The Need to Respect the Private Shabbat 6, 7, 8

We are continuing to get to grips with the definitions of boundaries in Shabbat, and following from our attempt to understand movement and transition, we are now focussing on understanding the difference between the public realm and the private realm.

The Talmud sees fit to spend quite a few pages on this, as opposed to a few lines, and it seems to take it pretty seriously.  These are not pages filled with humour and wit, they are Rabbinic Legalism at its purest.

As ever in these situations, I find myself wondering what it was that was underlying these discussions, what themes and ideas were in play which made it feel like establishing these boundaries was so critical.

I think that in this case there is actually quite a lot to be thinking about.

Being able to navigate the difference between what is public and what is private is a central issue in religious life.

At the simplest level, Judaism is a religion which emphasises and exists by virtue of community.  For a community to exist, there must be a sense of something shared amongst people, a feeling that there are ideals, values and practices which bind them together.

In a perfect world, a community might naturally emerge, people might simply discover that they have a lot in common and that they fare better by inhabiting a more interactive space, a public realm that has a richer texture.  And to some extent this is what happens.

But it is not always this simple, sometimes individuals will feel frustrated and disillusioned, and will find it harder to exist in the public communal space whilst still expressing fidelity to its ideals.  Things may be going on for them, or they may just be experiencing a period of doubt or exhaustion.  At these points public life can just seem a lot harder.

This is a part of life, and as far as Judaism is concerned it is to be understood and appreciated.  One of the categories of person who was historically excluded from the community was one who ‘violated the Sabbath in public’.  Struggling to maintain observance of Shabbat in one’s private space is one thing, it is a much more serious problem for the community when someone makes a public demonstration of their rejection of Shabbat.

Putting it differently, we might say that a large part of what makes Shabbat is the communal commitment to it, the creation of a public space that is free of work and worldly concerns, that is dedicated to the restoration of the spirit and the recollection of values.  If people are not able to respect this, then they have misunderstood the essence of community, they have automatically excluded themselves from its workings.

What we are therefore advocating is a strong sensitivity to the public space, and an awareness of how it differs from one’s private space.  We respect the private space, the haven wherein one might have more flexibility and room to express one’s dissent and ambivalence.

This is not to say that we wish to encourage a community based on hypocrisy, a lifestyle fuelled solely by people ‘keeping up appearances’.  It is simply to register that the communal space is somewhat sacrosanct, and that maintaining this is challenging.  When one isn’t up for the challenge, one should make use of the breathing space that the private realm offers, wherein one can act out one’s different feelings to less destructive effect.

Continuing deeper into the exploration of the public and private, what applies at the level of community also applies at the level of the relational or interpersonal.  Whilst honesty and frankness are important, it is not always the case that everything which is felt or thought should be acted upon.  We are sometimes overcome with anger or hatred, and it can seem like the most natural thing in the world to act on these impulses.  And that may sometimes be the right thing to do.  But sometimes it will not be, sometimes the person in front of us will not be the one who is really making us angry, they will not be the root of our hatred, and we risk doing irreparable damage to the relationship by acting out our fury.

Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, we may sometimes find ourselves inclined towards inappropriate intimacies, be they sexual or otherwise.  Here too we are asked to distinguish between the private realm, wherein we may consider and reflect upon these desires, and the public realm, wherein the deed reigns supreme, and is rarely easily undone.

Therapy occupies an interesting space on this continuum, something like the ‘karmelit’ that the Talmud speaks of, which is neither public nor private, yet has something in common with both.  It is private enough such that everything can be safely expressed and explored within its boundaries.  On the other hand it is more public than being left alone with one’s torments, with the ravages of one’s potentially punitive conscience.  By shedding a little of the public light on one’s problems, they can begin to be unpicked, one can start to understand them with better perspective.

And at this point we arrive at the most important of the distinctions between public and private, the one which we spend the whole of our lives trying to untangle, which we may never truly overcome.

Put simply, and it is a devilishly hard thing to grasp, it is the difference between what we think we are feeling, perceiving and experiencing and the true reality of those feelings, perceptions and experiences.

At this point, confusingly, it is important to note that the ‘reality’ of those feelings is actually deeply buried in the private realm and the way we perceive them is actually more reminiscent of the public realm.  ‘Public’ in this sense is what we are conscious of, ‘private’ is what is unconscious.

An example will help us to get a handle on this.  Imagine a child brought up by parents he could never quite manage to please, who were angry and hostile with him almost indiscriminately, certainly not in any measured sense.  This child will never have been given the confidence to act naturally in the world, he will forever be trying to figure out what might make the people around him happy, and using that as the basis for action.  When he does not succeed in pleasing these people, or even thinks he perceives that this is the case, he will experience this as a grave and serious failing, even if it was in fact nothing of the sort.

In the public realm of his conscious mind, he is trying to please his boss, or perhaps his wife, and he is pretty sure that their demands are reasonable.  But in the private realm of his unconscious he is reliving the torment of his young childhood, he is trying to please a hostile or disinterested father, trying to win over an angry or depressed mother.

This is why he feels so unduly invested in the outcomes of these ‘real-world’ events, why the approval of his boss feels so weighty and significant to him, why his wife’s fury over something trivial cuts him to the core.

For he is still trying to redeem the child inside that was never adequately welcomed into the world.  He engaged in an ongoing battle with the forces of hostility that gave him his earliest orientation in life, which forever tarnished his perceptions of human interaction.

It is not that there is an easy fix for this confusion, overcoming this difficult start in life is a mammoth task.  But one of the ways to begin is by trying to understand the difference between what is private here and what is public, what is being enacted or lived unconsciously and what appears to be happening to the conscious mind.

And I would like to emphasise that this situation is not unique to people with a difficult childhood (everyone?)  or to those who suffered other traumas or setbacks in life.  We are all made up of the history of our experiences, our patterns of behaviour and feeling are built up like the layers we might find in an archaeological dig.  It will be rare that anything we do or think has no connection with the deeper strata of our mind’s formation; acknowledging this is an early step in moving towards an easing of the tension that eats away at us.

