Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

What is God – The Second Honest Theology Project Lecture

On November 22nd I gave the second lecture in the Honest Theology Project series.  The title was ‘Getting to the Core – What is God?’.  The video is now available.

The main lecture is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/147047561.sd.mp4?s=c0b125c654a46186e7b43cca142ce590d6016548&profile_id=112

And the fascinating Q and A session afterwards is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/146947436.sd.mp4?s=180312c1478fa9d565d3c1ca829541497bee3524&profile_id=112

I look forward to hearing any thoughts or feedback.

 

Freud vs Freundel

My piece on the Freundel scandal, which explores how Rabbinic training might be enhanced to help prevent such tragedies.
It originally appeared in Ha’aretz -
http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.623397 -
though you may need a subscription to read it.
It has since appeared in The Forward, which does not, I believe, require a
subscription.
http://forward.com/articles/208221/channeling-freud-to-prevent-the-next-barry-freunde/

Reflections on Anti-Semitism

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.

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anti-semitism-hope-or-despair/ 

More on Limmud: A response to a friend…

A friend made some comments to me about Limmud, which provoked me to write a bit more on the topic.  This is over and above what I initially wrote for the Times of Israel on the topic.    It goes without saying that this response might equally apply to many others who have commented upon Limmud.  

My dear friend, I need to begin by apologising to any of my non-orthodox friends and colleagues who might have read what you wrote about their movements and their Rabbis. I personally find it deeply offensive and objectionable, I can only begin to imagine how it made them feel. Moreover, I can only square the disrespectful tone of your writing with all of your positive traits by imagining that you do not personally know any of the Masorti/Conservative/Reform/Liberal leaders of which you speak and have not spent much time in their presence. I personally consider many of them, both dead and alive, as deeply insiprational thinkers and human beings. Indeed, this abstract and unreal quality, rooted in a-priori ‘halakhic/hashkafic’ theory and intellectualised sociology, permeates your discussion of Limmud and makes it very difficult for me to know what to say to you. I have basically three words for you. Come to Limmud.
You will then see that it is not the dangerous monster that you and others seems to see it as. It is not a threat to the Jewish people, it is an incredible and unprecedented source and inspiration for Jewish creativity, renewal and regeneration. I will speak personally and state that there were times in my Jewish journey, when the clear air and open minded welcomingness of Limmud was the only Jewish atmosphere which I did not find to be claustrophobic and oppressive. This may be an extreme case, but there can be no doubt that Limmud has had a positive influence on the Jewish lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. The idea that people walk away from Limmud with their Judaism shaken and weakened, with their commitment diminished and stifled, has simply no bearing in reality. Again, come to Limmud. See the joy in people’s faces, the spring in their step, the life returning to their forgotten neshamot. You will see the true power of the Divine, the sense in which He attends to every place where his name is called and makes his presence known there.
Are there challenging sessions at Limmud? Yes. Is anyone forced to go to them? No. Is intellectual challenge a bad thing? Absolutely not. In my understanding faith is deepened through challenge, and Judaism as religion, culture and civilisation has absolutely nothing to fear from philosophical, historical, inter faith and inter-denominational challenge and argument. Judiasm is robust, it is strong, it is flexible and it has the internal resources to re-imagine itself through its own exegetical fertility. Rabbi Akiva was not rocked in the philosophical storm of the mystical orchard because he could interpret every crown of every letter in Torah, in a way that stunned even Moses himself. Interpretation is our lifeblood, not a threat.
You acknowledge that we could all bring our sources of support, and there is some truth to that. I’m interested in why we bring the sources we do, why some of our leaders choose to bring fearful, exclusive and excluding sources, sources which they claim show small mindedness and an aura of paranoid threatenedness. Why does that seem like the answer to the problems we face today? And what does it tell us about their conception of leadership?
But, let me say something about your sources. You dare to bring Maimonides, the heilige Rambam, as part of an argument against intellectual honesty, as a messenger of close mindedness?
I don’t even know where to begin with that. Maimonides was the philosopher and re-interpreter par excellence, and stated clearly in the Guide that if Aristotle had proven the eternity of the world he would have re-interpreted Genesis allegorically in light of that. The whole project in the Guide was to show how our traditions could weather any perceived threat, how they were rich enough to be an ongoing source of wisdom and moral improvement. Truth was truth, and as he said in Shemona Perakim, we should hear the truth from whosoever is blessed enough to speak it.
More generally, the medieval philosophers were excited by, well, philosophy. They believed in Truth, that it was the hallmark and stamp of the Jewish God – as the Talmud states in Shabbat – and that the idea of incompatibility between Truth and Religion was a confusion. Truth brings us closer to God, it’s part of the difficult and challenging journey that it is required of anyone who wishes to engage with the Divine. One may – following the Ra’avad in his critique of Maimonides- choose not to go down this path, but please do not pretend that such a person is taking the only Jewishly or intellectually defensible path.
Proposing that Torah and historical truth or philosophical truth are incompatible is not a statement of faith, it is a statement of faithlessness, and a surrender to the dangers of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
And it’s not just about philosophy. Bertrand Russell used to ask Ludwig Wittgenstein as he was agitatedly pacing his rooms “Are you thinking about Logic or your sins?”. Wittgenstein replied angrily “Both!”. The idea that we can be better people, that we can act with more clarity, more compassion, more integrity without welcoming the power of truth into the inner sanctum of our personalities is a non-starter. Whatever Freud may have got wrong, he saw clearly that truthful reflection and self understanding was the only path to overcoming the demons which threatened to destroy our personalities and our lives. And so did Rav Nachman, and the Kotzker, and Reb Yisrael Salanter and Rav Dessler. Not to mention the Rambam, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva.
Again, come to Limmud. Or don’t. Perhaps you do not fancy it. Well that’s fair enough, Limmud doesn’t proselytize, it doesn’t harangue people into coming. And, thanks to Dayan Ehrentrau and Rabbi Kimche, it doesn’t need to spend much on advertising either. But if you don’t come, if you don’t want to come, please don’t issue proclamations about what it is, about its dangers, about the destruction some of its most valued and well-loved teachers have brought upon the world. You do yourself a disservice, and you bring much more discord and pain upon Am Yisrael than is appropriate at this moment.

