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.

Continue reading

Darkness and Diversity – Channuka 5773

A seasonal piece on the importance of pluralism and diversity, written by myself and the great William Kolbrener, published in the Times of Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/kindling-the-lights-of-diversity/ 

Enjoy, and a happy Channuka to one and all

p.s. a special thanks to Mannie and Leonie Sher, who invited me to talk in their house about Channuka, which got the ball rolling on this one.

Patience, Compassion and Love Shabbat 28 – 33

The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice.  Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.  I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.

Shabbat 28

The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:

You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes  from a tree,  except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents,  except flax.

I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound.  Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.

It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that.  From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.

I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:

Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing.  Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task.  The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst.  To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.

To rest is to accept that we have limits.  This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.

And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments.  We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.

Shabbat 29

Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted.  The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.

The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.

Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:

(1) You are aware that you are doing the action

(2) You intend for the action to take place

(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow

(4) The action is constructive, not destructive

(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect

(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done

(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place

(8) You do the action using only those people necessary

(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)

This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.

This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.

The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety.  The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.

Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.

Shabbat 30

There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated.  The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:

A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].

We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.

In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.

We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.

Shabbat 31

Hillel and Shammai.  I’m glad we already discussed this a little, it would be too upsetting to not discuss the significance of their differences at length.

And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.

He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah.  His response was as follows:

On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet].  On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.

‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.

‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now?  Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.

A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.

Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.

It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:

That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.

There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit.  We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.

Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace.  The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.

Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.

We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live.  We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.

Shabbat 32

We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.

One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.

I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.

We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.

And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’.  But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.

Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.

Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.

We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:

The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.

Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.

It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.

Shabbat 33

And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.

(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)

On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:

‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.

Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement.  Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation.  He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans.  His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.

Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.

He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.

When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.

Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.

On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.

We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.

Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice.  On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:

‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’

With this their minds found peace.

After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.

He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.

Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.

It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.

We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.

May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.

Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.

Truly, How Beautiful Berakhot 53, 54 and 55

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.

Way too strict… Aristotle vs Shammai Berakhot 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first voice in the Talmud states the obvious:

This is contradictory, it is fundamentally difficult.

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

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

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

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

What does the Talmud conclude?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this point, the Talmud here is completely unequivocal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law and the Spirit – Berakhot 11

When asked about the essence of Torah, Hillel (110 BCE – 10CE) said:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. (Bavli Shabbat 31a)

We’re probably all quite familiar with this dictum, it gets pretty good press throughout Jewish education, and with very good reason.

What we’re less sure about is quite how seriously to take it.  In what sense is ‘the rest’ really just ‘explanation’?

As ever, ‘just’ is a subtly loaded term, and we need to be careful about using it.

What we might ask, more precisely, is this:  How does this characterisation of Torah, of Jewish Law, actually affect our understanding  and application of it; what, if any, is its practical import?

If we wanted to be yeshivish, lomdisch, we might phrase it thus:  What’s the nafka mina?

In today’s daf, there seems to be an indication of such a practical consequence.  In brief, Hillel’s school seem to see Torah as something natural, as something lived, a harmonious practice designed to enhance the rhythms of our life.  Shammai’s school do not seem to see this, they seem to see the Law as a harsh and perhaps arbitrary set of laws.  It is no doubt Divine in origin, but, on their understanding of the Divine, it is all the more uncompromising and demanding for being so.  They do not inhabit an easy, friendly universe, they inhabit a universe of obligation, of sacrifice, what we might call a world of ascetic pride.

With this in mind, we can understand why Shammai had no time for the heathen on Shabbat 31a who wanted to learn the Torah on one foot – he chased him away with the plank of wood he had to hand.  The Law is a series of obligations, there is no essence, just a very long list of injunctions.  So for Shammai, it makes no sense to talk of its ethos.

As an aside, Shammai’s was a markedly violent reaction.  Is there not here an externalisation, an objectification of an inner violence, of the aggression turned inwards which so often fuels the obligation driven life?

We have here two different approaches to the spirit of the Law, something we touched on in discussing Berakhot 2.  For Hillel, we should be like Aharon, loving peace, pursuing it, loving people and thus bringing them closer to Torah.  If we embody love, people learn Torah.  Not in a superficial way – ‘he’s a nice guy so his Torah must mean something’ – but again, intrinsically, because the spirit that radiates love and peace is the spirit properly attuned to the meaning of Torah, to the way the Divine is revealed in the world.

The spirit of the Law is particularly important in Judaism because the Law has come to occupy such a huge and dominant role therein.  The sheer volume and scope of the Law threatens to suffocate and stifle everything else.  And this is not merely theoretical, in some communities it seems like this has already happened.

If we want to embrace the Law, but with our sense of the Divine intact (see yesterday’s blog), then we need to be very careful about how we handle and understand the Law.  We need to marshal all the support we can find to argue for a loving Law, a peaceful Law, a Law which respects the way human beings ought to best interact with each other.  We want to believe, with Hillel, that the Law is to be read as an extended discourse on consideration and sensitivity, and that it is designed to help us realise these virtues in our lives.

So, where do we see this on Berakhot 11?

In an early skirmish, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagree on how to read ‘beshokhbekha uv’kumecha’, the words in the Shema from which we learn how to say it.

Beit Shammai translate and read as ‘when you lie down and when you rise’.  From this they deduce that one must lie down to recite the Shema at night, and one must stand to recite it in the morning.

Beit Hillel hear it differently, they seem to hear more of the poetry of the verse, the naturalness of it.  They read it as ‘in the time that people go to bed, and in the time when people rise from bed’.

And they don’t rest there, they bring support from the next words, ‘uvelekhtekha vaderekh’, ‘in your going on the way’.  From here they see that everyone should read the Shema in his own way, in his natural way, as it comes to him.  This is quite a novel reading of those words – where Beit Shammai are probably overly literal in their reading – they’re looking for constriction and obligation at every turn – Beit Hillel are surprisingly imaginative, reading an insight into the spirit of the Law where it wasn’t at all obvious.

We should read in our way, it should complement our lives naturally.  This is the insight of Hillel, and it flows naturally from everything we said above.

The mishna (in the last words of page 10b) tells a story which reflects on this contrast:

Rabbi Tarfon recounted the following:  I was on a journey and I lay down to recite the Shema in accordance with the words of Beit Shammai.  In so doing, I endangered myself through exposure to bandits. 

What was the response of the Sages to this – did they praise him for his strictness, extol his sacrifice and commitment?  Did they salute the courage he showed in putting himself at risk in this way?

No, nothing of the sort.  Instead they said to him:

It would have been fitting for you to endanger yourself, because you discarded the advice of Beit Hillel.

Powerful words.  When we ignore the teaching of Hillel, when we lose the delicate and graceful balance with which the Law must be approached, it is fitting that we should pay with our lives, we have placed ourselves in grave danger.  Hillel’s is the Law of life, in Shammai’s hands it becomes something alien.

Later on the daf, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak re-inforces this, making this retort of the Sages into a general dictum:

Whoever follows the words of Beit Shammai is liable for the death penalty. 

He doesn’t mean it literally, but he’s taking the rebuke of the Sages very seriously.

Too seriously, perhaps?  Is the zealousy with which he follows Beit Hillel actually contrary to the love and peace which Hillel advocated?

This is always a danger, it’s so hard to walk the golden mean, to retain our balance, to stay on Freud’s horse – see Adam Phillips’ essay ‘On Balance’ – that we can become zealots for anti-zealotry.

And that would be to miss the point.

We see this danger already surfacing in the continuation of the Talmud.  After contrasting various Hillel and Shammai readings, which all reflect the difference I’ve highlighted, we encounter the words of Rav Yechezkel , an early Babylonian Amora, (c.200CE):

If one acted according to the words of Beit Shammai, he has acted, there’s no problem.  And if he has acted like Beit Hillel, he, too has acted, and there’s no problem.

This truly is the spirit of Hillel, if one has tried to act righteously, to do the right thing, then one has achieved something.  Let’s not get caught up in scorekeeping, in ‘fulfilling obligation’, in treating God like an inflexible umpire.

Rav Yosef, however, didn’t accept this spirit, and he finds it harder to be Hillel-esque in his following of Hillel:

One who followed the words of Beit Shammai, he has neither done nor achieved anything. 

In a gesture of jawdropping irony, exhibiting a frightening lack of self awareness, he brings a proof from a story of Shammai’s early followers.  When they encountered Rabbi Yochanan ben HaHoranit, who had been eating in the Sukkah in a manner not in accordance with their understanding, they had the following kind words for him:

If this is the way you always behave, you have never in your life fulfilled the mitzvah of a Sukkah.

Harsh, sharp, and, ultimately, horrifying words.  It’s a car crash moment, it’s so bad you can’t actually believe it’s happening.  And yet, it does.  We’ve all been there, we’ve all seen someone make a big effort only to be told that they haven’t actually fulfilled the Law, that according to the Shulkhan Arukh they’ve been wasting their time.

This is how not to be, and, as Rav Yosef unwittingly teaches us, we must be careful not to let any of this spirit seep into our attitudes.

Do not do anything that your empathic imagination teaches you to be hurtful.  It’s that simple.  The rest really is commentary.