People sometimes protest that this is a reductive way of looking at people, that it is crude and deterministic in its assessment of personality.  And I get this, I can see that it is hard to accept that we neither know nor control ourselves nearly as well as we think.

But ultimately I find this outlook really quite liberating, a source of tremendous optimism.  If at least some of the troubles we face in life have their source within us, if we partially create them as a result of unrecognised or unresolved needs or patterns in our psyche, then we have reason to believe that we can change.

And this change is not necessarily moral, it may sometimes actually involve giving up what was perceived as a profound moral challenge.  Nonetheless, it may well be  a change which enables us to experience greater harmony and unity, which can overcome some of the discord and alienation dividing our psyche.

Going back to the daf, Rav Chiyya bar Rav and Rav Ashi are debating whether a pile of excrement in the street is considered to a public or a private domain.

This may sound grotesque or absurd, but my experience of therapy tells me that this is actually the biggest question we face in life.  The shit in our lives: is it part of the outer world or is it part of our inner world?  Is it the external reality of a situation which is genuinely unbearable or is it something in us which is interpreting it negatively;  is a fairly benign person or event triggering a strange overreaction in us, tapping into something primal and infantile which were heretofore unaware of?

We are concerned with what is within and what is without.   And in the case where they cannot be so easily disentangled,  we try to learn from weighing up the public and private contributions to the whole.

The Talmud was right to spend a long time on this distinction; there is ultimately no deeper nor more rewarding question for us to live by.

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

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

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

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

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

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

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

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

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

and whose leaf does not wither.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Religion Reward Us? Berakhot 58, 59, 60

One of the thorniest issues in discussing religion is the question of reward and punishment.  For some people, religion is all about its rewards; if there was not a God who was rewarding us for our good deeds then there would be no foundation to religion.

Other people are affronted by the idea that we would act morally because we were looking to be rewarded.  They would make the valid point that to be incentivised in this somewhat childish way would somehow undermine the ethical stature of our actions, they would somehow be less commendable, less worthy, less inspiring.

And they would surely be somewhat right in this.

There is a middle ground, and it’s not quite a compromise, but more of a pleasing synthesis of these apparently incompatible positions.  The significant move in this position is to re-think the idea of reward, to re-imagine the sense in which we might benefit from sticking to our moral guns.

Reward, on this understanding, is not external to the act: we will not be given material bounty or be spared the fires of hell, we will not receive special economic treatment when God does His accounts.

Rather, the reward is intrinsic to the act itself, it follows as the miraculous consequence (it seems to be anything but ‘natural’) of acting in accordance with our ethical aspirations.  When we rise to the occasion, we are left in an elevated spirit – we feel better about ourselves, proud of ourselves, much more comfortable with who we are.  In the simplest possible terms: it’s nice to be nice.

There is a link between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and the aesthetic.  Good actions tend to be beautiful ones, and we are pleased by the sense that our behaviour is in harmony with this vision.

And I maintain that we are often surprised by this.  On one level, we are surprised by how much better we feel after making the extra effort and doing that unnecessary act of kindness we could have so easily shirked.  In a similar vein, we are often taken aback by how inspired and moved we are when we see or hear of someone else acting in an altruistic and thoughtful manner.

I remember being at a point once when I was in possession of a deeply negative and cynical view of human beings.  I’d been steeped in Nietzsche and had been overwhelmed by some of the pessimism he had been expressing.  And there had been other stuff going on in life which had been getting me down.  Then, as chance would have it, I missed the last train that was supposed to take me to meet some friends who were staying in the Highlands of Scotland.  Left with no option, I decided to hitch hike, not especially convinced that I would get there – I had a ferry to catch to get to a remote island – but figuring that I had nothing to lose in trying.

Lo and behold, four hitch hikes and about nine hours later, I was being driven across the sea by a random fisherman and I was re-united with my friends.  I felt lucky, but more than that, much more than that, I was stunned by the goodwill of all the people who had stopped to offer me a lift, in some cases going slightly out their way to help me on my way.  It reminded me of the goodness that lies just below the surface in people, of their willingness to help even complete strangers, when there would be no hint of a suggestion that they would get anything tangible in return.  It restored my faith in humanity, teaching me a lesson that all the Nietzsche in the world couldn’t undo.

The good inspires us, it makes us feel good.  The Stoics based their philosophy of virtue upon this – upright character alone would bring a person to eudaemonia, the highest sense of human happiness and flourishing.  In Judaism we say ‘sekhar mitzvah, mitzva’ – the highest reward for a good deed is to be enveloped in a positive framework of life, to be uplifted and inspired to further good deeds.

This more subtle and mature approach to the consequences of religiously coloured behaviour is at work in a discussion of the following verse:

He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. (Ps. 112:7)

Rava makes a slightly cryptic observation on this verse, suggesting that one might be able to read the clauses in either order in order to understand it differently.  Rashi doesn’t get his point, he doesn’t see the two ways of reading it.

The Rashba does see the distinction.  If one reads it with the second clause first:

His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord;  He shall not be afraid of evil tidings…

then one might understand it as offering a promise or reward – the reward for trusting in God is that one will be spared from the fear of evil news, one will not be troubled by excess anxiety and worry.

Read the other way, in the original structure, one could understand it differently, as describing a reality, a matter of fact.  One who has faith in God, whose heart is strong, will not be susceptible to stray fears, to worries without foundation, to the random anxiety and panic which can trouble a person.

Here the reward is more intrinsic, less of an external affair.

But still, what is this reality, how are we to understand it? What is it to have faith in God other than to believe that he will actually prevent bad things happening, to protect us from harm?

At this point we are close to the core of mature religion, to the kernel of genuine faith that might challenge and maintain us.

The possibility hinted at here is that by living in close proximity to the truth of our lives, by paying close attention to the deepest demands that our being makes of us – at this point a vision of Ibsen’s Brand appears before me –  we will suddenly find that many of the concerns and fears which otherwise trouble us simply fade away.

