Hidden and Revealed: The True Gift of Shabbat Shabbat 9,10

Finally.  After nine and a half pages (yes, pages, not weeks) of halakhic discussion which I have sometimes experienced as tortuous and torturous, we are at long last thrown a bone.  Someone has something nice to say about Shabbat:

God said to Moses:  I have a fine gift in my secret treasure chamber, and her name is Shabbat.  I want to give her to Israel, go and tell them. 

I like this, it really is how it feels, it’s a gift.  And it is a gift that is good, that is fine.  It is also something that is mysterious and elusive, its origins are shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness.

It is a relief to hear this, to be reminded that in grappling with Shabbat we are grappling with the construction of a detailed and elaborate sacred space.  It could become easy to forget this, to focus on the laws purely for their own sake, to presume that the laws are the essence, to forget that they are signposts guiding us towards something more profound.

And it goes both ways.  One could read the poetry and liturgy of Shabbat and think that one has a feel for it, that one has grasped its essence.  And perhaps it is true that one may be able to relate to it from the outside, to connect it with other similar experiences of peace, of rest, of silence.  But for most of us, it is the laws, the detail, which create the mood and atmosphere of the day.

To experience Shabbat is to live it, to pay attention to it, to inhabit it like a complex piece of music or literature.

The Talmud develops these themes further, in qualifying the type of secret involved in Shabbat:

The experience of its reward is not something that it is possible to reveal. 

It takes work to get inside Shabbat, perhaps what I said just now is not quite right, the laws and restrictions are not enough on their own to generate the feeling and spirit of Shabbat.  They can create an important space, they can present us with an opportunity.   But we must then do something with that space, we must go out to greet Shabbat – come, my beloved – we must welcome it into our hearts and our homes.

Shabbat, paradoxically, can be quite exhausting.  We must engage our spirit with the day, we must pour something of ourselves into it, only then can we taste the deep rejuvenation and re-orientation that it bequeaths us.

Our bodies may be left tired in the aftermath of this spiritual exertion, but they can recover, they are good at taking care of themselves.  The spirit is not so clever, we must consciously and intentionally tend to it, mindfully provide it with the nourishment and homeliness it needs to re-root.

Isaiah depicts this progression well, the path from restriction through engagement towards reward:

If you keep your feet from breaking Shabbat, from acting out your will on My holy day, and if you call Shabbat a delight, dedicated to enhancing God’s Holiness… 

If you honour it by avoiding your usual patterns, by giving up your restless searching, your endless empty chatter…  

Then you will experience profound joy in the Divine, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth.  I will feed you from the rich inheritance and traditions of Jacob your forefather, the Divine Word will have made its mark.  (58:13-14)

The motif of the gift continues, Rav Hisda was giving gifts to anyone who could share with him some of Rav’s profound teachings.  He gave one to Rava Bar Mehasseya, for sharing the secret of Shabbat with him:

To know that I, God, am the one who facilitates the sacred in your lives. (Exodus 31:13)

But he regrets not having more gifts, for he wishes to give him another one on hearing his follow up:

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

The finer things in life are not obviously pleasurable at first, it takes time and patience to develop a taste for them.  Perhaps sometimes it takes abstinence to really appreciate them, the depth of my love for Shabbat is in part due to the vacuum I often experienced in the periods when I tried to live without it.  I don’t mean that I was depressed or unable to cope with life, simply that the absence of Shabbat was very potent and tangible.  I have a memory of walking through a shopping mall late on a Saturday afternoon and sensing something empty and bleak about it – was this supposed to compare to the exalted experience of people singing mizmor le’david or yedid nefesh at seuda shlishit?

It could not, it never really lasted; with my appreciation for Shabbat renewed, I would always find myself drawn to it once more.

The word abstinence is key here, I always suspected Shabbat couldn’t be bettered, that its richness couldn’t be matched.  But I felt compelled to test this hypothesis, to embrace the ascetic ideal of trying to live without it.

It is interesting to me that this poetic flourish is preceded by some reflection on the essence of the Divine.  We have just been talking about how God is sometimes named, simply, ‘Peace’.  Peace is Divine, to experience peace is to both respond to the Divine Will and to taste something of its essence.

He is also named ‘The Faithful God’, here it is his commitment and dedication to his creatures that we might learn from.

These two values, peace and faith, seem to find their embodiment in the Divine gift that is Shabbat.  It takes tremendous faith, and I mean something more akin to courage than to belief, to abstain on Shabbat from pursuing one’s material needs, from tending to one’s sometimes highly critical business matters.

But if we manage it, and if we make the further move of faith involved in really opening up emotionally to the poetry and imagery of Shabbat, to thoroughly engaging with its songs, prayers and traditions, then a deep and powerful peace will be our reward.  Our spirit might experience something that is genuinely called rest, our soul might actually manage to breathe and restore itself.

Going back further, right back to creation in fact, we are given insight into the spirit that lies at the core of existence:

Any judge who arbitrates one ruling in accordance with the highest standard of truth, even for just one hour, Scripture considers that he has become a partner with the Divine in the act of creation.

