Monday, March 14, 2005

Berachos 12-14

Before moving ahead I have some unfinished business with Berachos 11a, where it is related that R'Tarfon was on the road when it came time to recite the evening Shema and he lay down (per Beis Shammai), acknowledging later that "I thereby endangered myself because of the bandits who might have attacked me as I lay there!"
The Sages said to him: It would indeed have been fitting for you to have come to harm. For by deliberately lying down for the Shema, you transgressed upon the words of Beis Hillel! We thus see that one who follows Beis Shammai in this matter is deserving of death.
This passage has been gnawing at me since I read it last Friday. What happened to the notion that both these and those are the words of the one true God? This dismissal of Shammai's followers as "deserving of death" must surely be restricted to the specific case of those who put themselves in danger to observe a stringent interpretation of the law when a lenient one is available. Am I forcing this text to be more wise than it actually is?

It is not a problem restricted to the one passage. A similar caution is echoed on 14b where Rav recites the Shema before donning tefillin. The gemara explains that he does this because his servant is late delivering the tefillin, but goes on to cite Ulla, who said, "Regarding anyone who performs the recital of the Shema without wearing tefillin, it is as if he utters false testimony upon himself."

In talking with Mike about these last few folios, I had to listen to him ask over and over, why would God care how we stand and the order with which we say the words? Why would God care what we wear? Why would God be interested in our prayers at all? These are impossible questions and they force me to acknowledge the strangeness of the text. The prayers are for the peace of mind of the petitioner, and the discipline to frame them in a manner that would please the rabbis is part of a pre-modern therapy for alleviating distress.

Such postmodern drashes will surely not satisfy most modern readers. Even for me, they serve only as a possible explanation for the role the text may have played at one time in the communities that studied it, but it is not a justification for following it in the present.

These folios contain much of the explanation for the order of the prayers that follow the Shema in the sense that they explain the order of a traditional service, but they provide no more than an exegetical attempt to justify a construction that is clearly a rabbinic invention to fill the void created by the destruction of the Second Temple.

Is there also ambivalence behind such questions as those on 13 and 14 as to whether one must be focussing on the recitation or one may permit one's mind to wander; whether the recitation must be in Hebrew or it may be recited in any language; whether there are moments during the recitation when one may pause to greet one's friend or teacher and/or inquire about their health?

Consider this teaching from 13b:

Rav Nachman said to his servant Daru: If you see me dozing off while reciting the first verse of the Shema, discomfort me so that I become totally conscious and alert. For more than that (i.e. for the rest of the Shema) do not discomfort me.

These sorts of things conjure up an image of a synagogue very much like the one down the street-- full of grumpy, distracted, and rumpled souls who may at any moment doze off or interrupt their prayers to gossip with their neighbor. Not everything that stands the test of time is noble; even the mundane has a crack at immortality!

7 Comments:

Anonymous Tree said...

When we say "these and those are the words of the one true One" it is our understanding that we are to keep in our mind the paradox of difference. We are encouraged to honor our own particularity even as we acknowledge that the other has a legitimate (if disagreeable) view.

But perhaps we've got it all wrong! Knowing that "history is written by the winners" perhaps the text we have here -- the Talmud -- being written by the winning rabbis -- has included the "these and those" statements to soften the blow of defeat for Beit Shammai.

Is Beit Hillel being patronizing to Beit Shammai with the "these and those" comments or is our modern hermeneutic (encouarging us to embrace the paradox of disagreement) valid?

And if our modern approach is valid and legitimate what do we do when we encounter those who assert that our view is plain wrong and despite our intention to accept "them" they decide that it is valid and legitimate to kill us?

9:19 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

This is very difficult material but I think it is a leap to go from "deserving of death" to "they want to kill us". And it is especially difficult to get a handle on how an ancient scholar may have intended phrases such as "deserving of death" and "he utters false testimony upon himself."

If there was only the former ("deserving of death"), I could assume that the leniency to stand when reciting the Shema is especially enacted to protect he who is reciting. If that is the case, then it could be argued that one who eschews a safety net deserves what they get.

But I can't ignore the later reference to tefillin, and I can't explain it either. However, I don't mean to suggest that the reference is baffling: all I'm saying is that my knowledge of tefillin is not sufficient for me to comprehend why Rav was separated from his tefillin and what the stakes were for him in postponing his prayer versus praying without them.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tension between allowing free thought and not tolerating free practice is all over the place. Once the vote has been taken in the Sanhedrin, everybody has to do as they say. No matter if R. Yehoshua thinks Yom Kippur is on a different day, but Raban Gamliel II forces him to publicly desecrate it. The temple has been destroyed, so there's no automatic central authority. Gamliel is determined not to let Judaism fragment into a zillion competing variants and sects (which was beginning to happen), so he ruthlessly punishes anybody who refuses to go along with the majority. He even excommunicated his own brother in-law because he refused to accept a majority ruling in a trivial matter. So...Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are both the words of the living God, but the Sanhedrin has voted to follow Hillel for now and anybody who dissents risks plunging the entire operation into chaos. Gamliel was an SOB, but he held it together at a crucial time. [Guffa: "For now" -- they assert somewhere that after the Messiah comes, we will follow Shammai]

Why God prefers a particular posture for prayer is subordinate to the topic as to whether God is interested in our prayers at all, as Mike asks. If you think God's interested in your saying prayers, it's not such a stretch to think God's interested in how you say them. Your key paragraph...

The prayers are for the peace of mind of the petitioner, and the discipline to frame them in a manner that would please the rabbis is part of a pre-modern therapy for alleviating distress.

..would not get a sympathetic hearing from them. They would respond -- "This prayer thing: It's not about you."

Your Friendly Reed Chopper

4:34 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

I don’t have any illusions that Gamliel would welcome me to the table, but think of the midrash that has Moses visiting Akiva’s class and not understanding a word of it but being told that Akiva is only teaching what Moses received at Sinai. Then put Gamliel in my classroom and watch the fun unfold!

I’m sure you know that there are two interpretations of the Moses story, but since I publish these remarks for others to read, too, I’ll put them out here: (1) Moses is reassured that his teaching took on a life of its own or (2) Moses hadn’t understood all that Akiva taught because his time travel to Akiva’s class preceded his receiving of the Torah at Sinai. I prefer (1) but most traditional readers would vote for (2).

Likewise, when one asks why one prays, there is more than one possible answer.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

. . . put Gamliel in my classroom and watch the fun unfold!

Maybe the fantasy is to put MOSES in your classroom and see his reaction.

I’m sure you know that there are two interpretations of the Moses story . . .

I agree that the plain meaning is (1). The entire setup is so funny and dreamscape-y. Maybe it's also a friendly dig at Akiva'a off-the-wall methods.

Likewise, when one asks why one prays, there is more than one possible answer.

For sure. But I don't think the Rabbis in the Talmud would have been happy to have "it's therapeutic" as one of the answers. Strangely, earlier scriptural stuff would have been more sympathetic: "It is good to give thanks unto the Lord" etc. I'm not saying that they didn't enjoy davening, just that they would not have given that as the reason to do it.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous mike said...

The point of view of people who are psychologically ready and willing to accept orthodoxy (note the small o since I am far from limiting this to Jews) is that uniformity of practice (and hopefully even of belief) is necessary to “keep the community from fracturing”. It is this that I reject. Some commonality is necessary, but as the National Havurah Institute shows, there can be a lot of difference in the details of individual practice, and still produce a strong, ongoing community. It is this distinction that in part explains why I distinguish sharply between a God who wants his creations to adopt the personal psychology that leads to prayer, and a God who cares about the details of how one performs that prayer. In a real sense this is the same battle between the relative merits and staying power of authoritarianism and democracy that has been at the center of political debate for the last 250 years or so. Perhaps I should say, it was an ancient battle even then, pitting the Athenians against the Spartans, the Greeks against the Romans, and most notably the Jews against the Egyptians. Maybe, just maybe, Moses didn’t recognize Akiba’s authoritarian brand of Judaism because Moses was on my side of this argument.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even Gamliel II would mostly agree with you. He wasn't a champion of hierarchical authority -- after all, it was his court (as represented by R'Joshua) who told the heavenly voice to butt out in the famous story. It's just that immediately after the destruction of the temple things were beginning to break apart and it looked like the end of the enterprise. Gamliel and his associates had to re-invent Judaism and somehow get from a Priest and Alter religion to a Shul and Shochel religion. It was the extraordinary situation that made him so ruthless in holding it together. But what's their excuse today?

11:08 PM  

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