It is as if we only becomes susceptible to worry when things are not in good order internally, when we are subtly and imperceptibly betraying the highest possibilities in our personality.  When we are distant from our true selves, living a respectable but false life, this is when we are vulnerable and prey to worry.

It is as if we project our internal anguish onto the external world: we are pained, we are hazily aware of warnings, but we cannot understand the message coming from the unconscious.  In our confusion we assume that the dangers must lie outside us, in the broader world, in people and circumstances beyond our control.

We can use this perspective to understand another important expression of faith that Rabbi Akiva gives voice to in the following story:

 Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city, he inquired about lodging and they did not give him any. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best. He went and slept in a field, and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster; and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best.

That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone, who was not in the city and had no lit candle, noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location, was saved. He said to them: Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does, He does for the best.

The idea that God does everything for the best can be taken in a very infantilising way, it can be understood to be saying that there is a Grand Puppeteer who is orchestrating everything that happens, and that He always knows what he is doing.  Since He is in control, we need not worry, everything will be alright.

But there is a subtler and more profound understanding of this dictum.  By saying that everything happens for the best we are making a conscious attempt to see the positive in things, to wrestle with the dark cloud of negativity which always threatens to overwhelm us and blacken our perceptions.  It is an assertion that life is a never ending struggle between optimism and pessimism, and that we have a tiny arena of choice wherein we might be able to push our mood and expectations in a slightly more upbeat direction.

It is an injunction to work hard to tune into positivity, to possibility and to eschew the deathly lock of a negative spiral of thought and affect.  Neville Symington speaks of being open to a force he identifies as the lifegiver, and it is this relationship we tune into when we are able to see the positive in adverse conditions, when we do not howl out in protest at every turn for the worse.

I would like to share a paradoxical anecdote from Symington which embodies this value:

A friend told me once that the turning point in analysis for him came when he said to his analyst one day that things had been so bad they could only improve.  The analyst replied ‘Or they could get worse’.

The analyst wasn’t encouraging negativity, he was, rather, showing that the patient had fallen too much in love with painting his life as negative, with perceiving everything as terrible and persecutory.  He’s giving him a slap, telling him to get over himself, to realise that really his life is not so bad, that there is plenty that he could be positive about, if only he could find the strength and will to do so, if only he could give up his fashionable pessimism.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easily done, that we can always snap out of negativity as easily as choosing between blue or black socks.  But this is not what the Talmud is suggesting either.  Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that we should always be trying to look for the positive, for it is a difficult job, it requires practice and it requires the development of what we might call a stoical muscle, an ability to weather storms without losing all hope, without slipping into despair.

We are coming to the end of reciting psalm 27, of referring to God as our light and our salvation.  Never is this more true than in adversity, when we sometimes find that in spite of the difficulty that surrounds us there seems to be a mysterious core of light and positivity which we can tune into and which might save us.  It’s as if things can only get real when the chips are down, when what we think we fear is actually realised.  At that point we often see that the fear itself was worse than the reality we feared, that we actually have more capacity to cope than we thought.

Life is good, and fear is often much worse than suffering.  Training ourselves to see the positive, to be suspicious of people who project their negativity into their narratives, these are the real challenges of religion, the injunctions of a religion for grown ups.  And with these challenges more than any other, their reward is intrinsically bound up with their practice, with the extent to which we shape our lives in their image.

There is no greater reward than to live with a strong conviction of positivity, to emit an aura of creativity and possibility wherever one goes.  Graham Greene describes the art critic Herbert Read as having this effect, as embodying this energy:

He would come into a room full of people and you wouldn’t notice his coming, you noticed only that the whole atmosphere of a discussion had quietly altered, that even the relations of one guest with another had altered.  No one any longer would be talking for effect, and when you looked round for an explanation there he was – complete honesty born of complete experience had entered the room and unobtrusively taken a chair.  (Ways of Escape p.39)

We must be careful with religious language and ideas, the slightest misinterpretation can transform something of deep profundity into something of childish foolery.  And it is all too clear that there are many nowadays who wish to depict religion in this light, as dishonest silliness for the soft of mind.  But, quite simply, they are wrong; there is a depth to the religious perspective which many of its opponents have not shown themselves capable of grasping.

Let us work hard to maintain faith and retain positivity, to keep a firm grasp on the full armoury of internal resources available to us.  For through them, and them alone, can we be saved from the fear and pessimism which forever lie in wait for us.

Men on Women – Destructive, Hysterical, Dangerous Berakhot 51

We spoke recently about how there is a suppression of the feminine in the text, and how the repressed returns, in displaced form, as Torah.

The physical woman is shed of her maternal and life-giving qualities, and those qualities are projected onto some other surface, in this case, that of Torah.

There is actually quite a disturbing continuation of this unfortunate move today, and I genuinely found it to be one of the most insulting and offensive of the genderist statements I’ve yet come across in the Talmud.  It occurs in the following story:

Ulla happened to come to the house of Rav Naĥman. He ate bread, recited Grace after Meals, and gave the cup of blessing to Rav Naĥman.  Rav Naĥman said to him: Master, please send the cup of blessing to Yalta, my wife.

Ulla responded to him: There is no need, as Rabbi Yoĥanan said as follows: The fruit of a woman’s womb is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s womb, as it is stated: “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you numerous, and He will bless the fruit of your womb [vitnecha]” (Deuteronomy 7:13). The Gemara infers: “He will bless the fruit of her womb [vitnah]” was not stated. Rather, “He will bless the fruit of your womb  [vitnecha, i.e. masculine singular].”

This is ugly.  The woman is no longer the giver of life, it is no longer her womb which bears fruit.  Rather it is the man who bears children, the woman is somehow in the background, a deeply insignificant extension of him.

There’s so much to say about this.  For a start, this is a wilful and unnecessary interpretation.  The Torah often seems to use the masculine singular form of the second person without there being significance in that (I write this as a man of course, so I fully accept that this is easy for me to say).  It’s not clear the exact grammatical intention of this habit, but we might hear it as Israel being spoken to in the singular, this seems to be the implication of the opening of this speech:

Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

But even this isn’t clear cut, this very verse ends with Israel being referred to in the feminine, and we see this again later in verse 15.  I’m not aware of there being any clear rule here, we could simply say that Israel as a people is generally spoken to using the masculine gender, though not exclusively.  There is definitely nothing to suggest that this particular use of the masculine – vitnecha - is significant.

Maybe people think I’m being over sensitive here, but to say that a man’s womb is blessed is an appalling act of theft.  The womb of Israel is to be blessed, not the womb of its male members.

Going further, I feel compelled to point out that there is something of an absurdity in this interpretation, and it is noteworthy that both the Soncino and Koren translations seem to mask this uncomfortably by replacing ‘womb’ – the natural translation of ‘beten’ – with ‘body’.  The translation thus repeats the sin of the fathers, it belittles the significance of the woman, it denies the primacy of her involvement.

Perhaps this goes back to Genesis 3, to the idea that childbirth and its pains are a curse.  Childbirth is painted in a negative light, the focus is on its pain, not on its miraculousness, not on its centrality, not on the joy that it brings about.

If we were feeling bold, we might go further and comment on the idea that in Genesis 2 the first woman was not born to a woman, but was created, from a man, by a God who is spoken about in the masculine.  There is something of a denial here of the fact that we are all born to women, that women, through childbirth,  have made a huge and difficult contribution to the entirety of human existence.

Even as a man I’m deeply offended, I can’t begin to think how this all reads to a woman.

But reading carefully, it’s actually even worse.  The Rabbis – yes, this interpretation is repeated for effect in someone else’s name – suggest that if the Torah had wanted to speak of a woman’s womb it would have said ‘vitnah’ – her womb.  Not ‘vitnach’ – your womb in the feminine – but ‘vitnah’ – her womb.

There is an assumption that the woman is not directly involved with, engaged by the text.  Either God/Moshe would not be speaking to the women, or perhaps the thought is that women will not be listening or reading.

Again, I have no idea where this comes from, what leads the Rabbis to think in this way.  But the two go hand in hand, women have nothing to do with Torah, and women have nothing to do with birth either.  Women are banished and belittled; they are not the bearers of life, nor are they addressed by the book of life.  ‘Torat imehka’ has suddenly undergone a radical and unsettling negation.

This is all very upsetting, but it’s actually only the start, it’s simply setting the scene for the next act.

Once a woman is robbed of her essential qualities, once the male attachment and need for the women is denied, the actual woman becomes  a blank canvas, and there is the need – or at the very least the possibility – of painting her in a different light.

On this point, the Talmud seems to begin at the same place as Freud – hysteria.  The woman is painted as the hysteric, she is the repository for all that is frightening, irrational, excessive and uncontrollable in us.

Let’s see how this plays out in the story we began above:

Yalta heard Ulla’s refusal to send her the cup of blessing, so she arose in a rage, entered the wine-storage, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.

There is probably some hyperbole at work here, surely one’s rage would expire before successfully smashing up four hundred barrels of wine.  Either way, it seems to me that she was quite right to be enraged by these comments, and I think the Talmud’s portrayal of her as ‘acting out’ in an excessive and violent manner actually reflects more badly on the Talmud than it does on her.

In making her the repository of all that is hysterical in the world, it seems to be projecting something unsettling and alien onto her.  This mechanism of projection is what we use when become dimly aware of something in our character that makes us uncomfortable.  We find it much easier to assign that characteristic to another than to question whether the perception might be relevant to our own personality.  The idea is that perception comes partially, and that we misinterpret the meaning of that partial perception.

There is another passage today which further fleshes out the scary and demonic depiction of women:

The Angel of Death told me: …do not stand before the women when they return from the burial of the deceased, because I dance and come before them and my sword is in hand, and I have license to destroy.

Where to begin with this?  If you perhaps thought I was overdoing it with all this talk of projection and ascription, surely this image makes clear that we are very much in the right ballpark.

The Angel of death is conflated with women, he may be met when you meet a woman.  He is there, in their presence, and he is exhibiting characteristics that are chaotic, dangerous, destructive.

It seems to me that we have taken a male imagining, a fear of death and dissolution, and placed it firmly in the woman’s locale, we have described it as a risk of encountering her presence.

The teaching continues:

And if one encounters women returning from a funeral, what is his remedy?  

Let him jump four cubits from where he stands; if there is a river, let him cross it; if there is another path, let him go down it; if there is a wall, let him stand behind it; and if not, he should turn his face around and recite the verse: “And the Lord said to the Satan: The Lord rebukes you, Satan, the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you; is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:2), until they pass him.

Wow.  That is quite a speech to make to a woman one might, by chance, encounter when she is returning from a cemetery.  But, of course, we are not making it to the woman, we are making it to the Angel of Death we imagine to be in her presence.

Does this make it better?

I’m not sure it does, I think it makes it clear that we are dealing with a mind which is struggling to keep hold of something, with a mind that is somewhat frenzied and hallucinatory, which is imagining and projecting in all the wrong places.  It cannot contain the fear and disturbance it is experiencing, it can no longer distinguish between what is happening within and what is happening without.  It is speaking out of place, to the wrong people, it has become deeply confused as to who is who and as to where the source of trouble really is.

Perhaps this is too much, maybe it is easier to just ignore these passages, to treat them as irrelevant detritus from the age of superstition.  But that would be a mistake, for they are psychologically rich and they sometimes treat of topics which are extremely important and relevant, such as the way we imagine and relate to our women.

So, to sum up, these are my interpretations, my attempts at reading some problematic texts in the Talmud, at unpicking some attitudes and perspectives that strike me as problematic and objectionable.  As I have said previously, these interpretations do not weaken my faith nor do they diminish my interest in the Talmud.  If anything, they strengthen both, for through honestly seeing the various layers at work in this text I feel that I have a much better sense of the richness and complexity of our history and tradition.  I can see that at every point the Rabbis were just human beings trying to do their best, that they were prey to all of the fallibility, weakness and confusion that I myself am beset by.

I see no purpose in pretending that they were perfect, in setting it up as a principle of belief that their teachings or intuitions were perfect, for perfection belongs to the realm of the Divine, not to that of the human.

