The Inclination towards Fantasy Berakhot 61

The daf today is concerned with the evil inclination, tracing its origins to the moment of creation, reflecting on the myriad ways it perpetually haunts us.  It is compared to a fly that lies in wait between the entrances of the heart, waiting for its chance to enter.  It is also compared to a grain of wheat, which also looks for an opening, ready to expand and leaven when an opportunity arises.

They’re definitely onto something these Rabbis, we all have a little grain of mischief and selfishness inside us, which can lie dormant for extended periods but which will blossom and come to life when given half an opportunity.  It will often start with the smallest thing, a very mild slackening of our attention and caution, perhaps when we accede to one drink too many of an evening, or when we first stick our nose into business where it doesn’t really belong.

Before we know it we’re immersed in something, and it can be an almighty struggle to extricate ourselves from it.  We might be watching ourselves with a modicum of disbelief – ‘is this really me?  How did I fall from grace so quickly?’  And if the mischievous impulse is particularly sly it might turn the questioning to its own ends – ‘doesn’t this show that all my righteousness and goodness until now was just a sham, that this is the real me, this craven depraved creature appearing before my eyes?’

I’ve heard it compared to a little monster, our capacity for darkness: once he’s fired up and let out of the cage he just doesn’t want to be put back in.

And it is with this keen psychological awareness that the Rabbis offer the following advice:

A man should not walk behind a woman on a path [as he will look at her constantly]…And anyone who walks behind a woman in a river has no portion in the World-to-Come.

Tosafot, who don’t say much in these last pages of Berakhot,  are quick to offer the following explanation:

This applies if he does this regularly, for he will eventually fall prey to the temptations of adultery and he will end up in hell.

If a man spends his days admiring the feminine shape, no matter how pure and noble his intentions may be at the start, he is opening the door to temptation, to the pesky fly which is just waiting for a sniff of opportunity.  The flesh is weak, sin is always waiting, and if we want to escape the personal hell into which it can lead us into then we would do well to keep an eye on our eyes.

There is a recognition here of the huge effort that goes into sustaining the civilised and virtuous state of mind, and of how little it takes to undermine that effort.  In this sense the Rabbis are deeply Freudian, their take on man shares his realistic and sober assessment of our nature.  They do not share the enlightenment or liberalist optimism, pervasive to this day, wherein man is basically good, where he is born in purity, and it is only the poisons of society which corrupt him.  They are all too conscious of how corruptible he really is.

This consciousness informs their next insight:

One who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her, even if he has accumulated Torah and good deeds like Moses our teacher, he will not be absolved from the punishment of Gehenna.

At a first glance this sounds absurd – who does that, who makes such a roundabout effort to catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and finds it a turn on?

But it happens.  The Rabbis are not saying that it always happens, that every man who sees a woman’s hand is wildly turned on.  For the most part, for most people, it can be a deeply insignificant moment.

But when a man is in a frenzy of obsession, when an imbalance in his libido causes him to invest parts of a woman’s anatomy with near magical powers, when she becomes the locus of his fetish; at that point anything is possible.

And the Rabbis did not say that at that point a man is ill, he is disturbed, he is somehow sub-normal.  No, they did not use the clinical terms of the DSM IV to distance themselves from the phenomenon in front of them, from phenomena they knew intimately from personal experience.  They make it clear that it can happen to a man who is full of Torah and good deeds, who in every other way and to all outer appearances is thoroughly upstanding.

The Rabbis knew the heart of man, they knew the craven spirit that was always hovering in its environment, and they issued their warnings accordingly:

‘Do not think that you have no such inclination, and do not think that you will forever be immune to its charms.  Treat it with respect, for otherwise it will lead you to personal ruin and destruction, to a hell of your own making, it will pervert your imagination and give you no rest until you have acted its bidding.’

Indeed, in this spirit Rav Shimon ben Pazi was known to say:

Woe unto me for my Creator  and woe unto me for my inclination.

We have a great many inclinations for the positive, but we also have powerful inclinations for the worse, particularly when the fires of sexuality come to life.  There is no sense in protesting it, for we were created this way, but when we try to disavow or deny it, when we delude ourselves that it holds no sway over us, that is when we are worthy of woe, for that is when we are at our most painfully vulnerable.

Appreciation: Poetry, Nature and Wine Berakhot 42 and 43

We spoke recently about gratitude, about how it is at the core of our concern with berakhot, blessings, how it plays a role in the transition between the physical and the spiritual, how it bridges the emotional and the intellectual.

Gratitude is quite profound, it requires perhaps a certain level of seriousness, of mindfulness.

It’s younger, rambunctious cousin, appreciation, is a different beast altogether, albeit one with which it is intimately connected.

Appreciation is perhaps more of a spontaneous aesthetic phenomenon, an instinctive response of the soul.  Gratitude is more of a project, an attitude which we work hard to attain, which requires a curiously balanced blend of intellectual work and emotional grace.

We might imagine that gratitude is the kind of thing that the halakha would aim to inculcate, whereas appreciation might be something it aims to tame, to bring under control, to temper.

In fact, it is not so simple, and it seems that there are voices within the Talmud who believe that appreciation should be cultivated and encouraged, that there is something pure and holy in the  energy and inspiration that we discover when presented with something delicious, something which arrests us with its beauty.

We see this argument first on 40b:

One who saw bread and said: “How pleasant is this bread, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation to recite a blessing. One who saw a date and said: “How pleasant is this date, blessed is the Omnipresent Who created it”, fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yosei says: One who deviates from the formula coined by the Sages in blessings, did not fulfil his obligation.

For Rabbi Meir, the idea that one could be so moved that he spontaneously erupts into blessing and praise, that he is genuinely moved to appreciate creation and its Author, this is commendable and to be encouraged.

Rabbi Yosei is not so sure, for him there might some danger in encouraging this aestheticism, in chancing the fate of the halakha to the whims of one’s inspired responses.  He does not see the opportunity in this moment, he does not see that this natural excitement, this pure emotion which cannot be feigned, can raise the individual to untold heights, can be an opening in their otherwise hard and very closed armour.  He does not see that it holds the promise of a genuine connection, of a profound educational insight, wherein a person might come to understand that praise is something we do because we need to, because it is one of our most basic instincts.

Rabbi Yosei is scared of our subjectivity, for him Halakhic Man represents an ideal of controlled and disciplined objectivity, the chance fluctuations of the spirit are not to be trusted.

I’m pleased to report that the Rambam agrees with Rabbi Meir, and that an individualistic expression of praise, with certain provisions, ‘fulfils the obligation’ of the berakha.  Even the codifier and logical philosopher par excellence allows for this poetic inspiration, for the profoundly inimitable sentiments of appreciation.

The dispute continues in the next Mishna:

If there were many types of food before him, over which food should he recite a blessing first?

Rabbi Yehuda says: If there is one of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael was praised among them, he recites the first blessing over it.

And the Rabbis say: He recites a blessing over whichever of them he wants.

For Rabbi Yehuda berakhot have a purpose, and a rigid framework exists to ensure that goal is met.  We look to a text to establish the rubric, for we need to tame and normalise the experience.  Holiness is ordered, externally mandated.

For the Rabbis, Rabbi Yehuda has lost sight of something.  How can we educate in the ways of gratitude, how can we foster appreciation for the marvels of creation if we begin by ignoring a person’s natural inclination?

No, this inclination is precious, we must encourage and develop it, and we must help the person to deepen the experience with the help of a berakha.  The Rabbis believe in what Schiller called ‘The Aesthetic Education of Man’.

In the Gemara, this point is pushed even further.  The Mishna only considered the case where all the options had the same berakha appropriate to them, and we were choosing which food to make that berakha on.  In the Gemara, Rabbi Yirmeya suggests that even when there are different berakhot, they would prioritise which berakha to say based on personal choice.

This may not sound revolutionary, but the alternative is that there is actually quite a rigid hierarchy of berakhot which we must stick to, and that is the rule that we generally follow.  So Rabbi Yirmeya’s opinion is genuinely quite bold, and again suggests that he saw the wisdom in building the structure of berakhot on the basis of an individual’s idiosyncratic preference, rather than in trying to fight it.

Finally, we come to the wine.

We have the rule that a berakha over bread at the start of a meal covers everything else, that one need not make further berakhot.  There are two exceptions.  Firstly in the case where someone unexpectedly brought some food which had nothing to do with the meal, but which, perhaps, they had just discovered and felt needed to be appreciated.  In that case, a fresh berakha of appreciation is merited.

The second case is wine.  The Gemara asks why this should be, and gives the following answer:

Wine is different, for it stimulates a blessing on its own. 

Wine inspires us, and in that inspiration, we are moved to make a berakha.

I’m not going to put this better than the romantic poet John Keats, so I’ll let him do the talking at this point, I’ll let his berakha on wine speak for us all:

For really ‘t is so fine-it fills the mouth one’s mouth with a gushing freshness-then goes down cool and feverless-then you do not feel it quarrelling with your liver-no it is rather a Peace maker and lies as quiet as it did in the grape-then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee; and the more ethereal Part of it mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments like a bully in a bad house looking for his trul and hurrying from door to door bouncing against the waistcoat; but rather walks like Aladin about his own enchanted palace so gently that you do not feel his step-Other wines of a heavy and spirituous nature transform a Man to a Silenus; this makes him a Hermes-and gives a Woman the soul and imortality of Ariadne…

We do not stand in the way of the aesthetic currents in man, we engage with them, we ride their waves and we try to ensure that they are not squandered, but are used for the refinement and elevation of the personality.

We may be aiming for gratitude, but we cannot get there without genuine appreciation, and wherever we stumble upon this natural treasure we are obliged to let it sing its own song, to express itself through its own poetry.

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.

Fools Gold Berakhot 23

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

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

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

We are given the following interpretation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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