This is such a rich idea, but what I particularly like is the connection between judgment, truth and creation.

In the act of judging, truth is created.  God did not, could not, have accounted for all possible truths at the beginning of time.  Truth was left incomplete, in gestation, in potentiality.  And when a person takes upon himself the responsibility to seriously wrestle with truth and to eventually come to his most honest judgment of what is true, he has helped along the creative process with which Genesis begins.

Judaism is certainly a religion of Law.  But we sometimes seem to forget that there also needs to be judgment, to be a deeply considered questioning of the manner and spirit in which the Law is applied.  Truth can never be finalised in a text, or even in a tradition.  It must always be rooted in life, in the subjective domain of the responsible human, of the one who wishes to partner with God in creation.

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

Satisfy us with Your Goodness, and make us joyful in Your salvation.

And may you purify our hearts so that we may serve you in Truth.   

Shabbat is about rest and joy, about peace and rejuvenation, about re-rooting and re-orienting ourselves.  But it is also about truth, about cleansing the spirit so that it is capable of the courage and strength needed to do battle with the forces of untruth in the world.  It is perhaps about learning truth through peace, about the deeper and more honest truth that emerges from the spirit that is not ragged from the chase that sometimes constitutes life.

May we attain all of this through our day of rest, may Truth, Faith and Peace rest upon our being like fine wool, may the bounty of the Divine treasure chest be revealed to us all.

Men on Women – Destructive, Hysterical, Dangerous Berakhot 51

We spoke recently about how there is a suppression of the feminine in the text, and how the repressed returns, in displaced form, as Torah.

The physical woman is shed of her maternal and life-giving qualities, and those qualities are projected onto some other surface, in this case, that of Torah.

There is actually quite a disturbing continuation of this unfortunate move today, and I genuinely found it to be one of the most insulting and offensive of the genderist statements I’ve yet come across in the Talmud.  It occurs in the following story:

Ulla happened to come to the house of Rav Naĥman. He ate bread, recited Grace after Meals, and gave the cup of blessing to Rav Naĥman.  Rav Naĥman said to him: Master, please send the cup of blessing to Yalta, my wife.

Ulla responded to him: There is no need, as Rabbi Yoĥanan said as follows: The fruit of a woman’s womb is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s womb, as it is stated: “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you numerous, and He will bless the fruit of your womb [vitnecha]” (Deuteronomy 7:13). The Gemara infers: “He will bless the fruit of her womb [vitnah]” was not stated. Rather, “He will bless the fruit of your womb  [vitnecha, i.e. masculine singular].”

This is ugly.  The woman is no longer the giver of life, it is no longer her womb which bears fruit.  Rather it is the man who bears children, the woman is somehow in the background, a deeply insignificant extension of him.

There’s so much to say about this.  For a start, this is a wilful and unnecessary interpretation.  The Torah often seems to use the masculine singular form of the second person without there being significance in that (I write this as a man of course, so I fully accept that this is easy for me to say).  It’s not clear the exact grammatical intention of this habit, but we might hear it as Israel being spoken to in the singular, this seems to be the implication of the opening of this speech:

Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

But even this isn’t clear cut, this very verse ends with Israel being referred to in the feminine, and we see this again later in verse 15.  I’m not aware of there being any clear rule here, we could simply say that Israel as a people is generally spoken to using the masculine gender, though not exclusively.  There is definitely nothing to suggest that this particular use of the masculine – vitnecha - is significant.

Maybe people think I’m being over sensitive here, but to say that a man’s womb is blessed is an appalling act of theft.  The womb of Israel is to be blessed, not the womb of its male members.

Going further, I feel compelled to point out that there is something of an absurdity in this interpretation, and it is noteworthy that both the Soncino and Koren translations seem to mask this uncomfortably by replacing ‘womb’ – the natural translation of ‘beten’ – with ‘body’.  The translation thus repeats the sin of the fathers, it belittles the significance of the woman, it denies the primacy of her involvement.

Perhaps this goes back to Genesis 3, to the idea that childbirth and its pains are a curse.  Childbirth is painted in a negative light, the focus is on its pain, not on its miraculousness, not on its centrality, not on the joy that it brings about.

If we were feeling bold, we might go further and comment on the idea that in Genesis 2 the first woman was not born to a woman, but was created, from a man, by a God who is spoken about in the masculine.  There is something of a denial here of the fact that we are all born to women, that women, through childbirth,  have made a huge and difficult contribution to the entirety of human existence.

Even as a man I’m deeply offended, I can’t begin to think how this all reads to a woman.

But reading carefully, it’s actually even worse.  The Rabbis – yes, this interpretation is repeated for effect in someone else’s name – suggest that if the Torah had wanted to speak of a woman’s womb it would have said ‘vitnah’ – her womb.  Not ‘vitnach’ – your womb in the feminine – but ‘vitnah’ – her womb.

