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.

Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.

 

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.

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. 

Democracy and Halakha: Uneasy bedfellows?? Berakhot 37 and 38

In another example of the fractious relations amongst the early Tannaim, we find Rabbi Akiva getting himself into trouble today, over the correct bracha to say after eating dates:

Once R. Gamaliel and the elders were reclining in an upper chamber in Jericho, and dates  were brought in and they ate, and R. Gamaliel gave permission to R. Akiva to say grace. R. Akiva said quickly the one blessing which includes three [as opposed to the full Grace after Meals, which would have been Rabban Gamliel’s prescription].

Said R. Gamaliel to him: Akiva, how long will you poke your head into quarrels?

He replied: Master, although you say this way and your colleagues say the other way, you have taught us, master, that where an individual joins issue with the majority, the halakha is determined by the majority.

The halakha is determined by the majority.  This is an important principle, not least because it seems to suggest that there is a democratic core in the foundations of halakhic development.

This sounds very promising, we cherish democracy as one of our highest values.  It very much accords with our sensibility to imagine that the halakha shares these values.

But is it really that straightforward?  The halakha is supposed to represent some sort of higher, Divine authority; how can that be squared with a democratic mindset wherein the will of the people, of the sometimes deeply uneducated masses, is the ultimate voice?

It’s a tricky one.

There are problems with democracy, and we would do well not to fall into what Raymond Geuss in History and Illusion in Politics calls the ‘narcissistically adulatory self-description’ (p123) that democracies are vulnerable to.  The mere utterance of the word ‘democratic’ is sometimes thought to sway an argument, and we should not be susceptible to such superficial thinking.  If democracy is great, we need to know why: what is it about the system that makes it so desirable?

The oft cited problem with democracy is that it appears to place all opinions on an equal footing.  Experts are given the same vote as the simple minded, the virtuous are given the same vote as the rogue.  It seems to lack any moral or pragmatic guiding principle; it seems to grant self-determination and self expression domineering priority over what might be right and just.

But no sooner do we state the problem in these terms than we quickly realise that this objection itself raises some thorny problems.  On occasion it might be easy to say who is the expert and who the fool, who the saint and who the sinner.  But can we really be sure to always detect these things, and to be right about them?  And who are the ‘we’ that is doing this detecting?  Haven’t we slipped in, via the backdoor,  some kind of ‘reliable ruling body’ who will take it upon themselves to ensure that the good is always fairly and justly selected?

There is no way around this, we might like to think that some of the time we can easily call upon the experts, but there is no surefire way to ensure that their expertise, their knowledge, does not become a form of oppressive tyranny.

No, we soon arrive at the ultimate defence of democracy, at the sense in which, for all its flaws, it is better than the alternatives.  In a democracy, the will of the people emerges, the truth of their desire becomes manifest.

To watch a democracy unfold is to watch a society organically grow, to see a culture find its roots, to see a people find themselves through the values and aspirations they endorse.

Democracy, as John Dewey point out, embodies the spirit of experimentation, it allows a community to work things out for itself, even if that means sometimes getting things wrong.

We may still find ourselves bothered by the idea that the masses sometimes get whipped up into hysteria, that they may succumb to the temptations of evil, that they may elect a Hitler.  Why are these risks worth taking?  Why should we have so much faith in humanity?

Why indeed.

It is never easy to say why having faith in humanity is a good idea, but we should be clear that when we endorse democracy, especially its liberal varieties, that we are doing precisely that.  We are expressing faith in the ultimate goodness and wisdom of the people, we are saying that no one is better equipped to establish a just and good society than they are.

To value democracy is to make a huge leap of faith.

And, talking slightly differently, it is not just the people that we are expressing faith in, it is goodness itself.  We are saying that the good can only remain hidden and oppressed for so long, that the reign of darkness and indifference must ultimately exhaust itself and burn out.

Getting slightly Hegelian, we are saying that history is a grand narrative from which truth and beauty gradually emerge, that the world of brute actuality actually, over time,  discloses the ideals which were ultimately always driving it.

Democracy should never bore us, it should always be fascinating.  Human nature and human needs are always being re-imagined and reconsidered, and the democratic polity is the stage upon which this drama is played out.

Returning to our Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, as we know, is the aristocratic who dares to think he knows better than the people.  He thinks they should spend more time praying in the evening and he believes they should more regularly enact the longer form of grace after meals.  There may be some truth to his opinions: in an ideal world, if we were men and women of leisure, these would doubtless be excellent recommendations.

