Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The High Holy Days are just around the corner, so I want to change topics.

It is the sound of the shofar that gets my attention. My friend, Yussel may be the best player I have ever known. All the suffering of the ages found expression in the plaintive cry of his shofar sounds. When the Torah commands us to “hear the sound of the shofar,” it is his playing that echoes in my mind.

Most people I know are more concerned about the shofar sound than they are about how it is made. I have known people to use trumpets and bugles, even conch shells, in place of a shofar. Yes, they know that it is called a ram’s horn. For various reasons the alternatives have drawn them away; some for ease of playing, some for the quality of the sound. Regardless, their main concern has been the ability to get the sound right.

Two mishnahs from chapter 3 of Rosh HaShannah focus on the material of the shofar more than the sound. The first mishnah (26a) states “All shofars are kosher except for those from a cow because that is called a horn.” A linguistic discussion follows on the distinction between a shofar and a horn. A page later (26b) the next mishnah sharpens the focus a bit more. The anonymous voice of the Mishnah declares that “the shofar from Rosh HaShannah [in contrast to other occasions] comes from an antelope and is straight.” Later in the mishnah Rabbi Judah disagrees and argues that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah comes from rams,” without comment on whether it should be straight or curved. Rabbi Levi, in the gemara, immediately adds that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur should be curved.” The material, the particular kind and shape of the horn becomes key in this discussion.

What is going on? The material does not noticeably affect the tenor of the notes that are heard. The sounds produced by a long, twisty Yemenite shofar are deeper and more resonant than those from a short, straight Ashkenazi one. I presume a blindfolded listener might detect the difference if a trumpet or conch shell were substituted. But the differences are small. And if the reason for sounding the shofar is as Maimonides says: “Awake from your slumber, and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance…” (Mahzor Hadash, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, The Prayer Book Press, 1978, pg. 242), then surely the material of the horn should not matter. It is the sound, the hearing of the call, which breaks through our conscience.

Moreover there is nothing intrinsically different about one kind of horn and another. The gemara does try to differentiate the cow’s horn from all others. Abaye argues (26a) that a cow’s horn grows in layers, meaning it appears as if it were several horns nested one inside the other. Since the command is to sound a shofar, not many shofarot, the cow is excluded. But that is quickly dismissed. Rabbi Yosi already rejected such facile distinctions in the mishnah when he said: “All shofarot are called horns.” A horn is a horn is a horn.

But perhaps not. Maimonides offers a clear, rational explanation for the inchoate sound of the shofar. It is, after all, merely sound. If you heard the call in a different place, at a different time, you may not accord it any meaning. It means what we say it means. By the same token our sages differentiated one horn from another. They found meaning in the material of the shofar itself, if only we understood the significance.

The ram our sages recall was snared by the bush on Mt. Moriah, awaiting Abraham and Isaac on the day of the akedah, when Abraham bound Isaac on the altar. Rabbi Joshua, according to one midrash, taught that “an angel brought [the ram] from the Garden of Eden, where he had been grazing beneath the tree of life.” The ram had been there since “twilight at the end of the six days of creation,” waiting for just this moment. (The Book of Legends, Bialik & Ravnitzky, trans. William G. Braude, Schocken, 1992, pg 42) This ram epitomizes the purity of creation, the faithfulness of Abraham, and the suffering of Isaac. As we prepare for the Day of Atonement, these are the virtues we wish to embrace.

By contrast, the cow, or calf, recalls the nadir of our history. The Golden calf calls to mind the orgiastic celebration and the declaration that, “this is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 32:4). That event derailed our entry to the Holy Land by a generation. Not a memory we wish to dredge up as we prepare to ask for forgiveness.

In this particular discussion the sages only allude to these connections, they will get more explicit elsewhere. Here (26a) they are content to cite an anonymous teacher who argues that we avoid the cow’s horn because “the accuser [the Golden calf] cannot act as defender [as we do the work of repentance].”

The shofar, then, is no mere horn. The hearing required of us is not merely the sound, but the echo of our history. The Talmudic discussion that follows (what animal is proper as the source for a shofar, should a shofar be curved or straight) reveals that the medium is the message.

Why should this matter for us? I noted above that the sound of the shofar is merely sound. The horn is merely a horn. They have no intrinsic meaning. Rather, they are a symbolic language we inherit from earlier generations. These texts remind us to uncover the layers of that symbolic language so we can understand what lies underneath. For some the discovery of what lies under the surface may yield a precious legacy.

