Keeping Charity at Bay Shabbat 2 and 3

My first impression of Massekhet Shabbat was not a favourable one.  The opening Mishna is a dense and arcane listing of the ways in which one might transgress the prohibition against transporting objects from the private to the public domain on Shabbat.  This is already disappointing, there is no gentle transition from the Biblical or conceptual roots of Shabbat into its detailed laws, no opening musing on the spirit it creates, no encouragement to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps.19).  Rather, we are just thrown in at the deep end, and the feeling is quite disorientating:  my love for Shabbat is not finding any mirroring echo in the text.

And it seems to get worse.  The model for the prohibitions is the case of a man giving charity to a poor person.  What we are presented with is a list of all the ways in which one must not give charity.

Gone is the spirit of Isaiah 56, wherein charity and Shabbat sit side by side with each other as the embodiment of the Divine Ideal.  Here they are presented as conflicting forces, and I think we should be deeply bothered by that.

(As an aside, we should also be bothered by how easily a lot of people might learn this daf and not even notice this, how a certain approach to Talmud looks only for halakhic details, without any feel or sense for the context of their presentation.  It is too easy to not ask the right questions because we are seduced by the intellectual challenge the Talmud sets up, by the scholastic thinking with which it sometimes assaults our psyche.)

So, can we redeem this Mishna?

Let us begin with the assertion that the Rabbis assumed that we were already deeply familiar with Isaiah’s views on the subject, and with all the Biblical material which connects Shabbat with creation, rest and breathing space.  And I don’t think this is too far-fetched –  I have often been struck by how the Rabbis have Biblical verses and phrases at their fingertips, they are genuinely immersed in them; they form the backbone of their thought.

Ok, but doesn’t this just make the conflict even more perplexing, isn’t it even harder to understand why they are set up as opposites?

Perhaps we can offer the following interpretation:  In the Rabbinic worldview, there is indeed a conflict between Shabbat and charity, and at this point they wish to emphasise that they are coming down on the side of Shabbat.

There may be an ethical core which gives meaning and energy to the religious project, but that is not the same as saying that charity will always trump ritual, that doing for others is always more important than doing or creating for oneself.

We might read the Mishna as a discourse on boundaries, as an unconscious expression of the need to partition space for the self.

We have spoken lately about narcissism, of excess concern for the self, of a failure to engage with reality.

What gets less press is the opposite problem: an excess of concern for the outer world and a neglect of the self.

The self needs looking after, a functional personality requires a certain level of energy to maintain its structural integrity.  And it also needs some love, some warmth, some attention.

If  a person directs all of their love outwards, investing all of their energy and concern in charitable projects or other family members – including their children – they may end up paying a heavy psychological price.  They may be left with inner resources that are too stretched and too thin to cope with the adversity that comes their way in life, they may find that there is actually a weary emptiness at the point where their confidence and self-esteem should be.

And without this genuine inner conviction of self worth a person will not get far, they will be forever chasing the wrong shadows, living the desires of others, driven by a misplaced fantasy of what they ought to be.

To live authentically is to be guided by a genuine expression of our personality and being, by the voice of our deepest calling.  And this requires courage and a specifically inner confidence.

It’s important to note that this is a very different beast from the bombastic and loud confidence which people sometimes manifest and project in their dealings with their outer environment.  I might go so far as to call that type of confidence compensatory; it is sustained by detachment and dissociation from the doubt and perplexity which characterise the attempt to maintain full contact with the roots of one’s personality.

Shrill confidence is a mask; an obliviousness to the subtle and multi layered complexities of life.  Genuine thoughtfulness is marked by consideration, by trying to gently feel one’s way towards resolution.

And so the Mishna adopts this view, that Shabbat is about the need for spiritual rest and rejuvenation, about the need to maintain energy and attention for the self.  It is about redirecting us inwards, even if this means that our charitable instincts must be questioned and temporarily stifled.

There is an image depicted of a person bound to their home, to their private domain, and they are being instructed to diminish their interaction with what goes on outside their doors and windows.  Do not try to give to that outer world, and do not try to take from it either.  Rather, focus on your own home, put your own affairs in order and use the atmosphere of rest to ensure that your inner battery is recharged.

We read today that God rested on the seventh day.  I think we must understand this as teaching us that everyone needs rest, that every spirit would otherwise work itself towards exhaustion and dissolution.

In Kiddush we use the term ‘Vayinafash’, which is probably best translated as ‘He gave Himself Spirit’ or ‘He refreshed His Spirit’.  Rest is not simply cessation from activity, it is about giving the inner a chance to breathe, allowing it to recover and re-root.

So this very problematic Mishna might actually be teaching us something profound about what Shabbat is and what Shabbat isn’t.  Religion might be about ethics, but ethical beings require energy and soul, they must be connected to something authentic within themselves.  They can never just be automatons acting out a clear set of external instructions – that image is both conceptually flawed and pragmatically unsustainable.

On Shabbat we look to restore this connection, to give it the water and light that it needs to grow.  We relinquish some of the omnipotence that charity gives us, but in the humility of this renunciation we might just find that something new and profound is able to gestate.

The Theatre of Prayer Berakhot 34

A major theme of the daf recently has been the idea that prayer, particularly the recitation of the Amida, should be approached as if we were standing in front of a King.  A story from yesterday makes this clear:  An eminent politician encountered a pious man deep in prayer, and the pious man refused to respond to him.  When he was finished, the politician asked him to justify his actions, for surely he was putting himself in danger, given the politician’s power and authority.  The pious man responded thus:

He said to him: Had you been standing before a flesh and blood king and your friend came and greeted you, would you return his greeting?

The officer said to him: No.

The pious man continued: And if you would greet him, what would they do to you?

The officer said to him: They would cut off my head with a sword.

The pious man said to him: Isn’t this matterthen  an a fortiori inference?

You who were standing before a king of flesh and blood, of whom your fear is limited because today he is here but tomorrow he is in the grave, would have reacted in that way;  I, who was standing and praying before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who lives and endures for all eternity, all the more so that I could not pause to respond to someone’s greeting.

This is a classic little story, the rhetorical exchange has something of a Socratic quality to it, the wise man patiently leading the layman towards a meaningful insight.

And in this vein, the method that he uses, the analogy or parable, is central to the point he is making.  He’s trying to get the politician to imagine what it is like to be engaged in prayer, and he’s doing so by reference to a flesh and blood experience that he can relate to.

He doesn’t just say: ‘You fool, I am talking to the King of Kings, do not bother me with your trifles!’.  He acknowledges that it is not at all obvious what is happening, and he tries to show the politician something of his worldview, something of what it means to be engaged in prayer.

And the parable, the ‘as if’, isn’t just for the politician’s benefit, it’s for our benefit too.  We have a tendency to switch off when we hear talk like this, of us standing before the King of Kings, in the presence of greatness.  We feel it’s somehow crude and anachronistic, out of tune with our concept of the Divine.  We feel that they were taking it literally, but that we simply cannot do that.

But it is not so.  I think this story suggests that they too were using the analogy as pedagogical tool, as an attempt to encourage us to imagine that we are in a certain set of circumstances.  They are asking us to act, to engage in a theatre production, and the hope is that through doing that, we might create an environment or mood wherein something profound can happen.

Let us step back.  Let us imagine that we are encountering the idea of the Divine for the very first time, we are learning to think along the lines that there is a reality to our values, that there are real things happening in the depths to which we have never paid attention.

We are then told that we must pray to this Divine, that we must engage with it and meditate upon it.

Where would we begin?  How would we find the right frame of mind, the feelings, the headspace?

It would be a challenge.  It would be like an actor being thrust into the role of Hamlet, given the vaguest of backgrounds and then being told to deliver a meaningful ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

It can’t happen.  The actor connects with the mood of the moment through imagining himself in similar circumstances, through finding a personal reality in the drama.  This takes time, thought, intense research.  And when he does so successfully, he is actually making the words ring deeply true; we are no longer in the realm of fiction, we are rather watching a man baring his soul.  The text and the staging are a device, carefully constructed to evoke something genuine in the actor and to leave the audience with a real and lasting experience.

I believe that this is exactly what is happening with prayer.  The pious man is our Shakespeare, he has written the words and he is now giving us our stage directions.  ‘Don’t do it that way, do it this way, imagine you are standing in front of a powerful King, a President, someone you are in awe of and who makes you tremble with nervousness.  Think starstruck, think dry-mouthed, raised pulse and sweating.  Now you may speak the words, now you may being to act.’

We are being taught how to act, and only once we sense that we must act, that we must dig deep to create something, only then can we start to pray, can we start to mouth words in front of the Divine.

‘Imagine the honesty you would experience at that moment, imagine how all your masks and defences would drop, how you would stand feeling naked and exposed, confronted by the reflection of everything that is weak and flawed in your personality.’

This is what we are aiming for, the construction of a stage upon which we might encounter the reality of our lives, the truth that runs through it, however carefully hidden it might be.  In confronting greatness something is reflected back to us, and however much we might prefer to not see it, we must bravely stare at it and accept it.

We’ve done a lot of work in understanding the Divine, in moving beyond childish ideas of God.  But once we’ve done that work, we have a whole new challenge, we must learn how to experience and live with that Divine, how to make its presence a real and powerful force in our lives.

And for that, we must step out of the Theology faculty and walk across the campus to the Drama faculty.

The stage directions continue today:

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of the Tanna bar Kappara: An ordinary person, conducts himself as we said; he bows at the beginning and the end of the blessings of Patriarchs and thanksgiving and is admonished if he seeks to bow at the beginning and end of the other blessings.

It is appropriate, though, for a High Priest to bow at the end of each and every blessing; and for a king to bow at the beginning of each and every blessing and at the end of each and every blessing.

[Another opinion]  The king, once he has bowed at the beginning of the first blessing, does not rise until he concludes the entire prayer, as it is stated: “And it was that when Solomon finished praying all of his prayer to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling upon his knees with his hands spread forth toward the heavens” (1 Kings 8:54).

Here we are not just using the imagination, we are using the body too.  The body is more primitive than the imagination, our use of it affects us in ways that don’t altogether make sense.  It creates its own reality, it generates its own sense of occasion.

And what we see in these instructions is that the more eminent a person, the more they must bow and humble themselves, the harder they must work to experience the rawness and defencelessness, to be moved by something Majestic.

And it’s no co-incidence that we use Solomon, that wisest of men, as our example.  Wisdom is no substitute for experience, if anything it can get in the way of feeling something genuine and human.  He of all people needed to completely prostrate himself to achieve the experience of being humbled before Truth, of being confronted by everything he had failed to realise in his life.

The discussion of bowing practices continues, and it’s fascinating to observe the varieties of habit, the sense in which everyone was doing something different.  It’s as if they had reached the point where they were hearing the music, wherein they were able to merge their own spontaneity with the framework they were inhabiting.

And this idea that we might succeed in making something real happen, that we sometimes know that our prayer has hit the right note, that we have connected with something, this is how I understand the following idea:

Once the son of R. Gamaliel fell ill. He sent two scholars to R. Hanina b. Dosa to ask him to pray for him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber and prayed for him.

When he came down he said to them: Go, the fever has left him; They said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied: I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learnt this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that it is accepted: but if not, I know that it is rejected.

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa knew that his prayer had been accepted or rejected based on the experience he had whilst saying it.  If he attained fluency, if he connected with something real in himself, then it was accepted.  If not, if he remained in the world of empty ritual and lifeless artifice, then he could be sure that it was rejected.

I believe that we know when we have prayed, and we know when we have just uttered words, when nothing has happened.

“Being accepted”, “being heard”, these are experiences, phenomenological descriptions of feelings.  I do not believe that they are supernatural claims, claims to do with the realm of miracles or disrupting nature.

It is the wisdom of our tradition to understand how hard prayer is, and yet how supremely important the role it may play in our lives.  When we read the rules around it as stage directions, as experiential aids, then I think we are better able to accept them with gratitude, to acknowledge that we are part of a long chain of people who have forever been struggling to pray.

Let us pray well, and let us be aware enough to detect whether our prayers have been accepted or not.

Fools Gold Berakhot 23

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

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

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

We are given the following interpretation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Like a Woman… Berakhot 20b and 21

Today we encounter one of the more divisive rulings in the Halakha.  The mishna begins:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and from putting on Tefillin. But they are subject to the obligations of Tefillah and Mezuzah and Grace after meals.

The Gemara responds quickly:

It is obvious that they are exempt from the Shema – that is a positive commandment which is time-bound, and women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments!

Really?  Was it that obvious?

If this is such a well known principle, we would be within our rights to expect the Talmud to give us its source or background.  We saw yesterday that it spent nearly a whole daf trying to find the source for Human Dignity and its power to defer prohibitions.  And yet, today, nothing.

I’m highlighting this as a strange absence in the text.  And before highlighting some other strange absences, I’d like to propose one understanding of them:

The Talmud is not shy about discussing anything and everything, pretty much whatever someone might say can lead to a discussion of one or other related topics.  Discussion is basically its raison d’etre, its lifeblood.  So if the Talmud doesn’t discuss something, it suggests that the matter was so uncontroversial, so widely assumed, so unconsciously accepted in Talmudic culture that no one thought to question it.

To my mind, this suggests that if something did become controversial in later generations, as society and people changed, then the discussion ought to be re-opened, that this would be the only authentically Talmudic response.  Judaism is always about trying to improve the world, to improve the moral and spiritual quality of the lives we lead.  In order to do this it must always start from our mode of living in the world, from the raw actuality of that.

Put differently, there is perhaps nothing fundamentally Jewish about this strict division of male and female roles.  It may have been codified in Jewish Law, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any sort of Jewish Ideal.  It simply means that it was an aspect of people’s lives and so some kind of habit and rule was required in response to it.

For example, we see later today – 21b – that a man may wed a woman who was raped by either his father or his son.  Would we say that there is any kind of ideal involved in one’s relatives being rapists?  I think it’s clear that the answer is no.  On the other hand, such a circumstance may arise, and in a society where a raped woman would find it hard to get married, it may seem reasonable to allow such a marriage to proceed, with the women’s consent.

This is an extreme example, but it shows the extent to which we need to be careful about moving too readily from Jewish Law to Jewish Ideals.

Maybe we should step back a moment, perhaps I’m rushing into assuming that this issue of women’s exemption is objectionable, something that needs defending and repackaging in a radical way.

Perhaps it isn’t, I did a survey of a few women today and the exemption itself didn’t seem to be so problematic.  Where it may sometimes leads to seems to be the problem, but we’ll get there.

That said, I do still think it’s worth noting these strange absences.

So the first is the lack of a source for the principle of exemption.  We may happen to know that it is also mentioned in a Mishna in Kiddushin (29a) but there is no biblical source given.

The second is the lack of any explanation at all.  We must assume that the rationale is something to do with a woman’s role in the home, which keeps her too busy and does not allow her to break for the Shema or to put Tefillin on.  Yet this is quite strange –  are men never busy, does their contribution to the maintenance of the household never merit an exemption?

This brings us to the third absence, the lack of exceptions.  What about a widow who has lost his wife and is forced to raise his children on his own?  What about a woman aged 23 who is not yet  married and has a very comfortable and relaxed life?  Or a woman of 63 in a similar position?

By neither considering nor exploring these realities, the text begins to suggest that there is something more fundamental in play, some less practical reason why a woman is exempt.

And at this point it can go either way.

One can say that women are superior, that they are intrinsically more spiritual, more attuned to the love and compassion which the mitzvot are trying to teach us.

One could say that the work they are involved in is fundamentally more holy, more Divine, and that there  is less need to take them away from it to remind them of their genuine purpose in life.  As we discussed with relation to breastfeeding (pages 3 and 10), we hold the maternal as the highest model of being, and we learn from it how to conduct ourselves.

Further, one may say that men are prone to forget their origins and roots in the family, and to stray towards alien Gods.  For this reason they must have a framework and routine which brings them back to it.

And this is all very nice.

But, realistically, this massive generalisation, this universal assumption about what men and women do, carries a huge risk of essentialising and reifying gender.

It leads us to generate a blessing wherein man thank God for not making them a woman.

It leads us to rebuking women who wish to wear tefilin, as Rambam seems to do (Tefilin 4:13) and as codified in the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 38:3).  This rebuke becomes demonisation in contemporary life.

It leads us to banishing women from any role in synagogue life, relegating them to a non- participatory spectators’ gallery, far away from the action.

There is a line of thinking which says that men will look to subdue women wherever and however they can.  They are threatened by them, sometimes by their goodness and tenderness, other times by what their sensual sexuality evokes in the male.  And sometimes it’s simply by their symbolising the dependency of the maternal.

So let us assume that from time to time over the last two thousand years this misogynistic spirit has flared up within Jewish culture.  In such circumstances, it seems inevitable that people will have looked to Jewish texts and law and abused them in order to legitimise their diminution of women.

And, let us be honest, the text of the Mishna opens itself to this.  Women are treated in the same breath as slaves and children; the idea that we are talking about higher spiritual beings doesn’t quite ring true here.  If we started with ‘women, angels and saints are exempt…’ then we might have a case on our hands.  It may be unfortunate, but juxtaposing women with slaves makes a certain sort of conclusion tragically inevitable.

This leads us to the fourth and final absence:  the voice of the women.  This is a discussion of men about women, and at no point is any woman consulted or quoted in order to hear her thoughts.  We don’t talk about whether Devorah said Shema before battle, nor do we consult the habits of Beruria to see how she felt about the dimension of time.  Women are absent from the study hall here, whether through exemption or exclusion, and we are asked to trust that the men of 1800 plus years ago knew their needs and natures best.  To the modern eye, this ‘legislation by the other’ robs women of all their dignity.

It doesn’t look great.

This is a huge topic, and I’ve no doubt we will be returning to it.  In summary, I read the text here as exhibiting several glaring absences, and these leave it sorely exposed to an abusive appropriation for unholy ends.  However, I do not believe that Judaism is in essence a rigidly gendered or misogynistic culture, and as the realities of the world change, new discussions must take place to ensure that its ultimate aims can be furthered.

Let us end by noting something wonderful on daf 21a.  Rav Yehuda proposes that the prayer we say after the Shema is actually a more binding obligation, a Torah obligation, than the Shema itself.  Let us remember the beginning of that prayer:

True and firm, established and enduring, right, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, pleasant, awesome, mighty, perfect, accepted, good and beautiful is this faith for us for ever and ever.

Quite.  When the ideals we lay claim to in Judaism match up to these standards then we know we are on solid ground.  When we know or suspect that they do not, then it is time for some serious soul searching, it is the time to root out whatever toxic may have entered our spirit and to expunge it.

p.s. I dedicate this blog to my wife, who has in every positive way earned her exemption from the bindings of time.  With the little time she has, she fights to ensure women are fairly treated in Judaism, and I stand proudly behind her on this quest.

What is the self? Berakhot 15

It is one of the founding principles of psychoanalysis that we are not transparent to ourselves.

The more one reflects upon this, the more surprising it becomes that we ever thought that we might be.

More than this, it becomes increasingly astonishing that most people generally still think that they know themselves, that they have unique access to the thing they call the ‘self’.

One of the insights I got from Wittgenstein, and which pushed me in the direction of psychoanalytic thinking, was that the concept of a ‘self’ is significantly more complex than it first appears.  There is not necessarily a single unifying factor manifest in our behaviour or thought, we seem, at times, to simply be a succession of unrelated actions, utterances and inner voices.

Listen to the series of thoughts that pop into your head – where are they coming from?  How consistent and uniform are they?  Is the source of those thoughts the thing we call the self?

To push it further, how would you describe the difference between the place that they come from and the person that hears them, the listening subject?  Aren’t there at least two ‘persons’ here, a mysterious narrator and a somewhat perplexed audience?

For the most part, there is a workable level of unity, of coherence, of integration, detectable in our behaviour.  And, though here it’s more private and murky, that’s probably true of our thoughts too.

In as much as there is meaning to the term sanity, one aspect of it is the extent to which we are able to see this unity in another person, to experience it in ourselves.  Schizophrenia, very roughly, is the case where that unity has been deeply fractured, where the person themselves no longer experiences their thoughts and behaviour as unified.  Bi-polar, another term I don’t especially like, is a way of describing behaviour and thought that seems to oscillate too wildly, that lacks a unifying centre, a coherent core.

So where does Judaism stand on this point?

I take it as fairly incontrovertible that it takes the personality to be deep, complex and multi layered.  That if there is unity there, it is something we must work towards, and, once achieved, requires steady maintenance.

For these reasons, Rabbinic culture offers its citizens a wide array of rituals, structures and ideas.  By making all of these part of one’s life, part of one’s personality, some profound and serious work is done on one’s unconscious, work one doesn’t need to be much aware of.  By simply swimming in the culture, one imbibes a certain type of character, and hopefully it is one that is unified and productive.

Put differently, it is often assumed that religion takes man to be strong, to be a creature of will.  It gives him challenges to test that will, and basically scores him depending on how well he does.

I take the opposing view.  Religion views man as deeply weak, and understands the ‘will’ as somewhat illusory.  It sees it as a wishful expression of how much self control we would like to have, not how much we really do have.

It meets man in his weakness, and tries, in a colourful variety of ways, to help him flourish nonetheless.

To the daf.  Today we have an extended discussion on whether a person needs to say the Shema aloud.  The alternative is that we simply recite it silently, or internally, and concentrate on it in that way.

It seems to me that the discussion may be centred around exactly the positions outlined above.  If one believes that the Shema can simply be recited internally, then one leans towards thinking that the personality is reasonably unified, and that its deeper recesses are quite easily accessible.

If one thinks we need to recite it aloud, to separate ourselves into physical performer and attentive listener, emphasising the need to hear it, then I think one is viewing the personality as more complex and fractured.  One is acknowledging that making contact with the unconscious is a mighty tricky business, and that giving parts of the personality different roles might be a very effective way to do this.  It strives to make the situation engage more energy, to seem more real.  It will also hopefully diminish some of the resistance and self consciousness that otherwise stands in the way of contact.

In the end, we follow the opinion who says we should say it aloud, the voice who tells us that we are deeply mysterious unto ourselves.

And, paradoxically, the message that we try to get across, as we saw on page 13, is unity.  We can now understand that this has psychological as well as theological implications, that the unity we strive for in ourselves is a reflection of the unity we seek out in life.

So the Shema, and prayer generally, are a profound piece of theatre, with the Rabbis are directing events from behind the scenes.

When the curtain rises we engage in soliloquy, and, in the next moment, we realise that there is an audience of one, and that that one is a different part of us.

Through deliberately splitting the personality, through opening it up like a surgeon, we hope to arrive at a more thorough and profound unity.

Listen, O Israel, for the Unity, and know that the Unity is Divine.

Nihilism, Civilisation and the Divine Berakhot 13

From what we’ve said up until now, the Shema is supposed to be a meaningful meditation on love.  So when the rabbis ask “how much of the Shema do we need to concentrate on?”, we’re right to be a little surprised.

Two things to say on this.

Firstly, relief.

As much as I do wholeheartedly believe that the recital of the Shema is a tremendous opportunity for bi- or tri-daily reflectiveness, I know myself and reality well enough to know that it ain’t always going to happen.  It’s therefore heartening to know that the early Rabbis also experienced this.  It’s nice to hear that they too knew the difficulty in always maintaining a profound level of concentration on what becomes an everyday occurrence.

It’s a classic bind, the idea is to use ritual to orientate the mundane, but through making ritual routine, something of its magic and charm is lost.  It’s good to see that the Rabbis understood this from the beginning, that they had no illusions about the tensions in the culture they were creating.

Secondly, even though they got this, they still saw the value in reading alone, thoughtlessly, in enacting mindless ritual.

We spoke on page 3 of the Shema as a transitional object.  Part of the way that profound and significant level of connection is established is through thoughtless interaction with the object.  One doesn’t set out to establish a transitional object through conscious thought, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would be self-defeating.

Ritual, even without thought, roots and anchors us in the world.  It can stabilise the psyche, and provide a cathartic channel for all sorts of energies that we’re not at all aware of.  I’ve often felt better after even the most mindless prayer sessions, wherein I’ve utterly failed to connect to the meanings and ideas in the words.

The process of performance, of putting something in, of attempting to achieve something emotionally significant, has a powerful effect on us.  We would be foolish to abandon the ritual because we’re not hitting the high notes.  The culture is founded on the realisation that we’re only intermittently going to get there.

So, that said, whatever on heaven or earth are we supposed to be concentrating on?

As we said yesterday, that’s exactly what is animating the three way disagreement amongst the Rabbis about concentration.

First up Rabbi Eliezer, we’re talking Tannaic heavyweights today, who says up until ‘ha-aileh’. So that would be:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words…

So it seems to me that he’s emphasising the unity of God – more on that later – and the love of God.

As I’ve mentioned several times, the love of God is not some strange commandment to have  a specific emotion towards a Divine being.  Rather, it is the call for a specific attitude towards life, for a positive, somewhat optimistic openness of spirit.  It is about finding the positive emotions inside us and making them the dominant ones in constituting our basic disposition and modus operandi.  It is about living with the non-expectant yet completely receptive faith of Kierkegaard, of living out Wittgenstein’s tightrope ideal:

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

The commandment to love God, is about loving non-obssessionally, about not fetishizing our love objects, and hence about not making our capacity for love limited and restricted.

It is also an absolute prohibition against cynicism and nihilism.

Nietzsche wrestled with nihilism, he felt duty bound to embrace and explore what he took to be its inevitability.  It led him into madness, and even just reading him can often give one too much of the feeling of things falling apart.  Let’s say he was our sacrifice to that ideology, we can all learn from him that it’s not something we need to surrender to.

Twice a day, just say ‘no’ to nihilism.

Rabbi Akiva, these really are the heavyweights, said we need to concentrate throughout the whole first paragraph.  So he adds the following to our requirement:

…which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Rabbi Akiva is tuned in to what we were saying above, it’s about the institution of a culture.  The explicit content here is a narrative of things becoming increasingly rigid and ritualised. Teaching, then speaking, then reciting, then wearing as a ritual object, and finally, in the perfect image of fixture, nailing them to the doorpost of your house.

So we are not just to focus on the Divine, but to reflect on our culture and its ethos.  We must make the Divine intrinsic to the texture of everyday life, this is the cornerstone of our civilisation.

Rabbi Meir has the final word.  For him, we need only focus on the first line:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

And this is backed up by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi too, for whom this line was the entirety of his recital.

So for these two greats, we must only concentrate on ‘Adonai’ being our God, and on His oneness and unity.

The oneness and unity of the Divine are very tricky concepts, not ones that I think we can relate to easily nowadays.  It’s too abstract, it’s not really clear what it’s supposed to be in opposition too, what it’s rejecting.

As a start, I would say the following.  As you’ll have noticed, I like talking about the Divine, I find it communicates things better than talking about ‘God’.  ‘God’ sounds too much like an object, a person, and try as we might, I don’t think we ever really free ourselves of those associations, no matter how well we know we ought to.

The Divine is different.  The Divine really is about something higher, something beyond, something we catch glimpses of but can only ever aspire to.  And talking of the Divine implies seeing connections, relating our understandings of various ideals such as Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Justice and sensing that there is something common to them, some ideal quality we can only have a vague sense of.

It also requires us to attempt to see meaning in our diverse experiences of life, in its harsh and difficult times as well as its joyful and sublime ones.  To sense that its merciful moments are just a different face from its uncompromising moments, but that they are not absolutely and definitively separate, is to see such unity.

To see unity is to see meaning.  It is the job of the imagination, and it’s not always easy.  Relating to the Divine is not a simple matter of giving lip service to dogma or principles, it’s about making the constant effort to see life differently, to see something bigger in it, some higher possibility latent inside it.

It is not about trivialising life through relating it to a distant Godly being.  It is about thinking of life in the most constructive and imaginative manner possible, and about paying particular attention to just how much goodness and wonder lie hidden in the most remarkable places.

Sensing unity is sensing the Divine, and for Rabbi Meir, that is quite enough for us to be concentrating on.

So we can try to concentrate on a civilisation that opposes nihilism.  But at the very least, we must concentrate on life and try to see the goodness that pervades it.