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Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.

Pyjama Talk: Cuddling and the Law Shabbat 13, 14

We touch today on the thorny issue of how a married couple may relate to each other whilst the woman is menstruating.

Let us accept that they may not engage in sexual intercourse.  I’m sure there is a fascinating history to this prohibition, which we’ll explore at some point, but let’s leave it for now.

What we are explicitly exploring on the daf is whether or not they may sleep together in the same bed.  We seem to rule out the possibility that they may do this in the nude, for we only even ask about the case where they are both wearing pyjamas.

As a first observation, I cannot but help but be struck by the Gemara’s initial response to this question:

Chicken may be placed on a table with cheese and we are not concerned they will be eaten together. 

Never mind what we are trying to learn from this comparison, I just feel that it sounds somewhat absurd as an opening gambit in this discussion.  We do not begin by asking about the meaning of physical intimacy in married life, about the importance of a man and woman maintaining a strong emotional connection at this difficult time of the month.

There is no attempt to consider the human cost of this sort of legislation, to query whether it is indeed appropriate to be legislating here at all.  A response in this vein might have been:

‘They may not have intercourse, that much is clear.  The ways in which they take responsibility for this matter is their business.’

We touched recently on the dangers of preventative legislation, of g’zeirot, perhaps here too that lesson might have been applied.

I understand that these observations may sound weak, that it might sound as if I have no familiarity or respect for what might be called ‘Talmudic Process’.

But I do have that familiarity, if anything perhaps I am too familiar with it, and I could easily have followed this legal discussion without noting the absence of any psychological or emotional meditations.

