Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Go to Shul? Why Stay There? (Berakhot 5b-6a)

What is the magic to enticing people to come to synagogue? Is it entertaining worship? Fabulous music? Gourmet food? Intellectually stimulating drashot? In all these questions, two elements are strikingly missing: God and the community.

The Rabbis faced the same issue from this angle: what in fact does it mean to be in shul? We find an answer in the Bavli (masechet Berakhot 5b-6a) that is strikingly different from discussions overheard in savvy Jewish circles these days.

Abba Binyamin begins with the simplest case scenario: two Jews enter a synagogue to pray and one finishes before the other. What happens?

It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says, When two people enter [a synagogue] to pray, and one of them finishes his prayer first and does not wait for the other but leaves, his prayer is torn up before his face. For it is written: You who tear yourself to pieces in anger, will earth’s order be disrupted for your sake? (Job 18:4)

Abba Binyamin asserts that the prayers of the person who left before his companion was finished praying are “torn up,” that is rejected by God. The proof text verse from Job comes from the mouth of Bildad the Shuhite. Bildad responds caustically to Job’s physical pain and spiritual anxiety. He has run out of patience and displaces his anger onto Job: “You who tear yourself to pieces in anger, will earth’s order be disrupted for your sake? Will rocks be dislodged from their place?” Bildad is sick and tired of trying to comfort Job, sick and tired of hearing his tale of travail, sick and tired of waiting for his friend to snap out of his funk.

So too the one who doesn’t wait for his fellow to finish praying. He came to say his prayers for his own sake without regard to the other human being in close proximity. He didn’t care that his presence meant something to the other person. He didn’t feel in any way responsible for the other person. He had no sense of responsibility or connection to the other person. And so Abba Binyamin continues:

And more than that, he causes the Divine Presence to remove itself from Israel. For it says, Will the rocks be dislodged from their place? (Job 18:4) And 'rock' is nothing other than the Holy One, blessed be God, as it says: You neglected the Rock that begot you, [forgot the God who brought you forth] (Deuteronomy 32:18).

This is powerful stuff with far-reaching implications: When we behave in this selfish its-all-about-me way, we erode any sense of community. Community is built when people consider not only the needs of others, but realize that they are assets in the lives of others. It matters to the second person that the first person stays to keep him company while he davens (prays). The Shechinah (the Divine Presence of God in this world) craves community and seeks community and abides in community. So the actions of the first person matter for not only the second person, but for the larger community.

But Abba Binyamin is saying even more. Note his use of Deuteronomy 32:18 (only the first half is quoted in the gemara, but I’ve given you the second half so the meaning and application of the verse will be clear). When you abandon your companion in shul, it’s like abandoning God. God cares about our relationships because God is party to our relationships. The divine spark in each of us participates in the relationships we develop with one another, which is why they can become so meaningful and important. If abandoning your friend in shul is like abandoning God, then nurturing your friendships also nurtures God.

People come to synagogue for a variety of reasons and from a Jewish perspective there are many legitimate reasons: for spiritual nourishment, for social needs, for intellectual stimulation, for good food, and for a sense of community. There’s an old joke that my chevruta partner told in his most recent posting. Here's another version: Schwartz and Cohen are leaving the synagogue midday on Shabbat afternoon. Shapiro encounters them and says, “Hey, Schwartz, what are you doing here? You told me last week you don’t believe in God. Did you come this morning to talk to God?” Schwartz replies, “Cohen came to talk to God. I came to talk to Cohen.” But notice this: Schwartz was there. He showed up. And he made a difference to Cohen, and apparently to Shapiro, as well.

Abba Binyamin does not merely tell us the downside. He explains the upside to creating community – even between two individuals:

And if he does wait, what is his reward? R. Yosi b. R. Chanina says: He is rewarded with the blessings enumerated in the following verse: If only you would heed My commands! Then your peace would be like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your offspring would be as many as the sand, their issue as many as its grains. [Their name would never be cut off or obliterated from before Me.] (Isaiah 48: 18, 19).

