Does Religion Reward Us? Berakhot 58, 59, 60

One of the thorniest issues in discussing religion is the question of reward and punishment.  For some people, religion is all about its rewards; if there was not a God who was rewarding us for our good deeds then there would be no foundation to religion.

Other people are affronted by the idea that we would act morally because we were looking to be rewarded.  They would make the valid point that to be incentivised in this somewhat childish way would somehow undermine the ethical stature of our actions, they would somehow be less commendable, less worthy, less inspiring.

And they would surely be somewhat right in this.

There is a middle ground, and it’s not quite a compromise, but more of a pleasing synthesis of these apparently incompatible positions.  The significant move in this position is to re-think the idea of reward, to re-imagine the sense in which we might benefit from sticking to our moral guns.

Reward, on this understanding, is not external to the act: we will not be given material bounty or be spared the fires of hell, we will not receive special economic treatment when God does His accounts.

Rather, the reward is intrinsic to the act itself, it follows as the miraculous consequence (it seems to be anything but ‘natural’) of acting in accordance with our ethical aspirations.  When we rise to the occasion, we are left in an elevated spirit – we feel better about ourselves, proud of ourselves, much more comfortable with who we are.  In the simplest possible terms: it’s nice to be nice.

There is a link between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and the aesthetic.  Good actions tend to be beautiful ones, and we are pleased by the sense that our behaviour is in harmony with this vision.

And I maintain that we are often surprised by this.  On one level, we are surprised by how much better we feel after making the extra effort and doing that unnecessary act of kindness we could have so easily shirked.  In a similar vein, we are often taken aback by how inspired and moved we are when we see or hear of someone else acting in an altruistic and thoughtful manner.

I remember being at a point once when I was in possession of a deeply negative and cynical view of human beings.  I’d been steeped in Nietzsche and had been overwhelmed by some of the pessimism he had been expressing.  And there had been other stuff going on in life which had been getting me down.  Then, as chance would have it, I missed the last train that was supposed to take me to meet some friends who were staying in the Highlands of Scotland.  Left with no option, I decided to hitch hike, not especially convinced that I would get there – I had a ferry to catch to get to a remote island – but figuring that I had nothing to lose in trying.

Lo and behold, four hitch hikes and about nine hours later, I was being driven across the sea by a random fisherman and I was re-united with my friends.  I felt lucky, but more than that, much more than that, I was stunned by the goodwill of all the people who had stopped to offer me a lift, in some cases going slightly out their way to help me on my way.  It reminded me of the goodness that lies just below the surface in people, of their willingness to help even complete strangers, when there would be no hint of a suggestion that they would get anything tangible in return.  It restored my faith in humanity, teaching me a lesson that all the Nietzsche in the world couldn’t undo.

The good inspires us, it makes us feel good.  The Stoics based their philosophy of virtue upon this – upright character alone would bring a person to eudaemonia, the highest sense of human happiness and flourishing.  In Judaism we say ‘sekhar mitzvah, mitzva’ – the highest reward for a good deed is to be enveloped in a positive framework of life, to be uplifted and inspired to further good deeds.

This more subtle and mature approach to the consequences of religiously coloured behaviour is at work in a discussion of the following verse:

He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. (Ps. 112:7)

Rava makes a slightly cryptic observation on this verse, suggesting that one might be able to read the clauses in either order in order to understand it differently.  Rashi doesn’t get his point, he doesn’t see the two ways of reading it.

The Rashba does see the distinction.  If one reads it with the second clause first:

His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord;  He shall not be afraid of evil tidings…

then one might understand it as offering a promise or reward – the reward for trusting in God is that one will be spared from the fear of evil news, one will not be troubled by excess anxiety and worry.

Read the other way, in the original structure, one could understand it differently, as describing a reality, a matter of fact.  One who has faith in God, whose heart is strong, will not be susceptible to stray fears, to worries without foundation, to the random anxiety and panic which can trouble a person.

Here the reward is more intrinsic, less of an external affair.

But still, what is this reality, how are we to understand it? What is it to have faith in God other than to believe that he will actually prevent bad things happening, to protect us from harm?

At this point we are close to the core of mature religion, to the kernel of genuine faith that might challenge and maintain us.

The possibility hinted at here is that by living in close proximity to the truth of our lives, by paying close attention to the deepest demands that our being makes of us – at this point a vision of Ibsen’s Brand appears before me –  we will suddenly find that many of the concerns and fears which otherwise trouble us simply fade away.

