not to bless God.  It exists so that we may give an outlet to our deeply felt need to express praise.  Through giving voice to that, we aim to keep the sentiment alive.  Even more than that, we hope to broaden its sphere of influence, for it to colour the rest of our personality.

It is a core belief of mine that religion is about the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.

I always find it hard to express just how important gratitude is, how different is the person who exhibits and embodies it from one who exudes either deservingness or permanent dissatisfaction.  It is a fundamentally different orientation of the soul, and the effects it has one one’s life are profound and significant.

I was recently very excited to discover that gratitude has become something of a hot topic in experimental psychological research, and that the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.  They seem to back up everything religion has taught for thousands of years about the importance of not viewing oneself as the centre of one’s world, as the source of one’s own wellbeing or good fortune.  Religion is about allowing space for otherness, about reducing one’s pride and hubris.

In his book “Thanks!”, outlining some of this research, Robert A. Emmons says the following:

Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism… when people experience gratitude they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God.  Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives.  Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have’. ..

Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms.  People are moved, opened, and humbled through experiences and expressions of gratitude.  Gratitude provides life with meaning by encapsulating life itself as a gift.  (page 12)

Amen to all of that.

Gratitude is good, and a berakha is the moment wherein we pause and enact it.  And we do it both before we eat, when we are experiencing lack, and after we eat, when we experience satiety.  At both of these points there is a need to remember, to reflect on how fortunate we are that our needs are about to be met, and perhaps to reflect on how easily satisfied we are, how are troubles are minor in the greater scheme of things.

We make berakhot part of the rhythm of our life, not because we have childish or naïve beliefs, but because we have a very mature and adult understanding of just how easy it is to lose touch with gratitude.  We know that we can get carried away with how much we deserve what we have, with the sense in which we are the authors of our success.

Is there really such a problem with this idea of ‘deserving’, are we not entitled to expect something form the world?

I’m reluctant to say we shouldn’t expect anything, a ‘good enough’ upbringing leads a person to live as if they expect the world to provide a loving and nurturing environment.

But ‘deserve’, maybe that’s going too far, maybe that’s when we expect on the basis of our ego, we expect love not because the world is loving, but because we, as individuals, as egos, are special, are deserving.  We are, at that point, a little too in love with ourselves.

The corrective medicine is a chunky dose of gratitude, wherein we appreciate and continue to expect good things, but never because we deserve them, never because we are special and chosen, never because of our natural or hard earned superiority.

Gratitude is the anti-inflammatory of the ego, it helps it find the right size again, it restores it to a healthy level of operation.

“Blessed are You, God”.  In this formulation, there is a radical definition of God.  God is simply ‘you’, something other than ‘me’.

We often speak of experiencing the Divine presence, of being touched or filled by something elusive and otherly.  Maintaining a spirit of gratitude, of grace, is the sine qua non for this experience.  Being grateful keeps us open, only in that condition may we be entered by something greater than ourselves.

The Gemara hints at some of this in its alternative phrasing of the logic of berakhot:

Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to a man to enjoy anything of this world without a berakha, and if one enjoys anything of this world without a berakha, he commits sacrilege. 

What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man.

What will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offence! — Said Raba: What it means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he should teach him berakhot and he should not commit sacrilege.

Why does it require a wise man to teach berakhot, nowadays there are simple books designed to teach berakhot to children?

No, berakhot are not for children, they are for adults.  They are a brief philosophical interlude in our day, an overture to any enjoyable experience.  And it requires a wise man, or woman, to help us really see and appreciate this, to untangle the web of ego-belief that we all too often find ourselves in.

Berakhot are the hallmark of wisdom, not a remnant of the superstitious mind.

In further discussion we encounter the following verse:

Anyone who steals from his father and mother, declaring ‘It is not a sin’, he is the accomplice to a man of destruction. (Proverbs 28:24)

I think this is brilliantly insightful, and aboundingly relevant.  Ingratitude begins in the attitude towards one’s parents, towards everything they give a person in life.  If a person takes and takes from their parents, without appreciating the generosity and love that lie behind the parental giving, then they are doomed to a life of destruction.  They will never embody gratitude, they will never taste the satisfaction and fulfilment it engenders.

A spoiled child is a ruined child.  If parents fail to help their children find gratitude, if they placate them too easily and thoughtlessly, they are condemning their child to a life of disappointment and dissatisfaction, to a gnawing emptiness of depressing persistence.

Perhaps we come to appreciate our parents much later in life, perhaps when we become parents ourselves.  The important thing is that we should get there, that we do not remain petulant children, forever feeling that we deserve and should have more.

The Gemara then meanders into other topics, which I believe are still connected to the theme of gratitude.

In one debate, we hear opposing voices regarding the optimal balance between Torah study and earning a livelihood.  Abaye concludes it with the following:

Many have followed the advice of Rabbi Yishmael, [who advocates a healthy balance,] and it has worked well; others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [who prioritises Torah exclusively]and it has not been successful.

Might it be that not being engaged in work, in the gathering of the harvest, in the production of value, severely restricts a person’s capacity for gratitude, their awareness that nothing comes easily.  And if so, might this upset the balance needed for proper Torah study, for finding the spirit that sheds light on the tradition?

(I note that this doesn’t sit well with  my explanation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on 28a.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him!)

As a final point, we are told that, of late, people have been engaged in the avoidance of their taxes, of their ‘tithe obligations’.

This too is the fallout from a prevailing mood of ingratitude; when Atlas believes exclusively in his own powers, it is no surprise that he shrugs at the fate of others.

If what I have is well and truly mine, then charity makes no sense, it becomes a completely voluntary act; indeed my philanthropy then only enhances my own sense of merit, and I actually deserve what I have all the more.

If I am fortunate and blessed, then it makes sense for me not to hold on to my possessions too tightly, to give naturally wherever and however possible.

Gratitude is both the engine and the achievement of religious life.  When we engage with berakhot we try to keep its spirit alive.

May we be blessed to make meaningful berakhot, for it is us, not Him, who are deeply in need of them.