(c) 2009 Rabbi Louis Rieser

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"God crushes us with suffering" (Berakhot 5a)

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, in his post, “A risk-free life?” describes yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) in Berakhot 5a and quotes a startling passage:

Said Raba said R. Sahorah said R. Huna [said]: Whomever the Holy One blessed be God prefers, God crushes with suffering. For it is said, The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease (Isaiah 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution (Isaiah 53:10). Just as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days (Isaiah 53:10). And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).

Rabbi Rieser offers this explanation: “This suffering seems to be a form of advanced payment against the world-to-come. If they can get their suffering out of the way now, they can enter the next world free and clear.”

Here’s another perspective. To my thinking, the Rabbis are claiming that if we suffer undeservedly in this world, then our reward in the next world (olam haba) will be that much greater than it would have been otherwise. Just as we can earn mitzvah brownie points for what we do while alive in this world (redeemable in olam haba), we can earn extra points for undeserved suffering.

Why would the Rabbis make this claim, especially given that it is not within a person’s power to either choose or avoid affliction? (As the expression goes: stuff happens.) In facing the eternal challenge of theodicy – the question of God’s justice – perhaps the Rabbis want to convert the affliction of the innocent into purposeful suffering. If I can understand why I suffer (The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease – Isaiah 53:10) and even more, see it in a positive light, then I can endure it far better. Perhaps this was a way to provide comfort and solace.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cannot accept the view that God is an omnipotent being who rewards and punishes according to a mysterious calculus that defies our sense of justice and often results in devastating suffering by innocent people. This notion paints God coercive and even capricious. (Jon Levenson masterfully dismantles the claim that Hebrew Scripture puts forth an omnipotent God in Creation and the Persistence of Evil.) A God who wields power in the manner sometimes described in Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture) and reflected in the statement from masechet Berakhot quoted above is vindictive and unjust. The only way to defend such a God is to claim that God’s ethics are entirely beyond our comprehension (as the poetic dialogues in the Book of Job do). I don’t buy it.

Yet gemara also proffers a completely opposing viewpoint that resonates deeply with me:

When the Holy One blessed be God recalls God’s children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, God lets fall two tears into the ocean and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other — and that is the rumbling of the earth. (Berakhot 59a)

Here we encounter God Who is fully identified with humanity, Who resides in the heart, soul, mind, and cells of each one of us, yet Who also abides beyond us. What is more, here is a magnificent and moving image of the ultimate connectedness of all God’s creation: living creatures, the physical universe in which we abide, the ideas that animate our minds, the values that inform and inspire our behavior, and the God who is in all and beyond all.

The reflection of this God is seen in the accounts of R. Yochanan and R. Chanina who visit their sick and suffering colleagues. In a series of three vignettes, they ask their colleagues if their sufferings are welcome. Without exception, each (including R. Yochanan himself in the second vignette) responds, “Neither [the sufferings] nor their reward.” (I discussed this passage, from Berakhot 5b, in an early posting. Here it is in full.)

R. Chiyya b. Abba fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Chiyya b. Abba]: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Chiyya b. Abba] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Yochanan] said to [R. Chiyya b. Abba]: Give me your hand. [R. Chiyya 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 R. Yochanan not 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.

In each case the colleague responds by extending his hand, raising his friend from his sick bed. The gift of love, caring, and human touch is healing; it is divine. This is the hand of God in the world – reaching out to love, touch, and heal. It is not an explanation of suffering that those in dire straits require; it is a loving response to their suffering. We each possess the hand of God, for we are each endowed with tzelem Elohim (the image of God); we have but to stretch out our hands and do what we can to heal one another.

I cannot explain why people suffering. I can only recognize that the one before me is suffering and do my best to be God’s healing hand.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, July 20, 2009


My chevruta, Rabbi Scheinerman, discussed the idea of yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love) in an earlier post. She cited Berakhot 5b which records three similar and connected anecdotes in which Sages visit other Sages who are sick and suffering affliction. Each asks, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” only to be told, “Neither they nor their reward.” I want to look at that same passage from a different point of view.