It is as if we only becomes susceptible to worry when things are not in good order internally, when we are subtly and imperceptibly betraying the highest possibilities in our personality.  When we are distant from our true selves, living a respectable but false life, this is when we are vulnerable and prey to worry.

It is as if we project our internal anguish onto the external world: we are pained, we are hazily aware of warnings, but we cannot understand the message coming from the unconscious.  In our confusion we assume that the dangers must lie outside us, in the broader world, in people and circumstances beyond our control.

We can use this perspective to understand another important expression of faith that Rabbi Akiva gives voice to in the following story:

 Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city, he inquired about lodging and they did not give him any. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best. He went and slept in a field, and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best.

That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone, who was not in the city and had no lit candle, noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location, was saved. He said to them: Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does, He does for the best.

The idea that God does everything for the best can be taken in a very infantilising way, it can be understood to be saying that there is a Grand Puppeteer who is orchestrating everything that happens, and that He always knows what he is doing.  Since He is in control, we need not worry, everything will be alright.

But there is a subtler and more profound understanding of this dictum.  By saying that everything happens for the best we are making a conscious attempt to see the positive in things, to wrestle with the dark cloud of negativity which always threatens to overwhelm us and blacken our perceptions.  It is an assertion that life is a never ending struggle between optimism and pessimism, and that we have a tiny arena of choice wherein we might be able to push our mood and expectations in a slightly more upbeat direction.

It is an injunction to work hard to tune into positivity, to possibility and to eschew the deathly lock of a negative spiral of thought and affect.  Neville Symington speaks of being open to a force he identifies as the lifegiver, and it is this relationship we tune into when we are able to see the positive in adverse conditions, when we do not howl out in protest at every turn for the worse.

I would like to share a paradoxical anecdote from Symington which embodies this value:

A friend told me once that the turning point in analysis for him came when he said to his analyst one day that things had been so bad they could only improve.  The analyst replied ‘Or they could get worse’.

The analyst wasn’t encouraging negativity, he was, rather, showing that the patient had fallen too much in love with painting his life as negative, with perceiving everything as terrible and persecutory.  He’s giving him a slap, telling him to get over himself, to realise that really his life is not so bad, that there is plenty that he could be positive about, if only he could find the strength and will to do so, if only he could give up his fashionable pessimism.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easily done, that we can always snap out of negativity as easily as choosing between blue or black socks.  But this is not what the Talmud is suggesting either.  Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that we should always be trying to look for the positive, for it is a difficult job, it requires practice and it requires the development of what we might call a stoical muscle, an ability to weather storms without losing all hope, without slipping into despair.

We are coming to the end of reciting psalm 27, of referring to God as our light and our salvation.  Never is this more true than in adversity, when we sometimes find that in spite of the difficulty that surrounds us there seems to be a mysterious core of light and positivity which we can tune into and which might save us.  It’s as if things can only get real when the chips are down, when what we think we fear is actually realised.  At that point we often see that the fear itself was worse than the reality we feared, that we actually have more capacity to cope than we thought.

Life is good, and fear is often much worse than suffering.  Training ourselves to see the positive, to be suspicious of people who project their negativity into their narratives, these are the real challenges of religion, the injunctions of a religion for grown ups.  And with these challenges more than any other, their reward is intrinsically bound up with their practice, with the extent to which we shape our lives in their image.

There is no greater reward than to live with a strong conviction of positivity, to emit an aura of creativity and possibility wherever one goes.  Graham Greene describes the art critic Herbert Read as having this effect, as embodying this energy:

He would come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming, you noticed only that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly altered, that even the relations of one guest with another had altered.  No one any longer would be talking for effect, and when you looked round for an explanation there he was – complete honesty born of complete experience had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair.  (Ways of Escape p.39)

We must be careful with religious language and ideas, the slightest misinterpretation can transform something of deep profundity into something of childish foolery.  And it is all too clear that there are many nowadays who wish to depict religion in this light, as dishonest silliness for the soft of mind.  But, quite simply, they are wrong; there is a depth to the religious perspective which many of its opponents have not shown themselves capable of grasping.

Let us work hard to maintain faith and retain positivity, to keep a firm grasp on the full armoury of internal resources available to us.  For through them, and them alone, can we be saved from the fear and pessimism which forever lie in wait for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Way too strict… Aristotle vs Shammai Berakhot 36

Aristotle – writing about 800 years before the compilation of the Talmud, and about 200 years before Hillel – is famous for his doctrine of the Golden Mean.  The idea is that good and healthy conduct is defined by balance and proportion, never by excess or extremism.