So I mention it, because for those of us engaged in the project of trying to bring out what is profound and insightful in the halakha, who wish to show that it is often a profound merging of lofty spiritual concern and concrete practical detail, it is also important to note where it may possibly be falling short of that mark, where it might be missing something important.  This is the role of the Oral Law, to ensure that textual record never drowns out the voices of humanity in the culture, that it always finds a way to accommodate worthy and progressive criticism.

Moving into the discussion itself, I was pleased to see that the Gemara made a valiant attempt to defend the ‘pyjama rights’ of the married couple, to assume that their intelligence and awareness would serve to defuse the ‘danger’ of the situation.

In the end however, it seems to come down on the side of prevention, based not on legal or psychological precedent, but on a strange reading of a verse from Ezekiel (18:6) which comes into the discussion out of nowhere.  The verse, which seems to be part of a general  ‘call to piety’ on Ezekiel’s part, mentions a married woman just before mentioning a menstruating woman.  And we are then offered this not terribly compelling piece of logic:

Just as the ‘wife of his neighbour’, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas, so too when his wife is menstruating, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas.

The flow of the argument doesn’t seem to work that well, we seem to move from a spirit of permission to a spirit of prohibition quite suddenly, too abruptly.

What I also notice is that we begin the discussion by asking the question of the wife – ‘is she allowed to sleep with her husband under these circumstances?’  There is something of concern for her, a glimmer of awareness that she might be going through a difficult period.

By the end, as we arrive at our morally driven conclusion, the question has become about the husband, what is the right thing to do for his purity.  The wife of his neighbour and his own menstruating wife become mere objects in the discussion, things to be avoided, and we are primarily concerned about not compromising his spiritual state.

It is this focus on the man that I don’t like, this idea that we view him as a being challenged by marriage, by his menstruating wife, tempted by her, needing to tie himself to the mast like Odysseus against the sirens.

Marriage works when it is a joint venture, when two people are able to be consistently and deeply mindful of each other, when they are properly aware of the reality of each other’s existence.  One source of problems is when separation and distance set in, when the other is viewed as the cause of marital or personal difficulty.

This move will always be the easy one: the blaming of the other, the assumption that we know what they think and want, the assertion that our own better nature would like to act properly, that we are being forced by the other to compromise and sell ourselves short.

It’s an easy narrative to feed ourselves, it vindicates our own purity.  But it destroys the marriage, the possibility of togetherness, of the joint venture, of the core partnership which might make life richer.

And this is where moralism becomes narcissism, or vice versa.  The move to separate ourselves, to retreat to our own world of inner purity, to extricate ourselves from our partner, our family, our friends, our community, in the name of some higher, more moral, calling.

I’m not saying it’s never necessary to do this, sometimes it is.  But it’s a risky move, a move we should probably always treat suspiciously, a move that should perhaps mostly be a temporary one.

For if a person cannot live in any of these relationships, if they are too pure for their world, then what is the content and meaning of their morality, in what sense have they sanctified their engagement with the world?

Put more clinically, we cannot be forever detaching, dissociating and withdrawing.  That is not the path to health, the direction in which a genuine ethic should be leading us.

This shift from ‘her’ or ‘them’ to ‘him’ can also be seen in Maimonides codification of this ruling.  It is to be found in the Book of Holiness, ‘Sefer Kedusha’, in the subsection on ‘the laws of forbidden relations’.

The matter is not about love, relationship, intimacy.  It is not about dialogue and togetherness.  It is about the forbidden, about personal holiness, about what a man may or may not do in his quest for individual salvation.  (By contrast, Maimonides’ Book of Love is concerned with Torah, with prayer, with God.)

The Gemara then presents two potentially dissenting voices, Rabbi Pedat and Ulla.

The case of Ulla is particularly interesting, we are told that:

When he would come from the house of study would kiss his sisters on their breasts. 

The Gemara is a bit flummoxed by this act of intimacy, by the love for his sisters and his unashamed expression of it.  It claims he is contradicting himself, for in another place he proscribes any acts that might bring a forbidden relationship closer to realisation.

I’m not sure there really is a contradiction, I think there is something enlightening here.  In certain circumstances, perhaps genuinely innocent ones, a great deal of physical contact may go on without anything illicit being stirred or brought to life.