But we do not yet inhabit that Messianic ideal, we are not as free from the worries of the world as we might like to be, and we must with difficulty and regret tailor a more limited framework for our spiritual sustenance.

As a visionary, Rabban Gamliel may have a lot to teach us.  As a legislator, however,  his noble intentions threaten to become tyrannical.  Removed from the soil of the people, from the hierarchy of priorities which they actually can and do endorse, his prescriptions lose sight of that balanced golden mean, they become a source of unnecessary guilt and oppression.

This is all very well, but are we really saying that the Divine will, the Halakha, is expressed and articulated through the will of the people, that God is somehow bound by democracy?

In a word, yes.

As the heavenly voice famously says in closing the story of the Oven of Akhnai, (Bava Metzia 59b), ‘Nitzchuni Banai’, ‘My sons have defeated Me’.  God himself does not have the final word in halakha, the people do.

Everything we said above about democracy should help us to better understand this, we essentially portrayed democracy as a form of ongoing revelation, an everyday continuation of the events that transpired in the Exodus from Egypt and which culminated at Sinai.  In Avot 6:2 we have the idea that a heavenly voice continues to speak forth every day from Sinai; perhaps it is in democracy that it is nowadays making itself heard.

Again, it will stumble and fall, there will be mistakes.  But, importantly, we have faith that it will get there, that something Divine and Beautiful will ultimately be revealed.

Rabbi Akiva was right to ‘stick his head into quarrels’, the humble shepherd was right to challenge the Prince.  In doing so he was reminding us that there is something delicate and alive in the unfolding of halakha, that for the Divine to be truly realised in this world, the voice of the majority must be given its due heed.

This is not to say that we must take the results of democracy uncritically: we must be constantly weighing them up against what we already know of the good and the true, we must be trying to educate and influence from that which moves and inspires us.  But the book of knowledge can never be closed, the written Torah can never prosper without its living, unfolding, oral counterpart.  We may be required to teach, but we must also retain the humility to learn.  As Ben Zoma points out, to be wise is to learn from every man, not just from the experts (Avot 4:1).

May the democratic impulse in halakha act to strengthen our faith in humanity, and may it also help us retain humility in our quest for knowledge, to remind us that truth is always emerging, that it is never just there for the taking.

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.

For He Is Merciful, no matter what they say… Berakhot 33

We have been getting quite deeply involved in the emotions and the psyche of late, perhaps it’s been a bit too much for some people, perhaps people feel that prayer needn’t be quite such a voyage of the spirit.  Even in the Talmud we hear voices who think that all this talk of meditation and reflection might be a little too ethereal:

If he did not focus his attention initially, we beat him with a blacksmith’s hammer until he focuses his attention.

As Spud says in Trainspotting, extolling Begbie’s powers of communication, sometimes you’ve just got to get the message across.

We encounter today one of the more troublesome texts in the Talmud, one of those nuggets that is often seized upon for all the wrong reasons.  The Mishna says:

One who says [in his prayers] “You extended your mercy to a bird’s nest”, “May your name be remembered for the good” or “We give thanks, we give thanks”, we silence him.

The reference to the bird’s nest is referring to the law wherein we are commanded to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from her nest, something that looks to be emblematically merciful.

Why should this declaration of praise be problematic?

The Talmud ponders this, and declares that there were two Amoraim arguing about this, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida.

One said, because he might make the rest of creation jealous, [i.e. that God only showed mercy to the birds]. 

This is a harmless enough opinion, nothing offensive about it.

The other said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One into manifestations of mercy, whereas they are nothing but decrees.

Ouch, God is not merciful, all He does is issue arbitrary decrees.

This is the plain meaning of this opinion, and people fall over themselves to bring it up in debate, in an attempt to prove all sorts of things.

Some people learn from it that we are forbidden to enquire into the reasons for the Miztvot, that any such enquiry is both dangerous and doomed.

Others learn from it the more noxious idea that we cannot presume there to be a predominantly compassionate and merciful theme running through the Jewish religion.  We must treat the entire culture as made up of arbitrary decrees, our sympathetic and moral understandings are of no value whatsoever.

We have discussed this point of view in our very first post, and at various points since then we have seen quite how important the spirit of the law is, how powerfully the prophetic underpinnings of the law continue to resonate throughout its discussion and application.

I might even go so far as to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at how little there has been to suggest otherwise, how little of this ‘arbitrary religion’ has actually been depicted in the Talmud.

And now, as this problematic little opinion rears its head, I am inclined to say that it is something of an anti-climax.

The Talmud just mentions it and leaves it, it doesn’t treat it as a big deal, it doesn’t declare that we have just been told of a revolutionary and counterintuitive principle.  Even semi-controversial points are often tested and refined by bringing an array of counter-indicative scriptural verses and rabbinic sources.  There is none of that here, we just see it, we’re not even sure which of the Amoraim actually said it, and then we leave it.

Even the story afterwards doesn’t support this principle, all we know is that Abaye was suspicious of someone who mentioned mercy and the nest.  On a simple level, it sounds like his uncle Rabah might actually have thought it was permitted; only a later Talmudic rendition suggests that he agreed with Abaye and was testing him.

We make no effort to square this principle with those of Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, with the endless verses in the Bible which talk about God’s mercy and love.

I’m not saying we have to remove it from the text, but I will say that if someone wishes to build a philosophy of Judaism out of this one lone opinion then they really have their work cut out.  The burden of evidence is firmly in their court, they must marshal many more sources and principles if they wish to justify a hyper-nomian vision of the Jewish religion.

Clearly I’m very worked up about this, why does it bother me so much?

It bothers me on many levels.

For a start, it makes the whole project of the study of Torah devoid of meaning.  If Torah has no moral core, no genuinely Divine ethos, then it is much harder to understand the purpose and value of immersing ourselves in it.

It becomes a purely argumentative and aggressive discipline, a form of jousting, and as we saw in the deposing of Gamilel the other day, that model is simply not acceptable.

To study Torah is both to shed light on it and to be enlightened by it.  It would be a sorry state of affairs if we felt that we were constantly having to justify and apologise on its behalf, that it was offering us nothing in return, that we were not inspired by it.

There is a terrible weakness of faith expressed by those who state that we must not look for the light inside the commandments, out of fear that when we occasionally fail to see it our whole commitment structure will shatter.

And this brings us to the next point – what happens when laws and rules do strike us as offensive, when they do sound morally problematic to us?

The vast majority of what we’ve seen so far in the Talmud suggests that people speak up for what they believe in, that their personal understanding of the religion guides and shapes how they recommend its practice.  Rarely – if ever – have we heard someone say “It strikes me that the essence and spirit of the Law dictate one practice, but I have a tradition of following an opposing one.”  It just doesn’t work that way, they didn’t have the gap between sentiment and obedience that seems to have crept into observant life nowadays.

They had no truck with the idea that understanding was a dangerous game, that probing the moral fabric of a practice would lead to anarchy.

The entrenched resistance we encounter nowadays to genuine and necessary halakhic change, in areas such as agunot, woman’s rights and acceptance of homosexuality, has its roots in the orientation which gives primacy to this one opinion in the text.  The less faith one has in one’s moral compass, the less confident and bold one will be in one’s halakhic innovation.

(I’ve just spotted another level of irony, that the opinion itself is trying to explain a law, that of silencing the utterer.  Perhaps they should have just left that law alone, not presumed to explain it?)

Perhaps I am crying out in vain, perhaps those who wish to cling to that way of thinking will always find justification for doing so.  But for those of us who have greater faith, who believe that faith is something which lives alongside our ethical and intellectual refinement, that it grows as they do, it is important to engage with this text and defuse its potential import.

Coming at it differently, I read recently that Ramban interprets this problematic idea as follows:  God didn’t give us the commandment because of His mercy towards the bird, but because He wishes humans to develop sensitivity and compassion towards the bird.

This is a beautiful way of dealing with this puzzling dictum, Ramban turns the surface reading of God not being concerned with mercy on its head: God is so concerned with mercy that he does not just act to bring it about, or command us to effect it.  Rather, he carefully sculpts his commandments such that they will deeply and genuinely instil this value in us.

May we take the Ramban’s words to heart, may we always experience and emulate the Mercy which is such an important Divine attribute.

And more than this, may we share the Ramban’s faith that Torah is neither offensive nor repugnant, that it is always possible to apprehend the Truth and Beauty at Its core.

When the Rabbis turned Marxist… Berakhot 27 and 28a

There’s a phenomenal story today about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel II, the successor of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh.

The story begins prosaically enough, there is a debate as to whether the evening service, Ma’ariv, is obligatory or optional.  Rabban Gamliel holds it is obligatory, Rabbi Yehoshua believes that it is optional.  We are not yet given any insight into what lies behind this debate, we are left to ponder its significance.

A certain student asks Rabban Gamliel about this dispute, and receives the following response:

Wait until the shield bearers enter the Bet Midrash and we will see.

It’s a striking comment, describing the process of study in language both military and combative, hinting at an aggression and exclusivity in his approach to the Academy.

Now, one of Gamliel’s achievements was to bring some harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and it may well have been his forceful approach which made this possible.  But perhaps that approach had run out of steam, perhaps the balance between openness and intolerance had tilted too far by now.

This seems to have been the feeling of the Rabbis of the time.  After Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Yehoshua by making him stand for an extended period, there is an outbreak of protest.  It is too much, the scholars say, this is the third time he has humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua, and it is no longer acceptable.  This man cannot be our leader, he cannot dictate the tone of the Torah,  the flavour of the culture which must sustain the Jews in exile.

The Torah, they seem to say, is not about victor and defeated, it is not about the exercising of power.  Perhaps in bringing harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, too much of Hillel’s basic humanitarian sensitivity has been lost.  If we detect that the institution of learning is being guided by people out of touch with its spirit, then how are we to maintain faith in the Divine power of the Law?  The Law can easily be corrupted, it can become an outlet for the expression of tyranny.

So they depose him.

They discuss who should take over, ruling out Rabbi Yehoshua on account of his involvement, and Rabbi Akiva because his lack of lineage might enable Rabban Gamliel to smear his reputation.  We get from this a feel of quite how fraught the political atmosphere is, Rabban Gamliel had his Josh Lyman waiting in the wings, there would be no holds barred when it was time to attack.

They opt to give the position to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, on account of his wisdom, his lineage and his wealth.  Again, we are dealing with realpolitik here, we are not quite in the business of canonizing saints.

He consults with his wife, who suggests that it may be something of a poisoned chalice, that tomorrow they may turn their outrage towards him.  It may not be the prudent choice.

I love his response:

Let a man use an expensive cup for one day even if it be broken the next.

He’s saying that sometimes we just have to make the most of the opportunities in front of us, to enjoy them, and not to worry too much about the possibility that we may lose them.

Then, famously, his hair turns white before its time.

We then get a feel for the revolution that is taking place in the aftermath of Rabban Gamliel’s ejection:

They dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter.

The guard??  Again, the Academy has ceased to be a democratic institution for furthering the wisdom of the people, for answering their needs with the Divine spirit.  It has become an exclusive club, a gentlemen’s refuge, the preserve of an aristocratic elite.

And what were his criteria for rejecting people:

Rabban Gamliel would proclaim and say: Any student whose inside, his thoughts and feelings, are not like his outside, i.e., his conduct and his character traits are lacking, will not enter the study hall.

Now this relation between the inner and the outer is a huge topic on its own; we touched on it somewhat yesterday.  In the context of this story, however, it seems that it’s a classic expression of upper class snobbery, ‘His manners aren’t terribly well polished, he can’t possibly have anything interesting to say’.  Here in England, there is a wonderful tradition of this subtle and disguised cruelty, of the ability to maintain power with the most delicate insults and refined barbs.

And what was the upshot of this opening up, did the masses indeed feel they wanted to contribute to the growth of this new culture of learning?

Yes, yes and yes:

On that day several benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous students. Rabbi Yoĥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this matter. One said: Four hundred benches were added to the study hall. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added to the study hall.

Rabban Gamliel, rightly, felt bad about this, and the dream which eased his mind was nothing but illusory wish fulfilment, as the Talmud dryly observes.

After Rabbi Yehoshua outwits him in another debate, this time, fittingly, about the extent to which we should be open to converts, Rabban Gamliel decides he must visit Rabbi Yehoshua’s home and apologise.

This is where it gets really interesting.

When he reached Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he saw that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua in wonderment: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith, [as until then he had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to engage in that arduous trade in order to make a living].

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Woe unto this generation that you are its leader!  For you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, of what they must do to make a living and how they struggle just to feed themselves.

Woe unto this generation indeed!  What an indictment this is:  “You Rabban Gamliel have not got the faintest idea of what it really means to live as a Torah scholar, to balance the challenges of working in the real world and finding wisdom and practice to get you through the day.  The Torah you profess to teach is not hard won wisdom, it is not insight drawn out of the burning crucible of real life.  It is mendacious and decadent ideology, it is a culture born of the luxury of the aristocracy, of people who do not get their hands dirty.”

And now we get the meaning of the dispute about Ma’ariv.  We can hear Rabbi Yehoshua continuing:

You profess to tell me that the Ma’ariv prayer is an obligation!  Perhaps in your easy life you need further obligation, perhaps you need to restrain your energies and instincts.  I am a working man, and when I come home from work and take care of all my other responsibilities, there is simply not always the time nor energy left to say Ma’ariv.  I understand that it is a ‘reshut’, a permission, a privilege, and for the most part I manage to use that privilege, I endeavour to commune with my Maker.  But on the occasions when I cannot manage it, and more than that, on the occasions when the honest working people amongst the Jews cannot manage it, they do not need you, Gamliel, making them feel bad, adding extra guilt into their already burdensome lives.  You have gone too far Gamliel, you have lost touch with reality, you have turned from leader into oppressor, the guilt of your privilege has soured your love for your people.”

Rabban Gamliel accepts the rebuke.  He realises that he had lost his way, and that he must make some serious changes if he is to return.  He begs Rabbi Yehoshua’s forgiveness, who finally gives it, albeit, ironically, only on the merit of Rabban Gamliel’s father.

The study hall is reluctant to return Rabban Gamliel to his position, particularly Rabbi Akiva, but eventually, at Rabbi Yehoshua’s insistence, they do so.  We can only assume that he genuinely did have the mark of greatness, otherwise it’s hard to see why they would give him another chance.

So the debate, once again, is about the spirit of the Law, of the dangers in it become alienated and oppressive, of it losing contact with the honest soil in which it must grow.  Rabbi Yeshoshua is its defendant, arguing for its democratic character in much the same way as when he tells the Bat Kol  ‘Lo Bashamayim Hi’, ‘It is no longer for the Heavens to decide’ (Bava Metzia 59b).

That said, we might have thought there was something crass about opening up this debate, about reducing the arguments of the Tannaim to Marxist considerations about class and integrity, about raising the concerns of the workers.  Not so, the Talmud tells us as a postscript, the student who initiated this debate was also the founder of the mystical tradition in Judaism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.  I read into this that even the most esoteric mysticism must always grow out of honest proletarian soil, that when it becomes yeasty and indulgent it loses its power to talk to us.

May our Torah always be grounded, and may we never rush to judge the practice of those who do an honest day’s work.

Fools Gold Berakhot 23

There’s a discussion today of the verse in Ecclesiastes (4:17):

Guard your foot when you go to the house of the Lord and prepare to listen; for that is better than when fools offer sacrifices, as they know not to do evil.

The Talmud is a bit perplexed by the idea of fools who know not to do evil.  What sort of fool is so fortunate as to always unwittingly do the right thing?  Besides, it seems they must have done some evil, why else are they bringing a sacrifice?

We are given the following interpretation:

Regarding those fools, the Holy One Blessed Be He said: “They cannot distinguish between good and evil, yet they have the audacity to offer me a sacrifice??”

Sacrifice is not enough, the prophets make this clear.  But whereas they usually suggest that a person must behave with mercy and compassion, with justice and righteousness, here we seem to go a bit further.  We are now demanding that a person learn to distinguish between good and evil, to refine and develop their moral sensibility.  There is now the demand upon every individual that they strengthen their capacity to sit with difficult issues and work their way towards an ethical resolution.

Religion is not about sacrifice, it is not about our masochism, about providing an outlet for our ascetic tendencies.  Nietzsche argues convincingly that such behaviour is the last refuge of the thwarted and downtrodden ego, it is not the display of pure hearted piety that it may at first resemble (Essay III, Genealogy of Morality).

That said, we don’t follow Nietzsche in looking to move ‘Beyond Good and Evil’.  We are, however, happy to accept his assistance in deepening our understanding of the concepts.  Thinking at that level of depth can only make us better able to recognise and live by our moral lights.

I see a link here to another halakha on the daf, that one shouldn’t hold a Sefer Torah whilst praying.  On one level, the person may be worried about dropping it, which would distract him from his prayer.  But thinking further than that, we may worry that a person holding a Sefer Torah could start praying to the Sefer Torah, that they may invest it with an inappropriate level of Godliness, with magical otherworldly properties.

This, it seems, would be another case of the fool, who is too caught up in ritual and sacrifice, and whose heart is distracted from the authentic and intangible matters at hand.

The antidote for Ecclesiastes’ fool is to ‘come close to hear the words of the wise’.  We must have the humility to listen, and the desire to imbibe the refined personality one encounters in the wise.  This is the Divine path, this is what keeps our foolishness in check.

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.