Indeed, for the Greeks, beauty was seen as a deep and abiding guiding principle, something to be internalised and then recreated in action and personality.  And the primary constituents of beauty, in as much as they could be defined, were symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

I’d love to say that Judaism embraces this, and Maimonides famously uses this principle in talking about virtue and personality.  We are, however, forever engaged with the Law, and this sometimes threatens to upset the balance.

The Law can seem to make unreasonable demands, to be indifferent to our inner needs, to be arbitrary and ruthless.  In short, it can come across as extreme.

It can be hard to see how it is sculpting our souls, how it is leaving an imprint of beauty and truth, around which a crystal of virtue and grace may begin to grow.

This concern is one of the reasons I’m so interested to explore Talmudic material which sheds light on the spirit of the law, to understand the philosophy of halakha.  I want to hear the earliest voices on this, the intention and inclination of those who were in the process of founding Rabbinic Judaism.

Today we have a little more insight into the approach of Shammai.  We have already discussed their fundamental differences: Hillel seems to have a humanitarian guiding principle, Shammai grants the Law a much rawer and absolute form of authority.  (My friend Rav Alex Israel brought an excellent article to my attention, which also explores this difference.)

We are discussing the laws concerning different fruits and vegetables, and there is uncertainty as to the classification of a caper bush.  Is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Beit Shammai want to have it both ways: for the prohibition of mixing plant types, kilayim, they view it as a vegetable; for the prohibition of eating the fruit of a tree for its first three years they manage to view it as a fruit.

The first voice in the Talmud states the obvious:

This is contradictory, it is fundamentally difficult.

And yes, they are right, it is problematic to be unable to classify.  One cannot be learning the ways of harmony and beauty when one is inviting contradiction into the heart of one’s worldview.

The next voice however, suggests that there is an explanation:

Beit Shammai were in doubt, so they acted strictly in this case, viewing it as vegetable, and strictly in that case, viewing it as a fruit.

If in doubt, follow the strict path.  This seems to be the approach of Beit Shammai.  And, if we’re honest, it’s a path which a lot of people seem to follow today.  In this worldview the Law stands to protect us from danger, to guide us to safety, to keep us out of harm’s way.  And so, it follows, when in doubt, play it safe.

What does the Talmud conclude?

Well, one thing is clear, this is only the approach of Beit Shammai, and the implication seems to be that Beit Hillel do not follow this, do not believe in it.

For them, the Law is there to refine us, to enhance our sense of balance, to deepen our attunement to beauty, proportion, harmony.  And therefore, there is no such easy option, no lazy comfort.  One must wrestle with what is presented, and following that, one must decide.

In decision we create, we act out the nascent intuition of beauty which we have been patiently incubating.

And if all goes well we will have strengthened our own intuition, cementing its roots in our personality.  We will also have brought light to the rest of the world, showing something that was previously hidden, illuminating a possible new path.

No, for Hillel, we cannot just go the stricter way: it is unhealthy, it is unbalanced and it is untrue.

So we have a dispute between Hillel and Shammai, a pretty fundamental one.  What do we do?

On this point, the Talmud here is completely unequivocal:

When Beit Shammai express an opinion in the same place as Beit Hillel, it is not considered a teaching, it is as if nothing has been said.

The matter is too important, and here we must bring in some strictures of our own.  Beit Shammai wish to bring disharmony into life, to turn halakhic living into a form of poison.  As a result, they must be thoroughly dismissed, they must be clinically lanced from the discussion.

This is a different voice from ‘Eilu ve Eilu’, ‘both are the Voice of the Living God’, (Eruvin 13b) , an important principle which has its time and place.  Here the matter is more serious: Beit Shammai want to make excessive strictness, extreme submission into a guiding principle, and we cannot accept that.

I see this dispute as illuminating the very next legal principle that comes up in the discussion, the status of peel and leaves which act as ‘protection for the fruit’.

Abaye teaches that certain protective parts of a fruit – for example, topically, the crown of a pomegranate – contribute to the size of the fruit.  And the size is important for deciding whether a fruit can become tameh, ritually impure.  If it is too small, it cannot, if it is big enough, it can.

So, Abaye teaches us, if you have a small fruit, it may be immune to the possibility of being impure.  If however, it is encased in protection, if that protection appears to be a form of swelling, if it needs protecting because it is considered too delicate, then it can become impure.

The protection is what creates the possibility of impurity, without it, it was incorruptible.

So let us stick with the spirit of Hillel, let us remember that the Law has a delicate and subtle purpose, and that there is tremendous danger in approaching it with extremity and a spirit of excess.  Indeed, it might just be our attempts at protection, at playing safe, that ultimately render us impure.