They were not perfect, but they were grappling with perfection, trying to perfect themselves, trying to build a culture which would ultimately foster an appetite for perfection.  And this is a struggle I am very much interested in, it is an impulse that I feel very strongly.  And it is to help me with this project that I turn to my religion, and it is because I see and experience the many ways in which it does help me that I come to value and love my traditions, that I come to develop faith in them.

Faith is not something we can arrive at through evading the truth, it is a profound attitude we can only attain after being fully exposed to the truth in all of its glory and its horror.  May we continue to wrestle with that truth, and may we pray to be granted faith as a reward for our struggles.

Where did those Women go? The Return of the Repressed… Berakhot 48

Yesterday we spoke of the suppression of the feminine, of the way male Talmudic society didn’t seem to give them much credit nor look to include them in religious life.

We see a further example of the low regard they were held in today, further weakening the argument that women were viewed as some kind of saintly beings.  In the context of the women’s discussions with King Saul we have the following exchange:

Why did they make such a long story of it?

Because women are fond of talking.

Shmuel, however, says that it was so that they might feast their eyes on Saul’s good looks.

It’s hardly a portrait of a lady: either they chatter too much or they swoon helplessly in front of the tall and handsome king.  These are not the sort of creatures who don’t need the help and influence of Torah, who can afford to be excluded from rituals because they are too holy.  No, this doesn’t ring true at all.

So women are spoken of poorly, I think we just need to accept this.  Indeed, accepting it actually  opens up all sorts of other interesting questions, especially if we approach the matter through a psychoanalytic lens.

Put simply, when a man treats women as if they do not exist, we have reason to be very suspicious.

This man was raised by a woman, he is probably married to one, who is usually raising his children and quite possibly he has sisters, who were his closest playmates in childhood.  How can it be that he denies the importance of women, that he could fail to see the crucial and Godly work they do in creating and maintaining civilisation?

One possibility – we are always playfully exploring possibilities, beware the man who says it isn’t so (and it will usually be a man, not a woman) – is that this denial of the significance of women is actually a defence.

A defence against what?

A defence against the dependence upon women.

Men are born to women, they feed at their breast, they form deep and powerful attachments to them, treating them in their first years as the centres of their world.  Their personality is shaped around this dependence on the mother, they crave to be locked in her embrace.

Kleinians may use a barrage of theoretical terms to describe this, but for my own part I see it quite simply in the lives of my two sons.  They love their mother, their bond to her has been one of need and dependency from the day of their conception, and for the most part, and especially in times of distress, they wish to merge with her once again, to lose themselves in her embrace, to disappear into her warmth.

At some point this will change, they will, for whatever reason, become less comfortable with this state of affairs.  Perhaps it is to do with the flowering of their male pride and ego, perhaps it is to do with their budding sexuality and a sense of the deeply inappropriate nature of their desire.  Who can be sure?  What I think we can say, however, is that dealing with this new discomfort will not be easy for them.  This love and attachment will need to be buried deeply, and even if some portion of it is allowed to remain on the surface of their personality, to remain close at hand, a significant portion of it will have to be covered up, suppressed, banished into the netherworlds.

And this is what manifests itself as denial, as the conscious personality existing in a strange tension as it asserts the non-existence of that which it has buried, as it battles to keep it locked up safe in the unconscious.

This battle can take up a lot of energy, denial can be an exhausting and chaotic business.  For this reason it is generally best to try to work through denial, to come to terms with the repressed and to re-integrate it into the more mature and accepting psyche.

This is the ideal picture.

Another mechanism for dealing with denial is displacement or projection.  In such a case, those strong and buried feelings are allowed to the surface in so much as they are directed at a new, different and legitimate object.  This process is also known as ‘transference’.

The feelings are given life once more, less energy is needed for suppression and denial, and the personality feels a lot more whole, a lot better integrated.

When men fall in love with women reminiscent of their mothers, which is hardly a rarity, this is part of the story.  One could indeed argue that any falling in love contains some element of this, of the repressed feelings for the mother being transferred onto some new object.  (And I’m not saying the feelings are in any sense ‘really’ for the mother, in their years of burial they have undergone all sorts of change, they have taken on a life of their own, they are not simply frozen in carbonite, a la Han Solo, to be later released in identical form.)

The narrative of romantic love, however, does not seem to fit the Rabbis of the Talmud, they do not seem to speak much of their wives, or acknowledge their spiritual dependence upon them.  This relationship, so far as we can tell, is not the one that vitiates and sustains them, that leads them to feeling whole and complete.

If anything, it seems to occasion an entirely new cycle of denial and suppression, the strength of their need for their wives is held at arm’s length, they cling to an image of themselves as the superior and non-dependent sex.

So, as Freud might put it, where do we see the ‘return of the repressed’?  What is the displaced object to which they turn now, what object is deemed legitimate for the outpouring of all that pent up emotion?

We had a couple of hints yesterday, on 47b we mentioned both the Ark containing the Torah and  Shabbat as being possibly able to complete a Zimun, something a women cannot do.  These objects are deemed to possibly have more reality than a woman, they may replace her and presume her role in religious practice.  They are psychological objects, their physical reality is hardly noteworthy, but the role they might play is profound and very real.  The whole thing could well have been scripted by Melanie Klein.

Today it gets richer.  We have the curious story of Shimon ben Shetach who was brought before King Alexander Yannai to say grace, after Yannai had slaughtered the rest of the sages.  There follows a most interesting exchange:

The King said to him: Do you see how much honour I am according you?

He responded: It is not you who honours me; rather, the Torah honours me, as it is written:

“Hug her to you and she will exalt you; she will bring you honour when you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

Yannai said to his wife: You see that he does not accept authority.

In a moment of impudent denial, one which very might well demand our respect, he turns to Torah, and speaks of her, yes, her, in the most maternal and feminine terms imaginable.

Even Yannai can see that this is what he is doing, that he relates to the Torah in such a way that he denies all other authority, that he repudiates his possible dependencies.

Now of course he may be right to deny Yannai any role in his honour, but I am fascinated by the discussion of denial per se, it resonates so clearly with all that we have been speaking of.

Returning to this idea of Torah, he is describing nothing less than an embrace of the feminine.  I mean, this is almost too straightforward, he is both talking literally about it and also at the same time talking figuratively about it.  He and his male culture may disdain womanhood, he doesn’t show his sister much love in the story, but they are clear that the feminine is to be embraced.  But only in one guise, in the guise of Torah.

Torah is the displaced object, in Torah we have found the return of the repressed.

I have been impressed by the number of quotes throughout the Talmud from the book of Proverbs, which is not, sadly, much studied nowadays.  On today’s daf it gets further attention too.  But going back to its opening lines, we see this connection to the maternal being made quite explicit:

Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother. (1:8)

The Torah belongs with, is identified with the mother, and we are commanded not to abandon it.  Through keeping alive the connection with Torah, our bond with the mother continues, however hidden and denied it might become.

Perhaps the original intention was for a healthy identification, the two could exist together, love of the mother and love of Torah.  But it seems that in later years the identification changed, it became a problematic identification, the sort that hides and disguises something, that keeps reality at bay.  The Torah replaces the mother, it becomes her surrogate, her Oedipal successor.

I am fascinated and struck by the fact that the word Torah is feminine in gender, and cannot but help think that this is no co-incidence, no random fact, but that it reveals a source of our deep connection with it.

We later mention another verse from Proverbs:

For I have given you good instruction, do not abandon my Torah (4:2)

And knowing the liturgy as we do, this cannot but help remind of two verses which just proceed it:

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths peaceful.   (3:18,17)

The feminine lives in the Torah, and I cannot shake the feeling that the Rabbis we see in the Talmud have taken this in the wrong way, that they have adapted to their gendered culture through embracing Torah but remaining unconscious of its feminine roots.

We are to hold on to the feminine, to embrace it, for her ways are pleasant and she brings peace.  The feminine is truly the tree, the root, the foundation of life; if we do not abandon it, but embrace it, it will bring us the honour and respect that we crave.

Torah and the feminine are one, so it seems absurd that we cannot accord the same respect to the physical embodiment of the feminine, to our women, as we do to Torah   In making this clearer to our eyes, in the intellectual enlightenment that feminism has helped us with, I believe we have witnessed an act of continuous revelation, of the Divine truth gradually emerging through the ages.

Let us cling to this truth, for only through doing so will our Judaism root, flourish and live.

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Prayer – what are we hoping for? Berakhot 30 and 31

We continue today with the idea that prayer requires a certain level of concentration, that it’s about aiming for a certain emotional note.

We have a concrete example of how seriously this was taken:

R. Eleazar said: A man should always take stock of himself: if he can focus his attention and concentrate he should say the Tefillah, but if not he should not say it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone in shul get up to say the Amida then sit back down again, realising that he’s just not up to it.  What a generation we are!  What tremendous powers of focus and concentration we have been granted!

Interestingly, this dictum is actually brought as proof that someone could not possibly have prayed without concentration.  They would have known about this saying and simply not prayed.  So it seems that it was taken quite seriously, people really lived by it.

In another example Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi rules that it is preferable  to continue riding on one’s donkey and pray rather than to get off and pray quickly.  Knowing human nature, he figures that if one gets off to pray in the middle of one’s journey, one’s commute, that a person will just rush through it whilst worrying about the time.  There will be nothing resembling reflection or contemplation;  one’s connection to one’s spiritual anchor will in no way be strengthened.

In such a case, it seems, we might just be best to utter the following very short prayer:

The needs of Thy people Israel are many and their da’at – understanding, awareness –  is small.  May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to give to each one his sustenance and to each body what it lacks. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who listens to prayer.

This truly is a micro-prayer, to be said when time is virtually non-existent.  No build up, no warm down, just straight to the point.

And yet, it’s remarkably perceptive, it gets to the core of things very directly.

At one level, it simply says that we don’t have time to stop to articulate our needs, so please, God, you know what they are, you figure them out, and take care of them.

But on another level it’s saying more than this, it’s saying that we don’t ever really know what our needs are, that fundamentally we are out of touch with the unconscious yearnings and cravings which genuinely drive us.  We don’t really have the faintest inkling of what we lack, of what’s behind the emptiness in our soul.

Even when we do pray, we might conjecture, we are trying to grapple with this, trying to figure it out.  As we said yesterday, we are trying to become more conscious in prayer, we are trying to see ourselves more clearly, to gain a better sense of the need that defines us.

So there is a very strong tradition of finding the right mood, of prayer not being a rote performance.  This is mythologised further as we start the next chapter:

One may only stand and begin to pray from an approach of gravity and submission.  There is a tradition that the early generations of pious men would wait one hour, in order to reach the solemn frame of mind appropriate for prayer, and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven. Standing in prayer is standing before God and, as such, even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him; and even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt his prayer.

An hour of preparation for prayer!  That would truly be remarkable, and clearly, as even the Mishna seems to recognise, a little unrealistic.  But maybe once in a while, once a month, once a year, we might meditate for an hour before prayer?  Where oh where would that take us, what fresh psychic landscapes might open for us on that journey?

As part of a Shabbat service I was involved in a while ago we tried to meditate before prayer.  It was definitely a help, it made one much more ready to engage with the possibilities that prayer presents.

The Talmud seeks to understand the source of this approach, from where do we learn that the point of prayer is to emotionally challenge us, to help us pierce the crust that forms around our personal holy of holies?

The sources are surprisingly human.  We are not told to meditate on the wonders of creation, nor on the ways that the Divine might be manifest in the unfolding of history, in the gradual raising of humanity’s consciousness.

The first source is the prayer of Hannah, which turns out to be an archetypal prayer on many levels.

Hannah had been unable to have children, and she came to the temple at Shilo to pray:

And she felt anguish in her soul, and she prayed to the Lord and she wept and wept. (I Samuel 1:10)

This must have been an emotionally intense prayer.  To even suggest that we connect with such pain is somewhat audacious; how could we possibly feel in that manner with such regularity?

The Talmud accepts this, it shies away from prescribing this level of feeling, but it doesn’t remove the benchmark altogether.

Next up we turn to King David, there are various verses which suggest that be brought a lot of awe and reverence to his prayer.

But we soon hone in one particular verse, and what’s notable about it is the emotional complexity it seems to both represent and mandate:

Serve the Lord in awe and rejoice with trembling.  (Ps. 2:11)

Awe mixed with joy, combined with or resulting in a ‘trembling’, suggesting a very physical response to the stimulus.

I’m a bit stumped here, I’m not quite sure quite what this means, how we might think about it.

It sounds like a description of some kind of trance, of a person swept away from their everyday concerns and plunging deep into a sea of pure and powerful emotion.  It does sound like something it might take an hour to attain, it’s not the kind of experience we can encounter every day.

Nonetheless, the demand still stands.  Whether we aim for the rawness of Hannah or the rapture of David, the idea is that we do not engage with prayer without attempting to adjust and recalibrate our emotional state.

To pray – le’hitpalel  – can be translated more literally as ‘to assess oneself’.  This is the requirement: ‘have a good look at yourself, try to rediscover something of your seriousness for life in the process’.

One might ask what all of this emotionality has to do with God – isn’t He supposed to be timeless and unmovable, why does he need us to feel all of this?

On a simple level, He doesn’t need it, we do.

On another level, using a more mature concept of God, to have a profound sense of Divine presence requires being extremely well attuned to one’s emotional world.

The more we observe our emotions, the more clearly we see that they are largely happening outwith our control, and the more humbled we are by them.  And that humility, the sense of the self’s smallness in the face of these forces, the sense of their overwhelming reality in the face of our limited and barely real consciousness, that is the starting point for a mode of feeling that might be called ‘religious’.

I contend that in our more elevated moments we are not just high, we are not just experiencing a flood of serotonin. Rather, phenomenologically speaking, we are being lifted, we are connecting with something, we are granted a glimpse, a taste of something elusive, of something utterly beyond our control, of something with its own insouciant reality.  We do not just feel, we encounter;  we no longer contain our emotions, but they expand and transport us.

It is in this sense that the Divine is real, that it is not just a figment of the imagination, an idealised construct brought into being through the power of our desire.  And it is in the build up to prayer, and in the experiences we seek there that we try to remember this.

There is another quote from the Psalms: Prepare their hearts and Your ear will listen (10:17).

I take from this the realisation that the state of our hearts is somewhat beyond us, and that we must hope for some kind of assistance or fortune in even finding the right mood to pray.

Make no mistake:  to pray is to dig deep, it is to re-order the manner in which we understand our realities.  We might call it an ontological wake up call.

We will never attain these profound experiences all the time.  Nonetheless, even at our numbest, may we always remember that it was once our target. 

Nakedness and its Vicissitudes, or, It’s all in the Mind… Berakhot 24

Nakedness is something of a hot topic in the Jewish world nowadays.  It seems that we can’t go long without hearing of some new demand for further separation of the sexes, for woman to cover up another part of their anatomy, for the purity of the male mind to be protected at all costs.

Today’s daf presents some of the key material on the topic, and it’s well worth reading it carefully to see what’s being said.

First up, we have the opinion of Shmuel, who says that if one is in bed naked with another, they may turn in the other direction and recite the Shema.  And this applies even if it is his wife, for his wife is considered like ‘his body’.

What does this mean ‘like his body’?  Surely not that she will therefore not cause him to have sexually inclined thoughts.  That would be very problematic.  It may be a challenge for married life to retain the vigorous zest of its earliest days, desire may well be less intense for that which is familiar, but it is surely too must to say that she could not provoke him at all!

Rather, I think we may read that the level of intimacy between a man and his wife is so complete, so natural and unproblematic that he may, with a mere turn of his body, engage in the meditation of Keriat Shema.  A happily married couple have attained the original intent of Genesis, they have become one flesh.  More than this, they have returned to the state wherein nakedness was not wholly coupled with shame, where clothing was not a secretive mask required for human interaction.  Only after the initial sin did Adam and Eve intuit that they needed to clothe themselves, to hide something of their essence, to create a barrier between what was happening on the inside and the outside.

Rav Yosef makes a curious objection, he thinks that only when in bed with his wife would this twist and Shema move be permitted.  But if a man was in bed with another person, who may be more likely to evoke sexual thoughts, then he cannot turn and recite Shema.

It seems, amazingly, that the Shema would be the problem, but that there would be no intrinsic issue in lying in bed naked with a person who fills one with desire.  I can’t imagine many contemporary Rabbis saying this, perhaps there really was a radically different sexual ethic in those times.

We soon get another flavour for how far removed from our own sensibility these Rabbis were.  Referring to the ‘Twist and Shema’, they ask:

And what about the buttocks?  Are these not considered a problematic form of nakedness??

We must say that this provides support for Rav Huna, who holds that buttocks are not nakedness. 

Brilliant! – Ladies who are pestered on buses to cover more of their arms should state that they follow Rav Huna and show the man their buttocks.  That would help the man put things into perspective.

And we then adduce further support for Rav Huna from the following idyllic image, which reads like something from a 1960s acid assisted love festival:

A woman sits and separates her challa naked, despite the fact that she must recite a blessing over the separation of the challa, because she can cover her genitals in the ground, but a male, [whose genitals are not covered when he sits], may not do so.

There is disagreement as to whether her buttocks are in fact being exposed, and therefore as to whether this is conclusive support for Rav Huna.  But either way, it is clear that her legs, arms, shoulders and breasts are very much exposed, and nonetheless she is encouraged to separate her challa and make a blessing!

I do see that this is talking about a woman on her own, there is no suggestion that a man may be in her presence and make a bracha, but the it is powerfully clear that we are potentially very comfortable with nakedness.  I take this to be encouraging, it suggests that we are not as afraid of our bodies, of the bodies of others, as one might have supposed.

Indeed, there is something beautifully domestic about it all, the woman separating challa as she bakes the family bread, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat, and she does it whilst sitting in the grass, again with an Eden like innocence, her hair tumbling down her shoulders, perhaps with some flowers in it, as the warm Mediterranean sun caresses and soothes her.

Snapping back to the halakha, some significant heavyweights – Rashba and the Magen Avraham – accept this ruling about buttocks, they are not even considered problematic for the recitation of the Shema.

Thus far, all seems well, there is an acceptance of the post Edenic condition in which nakedness is at some level incompatible with making a bracha, but there is no sense in which nakedness is altogether threatening, in which its presence might somehow undermine the foundations of religious life.

Indeed, there’s an imperative to keep things in perspective:

Rav Mari said to Rav Pappa: Does it constitute nakedness if one’s pubic hair protruded from their garment? Rav Pappa said about him: A hair, a hair.

In other words, a hair is just a hair, let’s not get carried away and start looking to cause trouble.

Or, he might be saying: “I understand that some men may have a fetish for pubic hairs, and perhaps you, Rav Mari, include yourself in this category.  I appreciate that the sight of one may cause untold stimulation and excitation, and who knows where that might lead one.  We do not, however, legislate on the basis on the basis of personal fetish, it is neither in principle nor in practice acceptable to make demands on a woman’s attire due to whatever excessive sexuality a man may read into a situation.”

In this spirit, the Talmud continues its exploration of the female body.  It cites Rav Yitzchak, a later Amora, who holds that a tefach, a hands-breadth, of a woman’s flesh is considered nakedness.

It is not clear what he is referring to, and at this point the Talmud drops a bit of a bombshell:

If you say that it comes to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth in her, didn’t Rav Sheshet say:  Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.

And there we have it, one of the most popular statements for justifying attacks on what women choose to wear.

Let’s unpack this.  First of all, Rav Yitzchak wasn’t talking about this, he was talking about Shema, and we do not accept his opinion.  We accept the more open minded opinions already cited.  So the common phrase ‘Tefach Be’Isha Erva’ actually has no application, it is, essentially, rejected.

Now, onto Rav Sheshet.  How are we to square this with everything more accommodating that we’ve seen above?

First of all, I think we have to note that the verb used here is ‘mistakel’, which suggests an intense form of staring, ‘gazing’, as the translation above has it.  We are not entertaining the idea that a chance sighting of a woman’s little finger is in anyway the same as seeing her genitalia.  What I think we are talking about, however, is the power of fantasy, of the imagination.

There is a recognition that if a man has lustful feelings towards a woman, then even the slightest glance at part of her body, at a finger or toe, at the passing shadow of her form, will be enough.  It will contain the power to carry his weakened and subservient mind into a world of illicit possibilities.

This is to take Rav Pappa’s thought to its conclusion, we cannot possibly legislate for all instances of sexual provocation, because perhaps ninety percent of that provocation is happening inside the mind of the man, with only incidental assistance from the external world.  It’s a very Kleinian worldview.  His mind is in a state where it is disposed towards lust and desire, perhaps in general, perhaps with regard to one specific woman.  And in that state, no matter what we were to do, even were we to banish him to a cave on his own, he would come to think lustful thoughts.

So the burden is upon him, not upon the woman.

The plot thickens, it turns out that Rav Sheshet, who made the comment about the little finger, was blind (TB Shabbat 109a, 119a), possibly since birth.

Where to go with this?

On the one hand, he is hardly the most realistic judge of what is and is not sexually provocative in the realm of sight.  That just has to be an indisputable reality.

On another level, what we do have, what we must be dealing with, is his imagination.  He must imagine that to see this part of a woman, a woman one desires, is as much as to see her nakedness in its entirety.  And he is right, to an extent.  In the realm of the imagination, of fantasy, the smallest symbol can be the key to the whole image, can trigger a vision of the totality.  He is presenting us with an imagination fully formed, in its most excitable state, and he is right to suggest that in this condition, the smallest glance could be overpowering, intoxicating.

We must be in the realm of the imaginary, I was sure of this before I was reminded of Rav Sheshet’s blindness, now I am utterly convinced of it.

We then have another two famous examples of what constitutes nakedness in a woman.

One is the leg, and the verse used to support this is from Isaiah.  Well, actually a verse which talks about a leg is next to a verse which talks about nakedness.  And the nakedness isn’t physical, but sounds more metaphorical, existential:

“Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen” (47.3)

I take it that we are in the realm of what might provoke an excitable male, of musings on the fickle side of man.  But what I do consider is that perhaps the anxiety around nakedness is provoked by this idea of Isaiah’s, as follows:

In our nakedness we do experience shame, and therefore we seek to avoid shame, and we do so by avoiding nakedness, and not just our own, but nakedness in general, perhaps in particular of those who evoke shame in us.

In psychoanalytic language, this would be a form of projection, a kind of displaced transference, wherein we direct our powerful emotions at very much the wrong object.

And this happens again with the next quotation, which seeks to establish the female voice as ‘nakedness’.  There the quotation is from The Song of Songs, that powerful and sensual love song which gave some of the Rabbis so much trouble.  And what better way to deal with that than to use it to reduce the amount of sensuality in one’s environment, to clamp down on the unease that it brings about.

Rashi seems to be thinking this way, he comments, perhaps ironically:

Since the verse exalts the voice so highly, we learn from there that it is a source of desire (ta’ava).

So both of these assaults on the female body can be read as expression of male unease and anxiety.  And the fact that they are not generally taken as legal rulings, neither in the Talmud nor, universally, in the codes, gives us more room for this provocative and challenging reading, for us to ask what was really going in this discussion.

We are given a variety of conflicting views, and it’s important to distinguish the manner in which we ought to read them all, if indeed that manner has been clearly established.  I believe that a close reading of the text makes the issues a lot less black and white than commonly assumed, and that it also makes for a richer, more psychologically interesting discussion.

Sensuality evokes unease, that is what it means to live outside Eden.  But how we manage that, how we act it out, that we do have control over, and it is demanded of us that we do so in as honest and considerate a way as possible.