In other circumstances, where something forbidden is in the air, is on one’s mind, the subtlest look or gesture can serve to bring the act closer, a few carefully chosen words may easily add fuel to the fire of the fantasy.

The case of Ulla shows us that it is hard to legislate in this arena.  What might in one time and place be completely commonplace and harmless might in other circumstances be provocative and inflammatory in the extreme.

I find this whole area very tricky, on the one hand the Rabbis are quite Freudian in their approach: ‘everything is about sex, don’t deceive yourself’.  On the other hand, they don’t seem to see the problematic side of treating sexuality as taboo, of foisting it onto the woman, of making it about individual holiness, rather than about related intimacy.

So, if I’m honest, I think there are big costs to their approach, there are large areas of these matters that need reconsidering, perhaps even just expressing differently, being spoken about more delicately.

But I also get that the sublimation being advocated here, for there can be no doubt that this is what motivates the disavowal of sexuality, is a potentially significant contributor to the energy underpinning the entirety of Rabbinic culture.  And it’s hard to imagine in any straightforward terms what an alternative culture would look like, what the effects would be on religious intensity and practice, what other knock on effects might follow.

It’s definitely easier to stick to the established law, to claim that the weight of tradition and history make it unimpeachable.  But I would never say that in a therapeutic setting, so why would I say it in an honest assessment of the culture, why would I think that the Divine is not capable of containing and absorbing my unsettling questions?

It’s weakness of faith that tries to quash questioning, and I don’t really get how that became admirable.

We just need to keep thinking about this stuff, to keep reading and debating and figuring out how it works in real life.

In case the feeling lingers that I’ve been too squeamish, that really there’s nothing in this Talmudic discussion that’s problematic or disturbing, let’s look at the story it ends with:

It once happened that a certain scholar who had studied much Bible and Mishna  and had served many scholars died in middle age. His wife took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them: ‘ It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days:  my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishna, and served many scholars , why did he die in middle age?’   No man could answer her.

On one occasion I [Elijah the prophet] was a guest at her house,  and she related the whole story to me. Said I to her, ‘My daughter! how was he to thee in thy days of menstruation?’ ‘God forbid!’ she rejoined; ‘he did not touch me even with his little finger.’ ‘And how was he to thee in thy days of white garments [after the cessation of menstrual blood]?  ‘He ate with me, drank with me and slept with me in bodily contact, and it did not occur to him to do other [engage in sexual relations].’

 Said I to her, ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he did not show adequate respect to the Torah!’

Really?  Is this what we think of God, that he spends his time killing people on account of their failing to keep up with the latest Rabbinic stringency, no matter how pure and far from genuine sin they might be?  Is this our theodicy, that wherever tragedy strikes there must be someone who valued marital relationship more than Rabbinic anxiety?

I prefer the silence of the Rabbis to the presumptions of Elijah the prophet.  Maybe they had suspicions about his sensual nature, but they were at least embarrassed enough not to suggest that this was the cause of his death.  I cannot begin to think of how the poor wife must have felt after Elijah berated her like this, making her share in the culpability for her husband’s death:  ‘If you hadn’t tempted him, forced him to lie with you inappropriately, demanded warmth and intimacy from him, then he’d still be here today.’

It’s a sick and heartless comment, but it is one that we risk repeating if we are not willing to approach these matters with sensitivity, with openness, with an awareness of their complexity.

In questions of sexuality we are indeed dealing with the most powerful currents in our nature, but we are foolish if we think that we can easily opt for the safe approach, if we think that blanket prohibitions – no pun intended – will be either effective or without cost.

To keep love alive, to allow the unexpected to grow in the soil of our relationships; these are the challenges we must sometimes defend.  May we be granted the wisdom and integrity to have insight in these matters, and may we retain the humility to see where silence might sometimes be our best response.

