The following piece was written a few weeks ago, as worries about Anti-Semitism were starting to suddenly feel quite real. It feels like it has abated somewhat, and it has been very encouraging to see all parts of society speaking out against it. Let us hope that the warning has been heard, and the dangers felt by all.
As it becomes increasinly clear to most of us that we need to be moving towards peace, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our thinking is open, flexible and creative. Ancient Texts carry immense power and can be used, by all sides, in very dangerous ways.
The recent Bnei Akiva scandal raised some of these issues, but they really go deeper and further than just Bnei Akiva.
My thanks to the team at thetorah.com for embracing this piece and for helping me to substantially improve it. I’d love to hear any thoughts.
Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure. At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task? Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?
So I tried to resist. But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep. It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.
But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me. It was the Day.
The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.
There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .
There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange. And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.
So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense. And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:
The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).
Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai? They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.
In a similar spirit:
The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.
Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes. They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.
One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.
It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it, we must become enlightened.
One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.
What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.
If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.
They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress. He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven. They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind. (Psalms 127:23-31).
It is sometimes when we are wrestling in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.
Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table? [asked of a verse in Eziekel]
Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.
Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.
Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?
Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel. The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.
Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.
To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.
Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.
We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.
Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.
I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity. How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?
And yet, interpretation is not everything:
A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.
Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.
And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it. How would this be done?
They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.
May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.
Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.
Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.
Rabbi Yochanan said: If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.
In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.
This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.
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.