There is an assumption that the woman is not directly involved with, engaged by the text.  Either God/Moshe would not be speaking to the women, or perhaps the thought is that women will not be listening or reading.

Again, I have no idea where this comes from, what leads the Rabbis to think in this way.  But the two go hand in hand, women have nothing to do with Torah, and women have nothing to do with birth either.  Women are banished and belittled; they are not the bearers of life, nor are they addressed by the book of life.  ‘Torat imehka’ has suddenly undergone a radical and unsettling negation.

This is all very upsetting, but it’s actually only the start, it’s simply setting the scene for the next act.

Once a woman is robbed of her essential qualities, once the male attachment and need for the women is denied, the actual woman becomes  a blank canvas, and there is the need – or at the very least the possibility – of painting her in a different light.

On this point, the Talmud seems to begin at the same place as Freud – hysteria.  The woman is painted as the hysteric, she is the repository for all that is frightening, irrational, excessive and uncontrollable in us.

Let’s see how this plays out in the story we began above:

Yalta heard Ulla’s refusal to send her the cup of blessing, so she arose in a rage, entered the wine-storage, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.

There is probably some hyperbole at work here, surely one’s rage would expire before successfully smashing up four hundred barrels of wine.  Either way, it seems to me that she was quite right to be enraged by these comments, and I think the Talmud’s portrayal of her as ‘acting out’ in an excessive and violent manner actually reflects more badly on the Talmud than it does on her.

In making her the repository of all that is hysterical in the world, it seems to be projecting something unsettling and alien onto her.  This mechanism of projection is what we use when become dimly aware of something in our character that makes us uncomfortable.  We find it much easier to assign that characteristic to another than to question whether the perception might be relevant to our own personality.  The idea is that perception comes partially, and that we misinterpret the meaning of that partial perception.

There is another passage today which further fleshes out the scary and demonic depiction of women:

The Angel of Death told me: …do not stand before the women when they return from the burial of the deceased, because I dance and come before them and my sword is in hand, and I have license to destroy.

Where to begin with this?  If you perhaps thought I was overdoing it with all this talk of projection and ascription, surely this image makes clear that we are very much in the right ballpark.

The Angel of death is conflated with women, he may be met when you meet a woman.  He is there, in their presence, and he is exhibiting characteristics that are chaotic, dangerous, destructive.

It seems to me that we have taken a male imagining, a fear of death and dissolution, and placed it firmly in the woman’s locale, we have described it as a risk of encountering her presence.

The teaching continues:

And if one encounters women returning from a funeral, what is his remedy?  

Let him jump four cubits from where he stands; if there is a river, let him cross it; if there is another path, let him go down it; if there is a wall, let him stand behind it; and if not, he should turn his face around and recite the verse: “And the Lord said to the Satan: The Lord rebukes you, Satan, the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you; is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:2), until they pass him.

Wow.  That is quite a speech to make to a woman one might, by chance, encounter when she is returning from a cemetery.  But, of course, we are not making it to the woman, we are making it to the Angel of Death we imagine to be in her presence.

Does this make it better?

I’m not sure it does, I think it makes it clear that we are dealing with a mind which is struggling to keep hold of something, with a mind that is somewhat frenzied and hallucinatory, which is imagining and projecting in all the wrong places.  It cannot contain the fear and disturbance it is experiencing, it can no longer distinguish between what is happening within and what is happening without.  It is speaking out of place, to the wrong people, it has become deeply confused as to who is who and as to where the source of trouble really is.

Perhaps this is too much, maybe it is easier to just ignore these passages, to treat them as irrelevant detritus from the age of superstition.  But that would be a mistake, for they are psychologically rich and they sometimes treat of topics which are extremely important and relevant, such as the way we imagine and relate to our women.

So, to sum up, these are my interpretations, my attempts at reading some problematic texts in the Talmud, at unpicking some attitudes and perspectives that strike me as problematic and objectionable.  As I have said previously, these interpretations do not weaken my faith nor do they diminish my interest in the Talmud.  If anything, they strengthen both, for through honestly seeing the various layers at work in this text I feel that I have a much better sense of the richness and complexity of our history and tradition.  I can see that at every point the Rabbis were just human beings trying to do their best, that they were prey to all of the fallibility, weakness and confusion that I myself am beset by.

I see no purpose in pretending that they were perfect, in setting it up as a principle of belief that their teachings or intuitions were perfect, for perfection belongs to the realm of the Divine, not to that of the human.

They were not perfect, but they were grappling with perfection, trying to perfect themselves, trying to build a culture which would ultimately foster an appetite for perfection.  And this is a struggle I am very much interested in, it is an impulse that I feel very strongly.  And it is to help me with this project that I turn to my religion, and it is because I see and experience the many ways in which it does help me that I come to value and love my traditions, that I come to develop faith in them.

Faith is not something we can arrive at through evading the truth, it is a profound attitude we can only attain after being fully exposed to the truth in all of its glory and its horror.  May we continue to wrestle with that truth, and may we pray to be granted faith as a reward for our struggles.