Out of Fear or Love? Shabbat 11, 12

There’s a discussion between Rava and Abaye today which caught my eye.  Abaye is suggesting that one might need to take precautions to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally carry from a ‘karmelit’, an enclosed space which is neither private nor public, into a different domain.  Rava rebuffs him with the following statement of principle:

That prohibition is itself merely a protective Rabbinic decree, are you suggesting that we need to go ahead and establish further protection around this protective decree?  (venigzor g’zeirah li’gzeirah?)

The Talmud seems to accept this principle, and the Ritva explains that even Abaye himself upheld it.

It is, quite literally, a vital principle, a principle which keeps the halakha grounded in life.

And we could understand it in two ways.  At a basic level, it could just be practical:  if we just kept establishing protective laws around protective laws, the process could go on ad infinitum.  So although there could be merit in it, we don’t go that way, even if we maybe think we’d like to.

The alternative reading of the statement is that it represents a different ideal, that we need to understand the concept of protection differently.

We may love Shabbat, and we may wish to ensure that we do not accidentally stray from its spirit.  And in that spirit, a spirit of positivity and connection, we might take a couple of precautionary steps to help keep the boundary firm.

But we are not living in fear of breaking Shabbat, we are not petrified of prohibition, our souls are not frozen by the thought of transgression.  A little protection is ok, but to get obsessed with that protection, to get carried away with it, this would be to lose something, to miss something.

It would be to reveal that one’s religious existence is not rooted in a trusting love of Divine wisdom, but in an anxious concern about Divine retribution.

We later see that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ignored the warning against reading by the light of an oil lamp, lest one come to adjust it.  When he realised that he’d unconsciously adjusted the lamp and thus violated a fairly serious prohibition, his response was not to berate himself and to quake at the punishment that would befall him.  Rather, in a spirit of love and admiration, he notes the wisdom in the Rabbi’s teaching; he is newly impressed with their perceptiveness, with their attunement to the unconscious.

This is a lesson in how to understand the protective decree, the g’zeira.  It was given out of love, and it should be embraced out of love.  We gravely misinterpret it if we think that it is erecting a persecutory framework, if we think the Mishnaic Rabbis were as anxious about their religiosity as some of our people today.

The image springs to mind of Rav Soloveitchik, who cried inconsolably when, in his last years and ill health, he forgot it was Shabbat and switched on a light.  This was not a reaction of fear, but a reaction of love, a sensitivity to losing something of the spirit of Shabbat that he cherished so deeply.

I think this understanding also allows us to read the original language of the Mishna somewhat differently.

‘lo yetze hachayat…lo yefaleh et keila ve’lo yikra le’or ha’ner’   

Soncino translates these negative injunctions as ‘must not’, Steinsalz as ‘may not’ and I’m sure many would simply read ‘it is forbidden to’.  But I hear it differently, it is not the stern voice of authority speaking, it is the loving voice of wisdom, the feminine aspect of Torah.  I hear it as ‘it might not be a good idea to…’ or ‘perhaps one might not want to…’.  The ‘lo’ need not be so harsh, it’s all about the tone and music that communicate it.

I think Julia Kristeva writes about the music of the mother’s voice, of her language, as the thing that has the biggest impact on shaping a child’s world.  Here too, the way we hear the music of halakha is what shapes and sculpts our religious life.  I believe we can hear it gently, tenderly, we do not need to read it as the stern voice of patriarchal authority.

I do see that slightly later this reading gets stretched, ‘lo’ is followed by ‘patur aval asur’ or ‘chayav chatat’.  But that just makes me ponder it more, makes me reflect on the layering of the language of the Mishna, whether already in its composition there wasn’t a move to bolster up the gentle words of tradition with a harsher voice of authority.  The culture was under threat, and a being under threat reacts defensively, aggressively, and with good reason.  But when the culture is no longer under threat, it needs to breathe again, it needs to rediscover its warmth and confidence.

