Death, Defeat and the Dangers of Despair

This week’s Torah reading discusses the limited circumstances under which a priest may come into contact with a dead body.

The laws proscribing this particular form of ritual contamination may seem to strange to us, it is hard to see how they could possibly be relevant.

The first thing we notice is that Judaism is not obsessed with death, and does not believe, on the whole, that this world is simply a preparation for an afterlife.  There is talk of Olam Haba, which is often translated as ‘the world to come’, but is perhaps better translated as ‘the world of becoming’.  It alludes to a way of experiencing life that is rich and flowing, infused with energy and inspiration, connected to values and concerns which recharge and nourish it.  This is how Olam Haba is depicted in the Zohar, and I believe it can be read into many other rabbinic uses of the term.

But there is more than that, Judaism seems to have an aversion to death, it wants to keep us distant from its spirit.

We could say that this is a form of denial, that it’s falling prey to the weakness so vividly diagnosed by Ernest Becker in his masterwork the Denial of Death.  Faced with mortality, we flee, we cannot face such hard truths about life, and we embrace distractions and focus on happier thoughts.

But I don’t think this is what’s happening.

It seems to me that we are being given warning that there are moments of crushing defeat in life, moments when all we can feel is the hollowing out of loss, when the dark curtain of despair tries to seduce and envelop us.

This is what is symbolised by death, this is the thing we must not become too contaminated with.

Yes, we must be realistic, we must face the truth, but we must not let death and defeat overcome us, we must not surrender our faith to its indifference.

To do so is to prevent us from achieving anything in life, from bringing about inner and outer change, from doggedly persisting with the endless task of tikkun, of sanctifying and refining the worlds that we inhabit.  For the work is not on us to finish, but we must certainly not waste our time nor evade our responsibilities.

Realism, yes, but in healthy measure, administered like a powerful drug, and whose poisonous dimension we will gradually nurse and encourage out of our system.

For despair is all too easy, particularly in challenging times, and it will not help us, it will not get us where we need to be.

And it seems that the Torah is marking out three levels of warning here.

For the regular Israelite, the average citizen, there is simply the demand for a requisite awareness.  If you have come into contact with death, you should know about it.  You cannot enter the sanctuary, your capacities have somehow been impaired, your spirit is perhaps not best placed to attain its greatest heights, to meet its toughest challenges.

But it is a fact of life, and there is no prohibition against contact with death.  It is part of the fabric of life, the reality of being a person, and we cannot legislate such harsh truths out of existence.  We are not in denial of death.

For the next level of person, the priest, the Kohen, who lives a life more firmly consecrated to higher tasks, a greater level of warning is issued.

They are prohibited from coming into contact with death, they must do everything in their powers to avoid it.  Their work is too sacred, too significant, and the dark shadow of defeat cannot be allowed to cloud their judgment, to sully their spirits, to weigh down on their souls.

‘For how shall we sing the lord’s song in an alien land’, how can we reach the highest heights whilst adrift in the land of sorrow and hopelessness.

There is a sacrifice here, a part of one’s humanity is perhaps being curtailed, but the Torah is suggesting that this is necessary for the good of the greater society, that different people must bear different burdens.  The focus on avodat hakodesh, on the work of elevation, requires a different level of personal consecration.

Only for close relatives, for extremely important and real matters can this bitterness be tasted.  To squander one’s focus and energy on trivial sorrows, on the romance of melancholic absorption, this is not permitted to the priest.

The high priest, the one with ultimate responsibility, he must be even more careful to protect himself, to maintain his near impossible level of spiritual focus and concentration.  For if the leader of the people becomes cut off from the source of hope and life, then the people are wholly exposed, there is no longer any buffer or bulwark to protect them from an annihilating loss of direction.

For the high priest, there can simply be no access to death, its depressive spirit must not be allowed to penetrate.

Not only this, but he must not leave the sanctuary at all, his life must be one of total dedication, of total sublimation.  He is not a realistic or attainable figure, he is simply to exist as a vision for the rest of us, an ideal which inspires us, but which we know that it is not our fate to actually reach.  He is different, he is separated, he is bordering on the otherworldly.

And whilst we might appreciate this tripartite delineation, this mapping out of the spiritual landscape, we might find that it doesn’t entirely speak to our modern sensibilities, to our democratic worldview.

We might however consider that these different levels of spiritual dedication refer to different levels of our personality, different layers of our psyche.  There are the outer parts, the rugged parts, which deal with death and defeat as part of our routine, as part of the cost of doing business.

And then there might be parts which we try to keep a bit more aloof, a bit less accessible.  We sense that these need greater protection, so we do not open them up so easily, we do not rush to expose them in the same way.   We refrain from certain emotional investments.

And then there is our ultimate point, our deepest level, and that is where we know we must be even more vigilant and careful, that there is something there that must not exit its spiritual sanctuary.  For to risk its tarnishing is to risk our very essence, to risk completely losing our way.

We live in challenging times, and there are many many reasons why we might want to give up, why we might let death and defeat dominate our spirit.  But we must look after ourselves, particularly in our most sacred recesses, and we must ensure that we are ready for the next challenge, able to scale the heights when they come into focus once more, able to help generate a new vision of a world perfected by the majesty and sanctity of Divine virtue.

We are not permitted to desist from the task, and we must always be ready to answer its call.

With what may we light? Shabbat 18-21

We begin the second chapter of Shabbat with some words we are all too familiar with:

Bameh madlikin uvameh ein madlikin – With what may we light and with what may we not light?

The question is a good one:  what is it that kindles our fire, and what does not?  What is it that brings us enlightenment, and what does not?  With what are we brought to life and what causes our flame to peter out, to turn to charcoal and ash?

We ask this question every Friday night as part of our prayers, and I think it is a good question with which to commence Shabbat, with which to begin our day of spiritual rejuvenation.

What was it in our week which enlivened us, which filled our hearts with love and warmth?  And which parts of our week turned out to be draining, to be an emotional dead end, to lead us into ever greater anxiety?

