The other week I found myself reading the obituaries section of the Jewish Chronicle – insert opinion of said paper at this point – and couldn’t help but notice the strange incongruence of the two people being written about. On top was Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a prominent Haredi rabbi in Israel. Underneath him was Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, a hip hop band that came out of New York in the 80s – no surprise – made up of white Jewish kids who had attended MTA – pretty suprising.
Sober, monastic Rabbi – outgoing colourful Hip Hop star. Can we imagine a greater contrast? Rabbis aren’t into partying, are they?
Maybe not so much nowadays. But I’ve noticed in the Talmud that there seems to be quite a lot of it going on, and no one seems to be making much attempt to cover it up.
Going back to the very first Mishna – the text in which the Oral Law begins to be written down, the moment wherein Rabbinic Judaism is born – and we find nothing less than Rabban Gamliel’s sons returning from a ‘house of drinking’. Some seem to translate it as a ‘wedding feast’, I’m not sure why, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that it must have been quite a party. When they asked their father if they could still say the Shema, his response was:
If the dawn has not yet broken, you are obligated to recite it.
If the dawn has not yet broken! This was a late one indeed! Oh to be young again, partying til the break of dawn!
Is it irreverent that I’m reminded of Jim Morrison’s words ‘No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn’? It seems that Rabban Gamliel’s sons didn’t intend to waste the dawn, they were going to get on with it and say Keriat Shema, so long as their father would allow them.
What does all of this mean? We begin the Talmud with a discussion of the Shema, whose themes of love, memory and Divine intimacy I’ve expounded at length in recent days. Then, in the first story we choose to tell, we put it in the context of some young Rabbinic aristocrats who like to party. Forgive me for insisting that there’s a message here, but either deliberately or unconsciously, this mishna reveals something about the early Rabbinic attitude towards life.
What we are seeing here is the complete continuity and includedness of all of the emotions we might experience in life. We have moments of quiet reflection, periods whose stillness and seriousness give us a glimpse of a shadow of the Divine. And then there are boisterous moments, loud and colourful and exuberant moments, wherein our spirits soar, our self consciousness wanes and something of our earnest piety simply fades away.
It’s not that we (necessarily) embark on a rampage of illicit and deviant behaviour, it’s simply that we’re no longer in such close contact with the part of the soul that lives and feels in that way. We’re in a different world, a different rhythm and dynamic is enlivening us, fresh and alluring possibilities seem to be opening up in front of us.
There’s something suspicious about people who don’t know how to party. I have a wise friend who once said that she didn’t trust anyone until she’d seen them drunk. What are people afraid of? What unknown parts of themselves do they not dare bring to the light of day?
Perhaps the Rabbis sensed that the greatest challenge to religion, to moral and spiritual development, is not heresy, nor is it even nihilism. Rather, it is simply high spirits, the good life, an easy happiness fuelled by alcohol, music, dance and whatever else might come into the mix.
And so, from the beginning, they grappled with this. What they’re saying in this story is : ‘What do we do about the youth of today, all they like doing is drinking and partying? How can we bridge these seeming incompatible modes of living?’
And the answer? Simple. There is no incompatibility. Rabban Gamliel says:
“You went to the party. Good. You had fun. Good. You burned it up until nearly dawn. Good. If it isn’t dawn yet, say the Shema – what did you think, that God isn’t interested in those who party? Do you think there is no connection, no compatibilty between your highest Joy and the love of your Creator, the love of life which manifests itself most fully in euphoric happiness?
Do you not see that you are perhaps never better qualified than now, when you hearts have been purified through the rigours of music and dancing to sing the praises of the Divine, to connect with and cleave to your highest ideals? Verily, young men, Jim Morrison was right, do not waste this dawn, in this very moment you may find your eternal reward, you may have had a taste of something sublime to which you might now give expression through the Shema.”
Amen to that Rabban Gamilel!
Here on page 9, we encounter another story of drunken Shema inquiries. A pair of Sages got drunk at the wedding of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s son and either fell asleep or were too drunk to say the Shema. Later on, they asked the Rabbi if they could still say the Shema. Again, his answer was ‘yes’. Without any hint of disapproval or rebuke, the answer is a simple ‘yes’. You performed a great mitzva by rejoicing at my son’s wedding, now you may perform another one by reciting the Shema. God is there for the broken hearted, but do not make the mistake of thinking that those are the only ones whom he holds dear.
In the Shema we remember, and it is a tremendous shame if we only engage with memory in difficult times, in sober times, at points in our lives when we are needy. Let us remember when we are happy, when we have partied, let us use the sunshine of those moments to shed light and colour on all that we might encounter in the deep rivers of memory.
Later on the Daf we encounter further support for this sentiment:
R. Ela said to ‘Ulla: When you go to Babylonia,give my greeting to my brother Rav Berona in the presence of the whole college, for he is a great man and rejoices to perform a mitzva properly. Once he succeeded in joining prayer and redemption, and a joyous smile did not leave his lips the whole day.
Joy can improve our prayer, and prayer can be redemptive and lead to joy. Rav Soloveitchik gives a profound analysis of this prayer/redemption connection in Prayer, Redemption and Talmud Torah. But I’m pretty sure Rav Berona wasn’t thinking any of that, he was simply overwhelmed with joy. In his wisdom he knew that that joy would only bring him closer to the Divine, that it was the perfect complement to a life of appreciation and thoughtfulness.