I also like to read Rav Yosef’s famous statement in this light.  Responding to Rabbi Chanina’s suggestion that one must check one’s clothes before Shabbat lest one come to carry inadvertently, he says the following:

‘hilkhta rabata l’shabata’

Most translate this as ‘this is a great law of Shabbat’, perhaps echoing Rabbi Yishmael’s admiration for these decrees.  I hear it as ‘there are many, many laws to Shabbat’, with perhaps a sigh in his tone, a concern that we are losing something under the weight of all these protective layers.

Ultimately we are told not to get caught up in the spirit of protection, but to engage with Shabbat lovingly, tenderly.  And this should extend to the rest of our religious life, we should not be basing it upon foundations of fear, be they fear of punishment or fear of the inner chaos that might be unleashed without strict boundaries.  Rather, it should be built upon appreciation, wisdom and love, keeping faith with the words of Proverbs:

It is a tree of life for those who embrace it, and all who uphold it are happy.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. 

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

So I’m warming up to these discussions in Shabbat, to these musings on the boundaries.  And it makes sense, if what I said the other day is right, if rest is about being able to hold strong boundaries and protect the self, then I can understand why all of these early musings are so concerned with the boundary.

Where do we draw the line between the private and the public, and what does it mean to exist in both of these spheres.  For Rabbi Akiva, an object in flight is considered to have come to rest.  The Rabbis differ: for them a being that is forever in flight, whose feet never stop to touch the ground, who is always hovering above reality, is not considered to have come to rest.  To rest is to have roots, to be grounded, to be settled.

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

For him it has two aspects: removing oneself from one place, and coming to rest in another.  And he perhaps emphasises the removing, the uprooting; maybe that is bound up with his personal narrative, with change, with creativity, with yearning until his dying word.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is also concerned with roots: if something lands on the branch of a tree, we look to see where its trunk is located.  The nature of the growth is dictated by the soil it is rooted in.

Is this a natural thing for an aristocrat to say?  Is the class war flaring up again?

Or not.  Perhaps he is a fan of the first psalm:

The righteous one is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither.

Rabbi Yehuda thinks differently about movement: for him it is about entry and exit, it is about transitioning between dimensions, not about an abrupt departure, about wandering.

His life was different from Akiva’s, it was more of a series of smooth passages, less a succession of existential upheavals.

More on movement:  If one runs to catch something, do they abrogate the responsibility of the one who threw it?

People project into us all the time: their hatred, anxieties, jealousies.

How much do we run into these, do we receive them almost willingly?  Can we too easily become complicit in the dark manipulative arts that surround us, can we be too eager to absorb and accept the other’s criticism and insult, no matter how unfounded?

The more we run into it, the more we shape ourselves as a receiver, the more we are liable.

Maintain the boundary, do not allow the other to violate you inappropriately.

Encourage them to contain their own distress, to find the spirit of rest through respect for the boundaries.

Royale with Cheese Berakhot 39

(Spoiler alert – I haven’t found a heter…)

 One of the greatest films of the 90s, if not of all time, was Pulp Fiction.  And what was particularly exciting about this somewhat nihilistic, noir exploration of contemporary culture was its humour.

 I still vividly remember sitting in the cinema, being stunned at the way the sprawling dialogue of the first ten minutes had me shrieking with laughter.  I remember thinking: “there are no jokes here, but if you bring together enough minutaie and trivia, enough entirely meaningless detail, and you relay them with enough deadpan earnestness, the result can be funnier than anything you could construct more directly, anything more deliberately and directly humorous”.

 Who can forget the joy of the discussion of French cheeseburgers, and the even funnier conclusion when he’s asked about the naming conventions around the Whopper:

 I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King. 

 The discussion only gets funnier when he continues to ruminate on the merits of the big Kahuna burger, and the ‘tasty beverage’ one may wash it down with.  Poor Brett is being held at gunpoint, knowing he’s rumbled and that his time is up.  He’s not seeing the funny side.  There can be nothing further from Brett’s mind at this time than the hamburger he’s chosen to eat for breakfast and yet Jules forces him to think about it.  It is this disparity between what’s really happening and what’s actually being said that creates an absurdly humorous spectacle for the viewer.