The Inclination towards Fantasy Berakhot 61

The daf today is concerned with the evil inclination, tracing its origins to the moment of creation, reflecting on the myriad ways it perpetually haunts us.  It is compared to a fly that lies in wait between the entrances of the heart, waiting for its chance to enter.  It is also compared to a grain of wheat, which also looks for an opening, ready to expand and leaven when an opportunity arises.

They’re definitely onto something these Rabbis, we all have a little grain of mischief and selfishness inside us, which can lie dormant for extended periods but which will blossom and come to life when given half an opportunity.  It will often start with the smallest thing, a very mild slackening of our attention and caution, perhaps when we accede to one drink too many of an evening, or when we first stick our nose into business where it doesn’t really belong.

Before we know it we’re immersed in something, and it can be an almighty struggle to extricate ourselves from it.  We might be watching ourselves with a modicum of disbelief – ‘is this really me?  How did I fall from grace so quickly?’  And if the mischievous impulse is particularly sly it might turn the questioning to its own ends – ‘doesn’t this show that all my righteousness and goodness until now was just a sham, that this is the real me, this craven depraved creature appearing before my eyes?’

I’ve heard it compared to a little monster, our capacity for darkness: once he’s fired up and let out of the cage he just doesn’t want to be put back in.

And it is with this keen psychological awareness that the Rabbis offer the following advice:

A man should not walk behind a woman on a path [as he will look at her constantly]…And anyone who walks behind a woman in a river has no portion in the World-to-Come.

Tosafot, who don’t say much in these last pages of Berakhot,  are quick to offer the following explanation:

This applies if he does this regularly, for he will eventually fall prey to the temptations of adultery and he will end up in hell.

If a man spends his days admiring the feminine shape, no matter how pure and noble his intentions may be at the start, he is opening the door to temptation, to the pesky fly which is just waiting for a sniff of opportunity.  The flesh is weak, sin is always waiting, and if we want to escape the personal hell into which it can lead us into then we would do well to keep an eye on our eyes.

There is a recognition here of the huge effort that goes into sustaining the civilised and virtuous state of mind, and of how little it takes to undermine that effort.  In this sense the Rabbis are deeply Freudian, their take on man shares his realistic and sober assessment of our nature.  They do not share the enlightenment or liberalist optimism, pervasive to this day, wherein man is basically good, where he is born in purity, and it is only the poisons of society which corrupt him.  They are all too conscious of how corruptible he really is.

This consciousness informs their next insight:

One who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her, even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not be absolved from the punishment of Gehenna.

At a first glance this sounds absurd – who does that, who makes such a roundabout effort to catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and finds it a turn on?

But it happens.  The Rabbis are not saying that it always happens, that every man who sees a woman’s hand is wildly turned on.  For the most part, for most people, it can be a deeply insignificant moment.

But when a man is in a frenzy of obsession, when an imbalance in his libido causes him to invest parts of a woman’s anatomy with near magical powers, when she becomes the locus of his fetish; at that point anything is possible.

And the Rabbis did not say that at that point a man is ill, he is disturbed, he is somehow sub-normal.  No, they did not use the clinical terms of the DSM IV to distance themselves from the phenomenon in front of them, from phenomena they knew intimately from personal experience.  They make it clear that it can happen to a man who is full of Torah and good deeds, who in every other way and to all outer appearances is thoroughly upstanding.

The Rabbis knew the heart of man, they knew the craven spirit that was always hovering in its environment, and they issued their warnings accordingly:

‘Do not think that you have no such inclination, and do not think that you will forever be immune to its charms.  Treat it with respect, for otherwise it will lead you to personal ruin and destruction, to a hell of your own making, it will pervert your imagination and give you no rest until you have acted its bidding.’

Indeed, in this spirit Rav Shimon ben Pazi was known to say:

Woe unto me for my Creator  and woe unto me for my inclination.

We have a great many inclinations for the positive, but we also have powerful inclinations for the worse, particularly when the fires of sexuality come to life.  There is no sense in protesting it, for we were created this way, but when we try to disavow or deny it, when we delude ourselves that it holds no sway over us, that is when we are worthy of woe, for that is when we are at our most painfully vulnerable.

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.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.