Thursday, March 31, 2005

Berachos 26b-29

The Origin of Prayer

Was prayer instituted by the Patriarchs or the men of the Great Assembly? On 26b R'Yose the son of R'Chanina takes the former position while R'Yehoshua ben Levi takes the latter position. Apparently, there are those among the rabbis who are comfortable acknowledging that prayers replace the sacrificial system after the destruction of the Temple and those who need to put its origin at the very dawn of the Jewish people.

Rabbinic uncertainty about this, about the limits of leadership, and about the threat of Christianity all seem to bubble up in these pages.

If It Ain't Broke That Don't Mean It's Fixed

Is there a fixed time for the evening prayer? Is the evening prayer even compulsory? R'Yehoshua says it is elective and Rabban Gamliel says it is compulsory. Without resolving the question, the Gemara moves on to provide a story about these two guys (27b):

A student asked R'Yehoshua whether the evening prayer is elective or compulsory and he replied that it is elective. The same student then asked Rabban Gamliel (the head of the academy) the same question and he replied that it is compulsory. (One has to wonder why the student couldn't simply accept the first answer rather than asking them both. Was he seeking to stir up trouble?)

Then the student said to Rabban Gamliel, "But R'Yehoshua told me it is elective!" Gamliel told the student to ask him (that is, Gamliel) again when everyone was in the study hall, which he did. And Gamliel repeated his answer and then raised the question, "Is there anyone who disputes this ruling?" (This guy is cruising for a bruisng!) R'Yehoshua says no (according to ArtScroll fn 24 "out of respect for Rabban Gamliel . . . and to preserve the public concord") and Rabban Gamliel orders him to stand and forces him to confess that he did indeed rule the prayer elective rather than compulsory.

Rabban Gamliel resumed teaching. He was sitting and teaching and he never told R'Yehoshua that he could sit, so he had to remain standing. The other students became indignant and interrupted the lesson. They recalled other incidents when Rabban Gamliel had distressed R'Yehoshua and they resolved to depose him (though ArtScroll fn 30 suggests "the initial outburst at Rabban Gamliel's actions appears to have come from the people who had come to hear the lecture, not from the Sages themselves"). Apparently, Rabban Gamliel had often dealt harshly with others, too.

The Sages consider replacements for Rabban Gamliel: (1) R'Yehoshua, but he was personally involved; (2) R'Akiva, but he was a descendant of proselytes; (3) R'Elazar ben Azaryah, who "is wise, and he is wealthy, and he is the tenth generation from Ezra." Of course, they pick (3). The appointment is a huge success: the study hall must be enlarged to accomodate all the students who want to study with R'Elazar ben Azaryah!

Like R'Yehoshua, R'Elazar ben Azaryah's rulings are more temperate and lenient than Rabban Gamliel. And Rabban Gamliel comes to realize that he was too harsh and he comes to repent before R'Yehoshua, and the Sages see this and they are moved to restore him to his previous position. And they have a dilemma: "How shall we do this? Shall we remove R'Elazar ben Azaryah completely from office? We cannot do that, for we have a tradition that in matters of sanctity we elevate but we do not lower." (28a). They resolve that Rabban Gamliel will lecture three weeks and R'Elazar ben Azaryah one week.

This inside look at the politics of the Academy adds food for thought to our discussion in the previous section on who gets to chose which halachah to observe. It suggests that, in the long run, a harsh teacher will not be followed.

The Perils of Blessing Heretics

On the one hand, R'Eliezer teaches "One who makes his prayer fixed, his prayer is not a genuine supplication" (28b). On the other hand, R'Zeira confesses, "I am able to innovate in my prayer, but I am afraid to do so lest I become confused" (29b). Betwixt the two we have Shmuel Hakatan, who establishes a "blessing" against the heretics and then forgets it! (28b). And even though it is taught (29a) that "If the prayer leader erred in any of the prayer blessings, we do not remove him; however, if he erred in the blessing of the heretics, we remove him because we suspect that perhaps he is a heretic," because Shmuel HaKatan himself established the blessing, "there was no reason to suspect that he himself was a sectarian."

Are these heretics who may seduce our rabbis perhaps the followers of Jesus, who were still considered a Jewish sect as these teachings developed? Is it Christianity that makes R'Zeira wary of innovating his prayer even as he is aware that a "fixed" prayer is dead?

Baruch Dayan Ha-emet

May His Memory Be For a BlessingWhenever Mel Schulman (pictured here) heard me speak of Talmud, he would come up to me afterwards and gently suggest that I should seek out a teacher. While I have been blessed to have many fine teachers, I think that Mel was suggesting in the kindest possible tone, that the lessons that I derived from these teachers were simply too unorthodox. May his memory be for a blessing and may I continue to hear him whisper in my ear to always have companions on this journey.


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

It's easy to write Gamliel II off as a tyranical jerk who humiliates R'Joshua and excommunicates R'Eliezer, his brother-in-law and generally throws his weight around in order to consolidate his own authority. The true picture imho is more complex. He is aristocratic and clueless -- for example he has little personal relationship with his scholars (e.g. he had no idea of R'Joshua's poverty), but his forceful leadership was not for his own aggrandisement. He just wanted to hold it together. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be here discussing what a jerk he was. When he was deposed, and Eleazar b. Azariah was elected, Gamliel showed up at the study hall to hear R' Eleazar's lectures.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Reed Chopper wrote with regard to Gamleil
He just wanted to hold it together. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be here discussing what a jerk he was.

My understanding of this claim is that it is one of the common justifications of (excuses for)unchanging Orthodoxy. It is akin to those who nowadays are convinced that if we don't insist on strict Orthodoxy, people will progress from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to secular to non-Jew. The problem with this apparent logic is that it just doesn't turn out to be true. People have different religious needs (in fact most, if not all, individuals have different needs over their lifetime). All the data clearly shows that people move back and forth. Some become more Orthodox, some less.

In my view, what really held it together and got us here was that they had a procedure to depose tyrannical jerks and substitute people who could evolve and grow with the times. If they hadn't had such a procedure, after a while Gamliel would have been preaching to fewer and fewer people and then there would really have been a problem. Of course, human needs being what they are, they probably would have invented something one might call Reform rabbinics, unless of course one believes as I do that that is exactly what second century Christianity was.

It is interesting to consider the analogy between Gamliel and Pope John Paul. John Paul too insisted on stringent rules, but at least in the developed world people seem to be voting with their feet against those rules (going to church less, using contraceptives, not to mention the unwillingness to become a priest, and the even greater unwillingness to become a nun). As Thomas Cahill said in this morning's Times "He (John Paul) may in time be credited with destroying his church." In my view if Gamliel had stayed in power he might in time have earned the same distinction.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Mike makes the reasonable assumption that since he was an autocratic jerk, Gamliel must have also been a conservative -- since most autocratic jerks are. But Gamliel wasn't a conservative. On the contrary, he was a revolutionary who finally took all real power away from the hereditary office of the priesthood, and established a meritocracy to replace it, more or less. He and his colleagues in Yavneh reinvented what Judaism was.

We're not talking about some guy who wants things to continue forever the way they have been and opposes changes and reforms. So "holding it together" has a different meaning here, and the analogy is not apt.

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