 I’m no film expert, so I can’t say for sure that he re-wrote the rules.  I can say, however,  that for me and my peers, Quentin Tarantino opened our eyes to some new possibilities of humour, to some of the ways that great writing can come out of walking the fine line between the absurd and the severe.  He trademarked the way that the most mundane conversation can come to life if the participants engage in it with enough seriousness, with a level of conviction totally out of whack with the levity of the subject matter.

We can know that humour works in this way, that it can gain in energy and vitality through being apparently hidden, and yet this can sometimes only make it even more difficult to tell when someone is joking.  Sacha Baron Cohen has taken this direction in humour to ever greater extremes, using his characters to generate situations where people are lulled in by an apparent earnestness.  His victimes are left ruefully unaware of the outrageous levels of humour their equally serious responses are then generating.

So part of humour, perhaps the best part, comes about through ambiguity, through not really being able to say for sure if someone is joking, through observing a conversation without being completely sure what the participants are thinking.

And so, to the daf.

It has transpired in passing that Rabbi Yochanan made a berakha over a salted olive.  The discussion then goes onto other topics, before Rabbi Yirmiyah, a later Amora, takes the matter up with Rabbi Zeira:

This Rabbi Yochanan, what was he thinking making a berakha on a salted olive – seeing as he removed the stone, it wouldn’t have been the size of an olive??  [An olive size being  the minimum quantity of food for a berakha.]

Rabbi Zeira isn’t going to be taken for a fool, he knows Rabbi Yirmiyah’s game, and he’s up for it:

What, you think when we talk about an olive it has to be a large olive?? 

Nonsense!  All we need is a medium sized olive, and the olive that was brought in front of Rabbi Yochanan was a large olive, so even though he removed the stone, he was still left with something the size of an olive. 

Now I can’t say for sure that they were joking here, but there is something deeply absurd about questioning whether someone eating an olive has eaten an olive’s size.  And I find the alternative reading, that they were being genuinely and entirely serious in having this discussion, to be too disturbing.

The idea that we should entertain such a question, that this is what our religion is about, so beggars belief that I simply cannot accept it.  And I am forced to the conclusion that they were having this discussion tongue in cheek, or, at the very least, that the Redactors who recorded the material did so with one eye on its humorous dimension.

People may insist that I’m wrong, that my post-Tarantino reading is warping the spirit of the text, but there’s a part of me which is only the more entertained by their earnest protestations.

This stuff is funny, the amount of libido invested into these minute legal details cannot but fail to give the discussions a life and an energy which feels displaced and inappropriate.  And perhaps it is this sense of unawareness, perhaps it is the extent to which someone expresses themselves without irony, without genuine knowledge of what they’re acting out or looking for, that makes them quite so funny.

I see another critique of this excessive seriousness later on in the daf.  An unknown scholar appeared before Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak and was able to resolve a dispute that his pupils had been arguing about extensively.  It turned out his name was ‘Shalman’, which led Rav Nachman to the following quip, playing on the letters of his name:

You are peace [shalom] and your teaching is complete [shleima], for you have established peace amongst the students.

I hear Rav Nachman here expressing relief, it seems he felt that his students were perhaps getting overly excited by the details of the discussion they were involved in.  His use of the term ‘the students’ is what strikes me, he seems to be distancing himself from them.  He is perhaps acknowledging that they are at an age when this is the safest way for their libido and vitality to be contained, when there can be no better way to sublimate their aggressive energies than through the intricate details of halakhic inquiry.

If I sound disparaging, that is not my intention, for the most part I embrace this way of life and all of its accompanying accoutrements.  I only want to insist that we are sometimes able to laugh at it, to see the funny side, to get the irony, for if we miss that, if we come to take these things too seriously, then I fear we really are in danger of losing touch, of losing our always precarious grip on reality.

Humour can be a great release, by taking excessive seriousness out of a situation, out of our own relation to ourselves, we can clear the ground for a new lease of life, for a new injection of seriousness.

And once we know what we really needn’t worry about, we have a much better chance of finding the thing that really does merit our energies and attention, the thing we have perhaps been deliberately avoiding through all of this diversion.

Just Like a Woman… Berakhot 20b and 21

Today we encounter one of the more divisive rulings in the Halakha.  The mishna begins:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from putting on Tefillin. But they are subject to the obligations of Tefillah and Mezuzah and Grace after meals.

The Gemara responds quickly:

It is obvious that they are exempt from the Shema – that is a positive commandment which is time-bound, and women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments!

Really?  Was it that obvious?

If this is such a well known principle, we would be within our rights to expect the Talmud to give us its source or background.  We saw yesterday that it spent nearly a whole daf trying to find the source for Human Dignity and its power to defer prohibitions.  And yet, today, nothing.

I’m highlighting this as a strange absence in the text.  And before highlighting some other strange absences, I’d like to propose one understanding of them:

The Talmud is not shy about discussing anything and everything, pretty much whatever someone might say can lead to a discussion of one or other related topics.  Discussion is basically its raison d’etre, its lifeblood.  So if the Talmud doesn’t discuss something, it suggests that the matter was so uncontroversial, so widely assumed, so unconsciously accepted in Talmudic culture that no one thought to question it.

To my mind, this suggests that if something did become controversial in later generations, as society and people changed, then the discussion ought to be re-opened, that this would be the only authentically Talmudic response.  Judaism is always about trying to improve the world, to improve the moral and spiritual quality of the lives we lead.  In order to do this it must always start from our mode of living in the world, from the raw actuality of that.

Put differently, there is perhaps nothing fundamentally Jewish about this strict division of male and female roles.  It may have been codified in Jewish Law, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any sort of Jewish Ideal.  It simply means that it was an aspect of people’s lives and so some kind of habit and rule was required in response to it.

For example, we see later today – 21b – that a man may wed a woman who was raped by either his father or his son.  Would we say that there is any kind of ideal involved in one’s relatives being rapists?  I think it’s clear that the answer is no.  On the other hand, such a circumstance may arise, and in a society where a raped woman would find it hard to get married, it may seem reasonable to allow such a marriage to proceed, with the women’s consent.

This is an extreme example, but it shows the extent to which we need to be careful about moving too readily from Jewish Law to Jewish Ideals.

Maybe we should step back a moment, perhaps I’m rushing into assuming that this issue of women’s exemption is objectionable, something that needs defending and repackaging in a radical way.

Perhaps it isn’t, I did a survey of a few women today and the exemption itself didn’t seem to be so problematic.  Where it may sometimes leads to seems to be the problem, but we’ll get there.

That said, I do still think it’s worth noting these strange absences.

So the first is the lack of a source for the principle of exemption.  We may happen to know that it is also mentioned in a Mishna in Kiddushin (29a) but there is no biblical source given.

The second is the lack of any explanation at all.  We must assume that the rationale is something to do with a woman’s role in the home, which keeps her too busy and does not allow her to break for the Shema or to put Tefillin on.  Yet this is quite strange –  are men never busy, does their contribution to the maintenance of the household never merit an exemption?

This brings us to the third absence, the lack of exceptions.  What about a widow who has lost his wife and is forced to raise his children on his own?  What about a woman aged 23 who is not yet  married and has a very comfortable and relaxed life?  Or a woman of 63 in a similar position?

By neither considering nor exploring these realities, the text begins to suggest that there is something more fundamental in play, some less practical reason why a woman is exempt.

And at this point it can go either way.

One can say that women are superior, that they are intrinsically more spiritual, more attuned to the love and compassion which the mitzvot are trying to teach us.

One could say that the work they are involved in is fundamentally more holy, more Divine, and that there  is less need to take them away from it to remind them of their genuine purpose in life.  As we discussed with relation to breastfeeding (pages 3 and 10), we hold the maternal as the highest model of being, and we learn from it how to conduct ourselves.

Further, one may say that men are prone to forget their origins and roots in the family, and to stray towards alien Gods.  For this reason they must have a framework and routine which brings them back to it.

And this is all very nice.

But, realistically, this massive generalisation, this universal assumption about what men and women do, carries a huge risk of essentialising and reifying gender.

It leads us to generate a blessing wherein man thank God for not making them a woman.

It leads us to rebuking women who wish to wear tefilin, as Rambam seems to do (Tefilin 4:13) and as codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 38:3).  This rebuke becomes demonisation in contemporary life.

It leads us to banishing women from any role in synagogue life, relegating them to a non- participatory spectators’ gallery, far away from the action.

There is a line of thinking which says that men will look to subdue women wherever and however they can.  They are threatened by them, sometimes by their goodness and tenderness, other times by what their sensual sexuality evokes in the male.  And sometimes it’s simply by their symbolising the dependency of the maternal.

So let us assume that from time to time over the last two thousand years this misogynistic spirit has flared up within Jewish culture.  In such circumstances, it seems inevitable that people will have looked to Jewish texts and law and abused them in order to legitimise their diminution of women.

And, let us be honest, the text of the Mishna opens itself to this.  Women are treated in the same breath as slaves and children; the idea that we are talking about higher spiritual beings doesn’t quite ring true here.  If we started with ‘women, angels and saints are exempt…’ then we might have a case on our hands.  It may be unfortunate, but juxtaposing women with slaves makes a certain sort of conclusion tragically inevitable.

This leads us to the fourth and final absence:  the voice of the women.  This is a discussion of men about women, and at no point is any woman consulted or quoted in order to hear her thoughts.  We don’t talk about whether Devorah said Shema before battle, nor do we consult the habits of Beruria to see how she felt about the dimension of time.  Women are absent from the study hall here, whether through exemption or exclusion, and we are asked to trust that the men of 1800 plus years ago knew their needs and natures best.  To the modern eye, this ‘legislation by the other’ robs women of all their dignity.

It doesn’t look great.

This is a huge topic, and I’ve no doubt we will be returning to it.  In summary, I read the text here as exhibiting several glaring absences, and these leave it sorely exposed to an abusive appropriation for unholy ends.  However, I do not believe that Judaism is in essence a rigidly gendered or misogynistic culture, and as the realities of the world change, new discussions must take place to ensure that its ultimate aims can be furthered.

Let us end by noting something wonderful on daf 21a.  Rav Yehuda proposes that the prayer we say after the Shema is actually a more binding obligation, a Torah obligation, than the Shema itself.  Let us remember the beginning of that prayer:

True and firm, established and enduring, right, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, pleasant, awesome, mighty, perfect, accepted, good and beautiful is this faith for us for ever and ever.

Quite.  When the ideals we lay claim to in Judaism match up to these standards then we know we are on solid ground.  When we know or suspect that they do not, then it is time for some serious soul searching, it is the time to root out whatever toxic may have entered our spirit and to expunge it.

p.s. I dedicate this blog to my wife, who has in every positive way earned her exemption from the bindings of time.  With the little time she has, she fights to ensure women are fairly treated in Judaism, and I stand proudly behind her on this quest.

Respect for Human Dignity Berakhot 19 and 20a

The Talmud, without much prompting, gets into a discussion today about the principle of Kavod Habriyot, Human Dignity, or more literally, the Dignity of the Creatures.

As a first reflection, we may note that this literal translation tells us something about the source of this dignity, and the meaning of the concept of createdness.  Humans are to be respected because they are created in the Divine Image.  Or, conversely, to be worthy of being created by something Divine, we must live with and exbihit dignity.  There is no such demand upon someone who wishes to see themselves as a mere cosmic or biological accident, that frame of reference gives no higher purpose to one’s life.

Moving on, we first encounter the basic principle as stated very clearly in a baraita:

Come and hear: Human Dignity is so significant that it overrides a negative prohibition of the Torah.

This is the kind of meta-halakhic utterance that we like to hear, it fits in very well with what we said about Hillel and the spirit of the Law on page 11 and also with the sense in which mitzvot are secondary to an awareness of the Divine (page 14).

And yet, challengingly, it’s not quite so simple.

There is a contradictory spirit, presented by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav, based on the verse from Proverbs 21:30 – “There is neither wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Lord”.  He interprets this to mean that negative prohibitions override concerns about honour and dignity.

The first thing to say is that this interpretation is not the simple meaning of the verse, nor does it fit with the spirit of the chapter from which it is taken.  On a simple reading, the verse rounds off a chapter about honourable and noble behaviour, about living with a passion for truth and justice.  The verse thus reads that there no alternative wisdom, understanding or counsel which will triumph over genuine fidelity to God.  But there is no sense in which this Godly imperative is to be perceived as the Torah’s explicit commandments, especially not when their context makes them seem inappropriate.  Indeed, a selection of verses from the chapter show which aspect of the Divine will is under consideration:

v3 To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

v4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart—  the unploughed field of the wicked—produce sin.

v13 Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.

v21 Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honour.

This does not sound like an injunction to override human dignity, to presume to understand the Divine imperative so well that one may trample one’s fellow underfoot.  Humiliation and shame, which some of the Talmudic discussion here seems to be weighing up, seem to be way off the mark.

“That’s all very well”, I hear you say, “but is it really your business to be re-reading the verses that the Talmud uses and deciding that they are being taken out of context?  Doesn’t this approach make a mockery of the tradition, sanctioning an interpretative anarchy which will undo the foundations of the faith?”

On principle, I reject this objection.  The Talmud is given to us to study, to question, to challenge, to disagree with.  I would say that this is true of every text, but it is especially true here – the open, discursive, non resolutory style particularly demands it.  If a verse is taken out of context, if its simple meaning is perverted, then we need to know this and we need to understand why.  Otherwise we are not studying or engaging with the Torah, we are blindly and thoughtlessly following it.  In this direction lies our peril.

Moving beyond principle, in this particular case the matter is left very much unresolved.  We are left with a baraita which gives Human Dignity a huge role in overriding Torah commandments and an Amoraic teaching – albeit one who almost has Tannaitic status – which seems to run counter to it.  In classical yet frustrating style, the Talmudic flow just seems to drift away from the conflict, seeming to lose patience with resolving it.  It very much leaves it in our hands.  And perhaps this is fitting, perhaps it would go against the spirit of Human Dignity to suggest that its scope could be established once and for all, thereby closing down the discussion for future generations.

I want to be clear that the discussion is left very much open, for others have concluded that Human Dignity in fact only applies to rabbinic prohibitions, not biblical ones.  This is a thought which is raised in the discussion, but it is in no way clear that it is the conclusion of the discussion.

I believe there is space to read it in the following way:  The principle of Human Dignity is established and accepted, as a principle of the Oral Law (not merely Rabbinic Law).  The Talmudic characters engaged in discussing it were not able to support it with further proof, to find a supporting source, but that in itself does not undermine it.

To counterbalance the power of this principle, we are presented with Rav’s teaching, which suggests that we need to be wary before readily overriding the prohibitions of the Torah.  As a scholarly and political leader of the emergent and flourishing Babylonian community, we can understand his need to emphasise this.

However, lest we conclude that Rav was a hardliner who took the word of the Law severely and literally, let us counterbalance it with some of his other teachings:

“The commandments of the Torah were only given to purify men’s morals” (Genesis Raba 44).

“Whosoever hath not pity upon his fellow man is no child of Abraham” (Beitzah 32b).

“It is better to cast oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly to put to shame one’s fellow creature” (Bava Metzia 59a).

On this reading we are justified in taking the principle of Human Dignity very seriously, and in leaving room for it to override, or require re-interpretation, of certain biblical prohibitions.

If people fail to read the ‘sugya’ in this way, they are perhaps unconsciously accepting a premise of contemporary orthodoxy which anxiously prioritises the word of the Law over its spirit.  As a clinician, I view this as a defence mechanism and I respect the need to cling to it.  I will not, however, allow the truths and wisdom of my culture and civilisation to be misrepresented in this manner.

Human Dignity is great indeed, and we should look to enhance it in every way possible.  We should not simply recall it when we want to override a problematic law, but we should be seeking to increase it in ourselves, our families and our communities and to help people throughout the world whose dignity has been compromised.

In Dignity we see another aspect of the Divine, and the more intimately we can connect with that, the better we have done in enhancing Its Presence in this world.