The premise behind yissurim shel ahavah assumes that the person so afflicted is righteous and has not earned their suffering through transgressions. The Gemara (5a) offers various tests so one can know if these are indeed afflictions of love, for example:
* If there is no transgression that caused the suffering
“If he blamed it on something and found [after correcting the fault] that that had not, in fact, been the cause at all, he may be sure that he suffers the afflictions that come from God’s love. “For it is said, ‘For the one whom the Lord loves he corrects’ (Proverbs 3:12).”
* If the individual is pleasing to God
Said Raba said R. Sehorah said R. Huna [said], “Whomever the Holy One, blessed be he, prefers he crushes with suffering. “For it is said, ‘The Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him with disease’ (Isaiah 53:10).
* If one’s suffering does not interrupt study or prayer
“What are sufferings brought on by God’s love? They are any form of suffering which does not involve one’s having to give up studying Torah."

This suffering seems to me to be a form of advanced payment against the world-to-come. For these righteous individuals the suffering seems to smooth the way into the world-to-come. If they can get their suffering out of the way now, they can enter the next world free and clear.

Consider our three sages, each of whom is presumably righteous and suffering afflictions of love. They are disciplined and learned men who would understand the terms of the offer before them: suffer illness, pain and discomfort in this world so that you can earn a “get-out-of-suffering-free-card” for the world to come. Not a bad deal, it seems to me. So why do they turn it down; indeed, why should they turn it down.

Our sages aren't really offered a choice in the matter; the sufferings come upon them unbidden. Since they ask one another if the sufferings are welcome and if they would choose the reward, it seems worthwhile to me to speculate on why they would decline the sufferings, and why I believe they should do so.

One could say they decline the offer simply because suffering is suffering. It is difficult, painful, and debilitating. Who could make such a choice? Agreed, but that does not seem so instructive to me, so I want to explore a different option. What if they declined because accepting the offer would change who they were as human beings, and that bargain was unacceptable? Could this be a Faustian bargain?

Life equals risk. We operate on the illusion that life follows a neat and predictable trajectory. We have forgotten that before the 1930's most deaths were of young people who died from events we consider inconsequential today – infections, whooping cough and more. Today we assume death properly strikes the old, and only in tragedy takes the young. It is a false illusion, as you can see in any morning paper; but one which comforts us.

What would change if, by some miracle, you could live life risk-free? The “sufferings of love” offers one form of a risk-free life. Once you have merited the “gift”you know that you have earned heaven (however you might imagine it) and everything will work out well for you in the end. Your fate was assured.

Imagine the possibilities. The economy could crash, but you would be okay. Friends might suffer, but you would be immune. Your children would struggle with choices of education, finding a partner, creating a career, but you would sail along with no snags. Every time you stated a goal, you knew you would achieve it. Doubt would have no hold on your decisions. Like King Midas you would have the golden touch. Everything succeeds in the end.

I believe that such a life would dull meaning. Even if you devoted your life to the performance of good deeds, and thereby made the lives of others better, how would it affect you? You are no better or worse off than before, your fate is already sealed.

The sages decline the offer of afflictions of love, I hope, because they know it will negatively impact their human lives. They forgo the toll-free stairway to heaven, choosing instead the same rocky path we all must follow. They do not know what temptations and challenges may try their character, but those trials give one the possibility of improving character or, may we be spared, falling in their path.

Psalm 145 is an alpha-betic acrostic; missing only the Hebrew letter”nun.” The midrash explains that the “nun”, which stands for the word “nofel” (to fall), was excluded so one would not invite unfortunate happenings. The proof, they say, is found in the following letter, the “samech”, standing for the word “someich”, support – The Lord supports all who stumble. As pleasant as it might be to live life knowing you would not stumble, it may be too much to also forgo ever being supported.

To live without risk – in this world or the world to come – is to lose the essential experience of being human. We live with risk. We take the chance to succeed or fall. We will collect our fair share of skinned knees, but also find there are loving people nearby to support us. We will succeed on occasion, and learn to offer a supporting hand to others.

I believe the sages declined the afflictions of love because they knew the cost to be too high. In my imagination they could have endured the pain, but not the exclusion from the risk of daily life. Knowing one’s fate is no bargain.