What surprised us by turning out to be a lot more rewarding than first appearances suggested, and what disappointed us, whispering promise yet leaving us hollow?

And, looking to the future, where should our hearts and minds be directed, where is the truth in our life, what are the things that connect with our depths, which of our cares have nourishing roots in something sustaining?

The first part of the Mishna is concerned with the wick, with the medium that carries the flame and ensures that the fuel is able to reach it.

What is it that makes for a good wick, what part of our personality connects the flame of activity to  the underlying energy which fuels it?

We may find ourselves overwhelmed by anger, by envy, by hatred, by vanity.  And up to a point these feelings might energise us, might give us the strength to achieve things, to make a certain sort of progress.

But they do not make for a good wick, for a wick which will be steady, reliable, consistent, enduring.  They fall into the category of things ‘wherein the flame flickers on them’ and they do not meet the criteria of something ‘wherein the flame ascends of its own accord, rather than being powered by something external’.

Certain emotions endure, they work away quietly in the background, but we do not always give them their due attention and respect.  They perhaps lack the dangerous seduction of others, they are perceived as boring, as homely.  The exotic is often attractive, but that doesn’t mean that it leads to a better place.

It is in this sense that we follow false idols, that we are led astray by the harlots of alien cults.

And this leads us to the second part of the Mishna: what is an appropriate fuel, what aspects of life might be the ones which have legs, which will bring us lasting joy and peace?

It will come as no surprise to hear that  I sometimes get frustrated and irritated with my children.  Even as it’s happening I know that it’s foolish, that my overriding emotion towards them is love and concern, that it’s my tiredness and impatience which are really at fault, that their unwillingness to do exactly as I wish is a healthy reflection of their independent natures.  But it happens nonetheless, and it’s only later, perhaps when they’ve gone to sleep, that I’m able to properly re-connect with those positive emotions, to see that the earlier flare up was very much of the surface, that it lacked any depth.

And when I do remember, I resolve to stay connected to that positivity, to prioritise the tender affection which I feel for them and which they need above all else.

And when the disparity between who I am and how I act hits me particularly hard, (I hope one is allowed to posit such a gap, or we’re all pretty much damned), let’s say after a day of particular moodiness on my part, I can be quite amazed by how alien and unwelcome this alternate personality is, by how clearly I can see that I don’t want to be like that.  The short livedness of it is a blessing, but there are other fuels which seduce us for a much longer spell.

I can sometimes get excited about a project or idea for a few weeks or months, only to find that my interest soon fades, that it no longer stimulates me.  And there is no way in knowing in advance what will or won’t work, what is or is not a good fit for our personality.  Life is about constantly figuring ourselves out, about finding the right fit between self and world, about understanding where our energies will flourish most successfully.

Some people might be lucky, and stumble on the right formula early on, for others it can take longer, and the difficulty of the search can be unbelievably painful, the disorientation can be profoundly damaging.

The enduring flame, the one that burns brightly and cleanly, which will not require constant attention and adjustment, this is what our attention is directed towards, this is what we should be seeking.  And the wick should connect with the fuel, the personality should connect with the deeper currents in life, this is the path towards a redemptive anchoring.

As the nights get longer, as the darkness sets in earlier, we must perhaps be particularly attentive to the manners in which our light might be burning.  Let us ponder the mishna’s question, let us remain open to the surprises it might help us uncover.

Being Open – The History of Purity Shabbat 15, 16, 17

The pages we’ve been looking at lately have been particularly rich for the historically minded reader of the Talmud.  Some days everything is anonymous, and we’re left with the feeling that we’re being presented with the recorded discussions from a Babylonian study hall in the 5th Century.  Not that we should knock that, that’s still going pretty far back.

But when we start hearing today from Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan, the first of the Zugot, who were around in the times of the Maccabee Dynasty, c.170 BCE, it feels like we are taking things to a whole new level.  We are no longer simply immersed in Rabbinic Judaism, we are going way back into its pre-history, into the realm of myth, to the point where scholars fear to tread.

And the thing that I find particularly endearing is that I have the sense that those participating in the Talmud’s discussion, fledgling early Amoraim such as Shmuel and Rav Huna, were also particularly awed by the historical weight of the discussion.  It’s not something we often see much self-consciousness of in the text, the richness of the history we are dealing with.  We certainly see people from the past being treated with respect, as voices of authority, but this is something different.  This is pure reverence, almost giddiness;  a genuine response to the experience of reaching about as far back into the recesses of Rabbinic Judaism as is possible.

What I’m trying to say is that the Rabbis rarely exhibit a historical sensibility or consciousness; or at least that’s how it generally strikes me.  Perhaps in their attempts to establish continuity, to preserve the tradition, they fail to emphasise the extent to which people living seven hundred years apart are simply separate, different, other.  And it’s only maybe only once that is granted, once the reality of difference is acknowledged, that the significance of any continuity we might share with these people is really felt, is really appreciated.

It’s a powerful thing history, and our ability to be open to it is an important mark of where we are with ourselves, of how comfortable we are in our lives.  I had a great conversation with an old friend tonight, someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time.  Something had come between us, and whilst the thing itself had faded, the distance had set in, a block had arisen.  We both acknowledged that this blockage was tiring, exhausting, that it needed energy to maintain itself which neither of us wanted to put in.  What we wanted was to be able to be open, to the rich history we’d shared, to each other as real beings, and to whatever the future might hold.

And it felt good to begin to fix that, to do some work towards opening ourselves up again.

I remember a drug induced experience once when I was able to actually feel my anger towards someone solidify and freeze up into hatred, where this transition from a live emotion into a dead attitude was sensorily palpable.  I became aware of how locked and stuck it made me feel, how suddenly other parts of my mind were forced to switch off, to join in the deadness.  It simply made me closed; somewhat closed off from the outside world, but, more importantly, closed off to myself.  And in that closed state, I sensed that I could neither be nor perceive, that my thinking was clouded and limited, that things were not revealed to me in the way that they usually are.

I was angry, and I turned the anger into hatred.  And whilst the object of my wrath was completely unaware of any of this – I don’t think they were even present – I was left to suffer, it was me who ended up paying the price.  To be full of hate is its own curse, it needs no further punishment or consequence.

We were discussing Heidegger in a seminar last night, and, inevitably, someone asked the seminar leader what was meant by Dasein, by Being, a term that sits at the core of Heidegger’s philosophy.

It struck me that in the sections we’d been reading Heidegger’s main concern was with whether or not we were open to Being, to a situation, to an emergent reality.  He was less concerned with what Being might actually be.  Being alive meant being open, and if one was open, one’s possibilities for inspiration and relationship were significantly enhanced.

With all of this in mind, it seems very interesting that one of the things we hear of Yosei Ben Yo’ezer and Yosei ben Yohanan is their decree that glass has the potential to become impure.

Glass is a symbol of transparency, of openness, and they are warning us, reminding us, that whilst it is essential to be open and receptive like glass, that there are also risks involved.  To be that clear, to be so apparently unprotected from life means that one is susceptible to being corrupted, that one is liable to be led astray from time to time.

So we are warned.  Openness is still the ideal, but we do not surrender to it totally, unthinkingly.

This is made explicit by Rav Ashi:

And regarding your concern that a glass vessel should not become entirely impure simply by touching an impure object, you should understand that glass is different, and does become impure more easily, because its inside looks like its outside. 

Its transparent nature makes it particularly susceptible to impurity; its thoroughgoing integrity, its honest authenticity leave it exposed to perversion.

Their decree, however, has its limits, it does not go quite as far as other decrees with regard to impurity.  When an impure metal vessel is broken, it temporarily loses its impure status.  But if it is reassembled it regains that impure status: the change in status was only temporary.

With glass we rule differently.  Glass doesn’t just fall apart in the way that a metal object does.  Glass tends to properly break, to shatter, and in that intense fragmentation it is hard to see that impurity could be maintained.

When a person is properly broken, when life has torn them to pieces, when they are in need of serious rebuilding, at that point we may assume that however bad their distress, they have rediscovered something of their original purity.  The collapse of a certain configuration of the ego, of a certain rigidity, allows life to flow once more, allows openness to be rekindled.

Through shattering, rebirth; through dissolution, regeneration.

We pray regularly for openness; at the end of every Amida we say the following:

Open my heart with your Instruction (Torah), and my soul will eagerly follow your commandments. 

When we are open we see what is right, what is good; we grasp it more easily and we respond to it more quickly, more naturally perhaps.

And this ties in with one of the few other things we knew about Yosei ben Yoezer, from all those years ago:

May your house be an open door to the wise; may you cleave to the dust of their feet and may you drink thirstily of their words.  (Avot 1:4)

In being open we are able to connect with more, to reach across history more readily and to allow the wisdom of ancient times to flow more easily into our lives.  We must be wary of the impurities that might come in the wake of this, of the dangers in being so free of spirit, of living with so little anxiety.  But this awareness must not bear on us too heavily, we must be able to carry it at the same time as remaining firmly open.

May our hearts be opened not just to the Torah, but by the Torah too; and may our goodness burst forth brightly as a result.

Pyjama Talk: Cuddling and the Law Shabbat 13, 14

We touch today on the thorny issue of how a married couple may relate to each other whilst the woman is menstruating.

Let us accept that they may not engage in sexual intercourse.  I’m sure there is a fascinating history to this prohibition, which we’ll explore at some point, but let’s leave it for now.

What we are explicitly exploring on the daf is whether or not they may sleep together in the same bed.  We seem to rule out the possibility that they may do this in the nude, for we only even ask about the case where they are both wearing pyjamas.

As a first observation, I cannot but help but be struck by the Gemara’s initial response to this question:

Chicken may be placed on a table with cheese and we are not concerned they will be eaten together. 

Never mind what we are trying to learn from this comparison, I just feel that it sounds somewhat absurd as an opening gambit in this discussion.  We do not begin by asking about the meaning of physical intimacy in married life, about the importance of a man and woman maintaining a strong emotional connection at this difficult time of the month.

There is no attempt to consider the human cost of this sort of legislation, to query whether it is indeed appropriate to be legislating here at all.  A response in this vein might have been:

‘They may not have intercourse, that much is clear.  The ways in which they take responsibility for this matter is their business.’

We touched recently on the dangers of preventative legislation, of g’zeirot, perhaps here too that lesson might have been applied.

I understand that these observations may sound weak, that it might sound as if I have no familiarity or respect for what might be called ‘Talmudic Process’.

But I do have that familiarity, if anything perhaps I am too familiar with it, and I could easily have followed this legal discussion without noting the absence of any psychological or emotional meditations.

So I mention it, because for those of us engaged in the project of trying to bring out what is profound and insightful in the halakha, who wish to show that it is often a profound merging of lofty spiritual concern and concrete practical detail, it is also important to note where it may possibly be falling short of that mark, where it might be missing something important.  This is the role of the Oral Law, to ensure that textual record never drowns out the voices of humanity in the culture, that it always finds a way to accommodate worthy and progressive criticism.

Moving into the discussion itself, I was pleased to see that the Gemara made a valiant attempt to defend the ‘pyjama rights’ of the married couple, to assume that their intelligence and awareness would serve to defuse the ‘danger’ of the situation.

In the end however, it seems to come down on the side of prevention, based not on legal or psychological precedent, but on a strange reading of a verse from Ezekiel (18:6) which comes into the discussion out of nowhere.  The verse, which seems to be part of a general  ‘call to piety’ on Ezekiel’s part, mentions a married woman just before mentioning a menstruating woman.  And we are then offered this not terribly compelling piece of logic:

Just as the ‘wife of his neighbour’, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas, so too when his wife is menstruating, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas.

The flow of the argument doesn’t seem to work that well, we seem to move from a spirit of permission to a spirit of prohibition quite suddenly, too abruptly.

What I also notice is that we begin the discussion by asking the question of the wife – ‘is she allowed to sleep with her husband under these circumstances?’  There is something of concern for her, a glimmer of awareness that she might be going through a difficult period.

By the end, as we arrive at our morally driven conclusion, the question has become about the husband, what is the right thing to do for his purity.  The wife of his neighbour and his own menstruating wife become mere objects in the discussion, things to be avoided, and we are primarily concerned about not compromising his spiritual state.

It is this focus on the man that I don’t like, this idea that we view him as a being challenged by marriage, by his menstruating wife, tempted by her, needing to tie himself to the mast like Odysseus against the sirens.

Marriage works when it is a joint venture, when two people are able to be consistently and deeply mindful of each other, when they are properly aware of the reality of each other’s existence.  One source of problems is when separation and distance set in, when the other is viewed as the cause of marital or personal difficulty.

This move will always be the easy one: the blaming of the other, the assumption that we know what they think and want, the assertion that our own better nature would like to act properly, that we are being forced by the other to compromise and sell ourselves short.

It’s an easy narrative to feed ourselves, it vindicates our own purity.  But it destroys the marriage, the possibility of togetherness, of the joint venture, of the core partnership which might make life richer.

And this is where moralism becomes narcissism, or vice versa.  The move to separate ourselves, to retreat to our own world of inner purity, to extricate ourselves from our partner, our family, our friends, our community, in the name of some higher, more moral, calling.

I’m not saying it’s never necessary to do this, sometimes it is.  But it’s a risky move, a move we should probably always treat suspiciously, a move that should perhaps mostly be a temporary one.

For if a person cannot live in any of these relationships, if they are too pure for their world, then what is the content and meaning of their morality, in what sense have they sanctified their engagement with the world?

Put more clinically, we cannot be forever detaching, dissociating and withdrawing.  That is not the path to health, the direction in which a genuine ethic should be leading us.

This shift from ‘her’ or ‘them’ to ‘him’ can also be seen in Maimonides codification of this ruling.  It is to be found in the Book of Holiness, ‘Sefer Kedusha’, in the subsection on ‘the laws of forbidden relations’.

The matter is not about love, relationship, intimacy.  It is not about dialogue and togetherness.  It is about the forbidden, about personal holiness, about what a man may or may not do in his quest for individual salvation.  (By contrast, Maimonides’ Book of Love is concerned with Torah, with prayer, with God.)

The Gemara then presents two potentially dissenting voices, Rabbi Pedat and Ulla.

The case of Ulla is particularly interesting, we are told that:

When he would come from the house of study would kiss his sisters on their breasts. 

The Gemara is a bit flummoxed by this act of intimacy, by the love for his sisters and his unashamed expression of it.  It claims he is contradicting himself, for in another place he proscribes any acts that might bring a forbidden relationship closer to realisation.

I’m not sure there really is a contradiction, I think there is something enlightening here.  In certain circumstances, perhaps genuinely innocent ones, a great deal of physical contact may go on without anything illicit being stirred or brought to life.

In other circumstances, where something forbidden is in the air, is on one’s mind, the subtlest look or gesture can serve to bring the act closer, a few carefully chosen words may easily add fuel to the fire of the fantasy.

The case of Ulla shows us that it is hard to legislate in this arena.  What might in one time and place be completely commonplace and harmless might in other circumstances be provocative and inflammatory in the extreme.

I find this whole area very tricky, on the one hand the Rabbis are quite Freudian in their approach: ‘everything is about sex, don’t deceive yourself’.  On the other hand, they don’t seem to see the problematic side of treating sexuality as taboo, of foisting it onto the woman, of making it about individual holiness, rather than about related intimacy.

So, if I’m honest, I think there are big costs to their approach, there are large areas of these matters that need reconsidering, perhaps even just expressing differently, being spoken about more delicately.

But I also get that the sublimation being advocated here, for there can be no doubt that this is what motivates the disavowal of sexuality, is a potentially significant contributor to the energy underpinning the entirety of Rabbinic culture.  And it’s hard to imagine in any straightforward terms what an alternative culture would look like, what the effects would be on religious intensity and practice, what other knock on effects might follow.

It’s definitely easier to stick to the established law, to claim that the weight of tradition and history make it unimpeachable.  But I would never say that in a therapeutic setting, so why would I say it in an honest assessment of the culture, why would I think that the Divine is not capable of containing and absorbing my unsettling questions?

It’s weakness of faith that tries to quash questioning, and I don’t really get how that became admirable.

We just need to keep thinking about this stuff, to keep reading and debating and figuring out how it works in real life.

In case the feeling lingers that I’ve been too squeamish, that really there’s nothing in this Talmudic discussion that’s problematic or disturbing, let’s look at the story it ends with:

It once happened that a certain scholar who had studied much Bible and Mishna  and had served many scholars died in middle age. His wife took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them: ‘ It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days:  my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishna, and served many scholars , why did he die in middle age?’   No man could answer her.

On one occasion I [Elijah the prophet] was a guest at her house,  and she related the whole story to me. Said I to her, ‘My daughter! how was he to thee in thy days of menstruation?’ ‘God forbid!’ she rejoined; ‘he did not touch me even with his little finger.’ ‘And how was he to thee in thy days of white garments [after the cessation of menstrual blood]?  ‘He ate with me, drank with me and slept with me in bodily contact, and it did not occur to him to do other [engage in sexual relations].’

 Said I to her, ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he did not show adequate respect to the Torah!’

Really?  Is this what we think of God, that he spends his time killing people on account of their failing to keep up with the latest Rabbinic stringency, no matter how pure and far from genuine sin they might be?  Is this our theodicy, that wherever tragedy strikes there must be someone who valued marital relationship more than Rabbinic anxiety?

I prefer the silence of the Rabbis to the presumptions of Elijah the prophet.  Maybe they had suspicions about his sensual nature, but they were at least embarrassed enough not to suggest that this was the cause of his death.  I cannot begin to think of how the poor wife must have felt after Elijah berated her like this, making her share in the culpability for her husband’s death:  ‘If you hadn’t tempted him, forced him to lie with you inappropriately, demanded warmth and intimacy from him, then he’d still be here today.’

It’s a sick and heartless comment, but it is one that we risk repeating if we are not willing to approach these matters with sensitivity, with openness, with an awareness of their complexity.

In questions of sexuality we are indeed dealing with the most powerful currents in our nature, but we are foolish if we think that we can easily opt for the safe approach, if we think that blanket prohibitions – no pun intended – will be either effective or without cost.

To keep love alive, to allow the unexpected to grow in the soil of our relationships; these are the challenges we must sometimes defend.  May we be granted the wisdom and integrity to have insight in these matters, and may we retain the humility to see where silence might sometimes be our best response.

Hidden and Revealed: The True Gift of Shabbat Shabbat 9,10

Finally.  After nine and a half pages (yes, pages, not weeks) of halakhic discussion which I have sometimes experienced as tortuous and torturous, we are at long last thrown a bone.  Someone has something nice to say about Shabbat:

God said to Moses:  I have a fine gift in my secret treasure chamber, and her name is Shabbat.  I want to give her to Israel, go and tell them. 

I like this, it really is how it feels, it’s a gift.  And it is a gift that is good, that is fine.  It is also something that is mysterious and elusive, its origins are shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness.

It is a relief to hear this, to be reminded that in grappling with Shabbat we are grappling with the construction of a detailed and elaborate sacred space.  It could become easy to forget this, to focus on the laws purely for their own sake, to presume that the laws are the essence, to forget that they are signposts guiding us towards something more profound.

And it goes both ways.  One could read the poetry and liturgy of Shabbat and think that one has a feel for it, that one has grasped its essence.  And perhaps it is true that one may be able to relate to it from the outside, to connect it with other similar experiences of peace, of rest, of silence.  But for most of us, it is the laws, the detail, which create the mood and atmosphere of the day.

To experience Shabbat is to live it, to pay attention to it, to inhabit it like a complex piece of music or literature.

The Talmud develops these themes further, in qualifying the type of secret involved in Shabbat:

The experience of its reward is not something that it is possible to reveal. 

It takes work to get inside Shabbat, perhaps what I said just now is not quite right, the laws and restrictions are not enough on their own to generate the feeling and spirit of Shabbat.  They can create an important space, they can present us with an opportunity.   But we must then do something with that space, we must go out to greet Shabbat – come, my beloved – we must welcome it into our hearts and our homes.

Shabbat, paradoxically, can be quite exhausting.  We must engage our spirit with the day, we must pour something of ourselves into it, only then can we taste the deep rejuvenation and re-orientation that it bequeaths us.

Our bodies may be left tired in the aftermath of this spiritual exertion, but they can recover, they are good at taking care of themselves.  The spirit is not so clever, we must consciously and intentionally tend to it, mindfully provide it with the nourishment and homeliness it needs to re-root.

Isaiah depicts this progression well, the path from restriction through engagement towards reward:

If you keep your feet from breaking Shabbat, from acting out your will on My holy day, and if you call Shabbat a delight, dedicated to enhancing God’s Holiness… 

If you honour it by avoiding your usual patterns, by giving up your restless searching, your endless empty chatter…  

Then you will experience profound joy in the Divine, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth.  I will feed you from the rich inheritance and traditions of Jacob your forefather, the Divine Word will have made its mark.  (58:13-14)

The motif of the gift continues, Rav Hisda was giving gifts to anyone who could share with him some of Rav’s profound teachings.  He gave one to Rava Bar Mehasseya, for sharing the secret of Shabbat with him:

To know that I, God, am the one who facilitates the sacred in your lives. (Exodus 31:13)

But he regrets not having more gifts, for he wishes to give him another one on hearing his follow up:

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

The finer things in life are not obviously pleasurable at first, it takes time and patience to develop a taste for them.  Perhaps sometimes it takes abstinence to really appreciate them, the depth of my love for Shabbat is in part due to the vacuum I often experienced in the periods when I tried to live without it.  I don’t mean that I was depressed or unable to cope with life, simply that the absence of Shabbat was very potent and tangible.  I have a memory of walking through a shopping mall late on a Saturday afternoon and sensing something empty and bleak about it – was this supposed to compare to the exalted experience of people singing mizmor le’david or yedid nefesh at seuda shlishit?

It could not, it never really lasted; with my appreciation for Shabbat renewed, I would always find myself drawn to it once more.

The word abstinence is key here, I always suspected Shabbat couldn’t be bettered, that its richness couldn’t be matched.  But I felt compelled to test this hypothesis, to embrace the ascetic ideal of trying to live without it.

It is interesting to me that this poetic flourish is preceded by some reflection on the essence of the Divine.  We have just been talking about how God is sometimes named, simply, ‘Peace’.  Peace is Divine, to experience peace is to both respond to the Divine Will and to taste something of its essence.

He is also named ‘The Faithful God’, here it is his commitment and dedication to his creatures that we might learn from.

These two values, peace and faith, seem to find their embodiment in the Divine gift that is Shabbat.  It takes tremendous faith, and I mean something more akin to courage than to belief, to abstain on Shabbat from pursuing one’s material needs, from tending to one’s sometimes highly critical business matters.

But if we manage it, and if we make the further move of faith involved in really opening up emotionally to the poetry and imagery of Shabbat, to thoroughly engaging with its songs, prayers and traditions, then a deep and powerful peace will be our reward.  Our spirit might experience something that is genuinely called rest, our soul might actually manage to breathe and restore itself.

Going back further, right back to creation in fact, we are given insight into the spirit that lies at the core of existence:

Any judge who arbitrates one ruling in accordance with the highest standard of truth, even for just one hour, Scripture considers that he has become a partner with the Divine in the act of creation.

This is such a rich idea, but what I particularly like is the connection between judgment, truth and creation.

In the act of judging, truth is created.  God did not, could not, have accounted for all possible truths at the beginning of time.  Truth was left incomplete, in gestation, in potentiality.  And when a person takes upon himself the responsibility to seriously wrestle with truth and to eventually come to his most honest judgment of what is true, he has helped along the creative process with which Genesis begins.

Judaism is certainly a religion of Law.  But we sometimes seem to forget that there also needs to be judgment, to be a deeply considered questioning of the manner and spirit in which the Law is applied.  Truth can never be finalised in a text, or even in a tradition.  It must always be rooted in life, in the subjective domain of the responsible human, of the one who wishes to partner with God in creation.

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

Satisfy us with Your Goodness, and make us joyful in Your salvation.

And may you purify our hearts so that we may serve you in Truth.   

Shabbat is about rest and joy, about peace and rejuvenation, about re-rooting and re-orienting ourselves.  But it is also about truth, about cleansing the spirit so that it is capable of the courage and strength needed to do battle with the forces of untruth in the world.  It is perhaps about learning truth through peace, about the deeper and more honest truth that emerges from the spirit that is not ragged from the chase that sometimes constitutes life.

May we attain all of this through our day of rest, may Truth, Faith and Peace rest upon our being like fine wool, may the bounty of the Divine treasure chest be revealed to us all.

Pure at our Core: Yom Kippur 5753 Berakhot 52

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are discussing the finer details of the laws of tumah – ritual impurity – when suddenly Beit Hillel offer a tremendous principle:

An implement or instrument cannot make a man impure.

Impurity comes from death, or from an illness or creature reminiscent of death, it is a deeply human phenomenon.  A man may make his objects tameh – impure – he may emanate the feel and sense and smell of death, he may create a surrounding atmosphere and environment which are infected by his negative energy, by the fear and deadness which have touched his soul.

But the flow cannot operate in reverse.  A tool is just a tool, a dish is a dish and a bucket is a bucket.  Their emotional range does not compare to that of man or woman, nor even to a child or animal.  They can pick up an atmosphere, whether through the fundamentals of their design or through their association and intimacy with a person, but they cannot reach out and change the state of a man.

They are objects, not events, and it is an event, something alive which changes the state of our spirit.

They are, by definition, instrumental, and they may help or hinder us as we attempt to get on with the tasks in front of us.  But if our soul should suddenly feel heavy, if our spirit should suddenly flag, then it is not really the object’s fault, it is something else.  It is perhaps something we haven’t yet noticed, a new fear which has partially emerged on our horizon, trouble in a relationship that we haven’t become fully conscious of, some part of our life which is no longer fitting into place so well.

These are the things that affect us. We may mistakenly think that it is the state of our objects, of our possessions; we may ascribe them – or our lack of them – magical and redemptive powers, to believe that our next material acquisition will be the one which really makes the difference, which really changes the quality of our lives.  We all fall prey to this at one point or another, we are living in materially seductive times.

But this is what Hillel are coming to teach us, that the object, the tool, do not change the spirit.  They cannot shift the weight that is burdening us, they cannot re-ignite the spark that is missing from our fire.

Man’s spiritual condition is a deeply interior affair.  ‘Interior’ isn’t even a particularly good word, it has some merit as a metaphor, but it leaves the impression that our feelings can be located somewhere, that they have a physical location, and hence, perhaps, a physical constitution, a physical cause.

This is of course not the case.  Where do we feel fear, angst, joy or liberation?  We do not feel them in a place, we simply feel them, they become our totality; they become the definition of what it means to be us.  They become our being.

Nevertheless, the Talmud runs with the imagery of the interior and teaches us another profound lesson:

A vessel whose outer side is rendered ritually impure by liquid, only the outer side of the vessel is impure…but if the inside of a vessel becomes ritually impure, the whole of it, its entire being, becomes impure. 

Our personality has many level:  we can exist on the surface, we can spend days, months or even years without re-visiting our depths, without confronting the harder questions of our existence, some of the quieter feelings which might guide us in life.

And make no mistake, these outer levels of the personality are rich and multi-talented, they can store some of our greatest powers and bequeath us a tremendous energy.  If it was obvious that we were living on the surface, that we were missing out on something subtler, something more sacred and significant, then we wouldn’t do it.  We’re not stupid, after all.

And from this perspective, this teaching starts to offer us a vital beam of illuminating hope.  It may be that your outside has become impure, has become sullied and filthy; it may be that your energy has caused you to become lost and adrift, that your talents have serviced you in all of the wrong ways.

But this is just the outside, it has not contaminated your depths;  there is something still in you which is untainted, which is clean and bright and pure.

And for as long as that inner light is still alive, for as long as the cold winter winds have failed to blow it out, you may still find the way, you may still recover and feel profoundly once more.

The inner is not so easily infected, our depths stay hidden for good reason:  they know that to expose themselves easily would be to run an extremely grave risk.

On Yom Kippur we attempt to renew and purify these outer layers, we ask for Divine assistance to “cleanse and remove our sins and transgressions”.

And we are given assurance that the Day itself will help us, will change us.  I doubt that a day alone could ever change us, without any input or effort from our side.  But I know and believe with all of my heart that this is a Day like no other day, and that the possibilities for change that it opens up in front of us would not be readily available at any other point in the year.  It is singular and unique, it has an incomparable atmosphere and dynamic, a rich tapestry of emotional complexity that is all of its own.

May the day help us to rediscover our purity, may we be renewed with completeness of heart, authenticity of purpose, integrity of being and a range of feeling which is warm, empathic and open.

Gmar Chatima Tova, may it be sealed decisively for us on The Day.

Way too strict… Aristotle vs Shammai Berakhot 36

Aristotle – writing about 800 years before the compilation of the Talmud, and about 200 years before Hillel – is famous for his doctrine of the Golden Mean.  The idea is that good and healthy conduct is defined by balance and proportion, never by excess or extremism.

Indeed, for the Greeks, beauty was seen as a deep and abiding guiding principle, something to be internalised and then recreated in action and personality.  And the primary constituents of beauty, in as much as they could be defined, were symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

I’d love to say that Judaism embraces this, and Maimonides famously uses this principle in talking about virtue and personality.  We are, however, forever engaged with the Law, and this sometimes threatens to upset the balance.

The Law can seem to make unreasonable demands, to be indifferent to our inner needs, to be arbitrary and ruthless.  In short, it can come across as extreme.

It can be hard to see how it is sculpting our souls, how it is leaving an imprint of beauty and truth, around which a crystal of virtue and grace may begin to grow.

This concern is one of the reasons I’m so interested to explore Talmudic material which sheds light on the spirit of the law, to understand the philosophy of halakha.  I want to hear the earliest voices on this, the intention and inclination of those who were in the process of founding Rabbinic Judaism.

Today we have a little more insight into the approach of Shammai.  We have already discussed their fundamental differences: Hillel seems to have a humanitarian guiding principle, Shammai grants the Law a much rawer and absolute form of authority.  (My friend Rav Alex Israel brought an excellent article to my attention, which also explores this difference.)

We are discussing the laws concerning different fruits and vegetables, and there is uncertainty as to the classification of a caper bush.  Is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Beit Shammai want to have it both ways: for the prohibition of mixing plant types, kilayim, they view it as a vegetable; for the prohibition of eating the fruit of a tree for its first three years they manage to view it as a fruit.

The first voice in the Talmud states the obvious:

This is contradictory, it is fundamentally difficult.

And yes, they are right, it is problematic to be unable to classify.  One cannot be learning the ways of harmony and beauty when one is inviting contradiction into the heart of one’s worldview.

The next voice however, suggests that there is an explanation:

Beit Shammai were in doubt, so they acted strictly in this case, viewing it as vegetable, and strictly in that case, viewing it as a fruit.

If in doubt, follow the strict path.  This seems to be the approach of Beit Shammai.  And, if we’re honest, it’s a path which a lot of people seem to follow today.  In this worldview the Law stands to protect us from danger, to guide us to safety, to keep us out of harm’s way.  And so, it follows, when in doubt, play it safe.

What does the Talmud conclude?

Well, one thing is clear, this is only the approach of Beit Shammai, and the implication seems to be that Beit Hillel do not follow this, do not believe in it.

For them, the Law is there to refine us, to enhance our sense of balance, to deepen our attunement to beauty, proportion, harmony.  And therefore, there is no such easy option, no lazy comfort.  One must wrestle with what is presented, and following that, one must decide.

In decision we create, we act out the nascent intuition of beauty which we have been patiently incubating.

And if all goes well we will have strengthened our own intuition, cementing its roots in our personality.  We will also have brought light to the rest of the world, showing something that was previously hidden, illuminating a possible new path.

No, for Hillel, we cannot just go the stricter way: it is unhealthy, it is unbalanced and it is untrue.

So we have a dispute between Hillel and Shammai, a pretty fundamental one.  What do we do?

On this point, the Talmud here is completely unequivocal:

When Beit Shammai express an opinion in the same place as Beit Hillel, it is not considered a teaching, it is as if nothing has been said.

The matter is too important, and here we must bring in some strictures of our own.  Beit Shammai wish to bring disharmony into life, to turn halakhic living into a form of poison.  As a result, they must be thoroughly dismissed, they must be clinically lanced from the discussion.

This is a different voice from ‘Eilu ve Eilu’, ‘both are the Voice of the Living God’, (Eruvin 13b) , an important principle which has its time and place.  Here the matter is more serious: Beit Shammai want to make excessive strictness, extreme submission into a guiding principle, and we cannot accept that.

I see this dispute as illuminating the very next legal principle that comes up in the discussion, the status of peel and leaves which act as ‘protection for the fruit’.

Abaye teaches that certain protective parts of a fruit – for example, topically, the crown of a pomegranate – contribute to the size of the fruit.  And the size is important for deciding whether a fruit can become tameh, ritually impure.  If it is too small, it cannot, if it is big enough, it can.

So, Abaye teaches us, if you have a small fruit, it may be immune to the possibility of being impure.  If however, it is encased in protection, if that protection appears to be a form of swelling, if it needs protecting because it is considered too delicate, then it can become impure.

The protection is what creates the possibility of impurity, without it, it was incorruptible.

So let us stick with the spirit of Hillel, let us remember that the Law has a delicate and subtle purpose, and that there is tremendous danger in approaching it with extremity and a spirit of excess.  Indeed, it might just be our attempts at protection, at playing safe, that ultimately render us impure.

Where Angels daren’t tread… Berakhot 25

Generally I manage to learn the daf in the morning and let it play around in my mind for a while before writing something.  I didn’t manage to do that this morning, and I felt it.  My imagination missed its muse, its plaything, and its lack of activity sat heavily with me throughout the day.

I’d always taken the idea of ‘vehigita bo yomam valaylah’ – you shall meditate on it day and night – as something of an unrealistic imperative, I can now see that it’s actually the description of a blessing, a possibility.  Let it be on your mind constantly, and you will feel better for it; try to live without it, and you will miss it.

The daf today contains some extremely detailed discussions about urine and faeces.  And if I’m honest, I found it tough going, it wasn’t obviously inspiring.  Again, it may be that I came to it too late in the day, maybe the inspiration comes from encountering ideas in the morning, but either way, it didn’t leave me rhapsodic.

There was one gem, about halfway through we are in the midst of yet another discussion about the environment in which one may recite the Shema.  I’ll leave the details for now, but Rava turns round and justifies his position with the following statement:

The Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels. 

On one level, he sounds a bit fed up with the discussion.  Like Rav Pappa yesterday, I hear him as saying,”let’s be reasonable, let’s use a bit of common sense and not get too carried away with these detailed discussions…”.

On another level, I think it’s a fantastic principle.  The Torah is given to human beings, in all their fleshy and bodily reality.  We need not deny the body in order to utter or learn the Torah –  we may make attempts to elevate it, but these are always going to be limited, both in terms of scope and success.

Indeed, part of why we engage with Torah is to achieve some element of transcendence, to lift our spirit from the weight of the body, to bring the taste of something beyond into the everyday.

To engage with Torah, with Divine Law, is to open ourselves to improving, refining, finessing our behaviour, our personality.  We give more material to consciousness, we are taking part in Freud’s famous mission: ‘Where id (unstructured drives) was, ego (personality, consciousness) shall be’.

To be human is to be, hopefully, growing, reaching for the light, creating a character that we both trust and love.  To be an angel is to have no need for this, it is to be born and created perfect, pure, without the possibility of either growth or regression.

We may not discuss Torah in the presence of faeces or urine which are giving off a repugnant smell.  But at a certain point, we must accept them as part of the human condition.

We may still be left with an environment where Angels dare not tread, but for us, it’s the perfect point at which to be opened by Torah.

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.

Dirty Dream Number Two Berakhot 22

There is a somewhat head-spinning discussion today about what someone is allowed to read, study or pray following an emission of semen.

In a heartening admission of just how hard the discussion is to follow, the narrator of the Talmud says the following:

It’s clear that all the Ammoraim and Tannaim are arguing with Ezra’s decree [i.e. requiring purification after emission], let us see what Ezra himself actually decreed!!

Perhaps it’s difficult to appreciate this line without having endured the discussion up until this point.  That said, anyone’s who’s gotten lost in Talmudic dialectics will surely like the idea that once in a while the text is able to be self-conscious about it and to itself demand some clarification.

Going back to the discussion itself, the rejection of Ezra’s decree is finalised in the following story:

Once a certain disciple was mumbling words of Torah in front of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Betera, [as he had suffered an emission of semen in the night].  He said to him: My son, open your mouth and let your words be clear, for words of Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness, as it says, “Is not My word like fire?” (Jeremiah 23:29).  Just as fire is not susceptible of uncleanness, so words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness.

I think there are three key points to take from this story.

Firstly, the idea that words of Torah do not become impure or unclean is a powerful one.  It follows from this that we may view them as a kind of oasis of purity, an inextinguishable source of life, a refuge from the filth and muck that life sometimes catches us in.  No matter how dirty or fallen you may feel, do not think you are too unworthy to engage in Torah.  It is the tree of life, your mortal wretchedness is no match for its power.

Secondly, and implicit in this one, Rabbi Yehuda ben Betera rejects what other Rabbis in the discussion seem to assume, i.e. that a person who is impure may not utter words of Torah.  Irrespective of the effect they may or may not have of the Torah, one might think that they simply are not fit, as an individual, to approach the Divine Word.

We firmly reject this, re-enforcing the idea we’ve seen before that it is precisely in our most abject and graceless state that we may need to reach out to the Divine.  We are never too far, never too low, Torah was given to elevate man, and it is precisely when he needs that elevation that it may work best.  The Torah was deliberately not given to angels, it was given to flesh and blood, to those who wake up in the night flustered and confused, dirty and disoriented.

The third lesson is that words of Torah are like fire.  Not only can they not become impure, but I think we can assume that their heat may sear and purify us, that their intensity may burn through the layers of our ego and touch something forgotten in our unconscious.

There is a mysterious vitality to fire, it’s seductive yet very dangerous, it plays to something unbounded in our imagination.  Torah should always carry some of this allure and mystique –  if it doesn’t then perhaps we’ve lost our connection to its vitality.

So, following this ruling, and, it seems, a general revolt against Ezra’s law, we may learn Torah even if we are in some sense impure, if that’s the consequence of a wet dream.

There is another discussion later on, which seems to take place in ignorance of this ruling:

Our Rabbis taught: A ba’al keri [one who experienced an emission of semen] on whom nine kabs  of water have been thrown is clean. Nahum Ish Gamzu  whispered this to Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva whispered it to Ben Azzai, and Ben Azzai went forth and repeated it to the disciples in public.

Two Amoraim in the West differed in regard to this, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida.  One stated: He repeated it, and one taught, He whispered it. The one who taught ‘he repeated it’ [publicly] held that the reason [for the concession] was to prevent neglect of the Torah and of procreation. The one who taught ‘he whispered it’ thought that the reason was in order that scholars might not always be with their wives like roosters.

There’s a lot of whispering here, there is a secret tradition, we don’t seem to trust everyone with the fullness of the truth.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai were two of the four who entered the mystical Pardes, we’re being given a glimpse of that esoteric world here.

What’s really important though is the point at the end about roosters.  It seems that roosters can mate up to 100 times a day, and there is a suggestion that this is not behaviour befitting a scholar of Torah.

And yet, paying attention to the text, this is not a point made by any of the Tannaim mentioned.  Rather, it is offered anonymously, as a possible rationalisation for a divergent reading of the story.  This different reading is attributed to Amoraim living 200 or so years later in Israel.  And the explanation is being offered by even later Amoraim maybe another hundred years later in Babylon.

So, there is no indication that this is to be taken as a final legal ruling, or even as an undisputed Scholarly Sexual Ethic.  And yet – you know where this is heading – it has become precisely that, codified thus in Rambam (Deot 5:4) and Shulkhan Arukh (OH 240:1, EH 25:2).

There seems to have been an evolution here, the ambivalent and complex sexual attitude of the Talmud – which we’ll be exploring as it arises – is being transformed into a scholarly asceticism, a demand for sublimation, a disavowal of earthly life.  There is doubtless a balance that needs to be struck here, but I think we should be aware of the way the tradition may shift in a certain direction, of the way that certain voices who no longer appeal to later generations might be ignored or repressed.

Sex and Torah both contain an element of fire.  They are both a source and manifestation of life.  I think we must tread very carefully in presuming to understand the relationship between them, in attempting to legislate for it.  A period of heightened sexuality can often concur with a burst of intellectual creativity; it is not the case that one can easily and straightforwardly timetable sublimation.

Living with spontaneity and uncertainty is living truthfully, remaining engaged with reality.  Let us not run too quickly away from those aspects of life, let us remember that Torah was given to us in this world and that it is here that we must make something of it.