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.

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

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

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

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

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

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

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

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

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

and whose leaf does not wither.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Truly, How Beautiful Berakhot 53, 54 and 55

Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure.  At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task?  Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?

So I tried to resist.  But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep.  It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.

But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me.  It was the Day.

The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.

There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .

There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange.  And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.

So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense.  And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:

The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).

Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai?  They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

In a similar spirit:

The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.

Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes.  They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.

One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.    

It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it,  we must become enlightened.

One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.

What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.

If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.

They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof.  They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. 

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.  Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress.  He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still.  Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven.  They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind.   (Psalms 127:23-31).

It is sometimes when we are wrestling  in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.

Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table?  [asked of a verse in Eziekel]

Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.

Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.

Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?

Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel.  The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.

Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.

To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.

Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.

We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.

Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.

I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity.  How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?

And yet, interpretation is not everything:

A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.

Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.

And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it.  How would this be done?

They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.

May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.

Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.

Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.

Rabbi Yochanan said:  If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.

In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.

This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.

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.