(c) Rabbi Louis Rieser 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Making Sense (nor not) of Suffering (Berakhot 5a)

This week, I want to take a step back to the subject of my first two posts and considered the background against which the Rabbis promulgate their theory of yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love). But I want to begin with a caveat: Last week in Pamplona, Spain, a 27-year-old man was gored to death in the Running of the Bulls. One day later, two more men were seriously injured as the event was repeated. This reminded me of the poster offered at http://www.despair.com/tradition.html. Below a picture of the running of the bulls it says: “Tradition: just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

Many people view suffering through a traditional lens. This lens was first ground by Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture) that tells us that there are two causes for human suffering for which God is responsible. Either suffering can test our faithfulness (consider the Akedah, God’s command to Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Yitzhak), or suffering is God’s pay back for disobedience; that is to say: punishment. The latter is clearly the predominant view.

Torah sets the stage for the theology of reward and punishment. God, creator and owner of the universe, intervenes in human affairs in response to Israel’s behavior. While there are numerous passages in Torah that express this theology, one will suffice. Parshat Re’eh opens with this admonition:

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow others gods, whom you have not experienced. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

This paints a picture of a scary, commanding, demanding, coercive God: Do My will and enjoy reward, but disobey Me and I will reign down havoc on your lives.

For the prophets, the cataclysmic events of 722 BCE (destruction of the northern ten tribes by the Assyrians) and 586 BCE (Babylonian destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile of the population to Babylonia) are understood within a worldview informed by this theology. The prophet Amos, a shepherd and tender of sycamore trees, lived in the hill country south of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. He berated the northern kingdom of Israel, and particularly the upper socio-economic classes, for breaching God’s covenant by amassing wealth at the expense of the poor, violating the sexual boundaries delineated in Torah, and engaging in empty religious rituals. While the Book of Amos ends on a note of hope and restoration for Israel, much of the book predicts doom and destruction at the hands of Israel’s enemies in a military defeat orchestrated on-high by God:

Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have sold for silver
Those whose cause was just,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.
Ah you who trample the heads of the poor
Into the dust of the ground,
And make the humble walk a twisted course!
Father and son go to the same girl,
And thereby profane My holy name.
They recline by every altar
On garments taken in pledge,
And drink in the House of their God
Wine bought with fines they imposed…

Hear this word, O people if Israel,
That the Lord has spoken concerning you,
Concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt:
You alone have I singled out
Of all the families of the earth –
That is why I will call you to account
For all your iniquities…

Assuredly, thus said my Lord God:
An enemy, all about the land!
He shall strip you of your splendor,
And your fortresses shall be plundered…

(Amos 2:6-8; 3:1-2, 11)

Amos’ younger contemporary, the prophet Hosea, similarly preached a message of imminent destruction, God’s punishment for the covenantal crime of idolatry. Hosea re-enacted Israel’s faithlessness in his own life by marrying a woman of ill-repute and naming his children by her Lo-ruchamah (“Not pitied”) and Lo-ammi (“Not my people”). Hosea’s description of the coming punishment is painfully graphic:

Samaria [capital of the northern kingdom, Israel] must bear her guilt,
For she has defied her God,
They shall fall by the sword,
Their infants shall be dashed to death,
And their women with child ripped open.
(Hosea 4:1)

The aspect of this theology that I appreciate is that it affirms God’s intense interest in human behavior and human affairs. How we organize ourselves and treat one another is a matter of cosmic concern. But the theology of reward and punishment – presuming a demanding, punishing, coercive God – is not the only way to express God’s concern with our moral and religious behavior. Nor is it the only way to understand human suffering.

The claim that human suffering is God’s response to sin flies in the face of human experience. The Rabbis recognized this and so they offer another explanation. This one is, to my mind, even more problematic. On Berakhot 5a we find:

Raba (some say, R. Chisda) 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).

Raba, in the name of R. Sahorah, in the name of R. Huna, says: If the Holy One, blessed be God, is pleased with a person, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] he crushed him by disease (Isaiah 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution (Isaiah 53:10). Just as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days (Isaiah 53:10). And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).

Raba tells us that we can analyze our personal situation and determine the cause of our suffering. First, I should consider if I have sinned, in which case, my suffering is retribution for my sins. If not, I should consider if I have neglected Torah study. If not, then I may conclude that my pain and suffering – still presumed to be God’s doing – are yissurim shel ahavah (afflictions of love). In fact, Raba tells us, God goes so far as to crush those most loved with painful afflictions, which are most religiously efficacious if received with consent.

I appreciate that the Rabbis are struggling to retain a theology that affirms God’s omnipotence and goodness, but this sends me screaming in the other direction. It is religiously and spiritually off-putting. This theology speaks volumes about God’s nature and character and, to my thinking, none of it good. Why does a good and loving God need to exert such heavy-handed and punitive power over people? It sure isn’t making us any better! (God forbid that we should treat our children this way.) The assertion that God causes good people to suffer for their own good is entirely overboard. If olam haba (the world-to-come) is to be good and pleasurable, it can be so without our having suffered in olam ha-zeh (this world).

Yet because we are humans, we struggle not only with experience, but with meaning. We must cope not only with suffering, but with the meaning we attach to suffering. More on this subject next week.

Let me close by paraphrasing the poster I quoted above. This is a bit more cavalier and irreverent than I would want, but here goes: Tradition: just because you’ve always been taught to believe that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, July 13, 2009


In the coming weeks we will hear a great deal about what courts and judges ought to be. The confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor will bring out partisans on all sides who will argue, as they do whenever an important court appointment is up for consideration, that the law matches their particular philosophy. We hear that judges ought to be originalists or that they need to consider the evolving nature of society, or various other constructs. These partisans have in common the notion that the law is set and can be known objectively.

Oh, that it were so. It would make life so much easier and probably cheaper for those who needed to employ lawyers. If only you could present the case for side A, listing all the points on their side, do the same for side B and then compute the sum. The judgment would be objective, understandable, transparent and indisputable for all to see.

If the law could ever be that straightforward, we would not find the following assertion in B. Berachot 6a that
When three sit in judgment God’s Presence joins them, as it is said, ‘In the midst of the judges [God] judges’ (Psalm 82: 1).
As the passage continues we learn that judging is not simply a matter of making peace or finding compromises, but is an act of Torah.

To understand how this passage from the gemara understands the act of judging it is necessary to consider what it means by an act of Torah. In B. Shabbat 78b a Tanna (teacher) of the school of Rabbi Ishmael compares the words of Torah to a hammer hitting a rock. “Just as the strike of the hammer produces many sparks, so every single word that comes from the mouth of the Holy Blessing One separates into 70 languages.” It is a stunning assertion: Every word of Torah can be understood in multiple ways and there are multiple correct ways of understanding! To discern which is the best meaning for any given circumstance requires learning, flexibility, and a willingness to consider many points of view.

If what is true of Torah is true of the law, as our passage suggests, then it is easy to understand that the act of judging is a matter of discernment in the face of multiple possible solutions. The Talmudic commentator Menachem Meiri (13th century Catalonia) argues that even one who is authorized to judge alone on a given topic should not do so. Rather he argues that when three judges deliberate together, engaging in give and take as they understand the issues involved, clarifying and discussing before deciding, they are more likely to discover the most fitting and truthful solution, and they will be protected from making errors. This is a case for having multiple perspectives contending with each other in order to arrive at a decision that is not THE truth, but is the best truth for the moment.

The Talmud lists in B. Sanhedrin 17a various qualifications that judges should have. Most are what you might expect: men [sic] of stature and wisdom, handsome and mature, having a knowledge of witchcraft (read: science and technology) and a mastery of all the known languages of humankind. Rab, the head of the 3rd century Babylonian academy, responds to that list and adds a surprising and radical requirement. He taught: "Do not seat someone on the Sanhedrin who cannot prove, using Biblical texts, that a reptile, an animal that crawls on the earth, is clean." To translate: an animal that crawls on the earth is explicitly unclean according to Leviticus 11:29. In order to declare such an animal clean using the Torah demands one to turn Torah on head and inside out.

Rab’s radical requirement, which emerges from a discussion concerning capital punishment, recognizes the complexity of law. His approach grants law both respect and flexibility. He asserts that every defendant deserves a judge who can see all sides, even the most unlikely sides of an argument, so that the best truth might emerge. It is because the law is so complex that the Presence of God needs to join the three who make up the court.

As you listen to the arguments for and against Judge Sotomayor, listen to hear who makes the law simple and who makes it complex.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pray in shul or on my own? (Berakhot 8a)

Am I more obligated to the community or to myself? A perennial conundrum. The passage from Berakhot 8a Rabbi Rieser discussed in his last posting makes clear this is not a new issue: then tension between communal and individual worship has been around a good long time. If being part of the community and fulfilling my own individual needs coincide – then the tension dissipates. But often they do not.

