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.

Not by bread alone… Berakhot 14

One of the themes we’ve been talking about lately is the concept of obligation.  On page 11 I was suggesting that in Hillel’s worldview the spirit of the law is paramount, and that viewing it solely as a demanding or constraining set of obligations was to miss the point.  In brief, God is not keeping score.

This position is challenged a little by the mishna we are discussing today:

R. Joshua b. Korhah said: why was the section of ‘Shema’ placed before that of ‘and it shall come to pass’? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven  and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.

So, as opposed to the three readings of the Shema we saw yesterday, we are presented with another one, and this time the theme of obligation seems to be very much central.  What do we do with this?

Maybe I’m just the wrong sort of ox, but the idea of assuming a yoke doesn’t come very naturally to me.  And I don’t think I’m alone, I think the modern consciousness is not very well attuned to such an image, it feels alien to our liberal, democratic and fundamentally autonomous worldview.

How then are we to understand it?

First of all, reading the MIshna carefully, we can see that there is actually already a rejection of a certain worldview.  Rabbi Joshua is telling us that we mustn’t just accept the yoke of mitzvot without having first spent some serious time contemplating the yoke of heaven.  This is actually quite in tune with Hillel’s worldview – do not embrace the law out of a spirit of obligation, resignation, defeat.  The law is holy, it is not here to satisfy your craving for consolation, to fulfil a masochistic desire or to meet a need to obsess.

So, before you embrace the Law, understand that in doing so you are connecting with something Heavenly, with something Divine, with something powerfully Other.

Building on what we said yesterday about the Divine, I think we can see that the ‘yoke of heaven’ can actually be quite a profound thing.  It is perhaps, quite literally, uplifting.

When we meditate on everything that is fine, true and good in the world, when we manage to hear – shema -  the better angels of our nature, we may well be momentarily moved.  We may have a brief epiphany.  But, more often than not, we quickly forget about it, and get on with life much as we did before.

In a sense, we view these moments of inspiration as somewhat illusory, the product of a febrile imagination, they’re somehow not very real.

No doubt, some forms of psychoanalysis, including some of Freud himself, have helped propagate this worldview.  And it’s also supported by the other strongly materialist worldviews so prevalent nowadays, including a certain interpretation of neuroscience, a reductionist approach to  philosophy, a strand of evolutionary biology and a resistant breed of Marx-esque economic determinism.

With all of this in the intellectual air, it really is tough to take goodness or truth seriously as ‘real things’.  Following that, it becomes very hard to commit to them as principles by which to live one’s life.

To swear allegiance to these ethereal ideals, that requires both hard intellectual work and a great deal of moral fabric.  We need to see that they are, in some quiet and subtle sense, very very real, and we must then make something of a leap of faith to live by them.

And perhaps we don’t even always manage to make that leap.  Perhaps we carry on like the stubborn ox, refusing to believe that these ideals are actually good for us, that these fleeting visions of what we might be, of what society might look like, are actually precious gifts of insight, flashes of illumination in an otherwise perplexing world.

We don’t embrace them, we do our best to ignore them, we flee, like Jonah, to another part of the world, one where we think we’re safe from their calling.

We try, but eventually, perhaps, we run out of steam.  Eventually we start to get it, we start to see that this stuff really does matter, that man does not live by bread alone, that the stuff of the spirit is what ultimately makes the difference.  For ourselves and for society, living without ideals only leads to alienation and disintegration; without the wholeness of a vision the possibility of meaning evaporates.

Eventually we might start to accept this as a reality.  And I think that the idea of not studying the mystical tradition until we are 40 recognises how difficult this is, it acknowledges quite how much patience and experience it requires.

But even then, when we feel almost forced into responding to the call of our spirit, we still can’t quite do it, we still think we can get away with thoughtless, selfish living, focussing on our straightforward material needs and ignoring our subtler, higher ones.  We treat spiritual life as something of a luxury, and not one that we always deem worthy of our time or energy.

This then is the yoke of heaven, to accept the reality of these demands, of our true nature, and to focus our energy on living by them.  And, as the tradition recognises, this is not something we do once, but something we do twice daily, for we are sure to be constantly forgetting it.

And once we have embarked on this mission, once we see the yoke as something which elevates us, which makes us more than human, ubermenschen, and certainly not like the animals of the field, only then can we understand the mitzvot.  Only then can we approach them with the care and spirit they require, only then can we know the right way to weave them into our lives.

We see this idea expressed again later on our daf, in quite a different way.  We are told not to engage with our personal needs before praying in the morning, lest we miss out on the verse:

Righteousness shall go before him, and shall make for his feet a path. (Ps. 85.14)

When we pray, when we engage with the Divine, when we commit to it, we come away with a renewed burst of righteousness, our moral energies are bolstered, our spirits are lifted.

A path is suddenly laid out before us, and our feet find it ever so slightly easier to walk it.

I was drinking wine but I thought it was beer… Berakhot 12

On today’s daf we encounter a classic discussion of a subtle halakhic point and I’d like to explore what we can take away from it.

