Saturday, April 09, 2005

You Say You Want A Revolution

The March 31 entry provoked a dialog that is far from over. I will summarize it here, but the full posts remain available, too.

Reed Chopper wrote, “It's easy to write Gamliel II off as a tyranical jerk . . . The true picture imho is more complex. . . . 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.”

Mike responded, “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.”

To which Reed Chopper replied, “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.”

This is rich stuff. Yes, the rabbis were reinventing Judaism, so they certainly can’t be called “conservative” in that context, but these rabbis were also building a fence around the Torah at the same time that other groups (including the Jews who eventually became known as Christians) were building new gates to it. Gamliel may have showed up at the study hall to hear R’Elazar’s lectures, but he wasn’t about to go study with Saul of Tarsus! Students of Talmud should be encouraged to read the “competition” and discuss it with the same fierce energy that the rabbis debated among themselves. The problem with an insular reading is it leads to the phenomenon described by Daniel Boyarin re Zionism as an “attempt to reduce real threats to Jews and Jewishness by concretizing in the present what has been a utopian symbol for the future.” He goes on, “Diasporized identities seem threatened ones, and one of the responses to such threats is separatism, an attempt at a social structure that re-aggregates the disaggregated, re-integrates the non-integral, by closing off the borders, by indeed attempting to prevent mixing, whether biological or cultural.” His conclusion leaves one foot in the tradition and one foot poised over the abyss: “I do not, and could not, given my hermeneutic theories, argue that it is a wrong reading or that there is a right reading that can be countered to it. I do argue, however, that it is not the only reading.”

In that spirit, it is possible to value both the vision and insularity of Gamliel; to appreciate his fearless contribution to reinvent the purpose of the Torah and also to criticize his insistence that the reinvention be frozen in his moment. As Mike never tires of reminding me, many revolutionaries have been reactionary once they assumed power.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Berachos 35-36

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Chapter Six (35a) begins with a new question: “In what manner does one recite the blessing on fruits?” From this question, it is a brief transition to R’Akiva teaching that “It is forbidden for a person to taste anything before he recites a blessing.” The rabbis search for a Scriptural foundation for Akiva’s teaching, but their search is (pardon the pun) fruitless. They conclude, “This requirement is based on reason.” And, personally, I am relieved, because I don’t need a proof for a teaching that is simple common sense: I want to feel the blessing of every thing and every person that I encounter.

We are told that “whoever derives benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing has committed an act of me’illah” (unauthorized use of Temple property) and (even more grave) “is regarded as if he robs the Holy One, Blessed is He . . .” Passages like this often prompt Mike to ask why God would care. I tend to think of this sort of homily as externalizing our own need to be conscious of the benefits we derive as the day unfolds. On the other hand, I don’t know what to make of the suggestion on 36a that intent to use a substance as a remedy rather than for pleasure does not need a blessing. Which leads me to . . .

Fear and Loathing
We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. After West Point and the Priesthood, LSD must have seemed entirely logical to him.
. . . What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create . . . a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force-- is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
---Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, pp 178-179.

The Levim “do not utter song except over wine”(35a) and the Gemara asks, “Now, if we indeed understand that wine gladdens men, in what way does it gladden God?” Well, surely not in the way that Timothy Leary was suggesting back in the sixties, but red wine, with its resemblance to blood and the power it has, the seeming infusion of life force that it provides, is responsible for a level of awe that is not dissimilar to that afforded LSD for a brief moment until that culture realized that there was no “force . . . tending that Light at the end of the tunnel” and turned to desensitizing downers that robbed rather than infused the life force. A 2ist Century reading of the ancient text must occasionally reflect on what has unfolded since the ancient text was committed to paper and add these words, too.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Berachos 30-34

I Say A Little Prayer for You

Chapter Five of Tractate Berachos is concerned with how one should approach prayer. It opens with a Mishnah (30b) that prescribes an attitude of reverence, suggesting that even a question from a king should not deter one from completing his prayer and “even if a snake is coiled about his heel, he should not interrupt.” However, this is later qualified in Gemara on 30b, where it is clearly taught that one should never place his life at risk by ignoring the attention of an idolatrous king, and on 33a, where it says that “Even if the head of a bull is buried in its feeding basket, go up to the roof and remove the ladder from under you.” The snake is unlikely to strike if you continue to pray quietly but the bull can’t be trusted for a minute!

The text on levity that I cited in a previous post is also in this section, which teaches that we must temper “gaiety with seriousness”; that “in a place where there is rejoicing, there should also be trepidation” (30b). Unbridled hilarity would be an inappropriate stance for anyone who is mindful of the shortcomings of this world and believes they have any power to improve it. Rabbah may have appeared to be excessively cheerful, but he wore his tefillin (30b4). ArtScroll fn 15 says in part, “Some commentators explain that the very act of wearing tefillin has a sobering effect upon the individual.

I Hear the Sound of Breaking Glass

Ravina smashed a precious plate to sadden a wedding party for his own son (31a) but we follow the custom of smashing a cheaper glass as Rav Ashi did at the wedding of his son. The Gemara doesn’t say so explicitly, but by placing these stories together, with Rav Ashi’s last, it is perhaps suggesting that only the act of smashing and not the value of the object is the trigger for reminding us to remain grounded. The text does suggest that the destruction of the Temple is a cause for mourning, but so is the fact that all the nations of the world do not kneel to our God.

I Hear You Knocking

Isaiah 1:11 caps a dispute on whether prayer is more effective than good deeds or sacrifices: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifies? And when you spread your hands in prayer I will hide from you.” Prayer per se does not make a difference: in the absence of an intimate relationship with God, a petitionary prayer is a cold thing. On 32b we are encouraged to feel deeply: “R’Elazar said: From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the heavenly gates of prayer were locked and our prayers are not answered as readily as before, as it is stated: Though I would cry out and plead, He shut out my prayer [Lamentations 3:8]. But even though the gates of prayer have been locked, the gates of tears have not been locked . . .

R’Chanina ben Dosa appears on folios 33 and 34, providing a clear role model for praying. On 33a he confronts a snake that would harm people and places himself in the snake’s path. When the snake bites him, it is the snake who dies (Woe to the man who is met by a snake but woe to the snake that is met by R’Chanina Ben Dosa!). ArtScroll fn 14 explains, “there are certain people . . . who attain such a level of righteousness and closeness to God that they are no longer subject to the natural law.” This is, no doubt, not intended literally.

However, R’Chanina’s sense of awareness is both simple and extraordinary at the same time: “They said about R’Chanina ben Dosa that he would pray for the sick and would then say: ‘This one will live and this one will die.’ Whereupon they said to him: ‘How do you know?’ He answered them: ‘If my prayer is fluent in my mouth then I know that it has been well received and the sick person will recover. But if it is not then I know that my prayer has been rejected.” (34b). The legend is offered that when he completed a prayer for the health of Rabban Gamliel’s son, who was some distance away, he said with certainty that his fever had lifted and it was later “verified” that the fever had indeed lifted at the exact moment when R’Chanina completed his prayer.

These tales prove nothing, but we would be diminished if we did not keep them.

Who Actually Believes this Stuff?

One of my high school English teachers once had the class spellbound as he told us of the time he went trout fishng with Ernest Hemingway. After he had gone on for about ten minutes, he laughed and said, “And you boys believe me!” Evidentally, he had fabricated the entire tale and I was puzzled for some time as to why he would do such a thing. And while I still suspect that he was a slightly crazy old coot, he did teach (perhaps deliberately) the power of a good story to become so deeply embedded that it is never forgotten.

Many such stories are preserved in our Talmud, and the comments on earlier posts to this blog debated what is signified by an aggadic “proof.” In this section, ArtScroll addresses this question: [Quoting Rashba’s Peirushei Aggados] “There are those who err and think that the Sages of blessed memory actually believed the meanings they assigned to the verses contained in their Aggadic teachings . . . to be the verses’ true meanings . . . Their intention was merely to use the words as allusions and prompts to the concept . . .” ArtScroll concludes “. . . the interpretations are merely rhetorical devices to promote recall of important and noble ideas.” (33b fn 27).

There are, however, commentators who believe that there is more here than mere rhetoric: “Maharal . . . maintains that while the primary meaning of the verses cited in Gemara such as ours is certainly the verses’ plain meaning, the verses also contain oddities in word choice and syntax to allude, on a secondary level, to the interpretation expounded by the Sages.” This reading suggests that the verse may not “prove” but it would “inspire,” and that the stories come to meet the verse in a deep place that is perhaps even ordained, making authorship secondary to the truth of the teaching, or making authorship a conduit for a primordial or divine communication. I’m getting balled up in words here, trying to communicate a sense that is beyond my language. I need a parable of my own devising to illustrate rather than explain it. I don’t have one.