(The problem is amply demonstrated by the difficulty in collecting a weekday minyan in many communities on a summer evening. Long, light, lovely summer evenings to dine in the backyard, go for a walk, and play Frisbee butt up against the call of community, and often the community loses out.)

As Rabbi Rieser explained, Resh Lakish elevates communal obligation above individual need (daf 8a) in response to R. Nachman’s assertion (bottom of daf 7b) that he cannot and will not go to a synagogue to pray.

R. Yochanan offers:

When they told R. Yochanan [who lives in Eretz Yisrael] that there were old men in Babylon, he showed astonishment and said: Why, it is written: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land (Deuteronomy 11:21); but not outside the land [of Israel]! When they told him that [these old men] came early to the Synagogue and left it late, he said: That is what helps them. Even as R. Joshua b. Levi said to his children: Come early to the Synagogue and leave it late that you may live long. R. Aha son of R. Chanina says: Which verse [supports this claim]? Happy is the man who hearkens to Me, watching daily at My gates, waiting at the posts of My doors (Proverbs 8:34), after which it is written: For whoever finds Me finds life (Proverbs 8:35).

R. Yochanan is astonished that anyone makes it past middle age in Babylonia given that Deuteronomy 11:21 stipulates upon the land, meaning in the Land of Israel. What can explain the remarkable longevity of these old men? They invest long hours in the synagogue. R. Yochanan produces two verses that are used to support the claim: My gates and My doors are taken to refer to the synagogue, the locus for where one finds Me (and hence) finds life.

Why is attendance at synagogue the secret to longevity, the magical mix of multivitamins, statins, and low-blood pressure medication that defies the implication the Rabbis deduce from Deuteronomy 11:21 that those who live outside Eretz Yisrael will never live to collect Social Security? Perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that life lived with and among others – in community – is good for our health: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need communities (networks, if you prefer) of loving, caring, supportive people. There is abundant research demonstrating that those who enjoy the blessing of a community experience less depression, fewer health problems, and enjoy longer life. Is this what gemara cares about? Absolutely! Torah is about the quality of life, not only the quality of our living.

Does it work for everyone? No, nothing works for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for religious life any more than there is for bicycle helmets, pantyhose, or education. And we find on daf 8a Raba recounting a teaching of R. Chisda:

What is the meaning of the verse: The Lord loves the gates of Zion [Hebrew: Tziyyon] more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Psalm 87:2)? The Lord loves the gates that are distinguished [me-zuyanim] through halakhah more than the synagogues and houses of study [the term here is batei-midrash and refers not the great academies of Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael, but rather to places of popular, aggadic learning that did not indulge in the study of halakhah]. This conforms with the following saying of R. Chiyya b. Ammi in the name of Ulla: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be God has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone. So also said Abaye: At first I used to study in my house and pray in the synagogue. Since I heard the saying of R. Chiyya b. Ammi in the name of Ulla -- “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be God has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone” -- I pray only in the place where I study. R. Ammi and R. Assi, though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, prayed only between the pillars [i.e. in the House of Study] where they used to study.

R. Chisda claims that the trauma of the Destruction of the Temple exiled not only Israel, but also the Shechinah (God’s Divine Presence in the world). God is felt, experienced, welcomed into our world only through the narrow confines of halakhah, the process of discerning God’s will through study and practice that so engaged the Rabbis and kept Israel a community through common observance. Perhaps R. Chisda is also suggesting that prayer following the Destruction lacks kavannah (sincerity and intention) and hence God cannot enter our lives and experience through prayer.

But here’s the punchline: Abaye, who changes his ways on the basis of R. Chisda’s teaching, thinks he is turning his back on the synagogue community in favor of halakhah. But look what he does! He spends long days studying with his colleagues and prays with them thrice daily in the House of Study. He has become exactly like the “old men” who come early to shul and stay late; he has just relocated to another shul: the Bet Midrash (House of Study). He is still in the embrace of community; he has simply relocated to another community.

And here’s one last thought: you might not feel that synagogue provides the best and most spiritual venue for prayer for you on each occasion. We all feel that at times. It can be very tough. But consider the possibility that your presence benefits others. You have much to contribute to the community by being there.