Abba Binyamin again uses a proof text that is pregnant with meaning. The simple act of waiting for another has redemptive potential. I’ve included the end of verse 19 (not included in the gemara) because I think it’s crucial. Our Rabbis presumed we would know it. Their name would never be cut off or obliterated from before Me. When we wait for our companion, when we nurture our relationships and create community, we strengthen our connection to God.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

GET THEE TO A SHUL (Berachot 8a)

There is an old joke about Jake, the socialist freethinker who rails against religion and the rabbinic establishment, but who is caught by his nephew attending Shabbat services. "Why," his nephew asks, "would you possibly be caught dead in that place after all the bad things you have told me about religion?" Jake explains to his nephew that his good friend Moshe the butcher, works hard all week long so they seldom have a chance to visit. Moshe is a very religious man and never misses a chance to go to shul to talk with God. "I go to shul," Jake explains, "to talk with Moshe."

There are lots of reasons why people attend shul; some more compelling than others. Not surprisingly the Talmud discusses communal prayer, going to the synagogue, early on; after all, there is no shul in the TaNAKH. Nowhere in Torah does one find a direct command to pray three times a day, or in a collective manner; the focus is entirely on the korbanot, the offerings brought to the Temple. The sages found allusions to the daily prayers in the actions of the patriarchs, but, honestly, they are forced readings -- clever, but not convincing.

While it might seem too stereotypic for a pulpit rabbi to discuss why one should go to shul, the comments offered in the Talmud lead to some surprising insights that make the discussion worth considering, even given the source.

In tractate Berachot, Blessings, one finds a rich collection of teachings about the value and the rationale for communal prayer. The most surprising to me is found at Berachot 8a:
Says the Holy Blessing One, Whoever busies themselves with Torah, acts of kindness, and prays with the community, I will consider it as if he redeemed Me and My children from among the nations of the world.

Over many years I have heard lots of reasons for attending services, and many more explanations of why people stay away. Jews, it seems, are very eager to tell rabbis of their complaints about synagogues and the multiple ways they may not meet their current needs. I do not ever recall, however, being told that I needed to go to shul to help redeem God. No one ever came up to me after services to ask, “Rabbi, do you think we really helped God get by today?” Yet this teaching suggests that we need to attend communal prayer for God’s sake more than for our own.

It seems so incongruous. We are frail and in need of support. God, we are taught, is all-powerful. We can be easily confused, not knowing which way to turn; while God is all-knowing. We need help to know how to get by, God wrote the owner’s manual. Unless, of course, we don’t fully understand who God is. Perhaps our partnership with God is more involved than we think.

Rabbi Bradley Shavitt Artson is teaching about Process Theology these days; you can find his series of podcasts on the topic at (http://web.me.com/aaaron12/Aaron_Alexander/Process_Theology_/Process_Theology_.html) In one of his talks Artson suggests that God, who is invisible and without a body, is actually embodied in us -- we are God’s hands and feet, so to speak. Our actions can carry forward God’s actions in the world, even to the point of redemption. There it is; our actions redeem God and the world.

Look back at the short list included in our teaching and consider those particular actions through this lens. If we are God’s hands and feet in this world, then we need to learn something of God’s intentions by occupying ourselves with Torah. We certainly enact God’s kindness when we extend that kindness to others through acts of Gimelut Hasadim, acts which move us toward brotherhood and peace according to Rashi’s definition on this same page. And finally prayer. Perhaps it is that daily or weekly moment wherein we present ourselves for a regular check-in, reporting to ourselves and to the Holy Blessing One on our progress toward our common redemption.

I don’t yet know if this new understanding will change the way I enter the synagogue or stand for prayer. But perhaps Moshe and Jake were both right. We need to be in shul for ourselves and for God.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pain and Suffering: not the same thing (Berakhot 5b)

Nobody I know likes pain. But not all pain is experienced as suffering. Pain may be physical, emotional, or spiritual. It may derive from illness or injury (physical), loss or separation (emotional), or shame or humiliation (spiritual). Suffering begins at the moment we ascribe meaning to the pain: this pain is a punishment, this pain is deserved, this pain is undeserved, this pain is the consequence of my selfishness, and so on. We’re pretty creative in bringing meaning to our pain and converting it into suffering.

I’ve experienced plenty of physical pain in my life – especially after being hit by a red-light-runner in Washington, DC in 1998 -- including protracted periods of pain, but I never experienced any of it has suffering. My pain was just pain and I wanted to rid myself of it. One dear friend and colleague suggested that I consider the pain a korban (sacrifice) to God to atonement for my sins. Perhaps he had in mind the mizbeiach kapparah (altar of atonement) mentioned in Berakhot 5b. I tried that, but it didn’t work for me. Curiously, however, the fact that he had taken the time and trouble to consider what might alleviate my pain provided me enormous comfort.

Our tradition has bequeathed to us a theology and worldview that troubles me deeply: God, the Creator of the universe and Author of life, is often envisioned as the Cosmic Micromanager who visits punishment on the wicked and rewards those loyal to the covenant (Leviticus chapter 26, Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 11). It takes but a moment to realize that the world doesn’t work this way, and so our Prophets project the realization of promised justice into the future (Isaiah 2: 2-4, 12; Habakkuk 1 and 2:3-5; Malachi 3:16-17). There is the lone voice of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) who admits there is no solution to the conundrum of suffering and injustice and hence the best we can do is enjoy what we have and shoot for righteousness. Not a bad existential viewpoint.

Perhaps it would be best if we could avoid experiencing pain as suffering, but we humans seek meaning – that is our nature. It’s one of the things we do best (and sometimes worst). And so the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in masekhet Berakhot tackles the question of suffering with the agenda of making meaning, so we can view suffering as purposeful. The radical idea is raised that there are cases in which God visits suffering on the righteous as a token of love. How is this loving? The righteous don’t deserve their suffering and hence will receive an even great reward in olam haba (the world-to-come) in compensation for what they have undeservedly suffered in this world.

On a psychological level, perhaps this works for some. For me, it raises ethical and theological red flags all over the place; it screams out, “the system is broken and we cannot fix it.”

This brings us to Berakhot 5b where three similar and connected anecdotes are recounted in which Sages visit other Sages who are sick and suffering affliction and ask, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” In each of the three cases, the suffering Sage responds, “Neither they nor their reward.” This is a shocking response. Here's the passage:

R. Hiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Hiyya b. Abba]: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Hiyya b. Abba] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Hiyya b. Abba]: Give me your hand. [R. Hiyya b. Abba] gave him his hand and [R. Yochanan] raised him [up out of his sick bed].

R. Yochanan once fell ill and R. Chanina went in to visit him. [R. Chanina] said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Yochanan] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Chanina] said to him: Give me your hand. [R. Yochanan] gave him his hand and [R. Chanina] raised him. Why could not R. Yochanan raise himself? They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room so he bared his arm and light radiated from it. Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Surely we learned: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven [Menachot 110b]. Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables [both learning and wealth in abundance]. Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — He replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept. In the meanwhile [R. Yochanan] said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Eleazar] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to him: Give me your hand, and [R. Eleazar] gave him his hand and [R. Yochanan] raised him.

If these are yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) then both the afflictions and their reward ought to be welcome. My daughter Rachel years ago pointed out to me that there are numerous instances in gemara where halakhah or a classic Jewish theology is promulgated and then an aggadic anecdote is recounted that utterly undermines it. I think we have a fine example here: these Sages should welcome their afflictions as yissurim shel ahavah and yet they adamantly do not!

What is the response of the visiting Sage who raises the issue in each case? He extends a hand (the magic of the human touch) and raises his colleague out of bed. He heals him with love and caring, thereby affirming that the theology of yissurim shel ahavah is trumped by loving, caring human relationships.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


My teacher, Rabbi Judith Abrams, taught me to ask why the redactors of the Talmud placed certain discussions in the precise places in which they are found. The reasonable assumption is the Talmud is not merely a vast anthology, randomly thrown together, but a composition brought together with subtlety to teach lesson embedded within lesson.

Her assumption bears fruit when you consider the section on suffering found in the opening pages of the first tractate of the Talmud, Berachot – Blessings. How and more importantly why, did we move so quickly from the simple question of when one can begin reciting the Shema, the affirmation of God’s unity, in the evening, to the metaphysical contemplation of deserved and undeserved suffering? On one hand we are discussing definitions, when does a certain time period, suitable for the evening Shema, begin. On the other hand we are exploring the existential experience of suffering. It seems quite a stretch.

At the end of daf 4b Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asserts that even though “one has recited the Shema in the synagogue, it remains a mitzvah, an obligation, to recite it at bedtime.” The verses brought to prove his point, both from Psalms, hint at something more than a pious act of affirmation. The first advises, “Tremble and sin not…”, while the second speaks of redemption. When you lay down at night are you focused on sin and redemption? I am not. If I have the time to clear my head from the thoughts of the day past and the anticipation of the day ahead, I consider myself lucky. Yet the sages saw a greater drama playing out at bedside.

Just a bit farther down the page (5a) Rabbi Isaac reveals what is really at stake. “If one recites the Shema at bedtime, the demons keep away from him.” A friend told me that in her Confirmation class, circa the late 60’s, the rabbi taught that if you recite the Shema before bedtime you will never have nightmares – and she swears that the teaching has been true for her over the decades. This must be the source.

Rabbi Isaac hints that at night, when we are unaware and unable to protect ourselves, malevolent forces, demons, gather to cause us harm. While asleep we are unable to protect ourselves as we might during the day, so our best line of protection is to call down God’s power through the recitation of the Shema.

Here we find the connection between the recitation of the Shema and the contemplation of suffering. It is a small step from recognizing the damaging forces that surround us to contemplating the effect of those damages, what we call suffering. It is an obvious step to move, as the Gemara will soon do, between those sufferings we understand, because we can trace their sources within our own behavior, and those which come upon us undeserved.

This extended discussion, ushered in by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Isaac, poses a challenge. What are you doing when you recite the Shema? Is it an affirmation or a protection?

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Love like this I can live without! (Berakhot 5a)

Woodie Allen famously quipped, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.” Human suffering is an eternal conundrum. Why would a good and powerful God permit us to suffer? As if that isn’t a tough enough question, our Rabbis go further and suggest that God actually brings about suffering as a token of love. Many would be inclined to respond: “Thanks, but no thanks! Love like this I can live without!”

In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Berakhot 5 we find a fascinating and troubling discussion of yissurim (afflictions that cause suffering). Raba (and some say R. Chisda) then suggests that if we are visited with painful sufferings, we should examine our conduct. Perhaps we neglected Torah study, in which case the sufferings are justifiable punishment? This is problematic enough, but if that explanation doesn’t cut it, Rabbi would have us assume our suffering to be yissurim shel ahavah, sufferings God visits on people who please God so that if the sufferer accepts them, s/he will be rewarded with progeny and long life.

Raba (some say, R. Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord (Lamentations 3:40). If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable in his conduct], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the one whom You chasten, O Lord, and teach out of Your law (Psalm 94:12). If he did attribute it [neglect of Torah study], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loves, God corrects (Proverbs 3:12).

Gevalt! This digs the hole deeper and deeper! God punishes good people so they can subsequently be rewarded for withstanding their suffering? I can appreciate the desire to understanding the experience of suffering, but this simply paints God a tyrant and masochist. Progeny and long life are two terrific blessings, but why isn’t righteousness sufficient? And this leaves aside the whole question of whether God micromanages the world in this way: rewarding and punishing, threatening and coercing (more on that topic later).

It seems to me that what we have here is an attempt to ascribe meaning to experiences we have that are painful, intense and cry out for explanation. If suffering is random, or God is capricious in distributing it, then it’s far harder to bear the suffering. But if God is dispensing suffering so good people can earn extra brownie points, it’s time to re-examine the whole theology.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman