Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life cycle: the wheel goes 'round / b.Sanhedrin 92a

The term “life cycle” is tossed around a lot. Certainly, a community experiences birth, growth, marriage, aging, and death, and then more births in its midst. But does an individual experience a life cycle? I was born, I go through various stages of life, and then I die. How is that a cycle? For the Rabbis it was a perfect cycle: birth, all the stages of life, death, resurrection/rebirth. The belief in resurrection of the dead affirmed for them a true life cycle.

We are still amidst the Rabbis’ epic effort to prove that resurrection of the dead derives from the Torah. They have pulled out nearly all the stops, threatening the loss of olam haba (the world-to-come), citing numerous verses creatively interpreted, and envisioning court cases before Alexander the Great that affirmed their view. Very near the bottom of daf 92a is a passage I take as a unit (though far more learned and esteemed scholars of Talmud disagree).
And R. Elazar said: Whoever looks at a woman’s genitals, his bow will be empty, as it says, Your bow is stripped bare (Habbakuk 3:9).

And R. Elazar said: Be forever in the dark and live.

R. Zeira said: Also we have learned this: We do not open windows in a dark house to see its plague [referring to mishnah Nega’im 2:3]. Learn from this.

R. Tavi said in the name of R. Yoshiyah: What is the meaning of the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water (Proverbs 30:16)? What is the connection between the grave and the closed [barren] womb? It is to teach you [that] just as the womb takes in and expels, so too does the grave take in and expel. And in fact these are a kal va’chomer: If a womb, into which things are deposited quietly, and from which things emerge noisily, then [concerning] the grave, into which we deposit things noisily, isn’t it logical that things emerge [from the grave] amidst great noise? From here [we have] a response to those who say that resurrection of the dead does not derive from Torah.
The Rabbis are attempting to prove resurrection from Torah. R. Elazar opens with an image of marital intimacy, the quintessential act that brings new life into the world. If you look at your wife’s genitals in the course of lovemaking, however, your bow I stripped bare. (Please see my note at the bottom of this blog post for more on whether R. Elazar was standing on solid ground with this claim.) At first glance we might think that the verse from Habbakuk applies to the wife, but R. Elazar surprises us and applies it to the husband: the man who looks at his wife’s genitals will suffer either impotence or sterility (I’m not sure which; perhaps he means either). This behavior will result in the diminution of life - a kind of death. Lovemaking intended to engender new life, will achieve the opposite.

Understood this way, his counsel to “be forever in the dark and live” makes sense. He cannot see what he shouldn’t be looking at in a dark room. In other words, give up those romantic candles and buy room-darkening blinds. Perhaps there is a very subtle hint here of where we’re going. Being in the dark to generate new life parallels or foreshadows the dark of the grave, which precedes rebirth by resurrection. From birth to death to life after death.

R. Zeira offers us much the same message, but in citing Nega’im (the tractate about tzara’at, skin afflictions that affect people, clothing, and homes) he suggests that this behavior will bring a plague upon your house. All the good of intimacy gives way to loss, death and disease if you don’t “follow the rules.” From birth to death.

We begin with a fertile womb that doesn’t conceive because of inappropriate sexual behavior. The images of male sterility (diminution of life, death of the potential to have children) and plagues sets us up for R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16. R. Tavi quotes a snippet from the middle of the verse. (The entire verse, with R. Tavi’s phrase bolded, is: The leech has two daughters, “Give!” and “Give!” Three things are insatiable; four never say, “Enough!”: the grave, a barren womb, earth that cannot get enough water, and fire that never says, “Enough!”) R. Tavi uses this excerpted phrase to equate the grave and the womb, and then apply the argument of kal va’chomer (a fortiori argument) to them. The argument goes like this: Proverbs 30:16 juxtaposes “womb” and “grave” to tell us that they evince the same phenomenon. Sperm is quietly deposited into the womb, but the baby that emerges is noisy. The process goes from quiet to noisy. The grave must therefore follow that same pattern. We deposit the body into the grave amidst the noise of crying and mourning; therefore (1) something must emerge from the grave (as from the womb); and (2) what emerges must be extremely noisy. In the minds of the Rabbis this must mean that people are resurrected to the noise of the messianic age. Hence we derive resurrection from Proverbs 30:16.

Then why the conversation launched by R. Elazar before it? The passage begins with an image of life and procreation -- a couple engaged in lovemaking. Conception and birth. R. Zeira introduces the idea of plague -- it may cause death. Conception, life, then death. R. Tavi’s interpretation of Proverbs 30:16 “proves” resurrection of the dead. We have the process: birth, life, death, rebirth/resurrection.


This passage initially caught my eye because it opens with a claim similar to one found elsewhere in the Talmud, in masechet Nedarim, daf 20. There the Rabbis handily and brilliantly dismantle the claim that a husband should not look between his wife’s legs at her genitals.

Nedarim 20 features a protracted discussion of sexual practices, arrived at by branching off from the main topic twice. R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claims to have learned four things from the Ministering Angels: a man should not engage in anal sex with his wife, nor kiss her genitals, nor converse with her while engaged in lovemaking, nor even look at her genitals. (Puritanical, no? It was H.L. Mencken who defined Puritanism as, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” R. Yochanan b. Dahabai sounds like he’s from that school.) The Rabbis then recount Ima Shalom’s testimony that her husband, R. Eliezer, engaged in the most modest sex imaginable, never uncovering more than a few square inches of her skin at a time. The Sages then cleverly turn her testimony upside down and use it not only to permit talk during lovemaking, but to laud it. The notoriously strict and stringent R. Eliezer now becomes the model for a liberal attitude toward marital intimacy. But wait! R. Yochanan b. Dahabai claimed he learned the four prohibitions from heaven. The Rabbis are able to dismiss R. Yochanan b. Dahabai’s rules altogether by saying that “Ministering Angels” is merely a polite term for rabbis; hence his rules are simply the opinion of some. In fact, they now tell us, a husband and wife may do whatever they wish because -- as R. Yehudah haNasi unequivocally affirms -- Torah does not regulate consensual sexual acts between a husband and wife. Torah is concerned only with emotional states, especially those that might lead to violence.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On prooftexting and Humpty Dumpty / Sanhedrin 92a

A man has had a successful business for decades. It is now going down the drain. Despondent, he seeks his rabbi’s advice, thinking that if he cannot find help, he will commit suicide.

The rabbi listens to the man’s tale of woe and offers this advice: “The Torah contains the answers to everything in life, including your problem. Take a chumash and beach chair and drive to the beach. Sit at the water’s edge, open the chumash, and let the wind blow it open. When the chumash stays open on a certain page, you will find your answer there.”

The man does precisely as his rabbi instructed. Three months later, he returns with his wife to the rabbi. He is wearing a $1500 Italian hand-tailored suit; his wife is wearing a beautiful silk dress and expensive jewelry. The man hands the rabbi a generous check and says, “Rabbi, your advice worked wonderfully. I want to donate this money to the synagogue.”

“Which words in the Torah brought this good fortune?” the rabbi asks.

The man replies, “Chapter 11.”

Prooftexting has a bad name among academics, and from an academic perspective deservedly so. The isolated use of biblical verses to prove the “truth” of a religious claim is hardly new. It is the S.O.P. of the Talmud. Often verses are decontextualized, which is a neutral, academic term meaning: wrenched out of context, original intent is ignored, they are made to mean something entirely different. When Alice objects to Humpty Dumpty’s definition of “glory” as “a nice knock-down argument,” Humpty Dumpty replies, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” Substitute “verse” for “word” and you get the picture.
Chapter ten of Sanhedrin is a magnificent compendium of prooftexts to argue that resurrection of the dead derives from Torah.

In the section that follows, biblical verses are used slightly differently, but essentially this is a form of prooftexting. R. Elazar will argue that when a term is sandwiched between two divine names, that proves it is of special significance. This short passage is a tight unit by itself, and a lovely homily, as well.
R. Elazar said: Dei’ah is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, For the Lord is an all-knowing God (I Samuel 2:3).

R. Elazar said: The Temple (mikdash) is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, [in the place] that You made, Lord; in the sanctuary [mikdash] that your hands established (Exodus 15:17).

Rav Adda Karchina’ah objected: But now vengeance is great, for it is mentioned between two divine names, as it says, God to whom vengeance belongs; God to whom vengeance belongs shine forth (Psalms 94:1)

[R. Elazar] said to [Rav Adda Karchina’ah]: Because it is an important matter, it is as Ulla said: Why are there these two appearances [of the term “vengeance”, not one appearance as with dei’ah and mikdash]? One for a measure of good, and one for a measure of punishment.

R. Elazar said: Any person who possesses dei’ah, it is as if the Temple were built in his days because this [dei’ah] was mentioned between two divine names, and this [mikdash] was mentioned between two divine names.
The term Dei’ah, which I left in transliteration, means “knowledge” or “insight” or “wisdom.” That’s a lot of meaning for one word to hold. These are the facets of Talmud Torah, the Rabbis' enterprise.

R. Elazar’s methodology is simple: where a term is found in a verse with a name of God before it and after it, that signifies that it is extremely important and valuable. Dei’ah (knowledge, insight, wisdom, all the facets of Torah study) and Mikdash (either the sanctuary in the wilderness of later the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was served through sacrifices) fit the bill.

This simple structure -- a term sandwiched between two names of God -- opens the door to a raft of pasuk hunting. What other verses possess that characteristic? To what else then is Scripture ascribing greatness? Rav Adda Karchina’ah brings us an example that would seem to imply that “vengeance” must be a great thing according to R. Elazar’s methodology. R. Elazar has no trouble dismissing it because he finds the term “vengeance” twice in the verse and can interpret it to mean both the good kind of vengeance (presumably my vengeance against another?) and the bad kind of vengeance (presumably another vengeance against me?). To our minds, yet another scriptural slight of hand. To R. Elazar, completely legitimate.

R. Elazar now employs yet another rabbinic interpretative trick, a gezeira shava: since both Dei’ah and Mikdash share this distinction, they must be connected. The connection he draws for us is beautiful: one who possesses Dei’ah (understood here as Talmud Torah -- Torah knowledge and wisdom), it as if through his studies he has effectively built a Temple in his own day. Where once the Jewish People served God though sacrifices offered on an altar in the prescribed precinct of the Mikdash, now they serve God through Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. The “program of the rabbis” is furthered by this claim: it’s now all about Torah study.

We read in Pirke Avot (1:2), Shimon ha-Tzddik taught: Al shelosha devarim… The world depends upon three things: Torah [study], Avodah [worship, service], and Gemilut chasadim [deeds of loving kindness]. If we take a closer look, Torah is named first. It is the center post holding up the roof. Avodah has now been defined by R. Elazar as Torah study, Gemilut chasadim is the outgrowth of Torah study. In sum: The world is sustained by Talmud Torah, which serves God and humanity.

There is much truth to that. Torah tells us that the Jewish People came into existence to share our portion of God’s wisdom with the world. This is neither an exclusive claim to wisdom, nor a mandate to convert others. But it does define the Jewish mission: to share the wisdom of Torah with those seeking wisdom.

How well are we succeeding? If I were to be at all honest, I would have to see that we are doing a mediocre job at best. And that’s a generous evaluation. In our day we spend out time in internecine battles over legal trivialities, many centered on kashrut, which are a thin veneer for authority and turf battles. Or we argue about whose interpretation of Judaism is more valid. So unbecoming and such a tragic waste of human time and energy.

Our texts and the way we study them offer priceless riches for exploring the universal questions of humanity: What does it mean to be human? Does my life have purpose? How should we respond to evil? How can I fulfill my potential? How should I raise my children? How should I treat others? What are the attributes of a righteous community? How do we build one? How should community leaders behave? What are our obligations to the poor and homeless? How do we best take care of the sick and suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How do we work our way to peace? Torah is not a textbook for looking up answers -- it is a way to work through the questions to find one’s own answers.

It seems to me that R. Elazar got it right after all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lawsuits ancient and modern: nothing new under the sun / Sanhedrin 91a

Eight years ago, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Al-Zaqazig in Egypt, announced his intention to sue all the Jews in the world. In an August 2003 interview in the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram Al-Arabi, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, said:
''Since the Jews make various demands of the Arabs and the world, and claim rights that they base on historical and religious sources, a group of Egyptians in Switzerland has opened the case of the so-called 'great exodus of the Jews from Pharaonic Egypt.' At that time, they stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth, which today is priceless… If we assume that the weight of what was stolen was one ton, [its worth] doubled every 20 years, even if the annual interest is only 5%. In one ton of gold is 700 kg of pure gold - and we must remember that what was stolen was jewelry, that is, alloyed with copper. Hence, after 1,000 years, it would be worth 1,125,898,240 million tons, which equals 1,125,898 billion tons for 1,000 years. In other words, 1,125 trillion tons of gold, that is, a million multiplied by a million tons of gold. This is for one stolen ton. The stolen gold is estimated at 300 tons, and it was not stolen for 1,000 years, but for 5,758 years, by the Jewish reckoning. Therefore, the debt is very large.”

Every plaintiff -- even this one -- has to marshal evidence for his case. Here it is:
And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 25:6)
After Jews around the globe stopped laughing, caught their breath, and got up off the floor, many pointed out that this case was already tried in a court long ago -- the court of Alexander the Great -- in the imaginations of the Rabbis. The Talmud’s court account comes from the beginning of chapter ten of masechet Sanhedrin, daf 91a.

The tenth chapter of Sanhedrin opens with a mishnah that lists six things for which a person forfeits Olam Haba (the world-to-come). Gemara begins with the first item: denying that the belief in Olam Haba derives from Torah. Speculation concerning what Olam HaBa is like will follow. More on that later. Back to the Egyptians’ lawsuit.

The Rabbis tell us that Alexander of Macedon, serving as judge (common for kings in the ancient world -- think of King Solomon) heard three cases against Israel, defended (of course!) by the Rabbis. It’s worth noting quickly that Alexander III of Macedon died in 323 B.C.E., and there were no Rabbis until the latter half of the first century C.E. -- a good four centuries later. No matter. Perhaps the Rabbis painted Alexander into the story because he was a rare conqueror who respected the integrity of the nations he conquered and their territorial borders, the central claim in two of the three cases Talmud says he heard. He did not try to dismantle these nations nor dissolve their culture so long as they paid him tribute. (Alas, his successors had a very different attitude.)

Pausing in the larger discussion designed to prove that Olam Haba (the world-to-come) derives from Torah, we find three stories involving Alexander the Great. The stories themselves have nothing to do with Olam Haba, and seem to have been inserted to demonstrate the disputation skills of Geviha b. Pesisa who is cited in the ongoing discussion. The three stories follow the same pattern: A nation brings a lawsuit against Israel to the court of Alexander the Great. The descendants of Canaan claim Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). The Egyptians claim recompense. The descendant of Ishmael and Keturah claim join ownership of Eretz Yisrael. Each claim is made on the basis of a biblical verse, and each argument is soundly defeated by our savvy disputant, Geviha b. Pesisa, with another verse.

Here is the Talmud’s “transcript” of the case:

… the Egyptians brought a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They said: “Is it not written, And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 25:6)? Return to us the gold and silver you took!'

Thereupon Geviha b. Pesisa said to the Sages, “Give me permission to go and argue against them before Alexander of Macedon. If they defeat me, you will say, “You have merely defeated common man.” If I defeat them, you will say, "The Torah of Moses has defeated you.’”

So [the Sages] gave [Geviha b. Pesisa] permission, and he went and argued against [the Egyptians]. He asked them, “Whence do you derive your proof?” They said, “From the Torah.” He said to them, “Then I will bring proof from nothing other than the Torah, for it was written, The sojourning of the Israelites, who dwelled in Egypt, was 430 years (Exodus 12:40). Pay us the wages for the work of 600,000 whom you enslaved for 430 years.

Alexander of Macedon said to [the Egyptians], “Answer them!

“Give us three days’ time.”

They sought an answer but did not find one. Immediately they abandoned their fields [already] planted, and their vineyards [already] planted. And that was the sabbatical year.
In other words: been there, done that, even have t-shirts for the youngest members of the tribe. So it seems that Hilmi doesn’t earn high marks as a lawyer or mathematician, nor does he take home the coveted Originality Prize.

The Rabbis argument is that Jews can stake claim to the Land of Israel on the basis of biblical verses. The choice of verses in the three stories that include the one cited above is clever. Here’s a summary:

Descendant of Canaan: [The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:] Instruct the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as your portion, the land of Canaan with its various boundaries [which Torah proceeds to delineate in detail] (Numbers 34:2)
Geviha b. Pesisa: [Noah] said: Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers. (Genesis 9:25)

Egyptians: And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:36) Geviha b. Pesisa: The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years. (Exodus 12:40)

Ishmaelites and Keturians: This is the line of Ishmael, Abraham’s son… (Genesis 25:12)
Geviha b. Pesisa: Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts… (Genesis 25:5-6)

Either Geviha b. Pesisa is a genius, or it’s not such a trick to find a verse that can be interpreted to say what you want. I’m voting for the latter, but I will hand it to Geviha: the man is clever. He tells the Rabbis to allow him to represent them before Alexander the Great because if he loses, they can say, “But he’s just a common man,” implying that their defense was not adequate and they are entitled to have the case retried. The Rabbis would now have a turn. But by this time, they have heard the plaintiff’s argument and have a distinct advantage. Geviha, however, never loses.

Underlying this passage -- indeed, all three “cases” -- is the presumption that the People Israel owns the Land of Israel because God promised it to their ancestors, and that title to the land is found not in a bank vault, but in the Torah.

This is a claim that is still heard today. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 4, 2002, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) delineated seven reasons why Israel is entitled to the land that now constitute the State of Israel. Here is Reason #7:
Because God said so. As I said a minute ago, look it up in the book of Genesis. It is right up there on the desk. In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says:

The Lord said to Abram, “Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.”

That is God talking.

The Bible says that Abram removed his tent and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar before the Lord. Hebron is in the West Bank. It is at this place where God appeared to Abram and said, “I am giving you this land,” -the West Bank.

This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true. The seven reasons, I am convinced, clearly establish that Israel has a right to the land.
This is the foundation of the Settlers Movement in Israel. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. (Apologies, couldn’t resist.). In the 21st century, the Bible does not constitute a legitimate claim to the land. It certainly motivates a deep and abiding attachment of Jews to the land of their forebears, but so do the past 3,000 years of continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, and the past 17 centuries of prayer directed to Israel, both physically and religiously. But a claim based on divine fiat leads only to bloodshed. A negotiated settlement is the only path to a cessation of hostilities and secure borders.

A second look at the Talmud’s account of Egypt’s lawsuit suggests the very same thing. Certainly in the mind of the Rabbis, on each occasion, Geviha b. Pesisa brings a verse that trumps his opponents’. Yet the passage demonstrates that one can always pluck out a verse to “prove” one’s case. If the verse is not explicit enough, what do we do? Long ago the solution was interpretation; today we call it spin. Inadvertently, the Rabbis have provided us with an argument that undermines their own argument.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, June 27, 2011


Twenty five years ago I participated in a session led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi for klei kodesh: rabbis, cantors, prayer leaders and others who serve the Jewish community as religious leaders. Among the many teachings Reb Zalman shared was the assertion that the technology that rabbis and others needed to master was our texts, including liturgy. In this context technology means the use and knowledge of given techniques and systems in order to serve a purpose, such as enhancing prayer. Just as we would hesitate to use an electrician who had not mastered the details of working with his technology, so we should be cautious about a rabbi or prayer leader who had not mastered and was not adept at using the liturgy of the prayerbook.

I like that notion; as a Reform rabbi who often chooses what prayers to include in the service on any given occasion I believe it is essential to understand the function of the prayers and be able to articulate why I am choosing the service I lead. If I cannot explain why I am including or excluding a given prayer, why would I think my congregants could understand the service?

Some of my colleagues have objected to my description of the liturgy as a technology. They argue that the prayers have intrinsic meaning and that describing them as technology lessens that meaning and turns them into the “nuts and bolts” of the service. I appreciate their concern. I certainly agree that the prayers have meaning and that constitutes the heart of the service. But I also acknowledge that I and many others manipulate the service from time to time and I believe we need to know the import of our choices every bit as much as an electrician knows what wire to use when.

Which leads to a surprising discussion regarding the Shema found in Y. Berachot 14a. The broad discussion is about the function of the Shema. The problem is that the Shema is not a prayer but a quote from Torah. Other prayers, like those in the Amidah or the ones that surround the Shema, fit the categories that we normally associate with prayer – petition, praise, gratitude or adoration. The Shema is composed of three passages drawn from different sections of Torah. While we sometimes describe it as “the watchword of our faith” and the mishna describes it as “accepting the yoke of heaven and the commandments”, it is an anomaly in the prayerbook.

This particular passage is concerned with public prayers held on a fast day. The service is convened as one of the steps beseeching God to end a drought. The service is held late enough in the day for people to gather, but after the designated time for reciting the Shema. R. Aha is concerned that the recitation will not “count”, will not fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema or may mislead others to think it would be effective at that hour, while R. Yose argues that the recitation serves a different purpose on this occasion.

R. Yose and R. Aha were present for prayers on a public fast day when the congregation recited the Shema (but after the 3rd hour of the day). R. Aha wanted to stop them [because the time had passed . R. Yose said, “They have already recited the prayer in its proper time and are now repeating it so they can pray the Amidah along with words of Torah.” R. Aha responded, “Nevertheless I object because it may mislead unlearned folk who will think this is a proper time for the Shema.”

R. Aha's concern is understandable. As one who believes that the Shema is only effective as a prayer within certain time boundaries, he does not want to give anyone the wrong impression. He wants every word of prayer to be as effective as possible.

R. Yose introduces two new thoughts. First, that the Shema may carry power as words of Torah over and above its power as words of prayer. Most of the time I suspect we are unaware of the Shema as a passage of Torah. We encounter it in the prayerbook, read it as part of our service and describe it as an affirmation of our love of God. All well and good, but it is also words of Torah and we account those words as having power.

Second, he states that prayer requires Torah study. In order for the prayers of that fast day to be effective, he argued, they needed to include words of Torah. The Shema was chosen, I suspect, because in a large crowd which includes scholars and non-scholars, it is the best known passage one could choose.

This exchange between R. Aha and R. Yose is all about technology, what tool works in what situation. While R. Aha argues that the purpose of the Shema within a prayer service is limited, R. Yose understands that it may serve multiple purposes. R. Yose is willing to use the “technology” of the Shema in multiple ways, while R. Aha is not.

The past half century has been a time of amazing creativity in Jewish liturgy. Among the most obvious examples are the creation of innovative ceremonies for welcoming daughters into the Covenant, the composing of egalitarian Ketubot for weddings, and the groundbreaking use of the mikveh as a place of healing. Similarly the explosion of new Jewish liturgical music, from Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman and many others, has changed the musical landscape of synagogues across the globe. Along the way there have been many failed attempts at shaping meaningful liturgies for these occasions and similar occasions for prayer.

If I consider why some of these efforts succeeded while others failed, I come back to the debate between R. Aha and R. Yose and to the advice offered by Reb Zalman. Every piece of our service has meaning and purpose. Nothing is there just because it sounds nice. Every element, if properly understood, moves us toward a spiritual goal. Like any technology, if an expert uses it well, it succeeds; if one simply moves the pieces around without purpose, it fails.

Imagine attending a service where everyone present understood the import of every prayer. As the service progresses each pray-er awakens their body, their heart, their mind, and their soul to the possibilities before them. Not everyone can reach the same height; nor can any individual enter the prayers with the same energy day after day. But as a community our prayers can soar. The technology of prayer, properly used, can make this happen. May we all be blessed to experience it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

May you be blessed / Yerushalmi Berakhot 13b

A dear friend who died this past January taught me the power of blessing in the last year of his life. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, he was determined to make the time he had left meaningful to him and others. He wanted to be a blessing. Everywhere he went he bestowed blessings on people. He told me that everyone yearns to be blessed. He told me I, too, should bestow blessings on people. At first this sounded presumptuous to me. Who am I to bless others? He responded that blessings are hopes for someone, not guarantees and not a claim to power, so there is no arrogance involved. Then it sounded hokey. He told me that if it feels uncomfortable and hokey, get over it because it’s good for others. As his condition deteriorated, I came to realize (yet again) that time is our most precious commodity, and that he was absolutely right: get over it and get over it quickly because other people should not have to wait for what they need.

I want to share one very short passage in the Yerushalmi, Berakhot 13b. It begins by citing Mishnah 1:5:
MISHNAH: And on shabbat, they add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar (guard).

GEMARA: What is the blessing [they added]? R. Chelbo said: This is it: “May the One Who dwells in this house plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.”
Perhaps you’re wondering: What is a mishmar? The Priests and Levites were divided into twenty-four “guards” (mishmarot) to offer the daily sacrifices and performed the ancillary work of the Temple, in rotation, in order to involve as many people as possible. The change-of-shift to the new mishmar occurred every shabbat in the late afternoon as evening arose. The previous mishmar would offer the morning and musaf (additional) sacrifice for shabbat, and then the new mishmar would come to replace them. Their first act was to replace the twelve loaves of showbread on the table in the Temple. In the time of the Second Temple, the population had increased prodigiously and the Priests and Levites were so numerous that the mishmarot (guards) were further subdivided into batei avot (subdivisions) and often each person performed at most one task during his week of service. Mishnah 1:5 tells us that as one guard left and another came on duty, a blessing was added to the evening recitation of the Shema on that occasion.

The additional blessing is beautiful: “May the One Who dwells in this house [i.e., the Temple, where the changing of the guards is taking place] plant among you companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” (The Bavli – Babylonian Talmud – on Berakhot 12a records virtually the same blessing, except that the order of companionship and loyalty is reversed.)

The Hebrew in the Mishnah is a bit ambiguous: U’v’shabbat mosifin b’rakha achat la’mishmar ha-yotzei can mean both, “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for the outgoing mishmar [to recite],” and “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.”

Traditional commentators agree that the outgoing mishmar recited this blessing for the incoming mishmar, expressing the hope that their service for the coming week would be marked by “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship.” Perhaps they had in mind a disturbing and graphic incident recorded in Yoma 23a. The priesthood had proliferated so that even menial tasks were deemed highly desirable. Cleaning away the ashes from the altar early in the morning (t’rumat ha-deshen) became a competitive foot race up the altar, on one occasion with disastrous consequences:
It once happened that two [of the priests] were neck and neck as they ran and ascended the ramp [to the altar]. One of them came within four cubits [of the top of the ramp]. His colleague took a knife and drove it into his heart. (Yoma 23a)
Perhaps the blessing was intended to remind the incoming mishmar that their holy work for the week to come should not devolve into a vicious competition of the most unholy kind. It was meant to draw them together as they served in the Temple for the sake of Israel, not serve as an opportunity for self-centered and self-aggrandizing behavior.

The Hebrew, however, lends itself to another interpretation: “And on shabbat they would add one blessing for [the sake of] the outgoing mishmar.” In this reading, the incoming guard bestows a blessing on the outgoing guard, expressing the hope that their service of the past will inspire them to bring “companionship, loyalty, peace, and friendship” home with them to their families and communities. May the One who dwells in the house – i.e. God who dwells in the Holy of Holies – bless their houses (both familial and communal) with the very attributes that should mark their service in Jerusalem. In this way, they truly represent the people, and their service in the Temple reaches those of Israel who live outside Jerusalem.

I think of this alternate understanding in connection with our service to God: prayer, study, chesed (deeds of kindness), pursuit of social justice, or whatever we do in response to God in our lives. Do we do it purely for our own spiritual benefit, or do we do it with a mind to also share the blessings we seek for ourselves, with others?

I recall reading in a prayer book, but do not know the original source, a thought that has always stuck with me: “Those who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”

I am especially intrigued and moved by the word yita (“plant”) – “May the One Who dwells in this house plant within you…” The image of planting attributes is one of setting down roots that will take hold in firm soil, blossom, and propagate, giving rise to new generations and bearing fruit for many. The blessings we bring to others – and the blessing we are to others – do precisely that. May you be blessed with life, peace, joy, and fulfillment in all that you do.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Okay, just who's in charge now? / Yerushalmi 11b-12a

Who’s in charge – God or the Rabbis? Which is more authoritative – Torah or the laws of the Rabbis? The answer in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) may surprise many of us.

Did the Amoraim (the Sages of both Talmuds, from the time of the compilation of the Mishnah in ~200 C.E. until the end of the 6th century) have the authority they claimed over the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the 3rd and 4th centuries? Or did they operate and adjudicate as if they had the authority, and thereby in the course of time, establish it for their successors?

Was the enterprise of the Rabbis – Rabbinic Judaism, including Mishnah, Gemara, and midrash – a translation and extension of the Judaism of the Second Temple period to post-Temple rabbinic Judaism, or was it a complete transformation? Evolution or emergent phenomenon?

To answer the third question (and thereby gain insight into the first two questions) we might investigate rituals and practices. We might scrutinize how service to God was carried out. Or, we might examine who claimed authority and how it was wielded.

The first chapter of Berakhot in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) discusses when to say the Shema – morning and evening – as well as who must interrupt their activity to recite it precisely on time, in the first two mishnayot. Mishnah 3 records a disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning the proper position for reciting the Shema in the evening. Bet Shammai say one should recline because the Shema specifically states, b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha, which Bet Shammai take to mean “in your lying down and in your rising up.” Bet Hillel, however, say you may recite Shema however you choose, because it also states, u’v’lekh’t’cha va’derekh, “when you go on your way.” Bet Hillel understands b‘shockh’b’cha u’v’kumecha to be temporal, not positional: “when you lie down and when you rise up.” This occasions an excursion in the fourth mishnah to discuss Rabbinic authority vis-à-vis the Torah, and more particularly Bet Hillel versus Bet Shammai.

Mishnah 4 is an anecdote concerning R. Tarfon who followed the opinion of Beth Shammai with nearly tragic consequences:
Said. R. Tarfon, “I was traveling and I reclined to recite the Shema in accordance with the opinion of Bet Shammai. [As a result] I placed myself in danger of [attack by] bandits.” They said to him, “You have only yourself to blame [for what might have happened to you] because you violated the opinion of Bet Hillel.”
This story precipitates a discussion in which the Rabbis aver the supremacy of rabbinic authority over even the Torah. Shocking? Let’s take a look.
The colleagues in the name of R. Yochanan, “The words of the scribes [i.e. rabbinic teachings] are as precious as the words of Torah and as dear as the words of Torah.” And your mouth [=rabbinic teachings] is like the best wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 7:9).

Shimon bar Va in the name of R. Yochanan: the words of the scribes are as precious as the words of Torah and more dear than the words of Torah, [as it says] For your love [=Rabbinic teachings] is better than wine [=Torah] (Song of Songs 1:2).
R. Ba bar Kohen in the name of R. Yehudah b. Pazi: You will know that the words of the scribes are more dear than the words of the Torah, for if R. Tarfon had not recited [the Shema] he would only have violated a positive commandment [for which there is no punishment]. But because he violated the words of Bet Hillel [i.e. the opinion of the Sages] he was liable for death [at the hands of bandits] according to [the principle] And a snake will bite him who breaks through a wall [i.e. one who violates a rabbinic regulation will be severely – or perhaps lethally – punished] (Kohelet 10:8).
The gemara opens with R. Yochanan’s assertion that rabbinic teachings are as precious (i.e. authoritative) as Torah. Shimon bar Va in his name claims that R. Yochanan went further: rabbinic teachings are more authoritative than Torah. How do we know? Because had R. Tarfon failed to recite the Shema altogether, he would have violated only a positive commandment of the Torah and would therefore not have been subject to the death penalty. In purposefully following the opinion of Bet Shammai, however, R. Tarfon violated the opinion of Bet Hillel, and was therefore liable – or at least deserving of – death.

What an incredible and audacious claim!

Our passage ends with the claim that with in the world of the Sages, Bet Hillel has greater authority than Bet Shammai:
This [rule that Bet Hillel’s authority trumps all others] applies only after the heavenly voice went forth [to decree that the law follows the view of the Bet Hillel].

But before the Heavenly voice went forth anyone who wanted could be stringent with himself and follow the stringencies of Bet Shammai and the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Concerning this one it is said, The fool walks in darkness (Kohelet 2:14).

One who follows the leniencies of this one and that one [i.e., both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel] is called wicked.

Rather, [one should follow] the leniencies and stringencies of this one, or the leniencies and stringencies of that one. This was before the heavenly voice went forth.

But after the heavenly voice went forth, the halakhah forever followed the words of Bet Hillel. Anyone who violated the words of Bet Hillel was liable to death.
The declaration of the bat kol (heavenly voice) alluded to here is found in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud):
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, the former saying, “The law follows our views,” and the latter saying, “The law follows our views.” A bat kol [heavenly voice] proclaimed: “Both are words of the living God, but the law follows Bet Hillel." (Eruvin 13b)
Our last passage from the Yerushalmi explains that prior to the bat kol promulgating heaven’s decision that Bet Hillel has the final say in all halakhic matters, people had options. They could take upon themselves stringencies, or follow only the stringencies of both schools, or choose one school to follow consistently. However, they could not follow only the leniencies of both schools. Since the bat kol alluded to in Eruvin 13b, all options are off the table save following the decisions of Bet Hillel.

It is irresistible to compare this passage with the famous passage in the Bavli (Baba Metzia 58-59) which also discusses divine authority versus rabbinic authority, and which prominently features a bat kol (heavenly voice). I mentioned this passage in my previous posting. Amidst a disagreement among the Rabbis, a heavenly voice declares that heaven concurs with the decisions of R. Eliezer in all matters, but the Sages say, “…Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We no longer pay attention to a Heavenly Voice.” Judaism – as interpreted by the Rabbis – has emerged from its adolescence, strong, independent, and capable of making its own decisions, with the wisdom of what my kids call “the parental unit” informing them but in the background. The “parental unit” is delighted: “My children have defeated Me!” God laughs with joy.

In our passage in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) we do not meet God as a participant or witness. God has no role in this story because, it appears, the Rabbis have assumed sole authority. One could claim – and rightly so – that the very same situation pertains in the Bavli. There is both a difference and a similarity. Baba Metzia paints a picture of transition, God ceding authority willingly, and delighting in the Rabbis assuming their new role. That is absent in our Yerushalmi passage. What is more, the Yerushalmi presumes that Rabbinic authority trumps Torah and moves on to the internal struggle between the opinions of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Both, however, ironically find license to claim authority over Torah – which they understand to be God’s word – from God! It is the bat kol who proclaims their authority.

While the Bavli paints a scene of transition of authority, the Yerushalmi paints a scene of complete transformation: out with the old, in with the new.

Perhaps the Sages of the Yerushalmi are more honest about what they are doing: creating something radically new, different from the Second Temple Judaism that came before both in structure, content, and authority. Perhaps because they live in the Land of Israel and therefore maintain that powerful connection to the past, they are freer to assert what is radically new. The Sages of Babylonia, 1000 miles from the Land, lack that powerful connection, and seek to portray their enterprise as arising organically from the earth of pre-Temple Judaism.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Majority voting: Is it good for the Jews and halakhah? / Yerushalmi Berakhot 8b-9a

Perhaps the most famous passage in the Babylonian Talmud about rabbinic process from the Babylonian Talmud is known as the “Oven of Achnai” (Baba Metzia 59). This story has something for everyone: miracles, power, violence, love, tragedy, revenge… Perhaps we should phone Steven Spielberg or George Lucas and see what they could do with it on the big screen. Among the many serious themes running through the passage is a discussion of rabbinic authority and process.

Which promotes community cohesion and survival better: flexibility or rigidity in law? Which assures that unity of the community holding the reins of authority to make and decide law?

Prior to 70 C.E., halakhah was pluralistic. Its nature was an exploration of how Torah was to be applied to life. With the Temple’s destruction, and even more the transition from the Tannaim to the Amoraim, flexibility gave way to rigidity. This is the thesis of Paul Heger in The Pluralistic Halakhah: Legal Innovations in the Late Second Commonwealth where he notes: “The issue of authority thus became the major impediment to legal development… At the primary stage, logical and practical considerations, within the boundaries of the Torah, dominated the halakhic disputes and decisions, allowing creative legislation in all directions, lenient and strict, tolerant and exclusive, flexible and rigid, pluralistic or with fixed halakhot, according to the circumstances… the transition from the tannaitic to the amoraic concepts constituted a real cut-off between two distinct types of theories and convictions… The rigidity of the halakhah, and the conviction that only an ‘infallible’ leader knows God’s will, undermine all tolerance to divergent opinions and exacerbate divisiveness” (pp. 348-350).

Could that “infallible” leader be the majority of sages in the Academy?

In the “Oven of Achnai” story, R. Eliezer circumvents the decision process in the Academy in order to assert his authority. He claims divine prerogative (buttressed by a few highly impressive miracles, with a heavenly voice in a cameo role) but his colleagues reject his arguments. They cite Deuteronomy 30:12 (“It is not in heaven”) which ironically gives them the authority to overrule even heaven itself, which happens to have sided with R. Eliezer. When the dialectics and debates are over, the Sages vote. The majority opinion is the one every Sage is expected to abide by, for as Torah says, Incline after the majority (Exodus 23:2). R. Eliezer, however, armed with an imprimatur from heaven, refuses. The result is devastation, destruction, and death. This is not a pretty passage.

Had R. Eliezer accepted the majority opinion, the tragic ending would have been averted. The culture of the Academy in Babylonian, as in Eretz Yisrael, was based on the principle stated in Exodus 23:2 – once a vote is taken, every rabbi is expected to follow the majority opinion. It is easy to imagine why this is so. Imagine that you could go to different authority to learn his/her version of the traffic laws. In the case of a decimated Jewish community, unity and a centralized authority were deemed essential for several reasons. First, to engender a consistent set of standards for the life of the community. Second to insure that relations between sages would remain civil and stable so that they could study and work together. The “Oven of Achnai” story serves as a warning in this regard. But is it good for the enterprise of halakhah, and as an outgrowth for Judaism overall?

Could this not also be stifling, preventing alternative views from being voiced and considered once a vote is taken? Edmund Burke wrote in 1790 that “They tyranny of the multitude is a multiplied tyranny” (Reflections on the Revolution in France). Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase “the tyranny of the majority” nearly half a century later in his remarkable work, Democracy in America (1835). He signaled a prescient warning that a majority voting system could promote the interests of the majority so far above those of individuals or minority groups that dissenters would be effectively oppressed and tyrannized by the majority. It is a danger to always keep in mind with any majority voting system.

The Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Berkhot explains in far more peaceful terms than bBaba Metzia, how this worked. The first mishnah of both Talmuds inquires how late into the night one may recite the evening Shema. R. Eliezer (the same R. Eliezer we find in the “Oven of Achnai” passage) gives us until the end of the first watch (the first third of the night) but the Sages say midnight, and Rabban Gamliel extends it even further to amud ha-shachar (the first light of dawn). An incident is cited: Rabban Gamliel’s sons came home from a party after midnight. They told their father that they had not yet recited the evening Shema. He responded, in accord with his opinion above, that they had until amud ha-shachar to fulfill their obligation. Was Rabban Gamliel teaching his sons to follow his opinion in violation of the majority view of the Sages that midnight is the cutoff?

We find the discussion of this question on 8b-9a. The passage is quite long, so I will include a translation of it for you beneath this discussion (scroll down a lot) and mostly summarize and cite small portions here. The gemara begins with the obvious question and immediately cites three examples of prominent rabbis who found themselves in disagreement with their colleagues yet submitted to the authority of the majority.
Does Rabban Gamliel disagree with the rabbis and act according to his own opinion [even against the opinion of the majority]? R. Meir, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion. R. Akiba, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion. R. Shimon, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion. (8b)
The gemara proceeds to provide an example for each sage. As briefly as I can, here is a summary of the three examples:

1. R. Meir believed it was permissible to vigorously mix ingredients to make and apply a salve on shabbat for someone who is ill. The Sages, however, determined the vigorous mixing to be a violation of halakhah. When R. Meir himself became ill, he refused to allow his students to prepare and apply such a salve to him. They asked why R. Meir was not following his own opinion on the matter and R. Meir replied that he was following the majority view.

2. R. Akiba disagreed with his colleagues concerning a matter of ritual impurity: what is the minimum amount and source of various bone, blood, and body tissues required to impart ritual impurity to those under the same roof with these tisues. R. Akiba’s opinion in mishnah Ohalot 2:6 is quoted on our daf. Then we learn of an incident in which a question arose about a box filled with bones. Reputable physicians conducted an examination and determined that the bones met the minimum requirement of R. Akiba, but in the interim, the Sage had voted for a more lenient standard, so R. Akiba proffered their opinion as his own revised opinion, thereby inclining after the majority.

3. R. Shimon holds a lenient opinion concerning the collecting and eating of plants that sprout spontaneously during the sabbatical year, when plowing, sowing, and harvesting are forbidden. The Sages, however, come to a more stringent decision. When R. Shimon encounters a man out in the field following his more lenient standard, he tells the man that he has now adopted the more stringent opinion of his colleagues.

How could it possibly be, then, that Rabban Gamliel failed to incline after the majority in the case of his party-animal sons?
And Rabban Gamliel disagrees with the rabbis and acts according to his own opinion? It is different here. Because it [Shema] can be said for studying. But even after the first light of dawn [it would have been appropriate for his sons to recite Shema – it would have been the morning Shema]. There are those who want to say [this – that Rabban Gamliel followed his own opinion in contradiction to the opinion of the majority of the rabbis]. There [in the three cases cited above] they could fulfill the words of the sages. But here, midnight has already passed and [Rabban Gamliel’s sons] could not fulfill the words of the sages. [Therefore Rabban Gamliel] told them to act according to his opinion.
The gemara explains that Rabban Gamliel was merely giving his sons permission to study the passage of the Torah including the Shema; certainly that is permissible at any hour day or night. Not everyone is convinced, and still there are those who claim that Rabban Gamliel held to his own opinion in opposition to that of the majority. The solution is quite clever: since the sons returned after midnight, they could not have fulfilled their obligation as prescribed by the Sages. Therefore Rabban Gamliel – in this particular case alone, and only because it was too late for his sons to do as the Sages said – had them act according to his personal opinion.

The gemara’s solution intrigues me. As the Sages of the Yerushalmi tell the story, Rabban Gamliel both accedes to his colleagues, thereby respecting the majority ruling, and simultaneously asserts his own opinion at least in some small way. He could have told his sons that their opportunity to say the evening Shema had elapsed. Sorry, too late, you lose. Instead, he found a creative way to keep alive a minority view in the lived experience of the community.

The myth that Judaism has always proffered the same rules, and that all Jews follow the same rules if they follow any at all, needs to be busted wide open. Halakhah is a process, not an outcome. It is an evolving process, reshaping itself in each generation according to the needs and sensibilities of the community. This is a wonderful thing and assures Judaism’s continued vitality and viability. Preservation of the minority opinion, respectfully presented, is one of the attributes of the Bavli, but there is little room for it to live and breath in the life of the community. Here in the Yerushalmi, we see a bit more openness – an occasion where a minority opinion is put into practice to the benefit of all involved.

Here is a translation for the Yerushalmi Berakhot 8b-9a to accompany the commentary above.


An incident: Rabban Gamliel’s sons came [home after midnight from a party and had not yet recited the evening Shema].

Does Rabban Gamliel disagree with the rabbis and act according to his own opinion [even against the opinion of the majority]? R. Meir, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion. R. Akiba, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion. R. Shimon, when he disagreed with the rabbis, did not act according to his own opinion.

Where do we find that R. Meir disagreed with the rabbis but did not act according to his own opinion? A baraita: We may spread alvantis [some kind of healing ointment or salve] on a sick person on shabbat. When? In the case in which one mixed it vigorously with wine and oil prior to shabbat. But if he did not mix it vigorously prior to shabbat, it is forbidden [to spread it on the sick person]. [Another] baraita: R. Shimon b. Elazar said: R. Meir permitted vigorous mixing of wine and oil and spreading on a sick person on shabbat. And it once happened that R. Meir became sick and we [his disciples?] requested to do this for him [on shabbat]. But he would not permit us. We said to him: Master, will you nullify your words in your own life experience? And he said to them: Although I am lenient with regard to other people, I am strict concerning myself because [a majority of] my colleagues disagree with me.

Where do we find that R. Akiba disagreed with the rabbis but did not act according to his own opinion? A mishnah [Ohalot 2:6 asks what is the minimum that suffices to convey ritual impurity to everyone under the same roof as the spinal column and skull]: A spinal column or a skull from two corpses, a revi’it of blood from two corpses, a quarter-kav of bones from two corpses, a limb from a dead person from two corpses, a limb from a live person from two people. R. Akiba says these [quantities are sufficient] to convey tum’ah (ritual impurity) and the sages say [everyone under the same roof remains] tahor (ritually pure). A baraita: There was an incident in which they brought a box filled with bones from Kfar Tavi and deposited it in the air [i.e. not under the roof] of the synagogue in Lod [presumably in the courtyard or outside the entrance]. [The gemara now seems to presume that prior to arriving in Lod, the bones had been stored in a building, so the question arises whether those who were in the building with the bones are now to be considered tamei or tahor – ritually impure or ritually pure.] Todros the physician entered and all the other physicians [entered] with him. Todros the physician said: The spinal column and skull here are not from one corpse. [The bones therefore come from two separate corpses.] They [the rabbis] said: Since there are some here who rule [bones from two corpses are insufficient to convey tum’ah and therefore] they are ritually pure, and there are some here who rule [that bones from two corpses are sufficient to convey tum’ah and therefore] they are ritually impure, let us take a count [i.e. vote].


They began with R. Akiba [i.e. asked his opinion first]. He said tahor [bones from two corpses do not convey tum’ah, in contradiction to his ruling in Ohalot 2:6, cited above]. They said to him: since you already ruled tamei, and now you are ruling tahor, [they are certainly] tahor.

Where do we find that R. Shimon disagreed with the rabbis but did not act according to his own opinion? We learned in a mishnah (Shevi’it 9:1): R. Shimon says all aftergrowth [i.e. plants that sprouted spontaneously without having been purposefully planted by people] are permitted [to be collected and eaten in the sabbatical year] except the aftergrowth of cabbage because there is nothing else like it among the plants of the field. But the sages say: All aftergrowth are forbidden. R. Shimon b. Yochai was involved in an incident in the sabbatical year. He saw someone collecting aftergrowth of the seventh year. He said to him: Is this not forbidden? Are these not aftergrowth? The man said to him: Aren’t you the one that permits [aftergrowth in the sabbatical year]? [R. Shimon] said to him: And don’t my colleagues disagree with me? Concerning him [the man who continued to collect the aftergrowth despite R. Shimon telling him not to] it is said, and he who breaks down a wall will be bitten by a snake (Ecclesiastes 10:8) – and this happened to him.

And Rabban Gamliel disagrees with the rabbis and acts according to his own opinion? It is different here. Because it [Shema] can be said for studying. But even after the first light of dawn [it would have been appropriate for his sons to recite Shema – it would have been the morning Shema]. There are those who want to say [this – that Rabban Gamliel followed his own opinion in contradiction to the opinion of the majority of the rabbis]. There [in the three cases cited above] they were able to fulfill the words of the sages. But here, midnight has already passed and [Rabban Gamliel’s sons] could not fulfill the words of the sages. [Therefore Rabban Gamliel] told them to act according to his opinion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Dr. Spock’s Vulcan salute owes its origin to the duchenin, the recitation of the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:22-27), that Leonard Nimoy saw growing up in the Boston Synagogue. Nimoy describes the experience this way:
“They were very loud, ecstatic, almost like at a revival meeting, and they were shouting this prayer in Hebrew, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you…’ but I had no idea at the time what they’re saying. My father said ‘Don’t look’ and everybody’s got their heads covered with their prayer shawls or their hands over their eyes. And I see these guys with their heads covered with their shawls but out from underneath they have their hands up. It was chilling, spooky and cool.”
When he had to create a Vulcan greeting he copied the way the cohanim held their hands at that awesome moment.

The first time the Priestly blessing was recited, according to the Torah, was when the Israelites were gathered together for the dedication of the Tabernacle, the movable altar that accompanied them through the desert. The blessing happened in stages – God told Moses, who told Aaron, who then recited the blessing over the gathered assembly. The priestly recitation was not the actual blessing but served to link God’s name with the people allowing God’s blessing to rest on them. It was God, not the priests, who blessed the Israelites.

What did it feel like to stand in that assembly and have the Divine blessing rest on you? Would you have felt the blessing on your body, a weight pressing down or a shiver running up your spine? Would it have been more internal, your heart racing? Might you have experienced a flash of insight, a glimpse of a broader universe? The midrash offers no description of that moment, but I suspect it might have left you awestruck. Perhaps it was as Nimoy describes – chilling, spooky and cool.

These two experiences of the Priestly benediction – ancient and modern – contrast with the way Rav Huna describes the blessing as it occurred in the synagogue of his time. The procedure he describes transforms the experience from one of pure reception to an interactive conversation.
“One who is in the synagogue when the priests recite the first blessing [during
morning prayers] should respond, “Bless God, O his angels…;” to the second blessing respond, “Bless God, all his legions…;” and to the third, “Bless God all his works…” (Y. Berachot 5a)

The verses Rav Huna prescribes come from Psalm 103:20-22. He describes a similar procedure for the musaf recitation though the antiphonal verses in that case come from Psalm 134.

The experience Rav Huna describes feels so different to me. I can imagine the recitation being formal and solemn, but not chilling or awesome. I wonder why they instituted that change?

Rav Huna lived in the early 3rd century. Though the Temple had been destroyed over a century earlier the ritual of the synagogue was still developing. The synagogue functioned differently than the Temple. Worship was not confined to Jerusalem, but could take place wherever Jews gathered. Prayer replaced sacrifice with the result that the spoken word took on added importance. The prayer leader did not need to be a cohen [priest]. The synagogue, however, was only a substitute for the Temple, a status that remains evident in traditional prayers that call for the restoration of the Temple.

Perhaps that generation of sages sensed that the power of the Temple could not be replicated in the synagogue. The power of a sacrificial offering lies in the experience of seeing the gift accepted. When the offering burned on the altar one could see the smoke rise, hear the Levitical choir intone the sacred words, and receive the confirmation from the cohen that the offering was successful. Whatever else we might think about those sacrifices, they engaged us through all of our senses. We saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted the offering. There was an immediacy in the Temple that differed from the synagogue experience.

Perhaps the early sages felt that the Divine Presence was more distant. Could those words, once recited in the Sacred halls of the Temple, call God’s blessing down on the humble buildings that now served as synagogues? Rav Huna lived in Babylonia; could the words that drew God’s blessing in Jerusalem extend to the ends of the earth?

Perhaps the power of the synagogue now depended on the presence of the people as much as on the Presence of the Divine. A minyan, a quorum of ten, was now required for public prayer. Human words, spoken by the gathered community, rose to heaven in the place of smoke and incense and constituted the Divine service. In the synagogue the power of prayer was a shared enterprise between the people and their God, and so it was as Rav Huna describes the Priestly benediction. The Sacred words of blessing were met in holy, interactive conversation as the people responded to the words of Torah with the words of Psalms. Blessing emerged from the joint action of God and human.

The ritual Rav Huna described did not last. By the time of Maimonides (12th c.) the custom was different – a communal amen sealed each of the blessings. Today the custom is to respond to each blessing saying, Ken yehi ratzon, So may it be God’s will. This passage is merely a footnote in our liturgical history.

It points, however, to a problem that remains. When we sit in the synagogue holding books and reciting words, what moves us? I believe we want to know that the service of our heart stirs a Divine response, but it is often difficult to find that experience. I seek places where the chanting raises our voices above the plain meaning of the words to allow a bit of sacred mystery to enter. I hope for those moments when the prayers of the synagogue can be, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, chilling, spooky and cool.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ties that Bind / Yerushalmi Berakhot 5a

Infatuation can be intense, but it lacks mutuality and is usually short-lived. Genuine love is reciprocated and self-sustaining because both partners nurture one another. Our prayers speak of love often – the love between God and the people Israel. The mutual quality of that relationship is often reflected in our liturgy.

In my last posting, I discussed two models the Rabbis envision for us in prayer. Both involve standing erect with legs together: angels and priests. Having mentioned the priests, the Gemara turns to a discussion of the descendants of priests who recite the Birkat Kohanim (the priestly benediction) in the synagogue. Birkat Kohanim is inserted in birkat shalom (the final benediction of the Amidah) during the reader’s repetition. There is a tradition of duchenen in some synagogue: all those who are considered kohanim (descendants of the biblical priests according to the paternal line) assemble in the front of the congregation, place their tallitot over their heads, and blessed the assembled congregation with the threefold benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites, found in Numbers 6:24-26:
May God bless you and keep you. May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace.
Here is a picture of the kohanim delivering the priestly benediction (duchenen) at the Kotel on Sukkot.

The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) explain that the congregation responds antiphonally to each of the three blessings with a verse from the Bible, creating a conversation between the kohanim blessing the people, and the people receiving God’s blessing through the kohanim. Alternatively, you can think of it as a canon in which two different tunes are interwoven and their “notes” blend to create a new piece of music. In Shacharit (the morning service) the kohanim recite Numbers 6:24-26, and the congregation responds with Psalm 103:20-22.

The verses from Psalm 103, as we find them in that psalm, speak of the heavenly retinue, God’s hosts, who do God’s will. They come at the end of the psalm, seemingly as a contrast to human beings, who are the subject of the psalm up through verse 18. Verse 19 introduces the idea of God’s sovereignty over heaven, as well as earth. The psalm then closes with these three verses:
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul.
The “canon” looks like this:
PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey the voice of his word. (Psalm 103:20)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his servants who do his will. (Psalm 103:21)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless God, O my soul. (Psalm 103:22)
My first observation is that the antiphonal voice of Psalm 103 makes relational sense: the kohanim are calling down God’s blessings on the congregation, and the congregation responds by blessing God. For a relationship to be meaningful, it must be mutual. (We see this affirmed liturgically in the insertion of Shema after the blessing for Revelation. The prayer for Revelation says, in essence, “God loved us so much, God gave us Torah.” Shema is a response to the question that affirmation inspires: how do we show our love for God?) But Psalm 103:20-21 are not about human beings blessing God; these are the blessings of angelic creatures in heaven. It is as if the kohanim are the earthly stand-ins for God’s angels. The priests-as-angels bless the people, and the people respond by affirming that those who bless them also bless God – like angels. Perhaps this is inspired by the earlier discussion about standing erect like an angel to pray (please see my previous posting on this subject). The third response, Psalm 103:22, clearly refers to those in the congregation. Perhaps what is happening is that the congregation affirms the stature of the kohanim to call down God’s blessings in the first two responses, and then after all three blessings of Birkat Kohanim are recited, the congregation responds by blessing God.

The Gemara goes on to say that for Musaf (the additional service on Shabbat and festivals), the congregation’s responses are taken from Psalm 134:1-3 (Psalm 134 has only three verses), creating a second canon that looks like this:

PRIESTS: May God bless you and keep you. (Numbers 6:24)
CONGREGATION: Now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who stand nightly in the house of the Lord. (Psalm 134:1)

PRIESTS: May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Numbers 6:25)
CONGREGATION: Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and bless the Lord. (Psalm 134:2)

PRIESTS: May God turn toward the divine countenance toward you, and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:26)
CONGREGATION: May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (Psalm 134:3)
Here, the first and second verses of Psalm 134 project the image of a priest in the Temple, standing guard at night, lifting his hands toward the Mikdash (the Hebrew in verse 2 is “Kodesh,” a term for the Temple itself). This seems altogether fitting, since it is the descendants of the kohanim who are calling down God’s blessing on the congregation, and the congregation responds yet again by affirming that the kohanim bless God – this time as priests. The third verse, however, shifts the focus, as did the third verse in the Psalm 103 triplet above, but not in the same direction. It does not serve as the congregation’s blessing for God. Rather, in the context of Birkat Kohanim, it functions as the congregation’s reciprocal blessing of the kohanim.

In this way, both “canons” of Birkat Kohanim link the kohanim, congregation, and God in a circle of blessing, an intimate relationship of love and nurturance. The kohanim – as both angel-stand-ins and as Temple priests – serve as the tie that binds, just as they did when the Temple stood. I am not calling for a return to duhenen in liberal congregations that no longer practice this tradition, but certainly understanding how our liturgy and rituals function to bind us closer to God is valuable.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Becoming: imagined or inspired / Yerushalmi Berakhot 4b

I was chatting with a colleague about the new Visual Tfilah project whose creators describe it as utilizing “contemporary technology, including but not limited to digital projectors and screens, to display liturgy for the community intermingled with art and other visual imagery.” Having recently experienced Visual Tfilah for shacharit (the morning service), my colleague was taken by the Mi Chamocha of the Ge’ulah. (Please go here and click on Mi Chamocha. You are supposed to feel you are walking through the Reed Sea, the waters parting on your left and right.) “I felt like I was there, on that path, going through the Reed Sea,” my colleague said. For my part, I couldn’t even recall the image. My colleague felt that the images – especially those of the natural world – were inspiring, “just like being there.” Perhaps I am less imaginative, or more experiential, but for me, there is a world of difference between an image and the reality. The exquisite beauty of nature can never be captured in a photograph because so much of the beauty is being there, in the moment, in that place, surrounded by it, part of it, intoxicated by it. For me, photos may trigger memories, but can never capture the experience itself. The assumption of Visual Tfilah, in part, is that images can convey experience. Clearly, that is true for some, and the rest of us prefer to daven with a siddur in our hands.

Jewish prayers are meant to invoke a wide variety of images, emotions, ideas, and experiences – including experiences that the worship has never had. Jewish prayer is a multi-sensory experience: it involves music and movement, sight and sound, poetry and choreography.

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) begins with a mishnah that asks when the Shema should be recited in the evening, launching a lengthy discussion about how we define evening, night, and morning. The conversation continues for pages. And then, quite abruptly, another idea is introduced: One who stands and prays must line up his legs. In others, one should stand erect with his/her feet together, while praying. In reality, Jews tend to sway rhythmically while praying, both because the Hebrew of the prayers themselves has a beautiful poetic cadence and because, after all, who can stand still for very long? (Certainly not me.) Nonetheless, I can appreciate that the ideal is to stand respectfully, reflecting the dignity of the activity, and respect for God and the community.

The Sages go further. They want us to have an image of who we are when we stand with our legs together in prayer.
One who stands and prays must line up his legs.

Two Amoraim [disagree about how to understand this]: R. Levi and R. Shimon. One says like angels, and one says like priests.

The one who says like priests [supports his position by citing] You shall not ascend My altar with stairs [so that your nakedness should not be exposed over it] (Exodus 20:23) – that [the priests] would walk heel next to the big toe, and the big toe next to the heel. And the one who says like angels [supports his position by citing] And their [four] legs were a [or: one] straight leg (Ezekiel 1:7). R. Chanina bar And’rei [said] in the name of R. Shmuel bar Sutar: The angels do not have knees. What is the proof? I approached one of those standing (Daniel 7:16) – “standing” [means always standing].
R. Levi and R. Shimon offer us two images: we are like angels in heaven praising God and basking in the divine glow of God’s holiness, or we are like the priests in the temple who ascended the altar to offer sacrifices that assured Israel’s well being and daily renewed the people’s relationship with their God. We might begin by asking why we need these images at all. Isn’t it enough to be a respectful human being in covenant with God? In his Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts a classic:
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
Do I need to be other than who I am? Isn’t the goal to become my true self? Isn’t the goal of prayer to enable me to search within myself – my true self – to find God, the divine spark within? Isn’t daily prayer (and even more so, Shabbat) a pause in our lives to reclaim our true selves?

For the Rabbis, an even higher goal seems to be to take on the identities of the angels in heaven and the kohanim (priests) who ministered in the Temple. Why angels or priests?

Angels are divine creatures who do only, and exclusively, God’s will. They can do nothing else. Their entire existence is devoted to pure worship of, and service to, God. In a sense, our lives can model that too, in that the work we do to sustain our families, communities, and the world is service to God; the love we lavish on others is service to God; the pleasure we take in our lives and in this world reflects gratitude to God. But it’s not the same as being an angel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves – or truly try to be – angels.

Priests are a special family within Israel ordained to preserve the connection between God and Israel through sacrifices. Sacrifices serve to unify the nation, and are made in response to what Israel understands to be God’s will. They are an act of obedience, but also spiritual uplift. To be a priest is to stand as close to God (figuratively) as a human can stand, representing Israel to God, and God to Israel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves as the offspring of Aaron – priests.

For the Rabbis, becoming in your mind an angel or a priest was elevating, ennobling, inspiring. For me, it is much too far a stretch. I am more moved by Zusya’s revelation that his purpose was to become Zusya – the very best version of himself he was capable of becoming. For me, the model of angel or priest is a reminder that I am more than I often think I am, and that thinking I can be more will help me make that a reality. When I was newly ordained and faced particularly difficult situations (the death of a child, a vigil at a deathbed, people’s deep emotional pain) I usually thought, “Don’t they realize that I’m nobody? Don’t they know I’m just a kid?” But in their faces I saw not only trust, but more importantly the acute need that I be the rabbi they required at that moment – and that was enough for me to propel me to become just that rabbi.

I began by recounting my first experience with Visual Tfilah, and said that for me, there is a world of difference between an image and the reality. The notion of becoming an angel or a priest does not move me, but the underlying message that there is more to me than I recognize, and that prayer is way of tapping into it, inspires me to be the Zusya within.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Living Liminality / Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 2b

Many years ago, the daughter of dear friends became a bat mitzvah. Her family held a reception in their home that evening. Standing on the front porch, her father said, “Would you lead Havdalah?” I told him I would be honored and delighted. “Do you think it’s time? Wait, I’ll go check my computer,” he said and turned to walk into the house. Chuckling, I grabbed his arm, pointed to the sky, and counted stars, “One, two, three. It’s time.”

The Rabbis in Eretz Yisrael ask what constitutes “night time” for the purposes of saying the Shema. They choose an astronomical sign provided by God and visible everywhere (except on an overcast night). The luminaries in the firmament are their clock. Would that we could live a life so intimately tuned to the physical universe in which we abide, but which we largely ignore thanks to feats of human engineering.

When the stars appear, night has descended.

But how many stars must appear for it to be considered night? R. Pinchas in the name of R. Abba bar Pappa says that when one star is visible it is definitely still day; when two stars are visible, it is uncertain whether it is day or night; when three stars are visible, it is night.

It would seem then that the short period when two stars are visible is liminal time. It is bein ha-shemashot (twilight), neither day nor night. For a tradition that categorizes everything (permitted/forbidden, ritually clean/ritually unclean, holy/mundane, kasher/traife), time that stands outside the day/night dichotomy causes discomfort and anxiety. What is it? How do we consider it? What is permitted? What is forbidden?

There are two times a week when we are concerned with whether it is day or night with respect to the prohibition of melachah [work forbidden on shabbat]: when shabbat arrives and when it departs. When must we cease work, and when may we recommence work?

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) offers two formulations, one that accepts liminal time, and one that attempts to obviate it. The first formulation is that of the same R. Pinchas mentioned above.
On the eve of shabbat, if someone saw one star and performed melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], he is exempt [from bringing a sin offering]. [If he saw] two [stars], he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he brings a sin offering. At the conclusion of shabbat, if someone saw one star and did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat] he he brings a sin offering. [If he saw] two [stars] he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he is exempt.
R. Pinchas’ interpretation is consistent with what he says above. The cases of one star and three stars are clear: on erev shabbat one star means it is still day, so no violation has occurred; three stars means it is shabbat, and therefore a violation has occurred. On the other end, motza’ei shabbat (the conclusion of shabbat), one star is still shabbat so a violation has occurred, but three stars is no longer shabbat so no violation has occurred. In between, for that short period of time that we cannot define, a conditional guilt offering is brought, acknowledging that perhaps a violation has occurred, but we don’t really know.

The second formulation is that of R. Yosi the son of R. Bun. R. Yose feels compelled to pin down the two-star moment and place it in either the day or night category on both ends (erev shabbat and motza’ei shabbat).

R. Yose the son of R. Bun explained:

If you say that when there are two stars, it is a questionable [situation] [here are the two possibilities to analyze]:

If he saw two stars on the eve of shabbat and they warned him, but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], and if he saw two stars at the conclusion of shabbat, and they warned him but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], whatever your desire [to say about the period when two stars are visible, he has transgressed the prohibition of melachah [at either the beginning or conclusion of shabbat].

If the first [two stars] [mean that it is still] day, then the latter [two stars at the end of shabbat] [also mean that it is] day, and he will be liable [for what he does] during the latter [stars]. If the latter [stars] [mean that is] night, then also the former [two stars on erev shabbat] also [mean that it is] night. And he will be liable [for what he does] during the former [stars].
R. Yose gives us two options:

Option #1 is where we claim that two visible stars is still daytime. One who does melachah during this period, both during the arrival and at the conclusion of shabbat, is violating the prohibition at both ends. But how can this be? If two stars before shabbat is day, he is not in violation. R. Yose adds the condition that he was warned that his work might be considered a violation. If it is not a violation before shabbat, then it certainly is at the end of shabbat. In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot (twilight) is defined as day.

Alternatively, Option #2 is where the first star is considered day, and the second and third star are considered night. Consistency demands that we apply the same standard at the beginning and conclusion of shabbat. If he is not guilty at the first star before shabbat (because it is day), he must certainly be guilty at the first star at the conclusion of shabbat (because it is day – it is still shabbat). In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot is defined as night.

We can applaud R. Yose for his consistency and logic. The first scenario strains logic, but R. Yose repairs that by adding the dimension of the warning. I think his reasoning is not a case of “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (those immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson), but rather a case of discomfort. R. Yose cannot live with the uncertain, undefined, uncategorized two-star moment. The liminal state of bein hashemashot makes him anxious.

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) studied liminality in rituals. (Turner published “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage” in his 1967 book The Forest of Symbols.) Liminality is an in-between state characterized by being outside established structures (including hierarchies). It is, at its core, a state of uncertainty, defying clear definition. It is unstable. This is why it is a source of discomfort and anxiety to many in authority.

Yet Jewish life and tradition are filled with liminal moments, even extended liminal periods of time. The ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a liminal time when we, like Jonah in the belly of the big fish, are suspended between life and death. The Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness – neither slaves in Egypt nor free people in Eretz Yisrael – was a liminal time. In a sense, our entire lives can be seen as lived in the liminal time between Creation and ultimate redemption, the Messianic Age.

What is it that R. Pinchas can live with, and indeed honor, but which makes R. Yose so uncomfortable? It is uncertainty. Yet life is filled with uncertainty. Perhaps it is more honest to say, as author Ursula LeGuin observed, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” If uncertainty brings discomfort, it is also, according to Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Ilya Prigogine, “at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty – and our willingness to invite it into our lives – that opens our minds and hearts to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways to conceive the world and our place in it. Living with liminal, uncertain time, is an excellent training ground.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman