Nihilism, Civilisation and the Divine Berakhot 13

From what we’ve said up until now, the Shema is supposed to be a meaningful meditation on love.  So when the rabbis ask “how much of the Shema do we need to concentrate on?”, we’re right to be a little surprised.

Two things to say on this.

Firstly, relief.

As much as I do wholeheartedly believe that the recital of the Shema is a tremendous opportunity for bi- or tri-daily reflectiveness, I know myself and reality well enough to know that it ain’t always going to happen.  It’s therefore heartening to know that the early Rabbis also experienced this.  It’s nice to hear that they too knew the difficulty in always maintaining a profound level of concentration on what becomes an everyday occurrence.

It’s a classic bind, the idea is to use ritual to orientate the mundane, but through making ritual routine, something of its magic and charm is lost.  It’s good to see that the Rabbis understood this from the beginning, that they had no illusions about the tensions in the culture they were creating.

Secondly, even though they got this, they still saw the value in reading alone, thoughtlessly, in enacting mindless ritual.

We spoke on page 3 of the Shema as a transitional object.  Part of the way that profound and significant level of connection is established is through thoughtless interaction with the object.  One doesn’t set out to establish a transitional object through conscious thought, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would be self-defeating.

Ritual, even without thought, roots and anchors us in the world.  It can stabilise the psyche, and provide a cathartic channel for all sorts of energies that we’re not at all aware of.  I’ve often felt better after even the most mindless prayer sessions, wherein I’ve utterly failed to connect to the meanings and ideas in the words.

The process of performance, of putting something in, of attempting to achieve something emotionally significant, has a powerful effect on us.  We would be foolish to abandon the ritual because we’re not hitting the high notes.  The culture is founded on the realisation that we’re only intermittently going to get there.

So, that said, whatever on heaven or earth are we supposed to be concentrating on?

As we said yesterday, that’s exactly what is animating the three way disagreement amongst the Rabbis about concentration.

First up Rabbi Eliezer, we’re talking Tannaic heavyweights today, who says up until ‘ha-aileh’. So that would be:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words…

So it seems to me that he’s emphasising the unity of God – more on that later – and the love of God.

As I’ve mentioned several times, the love of God is not some strange commandment to have  a specific emotion towards a Divine being.  Rather, it is the call for a specific attitude towards life, for a positive, somewhat optimistic openness of spirit.  It is about finding the positive emotions inside us and making them the dominant ones in constituting our basic disposition and modus operandi.  It is about living with the non-expectant yet completely receptive faith of Kierkegaard, of living out Wittgenstein’s tightrope ideal:

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

The commandment to love God, is about loving non-obssessionally, about not fetishizing our love objects, and hence about not making our capacity for love limited and restricted.

It is also an absolute prohibition against cynicism and nihilism.

Nietzsche wrestled with nihilism, he felt duty bound to embrace and explore what he took to be its inevitability.  It led him into madness, and even just reading him can often give one too much of the feeling of things falling apart.  Let’s say he was our sacrifice to that ideology, we can all learn from him that it’s not something we need to surrender to.

Twice a day, just say ‘no’ to nihilism.

Rabbi Akiva, these really are the heavyweights, said we need to concentrate throughout the whole first paragraph.  So he adds the following to our requirement:

…which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Rabbi Akiva is tuned in to what we were saying above, it’s about the institution of a culture.  The explicit content here is a narrative of things becoming increasingly rigid and ritualised. Teaching, then speaking, then reciting, then wearing as a ritual object, and finally, in the perfect image of fixture, nailing them to the doorpost of your house.

So we are not just to focus on the Divine, but to reflect on our culture and its ethos.  We must make the Divine intrinsic to the texture of everyday life, this is the cornerstone of our civilisation.

Rabbi Meir has the final word.  For him, we need only focus on the first line:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

And this is backed up by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi too, for whom this line was the entirety of his recital.

So for these two greats, we must only concentrate on ‘Adonai’ being our God, and on His oneness and unity.

The oneness and unity of the Divine are very tricky concepts, not ones that I think we can relate to easily nowadays.  It’s too abstract, it’s not really clear what it’s supposed to be in opposition too, what it’s rejecting.

As a start, I would say the following.  As you’ll have noticed, I like talking about the Divine, I find it communicates things better than talking about ‘God’.  ‘God’ sounds too much like an object, a person, and try as we might, I don’t think we ever really free ourselves of those associations, no matter how well we know we ought to.

The Divine is different.  The Divine really is about something higher, something beyond, something we catch glimpses of but can only ever aspire to.  And talking of the Divine implies seeing connections, relating our understandings of various ideals such as Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Justice and sensing that there is something common to them, some ideal quality we can only have a vague sense of.

It also requires us to attempt to see meaning in our diverse experiences of life, in its harsh and difficult times as well as its joyful and sublime ones.  To sense that its merciful moments are just a different face from its uncompromising moments, but that they are not absolutely and definitively separate, is to see such unity.

To see unity is to see meaning.  It is the job of the imagination, and it’s not always easy.  Relating to the Divine is not a simple matter of giving lip service to dogma or principles, it’s about making the constant effort to see life differently, to see something bigger in it, some higher possibility latent inside it.

It is not about trivialising life through relating it to a distant Godly being.  It is about thinking of life in the most constructive and imaginative manner possible, and about paying particular attention to just how much goodness and wonder lie hidden in the most remarkable places.

Sensing unity is sensing the Divine, and for Rabbi Meir, that is quite enough for us to be concentrating on.

So we can try to concentrate on a civilisation that opposes nihilism.  But at the very least, we must concentrate on life and try to see the goodness that pervades it.