Hinei ma tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad / Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together (Psalm 133:1).

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


When Resh Lakhish blurts out (B. Berachot 8a), “Whoever has a synagogue in his neighborhood but does not enter there for prayer is a bad neighbor,” he likely does not consult with Rabbi Nachman. Nachman is asked by his student Rabbi Isaac why he does not attend public prayer services. Nachman replies that he cannot (Rashi offers the excuse that he is ill), but every solution that is offered, including gathering a minyan in his own home, is rejected. Could it be that Rabbi Nachman prefers to pray alone? While most of this section proclaims the merit of synagogue attendance, Rabbi Nachman raises significant doubt.

There is a secret hidden in Resh Lakhish’s statement. He calls those who abstain from the synagogue “bad neighbors” because there is no stronger term he can use. No mitzvah commands one to attend services. The sages define an obligation to pray, but that is fulfilled as easily in private as it is in public. The value of gathering together for public prayer does not come from a command but from the intrinsic value of the experience of gathering together.

There is a dramatic mishnah teaching later in this work that notes the changes that occur in the blessing after the meal (Birkat HaMazon) when the gathering grows from 3 to 10 to 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 (could the sages ever have seen 10,00 gathered for a meal?). Mishnah Berachot 7:3 implies that more people gathered together may exercise more power, though Rabbi Akiba demurs.

As other posts have suggested, there are a lot of reasons for choosing public prayer. After Abba Benjamin asserts that one’s prayer is heard [by God] only in the Synagogue, a long passage asks how we know that God is present when groups of different sizes gather. This countdown reveals some of the dynamics of public prayer.

Rabin b. R. Adda says in the name of R. Isaac: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be God, is to be found in the synagogue? For it is said: God stands in the congregation of God (Psalm 82:1).

How do you know that if ten people pray together the Divine presence is with them? For it is said: God stands in the congregation of God.

How do you know that if three are sitting as a court of judges the Divine Presence is with them? For it is said: In the midst of the judges [God] judges (Psalm 82:1).

How do you know that if two are sitting and studying the Torah together the Divine Presence is with them? For it is said: Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord and that thought upon His name (Malachi 3:16)...

How do you know that even if one man sits and studies the Torah the Divine Presence is with him? For it is said: In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless you (Exodus 20:21).

We begin with place. God meets us in the synagogue, according to one opinion, because the Psalmist (82:1) asserts that God stands in the congregation of God. Stressing the place where God stands, this suggests that certain places possess a unique capacity to evoke prayer. Many people would agree, though they may suggest places other than the synagogue: alongside the water, staring at the sunset or sunrise, atop a mountain or deep in the woods. Even Reb Nachman of Bratzlav counseled that one should designate a favorite place for prayer and meet God there regularly.

A second opinion draws on the same verse of Psalms but emphasizes those with whom God stands. The congregation of God, defined as 10 Jewish adults, accentuates the power of a group. A palpable change occurs when enough people gather together. You feel a change in the room as it transforms from a collection of individuals into a community. On different occasions the exact number may differ, though 10 works as a generic marking point. The communal voice blends the individual voices and carries them farther. Prayer carried by the power of 10 produces a greater impact on the individuals who gather together and, according to the sages, on God as well.

Under 10 the passage shifts from prayer to study, but in the world of the sages both are vehicles for communing with God, so I feel justified in staying with our theme. Two who study together, we are told, are inscribed in a book of remembrance. Consider the word inscribed. The best study, like the best prayer, changes you. You take in something of the other, and leave part of yourself with them. When you engage in that deep study or prayer, even if there are only 2 of you present, a change is inscribed within you, a reciprocal action that takes place between you and your partner, between you and God.

The sages draw on a verse in Exodus to assert that even a single person who invokes God’s Name sits with the Divine Presence. In contrast to the initial assertion that prayer requires a certain place and a certain number, here the sages insist that God is present even to one sitting alone. Prayer, after all, is not really the words of a book or the songs of the cantor or the words of a sermon or the public recitation. It is, rather, avodat ha-lev (the service of the heart), that which resides within the individual.

Prayer is complicated. Read this passage carefully and you will discover that it is self-contradictory. Place is important, but I have been in rooms that are so distracting I can never calm myself enough to pray in them. Yes, there is power in a minyan, but I have attended full synagogues in which no one seems to express an ounce of spirit. Numbers alone will not make an impression. And I know that if I cannot direct my own heart to pray, nothing outside matters. Prayer is all of the above and none of them.

A final story, told to me by Rabbi Scheinerman, points to the relationship between individuals and the community at the hour of prayer.

In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople. At last he decided to build a synagogue. No one saw the plans for the building until it was finished. When the people came for the first time they marveled at its beauty and completeness.

Then someone asked, "Where are the lamps? How will it be lighted?"

The nobleman pointed to brackets which were all through the synagogue on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp which they were to bring with them each time they came to the synagogue. "Each time you are not here," he said, "that part of the synagogue will be unlit. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come here, especially when the community needs you, some part of God's house will be dark."

May you bring the light of your heart to the synagogue whenever you gather for prayer.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Louis Rieser

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Watching God Davening (Berakhot 7a)

The Rabbis of the Bavli make the radical claim that God prays daily. Is this “creating God in the human image”? Or are our Sages suggesting something more subtle, more nuanced, more insightful?

In Berakhot 7a, we learn about God’s prayers. The Rabbis ask the same questions we would ask: What prayers does God say? To whom does God pray?

R. Yochanan says in the name of R. Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be God, prays? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer [literally: “the house of My prayer”] (Isaiah 56:7). It does not say “their prayer” but rather “My prayer”; hence [we learn] that the Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers.

What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”

God, the Sages inform us, prays that the middah (attribute) of divine mercy will prevail over – indeed overpower – the middah of divine justice. The Rabbis often describe justice and mercy as polar opposites in tension with one another: if God treats us with strict justice we will not survive due to our many sins; however, if God is unrelentingly merciful, evil will flourish and consume us. God therefore seeks a proper balance that will thwart evil and allow goodness to flourish – and the world to keep going.

Could there be a better – and more accessible – role model for us than this? God is struggling with opposing proclivities and must exhibit cosmic self-control. If this is true for God, how much the more so for us. And if this is how God uses prayer – to achieve self-control and direction – then it is a worthy way for us use prayer.

I passed a church in Baltimore today. The sign outside said, “Prayer Changes Things.” The message in this gemara is that “Prayer Changes Us.” Lehitpalel (“to pray” in Hebrew) is in the reflexive mood and means “to examine oneself” or “to judge oneself.” And here in our gemara God is the ultimate role model.

The gemara continues:

It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes.

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, pointed out in his recent blog entry that on Berakhot daf 8a the Rabbis assert that communal prayer redeems God. Here we find that God desires (perhaps even needs) the blessing of a human being. God says, “Ishmael, My son, bless Me!” And R. Ishmael b. Elisha does just that, with precisely the blessing God is seeking: the self-control to lead with mercy rather than justice in the divine dealings with humanity.

Prof. James Kugel has written extensively on the embodiment and human qualities of God as expressed in Tanakh. It certainly doesn’t stop with Torah. Our Rabbis carried the personhood of God much father even than Tanakh. This makes many people deeply uncomfortable. Many centuries of western thinking has trained us to reject anthropomorphic expressions about God, let alone assertions that God truly thinks, acts, feels as we do and perhaps (even more radical) has a body. We can appreciate these expressions as reflecting the limitations of human expression and conception, or perhaps poetic metaphor, but could they be “real” in any sense?

Prof. Yochanan Muffs, in The Personhood of God, writes (pages 192-3):

“It is almost tragic that in order to liberate the religious from religion, the God of the common faith from the God of supernaturalism, it should be necessary to demythologize religious literature, thus draining off its poetic power, and to depersonalize religious doctrine, thus draining it of its educational power. A model of divinity that does not partake of personhood can hardly be expected to cultivate personhood in man. Further more, a boring and unevocative model, no matter how correct philosophically, is certainly of little “world-creating” value. The problem, therefore, of the modern religious humanist is how to demythologize the model without sapping its poetic force and psychological profundity.
“I believe that many of these pitfalls could be avoided if we remythologized our theology rather than demythologized it. Fully realizing that the anthropomorphic God is to a very great degree a projection of man’s understanding of his own psyche (not merely of his own intellectualized and abstracted ideals), we must turn up the mythical decibels of the old personal God.”

Our modern literalist approach to just about everything – including our sacred texts – threatens to rob of us of their magic and beauty. The human imagination is a divine gift.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman