What is God – The Second Honest Theology Project Lecture

On November 22nd I gave the second lecture in the Honest Theology Project series.  The title was ‘Getting to the Core – What is God?’.  The video is now available.

The main lecture is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/147047561.sd.mp4?s=c0b125c654a46186e7b43cca142ce590d6016548&profile_id=112

And the fascinating Q and A session afterwards is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/146947436.sd.mp4?s=180312c1478fa9d565d3c1ca829541497bee3524&profile_id=112

I look forward to hearing any thoughts or feedback.

 

Rosh Hashana 5776 – What does it mean to be judged?

(This originally appeared in Ha’aretz Jewish Thinker Column, on Monday 7th September: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.674949)

Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.

The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.

Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here.  He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.

Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death.  These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.

When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.

Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.

One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.

I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.

One is reminded of Yeats’ words that “the centre cannot hold…whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.

For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.

For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.

God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape.  He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.

As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.

 

 

More on Limmud: A response to a friend…

A friend made some comments to me about Limmud, which provoked me to write a bit more on the topic.  This is over and above what I initially wrote for the Times of Israel on the topic.    It goes without saying that this response might equally apply to many others who have commented upon Limmud.  

My dear friend, I need to begin by apologising to any of my non-orthodox friends and colleagues who might have read what you wrote about their movements and their Rabbis. I personally find it deeply offensive and objectionable, I can only begin to imagine how it made them feel. Moreover, I can only square the disrespectful tone of your writing with all of your positive traits by imagining that you do not personally know any of the Masorti/Conservative/Reform/Liberal leaders of which you speak and have not spent much time in their presence. I personally consider many of them, both dead and alive, as deeply insiprational thinkers and human beings. Indeed, this abstract and unreal quality, rooted in a-priori ‘halakhic/hashkafic’ theory and intellectualised sociology, permeates your discussion of Limmud and makes it very difficult for me to know what to say to you. I have basically three words for you. Come to Limmud.
You will then see that it is not the dangerous monster that you and others seems to see it as. It is not a threat to the Jewish people, it is an incredible and unprecedented source and inspiration for Jewish creativity, renewal and regeneration. I will speak personally and state that there were times in my Jewish journey, when the clear air and open minded welcomingness of Limmud was the only Jewish atmosphere which I did not find to be claustrophobic and oppressive. This may be an extreme case, but there can be no doubt that Limmud has had a positive influence on the Jewish lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. The idea that people walk away from Limmud with their Judaism shaken and weakened, with their commitment diminished and stifled, has simply no bearing in reality. Again, come to Limmud. See the joy in people’s faces, the spring in their step, the life returning to their forgotten neshamot. You will see the true power of the Divine, the sense in which He attends to every place where his name is called and makes his presence known there.
Are there challenging sessions at Limmud? Yes. Is anyone forced to go to them? No. Is intellectual challenge a bad thing? Absolutely not. In my understanding faith is deepened through challenge, and Judaism as religion, culture and civilisation has absolutely nothing to fear from philosophical, historical, inter faith and inter-denominational challenge and argument. Judiasm is robust, it is strong, it is flexible and it has the internal resources to re-imagine itself through its own exegetical fertility. Rabbi Akiva was not rocked in the philosophical storm of the mystical orchard because he could interpret every crown of every letter in Torah, in a way that stunned even Moses himself. Interpretation is our lifeblood, not a threat.
You acknowledge that we could all bring our sources of support, and there is some truth to that. I’m interested in why we bring the sources we do, why some of our leaders choose to bring fearful, exclusive and excluding sources, sources which they claim show small mindedness and an aura of paranoid threatenedness. Why does that seem like the answer to the problems we face today? And what does it tell us about their conception of leadership?
But, let me say something about your sources. You dare to bring Maimonides, the heilige Rambam, as part of an argument against intellectual honesty, as a messenger of close mindedness?
I don’t even know where to begin with that. Maimonides was the philosopher and re-interpreter par excellence, and stated clearly in the Guide that if Aristotle had proven the eternity of the world he would have re-interpreted Genesis allegorically in light of that. The whole project in the Guide was to show how our traditions could weather any perceived threat, how they were rich enough to be an ongoing source of wisdom and moral improvement. Truth was truth, and as he said in Shemona Perakim, we should hear the truth from whosoever is blessed enough to speak it.
More generally, the medieval philosophers were excited by, well, philosophy. They believed in Truth, that it was the hallmark and stamp of the Jewish God – as the Talmud states in Shabbat – and that the idea of incompatibility between Truth and Religion was a confusion. Truth brings us closer to God, it’s part of the difficult and challenging journey that it is required of anyone who wishes to engage with the Divine. One may – following the Ra’avad in his critique of Maimonides- choose not to go down this path, but please do not pretend that such a person is taking the only Jewishly or intellectually defensible path.
Proposing that Torah and historical truth or philosophical truth are incompatible is not a statement of faith, it is a statement of faithlessness, and a surrender to the dangers of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
And it’s not just about philosophy. Bertrand Russell used to ask Ludwig Wittgenstein as he was agitatedly pacing his rooms “Are you thinking about Logic or your sins?”. Wittgenstein replied angrily “Both!”. The idea that we can be better people, that we can act with more clarity, more compassion, more integrity without welcoming the power of truth into the inner sanctum of our personalities is a non-starter. Whatever Freud may have got wrong, he saw clearly that truthful reflection and self understanding was the only path to overcoming the demons which threatened to destroy our personalities and our lives. And so did Rav Nachman, and the Kotzker, and Reb Yisrael Salanter and Rav Dessler. Not to mention the Rambam, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva.
Again, come to Limmud. Or don’t. Perhaps you do not fancy it. Well that’s fair enough, Limmud doesn’t proselytize, it doesn’t harangue people into coming. And, thanks to Dayan Ehrentrau and Rabbi Kimche, it doesn’t need to spend much on advertising either. But if you don’t come, if you don’t want to come, please don’t issue proclamations about what it is, about its dangers, about the destruction some of its most valued and well-loved teachers have brought upon the world. You do yourself a disservice, and you bring much more discord and pain upon Am Yisrael than is appropriate at this moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine wool is only precious to its wearer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:

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

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

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

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

Men on Women – Destructive, Hysterical, Dangerous Berakhot 51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teaching continues:

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

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

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

Does this make it better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Make God – Rosh Hashana 5753 – Berakhot 44 & 45

We are discussing Zimun today, the communal form of Grace after Meals, and the Talmud wishes to know the source for this practice.  It finds two complementary sources, and, for a change, sees no reason to choose one over the other:

“Make God great with me, and we will exalt his name together.” (Ps.34:4)

“When I call in the name of the Lord, let us give greatness to our God” (Deut. 32:3)

The words are so commonplace to us – particularly if I’d quoted the Hebrew – that we rarely stop to think about what a strange concept they express:  the idea that man (and woman) should be able to add to God’s greatness, to somehow make him bigger, more awe inspiring.  This might be particularly on our minds as we go into Rosh Hashana, the days on which we are charged with establishing and restoring God’s Greatness and Kingship.

Surely God is self-sufficient, beyond our help?  We might recognise or discover his greatness, that would make sense.  But to create that greatness, to take part in the magnification of His Being, surely that is outrageous, anthropocentric audacity gone mad?

In a word, no.  There is a sense in which one aspect of God, is unmoved, untouched, unaffected by anything we might do, say or think.  But that is perhaps not the aspect we are genuinely interested in.

The aspect of God which plays a part in our lives, the ways in which He might move and affect us, is very much given to the hands of mankind.  He, in a sense, is entirely at our mercy.

‘God’ is a word, the meaning and significance we give to it, the way we flesh out the concept, this is largely up to us, it is a function of our thoughts and reflections.

It is possible that ‘God’ stays small, that it remains the trivial Heavenly Bearded One that we learnt about as children, the scorekeeper of our moral activities, the One who issues us with strange and incomprehensible commandments.  The ‘God’ of 5 year olds is great, if you are 5 years old.

But as we grow up, ‘God’ needs to grow with us, it needs to becomes something more profound, something more connected with our powerful intuitions about what is meaningful and significant in life, with Truth, Justice, Love and Compassion.  This ‘God’ acts in our lives, there is a deep level in which it shapes our thoughts and actions, in which it can radically change the course of history.  To imagine the world differently is to live by a vision, and this vision is powered and fuelled by our sense of what is right and beautiful, by the greatest possibilities we dare to foresee in the world.

This is an aspect of a more grown up ‘God’, and it is this aspect which depends on us for Its greatness.  This happens in two ways.  It requires the full powers of our intellect, of our creativity and imagination, to fathom and perceive the possibilities that ‘God’ represents.  Every unique situation demands fresh effort as we feel our way to a sense of the just and compassionate way to respond and to act, to the ‘God-worthy’ course of action.

In a world that is sometimes cynical, that seems to want to surrender to a fateful economic or genetic determinism, that certainly gives us plenty of reason to be pessimistic, it is hard to keep faith that things could actually be different, that mankind, with the help of God, might shape a more perfect world.  It takes all of our will to resist this and all of our memory to cling to that glimpse of an improved world we once knew.

Once we can see this greater possibility for ‘God’, The other sense in which we make God larger, greater, more magnified, is through the space we allow these considerations in our lives, through the emotional and intellectual import we ascribe to them.

This is a constant struggle, the whole corpus of our ritual and practice attempts to help us with this.  But there are a few days a year which we set aside especially for them, and they are about to begin.

On Rosh Hashana, as we begin the new year, we dedicate two days to making God great, to considering Him as our King, as the most powerful force in our lives, as something worthy of our awe and respect.  We work to limit our arrogance, our omnipotence, our narcissistic ego and to embrace a spirit of openness and otherness, and to re-connect with an idealism that we all too easily lose.

It really is in our hands, God will always be there, but ‘God’ is forever in danger of becoming empty, lifeless or simply ignored and forgotten.  If we cannot lift our eyes and see something better, if we are too busy or exhausted to make the effort, too hurt or broken to try once more, then ‘God’ really will wither and die.  Nietzsche will be right, it will be us who will have killed Him, it is our hands that will be bloodied by His demise.

It seems paradoxically apposite to go into Rosh Hashana with the words of Nietzsche, with his prophecy as to what happens when we fail to make ‘God’ great, to keep ‘God’ alive:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!

How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? (The Gay Science 125)

Judaism, and all ‘good religion’, is alert to the possibility that we talk about ‘God’ but fail to keep God alive, that our spirits and imaginations become deadened to Its call.  For that reason we install two days a year to resurrecting His Reign, to magnifying his Memory, to enlarging his Greatness.

When we pray for life rather than death, we are praying for the life of ‘God’ as much for our own lives, we are becoming conscious of the sense in which neither can live without the other, of the ways that they nourish, fuel and sustain each other.

May our prayers be fluent in our mouths, may they rise to the awesome and lofty tasks before us, and may they be effective in sculpting space for God in our lives, in restoring ‘God’ to the life and place worthy of it.  May our year be full and blessed, may our lives be touched and lifted by the Grace of a freshly restored ‘God’.

Democracy and Halakha: Uneasy bedfellows?? Berakhot 37 and 38

In another example of the fractious relations amongst the early Tannaim, we find Rabbi Akiva getting himself into trouble today, over the correct bracha to say after eating dates:

Once R. Gamaliel and the elders were reclining in an upper chamber in Jericho, and dates  were brought in and they ate, and R. Gamaliel gave permission to R. Akiva to say grace. R. Akiva said quickly the one blessing which includes three [as opposed to the full Grace after Meals, which would have been Rabban Gamliel’s prescription].

Said R. Gamaliel to him: Akiva, how long will you poke your head into quarrels?

He replied: Master, although you say this way and your colleagues say the other way, you have taught us, master, that where an individual joins issue with the majority, the halakha is determined by the majority.

The halakha is determined by the majority.  This is an important principle, not least because it seems to suggest that there is a democratic core in the foundations of halakhic development.

This sounds very promising, we cherish democracy as one of our highest values.  It very much accords with our sensibility to imagine that the halakha shares these values.

But is it really that straightforward?  The halakha is supposed to represent some sort of higher, Divine authority; how can that be squared with a democratic mindset wherein the will of the people, of the sometimes deeply uneducated masses, is the ultimate voice?

It’s a tricky one.

There are problems with democracy, and we would do well not to fall into what Raymond Geuss in History and Illusion in Politics calls the ‘narcissistically adulatory self-description’ (p123) that democracies are vulnerable to.  The mere utterance of the word ‘democratic’ is sometimes thought to sway an argument, and we should not be susceptible to such superficial thinking.  If democracy is great, we need to know why: what is it about the system that makes it so desirable?

The oft cited problem with democracy is that it appears to place all opinions on an equal footing.  Experts are given the same vote as the simple minded, the virtuous are given the same vote as the rogue.  It seems to lack any moral or pragmatic guiding principle; it seems to grant self-determination and self expression domineering priority over what might be right and just.

But no sooner do we state the problem in these terms than we quickly realise that this objection itself raises some thorny problems.  On occasion it might be easy to say who is the expert and who the fool, who the saint and who the sinner.  But can we really be sure to always detect these things, and to be right about them?  And who are the ‘we’ that is doing this detecting?  Haven’t we slipped in, via the backdoor,  some kind of ‘reliable ruling body’ who will take it upon themselves to ensure that the good is always fairly and justly selected?

There is no way around this, we might like to think that some of the time we can easily call upon the experts, but there is no surefire way to ensure that their expertise, their knowledge, does not become a form of oppressive tyranny.

No, we soon arrive at the ultimate defence of democracy, at the sense in which, for all its flaws, it is better than the alternatives.  In a democracy, the will of the people emerges, the truth of their desire becomes manifest.

To watch a democracy unfold is to watch a society organically grow, to see a culture find its roots, to see a people find themselves through the values and aspirations they endorse.

Democracy, as John Dewey point out, embodies the spirit of experimentation, it allows a community to work things out for itself, even if that means sometimes getting things wrong.

We may still find ourselves bothered by the idea that the masses sometimes get whipped up into hysteria, that they may succumb to the temptations of evil, that they may elect a Hitler.  Why are these risks worth taking?  Why should we have so much faith in humanity?

Why indeed.

It is never easy to say why having faith in humanity is a good idea, but we should be clear that when we endorse democracy, especially its liberal varieties, that we are doing precisely that.  We are expressing faith in the ultimate goodness and wisdom of the people, we are saying that no one is better equipped to establish a just and good society than they are.

To value democracy is to make a huge leap of faith.

And, talking slightly differently, it is not just the people that we are expressing faith in, it is goodness itself.  We are saying that the good can only remain hidden and oppressed for so long, that the reign of darkness and indifference must ultimately exhaust itself and burn out.

Getting slightly Hegelian, we are saying that history is a grand narrative from which truth and beauty gradually emerge, that the world of brute actuality actually, over time,  discloses the ideals which were ultimately always driving it.

Democracy should never bore us, it should always be fascinating.  Human nature and human needs are always being re-imagined and reconsidered, and the democratic polity is the stage upon which this drama is played out.

Returning to our Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, as we know, is the aristocratic who dares to think he knows better than the people.  He thinks they should spend more time praying in the evening and he believes they should more regularly enact the longer form of grace after meals.  There may be some truth to his opinions: in an ideal world, if we were men and women of leisure, these would doubtless be excellent recommendations.

But we do not yet inhabit that Messianic ideal, we are not as free from the worries of the world as we might like to be, and we must with difficulty and regret tailor a more limited framework for our spiritual sustenance.

As a visionary, Rabban Gamliel may have a lot to teach us.  As a legislator, however,  his noble intentions threaten to become tyrannical.  Removed from the soil of the people, from the hierarchy of priorities which they actually can and do endorse, his prescriptions lose sight of that balanced golden mean, they become a source of unnecessary guilt and oppression.

This is all very well, but are we really saying that the Divine will, the Halakha, is expressed and articulated through the will of the people, that God is somehow bound by democracy?

In a word, yes.

As the heavenly voice famously says in closing the story of the Oven of Akhnai, (Bava Metzia 59b), ‘Nitzchuni Banai’, ‘My sons have defeated Me’.  God himself does not have the final word in halakha, the people do.

Everything we said above about democracy should help us to better understand this, we essentially portrayed democracy as a form of ongoing revelation, an everyday continuation of the events that transpired in the Exodus from Egypt and which culminated at Sinai.  In Avot 6:2 we have the idea that a heavenly voice continues to speak forth every day from Sinai; perhaps it is in democracy that it is nowadays making itself heard.

Again, it will stumble and fall, there will be mistakes.  But, importantly, we have faith that it will get there, that something Divine and Beautiful will ultimately be revealed.

Rabbi Akiva was right to ‘stick his head into quarrels’, the humble shepherd was right to challenge the Prince.  In doing so he was reminding us that there is something delicate and alive in the unfolding of halakha, that for the Divine to be truly realised in this world, the voice of the majority must be given its due heed.

This is not to say that we must take the results of democracy uncritically: we must be constantly weighing them up against what we already know of the good and the true, we must be trying to educate and influence from that which moves and inspires us.  But the book of knowledge can never be closed, the written Torah can never prosper without its living, unfolding, oral counterpart.  We may be required to teach, but we must also retain the humility to learn.  As Ben Zoma points out, to be wise is to learn from every man, not just from the experts (Avot 4:1).

May the democratic impulse in halakha act to strengthen our faith in humanity, and may it also help us retain humility in our quest for knowledge, to remind us that truth is always emerging, that it is never just there for the taking.

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.