Let’s look at the case study:

There is no question that where a man took up a cup of wine thinking that it was beer and commenced with the intention to say the blessing for beer but finished with that of wine, he has fulfilled his obligation…

 But where he took up a cup of beer thinking it was wine and began with the intention to say the blessing for wine and finished with the benediction for beer, the question arises, do we judge his blessing according to its beginning or according to its ending?

First of all, we have to love the example.  It doesn’t take much effort to read between the lines and suggest that we’re talking about a case where this isn’t the first drink of the evening.  We’ve already discussed that the Rabbis were not averse to partying, and it seems that once again the Rabbinic penchant for a tipple has thrown up a halakhic quandary.  ‘We’d had a few too many, and weren’t sure which bracha we should have been making…’

So it’s memorable, and, I’ve said before, this helps, because this image is much more likely to stick in our mind than abstract speculation alone.

Another thing we see is slightly disheartening, in light of yesterday’s discussion.  The concern here is very much focussed on ‘fulfilling one’s obligation’.  There seems to be a regression here, a forgetting of the spirit of Hillel,  a take on religious life as a series of obligations rather than opportunities.

In light of this, we wonder who it is that is actually having this discussion.  Yesterday we were able to stay very conscious of who was saying what.  Today, there’s no such opportunity.  Everything is very anonymous, and given the array of references, it seems like it must be the Redactors, the Stammaim, who are having this discussion.

So we’re about 500 years after Hillel, and we’re seeing some kind of shift in the way the Law is approached, certainly in the way it is discussed.

We might say that ‘fulfilling obligation’ is just a discursive tool, it’s a way of exploring the essence and meaning of the laws, by understanding what is required to optimally fulfil them.

That is the hopeful reading.  We’re not really in a world of obligation, it’s just a turn of phrase.  But the turn is significant, we are now in a culture of learning and discussion, wherein the halakha has evolved enough such that people are keen to muse it’s finer details, they’ve become connoisseurs, attuned to the subtleties of its music.

So, what were the connoisseurs noticing?

They seem to be interested on the intention one has at the beginning of a blessing, a bracha, and are wondering how significant that is.

It’s worth noting that the words one would utter in the first half of a blessing, whether for beer or for wine, would be identical.  So they’re delving deep into the mind of the reciter, wondering what it is that he’s concentrating on.

Why does this matter?

It matters because what’s being presented here is the essence of that most commonplace practice, saying berakhot over a litany of everyday things.  We are charged with the duty to say 100 berakhot a day, and we all know how easy it can be to mumble them without any thought at all.  The discussion here highlights that berakhot are all about raising our consciousness, heightening our awareness, leading us from a thoughtless life to one of significant contemplation and appreciation.

It is not enough that we pause and think ‘We praise you God, our Lord and King of the Universe…’, hopefully giving real thought to the createdness of life, how everything could so easily have not come to be, or could have been much less wondrous than it is.  No, we must think this, but with specific reference to the matter at hand, to the beer or the wine.

Really, it seems, we must pause before we begin, give thought to the wine or beer we are holding, and only once we have found within us a genuine flicker of appreciation for them, in all of their worldly specificity, can we say the berakha.

We must meditate on beer, and then praise God.  It’s not enough to focus on God alone.

There seems to be an injunction here to stay in the real world, to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps 34.8), and not to get completely lost in Divinity, in the spiritual and otherworldly.  Be grateful for beer, appreciate your wine, only then can your appreciation of the Divine have meaning.

So a berakha is a pause for worldly meditation, not a Godly disruption to ensure that we aren’t seduced by the pleasures of this world.  Definitely more Hillel than Shammai.

And what is the conclusion?

This, I think, is my favourite part of the discussion.  There is no conclusion.  The Talmud changes the topic and never comes back to it.

In a word, the Rabbis lost interest.  They raised the question of intentions and awareness, they gave us insight, through their subtle probing, into the essence of saying a berakha.  And then, having made their point, they moved on.

This is a refreshing counterpoint to the fear I voiced above, that we’d regressed into a world of obligation and duty, that we’d lost the love of life and the naturalness of our practice.

The Rabbis here didn’t care to finish the discussion and conclusively establish how one fulfils one’s obligation.   And I’m going to read this as telling us that to worry about one’s obligation really is to miss the point.  Religious life is not about obligations, about a checklist, but about bridging heaven and earth, about satisfying our core longings for a taste of something higher, for a more elevated life, a life in which all parts of our spirit are in harmony.

Later Rabbis, in their codifications of the Law, no doubt pushed this point to a conclusion, they made a ruling.

I’m suggesting that maybe they’ve missed the point, that to focus too much on the ruling is to fail to hear the poetry, to misread the Talmud, to not get the Stammaic spirit.

The language of obligation turns out to have been a rhetorical device, a graceful segue from halakha into theology.

May our ears always stay open to the real dynamic of the text, let our eyes not become tainted by punitive presumptions about the meaning of religious life.


The Law and the Spirit – Berakhot 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where do we see this on Berakhot 11?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that would be to miss the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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