Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.
I am almost up-to-date in my studies, but a bit behind in posting reflections. The first chapter of Massechet Berachot ends with a discussion of two kinds of things that are linked despite being experienced or named differently. One is the series of persecutions and exiles of the Jews. The other is the names of biblical figures.
The Talmud discusses the issue that new experiences of persecution might drive older ones from Jewish memory or salience -- the exile to Babylonia might replace the slavery in Egypt as the focal point of memory, mourning, or even inspiration. There is a sense in the text that we have to integrate all of them, possibly into the original Exodus consciousness.
The rabbis look for insight into that by noticing that some of the renamed people in the Torah have their names permanently changed, but some like Yaakov/Yisrael seem to keep both names. Even for someone like Avraham, the name Avram is remembered later, which the Talmud says is to remind us of the moments that occasioned the spiritual transformation that made him into Avraham and Sarai into Sarah.
I wonder if this is meant to be the final comment on the Sh'ma itself, the foundation of the whole chapter -- oneness of the divine. Transformations in the world, transformations of us spiritually, historical progress and setback and backsliding, personal progress and backsliding -- these all have to be integrated. When we recite Sh'ma, it's to remind us to bring all of these things together, or to guard against burying some of them or forgetting. Or it's just to remind us of the mystery that someone all of these are one in the mystery of the workings of divine energy in our human universe.
A reflection on myself the Talmud student, after a chapter: When I began, I would have said and still say that I'm not really a Talmud person. For years I hardly cracked a volume, and only recently have I found myself doing so more often. I'd have assumed that I had learned maybe 1 percent of the Talmud ever. Now I realize that before I started this, I probably already had, I don't know, 3 percent, which isn't a lot but almost 1/30th!
And I also realized that even though I hadn't studied this chapter in sequence as a single chapter, a lot of it was familiar. It was thrilling to see things in their original composition and order, and to share knowing virtual glances with other people doing the same. I actually didn't have to rely nearly as much as I thought on translations, and the basic argumentation structure was fairly familiar to me. I know when we get into other technical areas beyond theology and prayer I'll need the study aids much more.
My goal right now is just to know what's where. I'm not a great memorizer -- but so far, I could probably without much effort rattle off a lot about what's in the first chapter of Berachot. We'll see if it sticks. But if it does, it's because of the genius of the rabbis and editors, and the community who are subtly learning in sync.
When I was studying Berachot 12, I had a mini-experience that is exactly what Torah study should be.
On 12b, Rabbah bar Chinana Sava taught in the name of Rav that anyone who could have prayed for compassion/mercy (rachamim) for another but didn't is called a sinner. I was thinking about this for some reason while I was standing on the curb outside Logan Airport waiting for about 15 minutes for a van to pick me up. I started thinking that this teaching is a kind of logical impossibility. How is it even possible that there is such a thing as a person who can't pray for another person? Also, how is it even possible for me to pray for every person who might need a prayer for mercy? The teaching seemed either over- or under-inclusive.
So I was looking around at all the people getting out of the airport, getting into cars or buses, and thinking, "Okay, I pray for that one and I pray for that one and I pray for that one..." and as I was walking back and forth for about the third time, I passed a young woman who looked like she was of college age sitting on a bench. And I happened to look down and see that she had an immobilizing boot on one of her feet.
So I said to myself, "Wow, the exact moment I'm reflecting on this teaching and here is someone who could really use a prayer for mercy and healing. I pray for her." Of course she was sitting right there, and saying that prayer to myself felt a little silly and a lot incomplete. Maybe she needs help with her suitcase! But that would be weird, she is just sitting there. Anyway, it turned out we were getting on the same van, so here was a random person I was connected to -- in that moment, the exact quarter-hour I was thinking about this particular teaching.
I offered to help her with the suitcase. Which she didn't need, but appreciated that. We chatted a little bit on the van.
I still am not sure what the teaching means. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad asks: In what situation would a person be unable to pray for someone else? He muses that a person might be so overcome with concern for another that he can't compose himself to pray. Or he might be in so much of his own suffering that he can't pray for someone else. But he wonders why the Talmud itself doesn't suggest these, and leaves the category of "unable to pray for another" undefined and possibly empty on purpose.
My teacher Rabbi Joseph Lukinsky z"l taught us that when we study the week's Torah reading, there are two approaches. The usual one is to look for something in it that is relevant to our lives or our world. The other way, he said, is to make whatever happens to be in that week's Torah relevant -- to look for some connection. In this case, Daf Yomi brought me a teaching, and made me realize that something I would have usually seen as an empty experience -- waiting for a pickup at the airport -- was a spiritual prompt.
I'm not necessarily going to have something to write about every daf (page), but here is something from a couple days ago.
Daf 7 opens with a discussion of God's own prayer. The Talmud says that God prays that God's own mercy will overcome God's anger. It's a fascinating depiction of God -- as a being who prays and who needs to pray, who needs to summon will to direct God's own energies. Who would have thought?
I don't find it useful at all to think of God literally the way the Talmud describes. Instead, I take this teaching to be talking about a spiritual experience a person might have. The divine is describe here as not static, but with energies that are expressed differently in response to human actions. A person might experience affirmation or support, or judgment or suffering, as energies of God and not only as personal, internal emotions. These basic experiences of approval or judgment can be experienced as aspects of divine energy. Indeed, to believe that the divine is "one" means that all of these must be rooted in the same divinity.
The Talmud reminds us that what the Torah calls God's anger is a response to wrongdoing; it's not gratuitous or random. I'd say then that the Talmud is describing the anger of our conscience or our spiritual aspect when we recognize or are helped (forced?) to recognize when we have done something that is very wrong.
But the prayer of God is that this emotion or experience not be the end of the matter. The Talmud says here that divine anger is very short. Infinitesimal in time from the divine point of view. The prayer attributed here to God is that when we experience divine judgment, we move quickly from that, toward an equally dramatic perception of divine energy helping us toward righting ourselves, toward teshuvah.
I have to say that I have a bias in my own Talmud study toward passages that seem to be structured a certain way. That seem quilted, where you can make out some kind of logic to the patterning. This page does not have that. It's a skip from one topic to another.
There is a section about demons, and the desire to perceive them (or not!) -- there are certain magical-ish things you can do to see the footprints of them. The rabbis caution against this, because the perception of demons can cause spiritual harm or physical harm. They do posit that demons outnumber humans by a large margin and we are constantly bumping into them.
So all I've really got is the passage that opens and closes the page. The opening teaching, continued from the last page, is about a person who enters the place of prayer with another person. If you cut that person off, your prayer goes awry. At the end of the page, the situation is that you encounter a person who you know makes a real effort to ask about your welfare -- you ought to try hard to ask that person first, and not take their interest in you for granted.
Today I did my skimming while I was listening, at a meeting, to a presentation about "adverse childhood experiences" and their impact on mental and physical well-being throughout life. It was an interesting backdrop to what most of today's page, Berachot 5a-b, are about, which is: suffering.
The Talmud starts with a fairly traditional theology -- which I reject -- of suffering as punishment. It then moves to the different, but still difficult concept, of "sufferings of love" or yissurin shel ahavah. This is the idea that God brings suffering to those God loves, as a way of.... I'm not positive, haven't done enough theological reading in the area, to know if there's an original sense of the purpose of this kind of suffering. The Talmud seems to suggest that suffering not from punishment can teach; that suffering is a way of proving one's spiritual heights; that suffering is the necessary pathway for the most important spiritual gifts, including the Torah itself.
I can understand that the rabbis, living for centuries already under foreign domination of one or other imperium, might decide that the condition of national suffering must be some kind of sign of a special relation to God that is beyond the material and political. But especially sitting where I was while reading today, I could not find a way to make this concept of "sufferings of love" make sense. Some of us were talking about the randomness of suffering, the fact that people living similar lives in similar situations, whether of privilege or "adverse childhood experiences", suffer or develop resilience and joy.
Anyway, all of that is obvious. Sorry not to be adding anything.
What is interesting to me in the Talmud, though, are stories that follow the argumentation about categories of suffering. I heard a talk by Prof. Judith Hauptman, my Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which she noticed that in many places, when the Talmud follows an analysis with a story, the story often nuances or complicated or just contradicts the teaching.
So here, there are some interesting stories of rabbis who fall ill, and are visited by colleagues or teachers. In each vignette, the visitor asks "Is your suffering beloved to you?" and the answer is, "Neither the sufferings nor their rewards." Then the visitor offers a hand and the lifts up, perhaps heals, the one who is ill.
Again, there's an obvious thing -- touch and presence over theology, when someone is suffering in front of you. Don't be like the friends of Job. I like that the Talmud allows rabbis to contradict their own teachings in the face of real experience, even their own. I don't know if the Talmud is setting up its theologies to be debunked, or passing along the range of tools so we will do that if we see fit.
A lot on today's page is familiar, and shows just how much of the general structure of Jewish worship was already set by 500-600 C.E. The page mentions saying Ashrei (mostly Psalm 145) three times a day, praying in a synagogue and not just individually, saying the Sh'ma in a service as well as at bedtime. There are even discussions about verses that have been added to the essential prayers -- the beginnings of adornments or embellishments around an understood structure.
So I'll today just observe three things that caught my attention that aren't the usual.
One is a teaching about "midnight." One of the Torah references to midnight is Moshe telling Pharaoh that "around midnight" the final plague will take place. The Talmud wonders: Didn't Moshe know it would be exactly at midnight? The Talmud suggests that Moshe knew, but was afraid the Egyptian elite wouldn't calculate right, and that therefore they would claim that Moshe was lying or didn't know what he was talking about. From this the Talmud learns that a person should be very careful in speech on the basis of what other people might misunderstand -- you have to take that into account even when you think you are very clear.
The second is a tangent on the word "one", which is the key idea in the Sh'ma, the oneness of God. In a brief passage on the page, the Talmud discusses spiritual personages from the Bible who are one step from God vs. more than one step. I'm going to chew on this as a way to meditate on the word the next time I recite the Sh'ma, see what it's like to place one-step-ness in relation to divinity at the center, rather than some statement about the divine itself.
The other thing that struck me is a source that imagines David vouching for himself as a king unlike the fancy kings of other nations. He says that he engages with all manner of bloody things, gets his hands bloody, in order to prove that a woman is in a state of ritual purity so she can sleep with her husband. The Talmud talks about David using his own hands to determine if blood is menstrual or not, to investigate the gestational age of miscarried fetus, to touch placenta.
This is quite a subversion of the Bible's treatment of David with regard to both woman and blood. David's hands were bloody in war, and David went through all kinds of machinations to try to get Batsheva's husband Uriah to sleep with his wife after David had impregnated her, and in the end David had him set up to die in war. What chutzpah to turn around and say that his own bloody hands are testimony to his being a king who is a man of the people and a protector of women and/or marriages? I have no idea on first reading what the rabbis are trying to do here.
It's day 2 of Daf Yomi, the 7 1/2-year cycle of studying the Babylonian Talmud worldwide. Again I'm not promising to keep up every day or how long I may sustain this. It does seem like a good idea to work through the first "tractate", Berachot or "Blessings", since it is source material for a lot about the structure and traditions of Jewish worship.
Today's page explores the significance of "midnight." In the original statement of law that the Talmud is dissecting, one can say the evening Sh'ma until midnight, which is the halfway point between sunset and sunrise and thus variable by day and season.
Like yesterday, I'm just struck by a series of associations with midnight and then the period before sunrise. Midnight is described as the time when, according to Psalm 119:62, "I rise at midnight to praise You for Your just rules." It's also the time when King David, according to legend, would be woken by a harp hanging above him, which would begin playing itself because of a divine spirit, and then he would spend the rest of the night studying Torah. Another source says that he would study Torah until midnight, and then for the rest of the night he would sing or compose songs.
Midnight is also identified as the time of the final plague in Egypt.
The last periods of darkness are described as a time when husbands and wives speak to each other in bed before they get up, and when babies begin to nurse.
There is also a section a bit earlier on the page that describes a conversation between Rabbi Yose and Eliyahu the prophet, in a ruined building where Rabbi Yose had ducked in from the street so he could pray. Eliyahu, who in the Talmud goes back and forth between heaven and earth, says that in a ruin there is a divine voice moaning in mourning for the destruction of the Temple that God God's-self caused because the Jewish people had strayed from God's ways. But whenever the Jews recite a line from the Kaddish, "May God's great name be blessed forever", God so to speak nods and feels calmed or reassured.
I'm intrigued in the moment by the connection between midnight as a time of melody, destruction, and clarity about justice. I don't know if the rabbis here are advocating waiting so late to recite the Sh'ma. Maybe as the day recedes farther and farther, when the daytime world is farthest away, some of these dimensions of reality are highlighted and spotlighted. For some, that would be an ideal state in which to study Torah or to meditate, not in escape from the world but again as yesterday to gain a frame through which to see it better.
(I actually wrote and FB-posted this yesterday.)
Today is the start of a 7 1/2-year worldwide Jewish learning activity called "Daf Yomi" or the "Daily Page." In sync, Jews everywhere of all kinds of backgrounds read and think each weekday about the exact same page of the Babylonian Talmud -- alone or in study groups or through podcasts etc.
I haven't decided if I'm going to see this through for 7 1/2 years, but for the time being I'm going to use it as an opportunity to at least skim each day this very essential, one-of-a-kind, completely strange book in Judaism. As much as I can I'll post some insights from the daily page. Maybe I'll do it here, or if you're interested e-mail or message me and I'll set up a dedicated list or channel.
Before I write about today's page -- let me say in the spirit of what I posted a week ago that Jewish study is an essential counterpart to Jewish pride and Jewish self-protection. It doesn't have to be Talmud, but studying Torah in some way gives you a voice right next to whatever Torah you are studying. Torah study lets you do the talking, and lets you (challenges you to) figure out the Jew you ought to be.
Today's page in the Talmud, the very first one (Berachot/Blessings, page 2, the books all start on page 2), asks the seemingly arcane question of what the time period is for reciting the Sh'ma every evening. The Sh'ma is a basic declaration about the unity and uniqueness of the Divine, taken from the Torah. The Talmud doesn't talk about what the Sh'ma is first, what it means. Instead it asks this technical-ish question and seems to answer it with a series of inside-baseball-ish details about priests in the Second Temple and purification rituals.
What struck me when I studied this page a few weeks ago with my chavruta (study partner), Rabbi Dan Ross from Central Synagogue in New York, is that on this page the Talmud threads together a bunch of things that happen in life at the start of the evening: reciting this prayer, reading a few passages from the Torah, priests eating meals in the Temple provided by the community before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, poor people eating a daily meal provided by the community, individuals having Shabbat dinner, going to a party that lasts all evening, the purification of a priest or something called "the purification of the day."
To me, the Talmud is indicating that each time we say the Sh'ma, we're not really talking about the oneness of God unless we're really meditating on the oneness of all those other things. We're not really fulfilling our obligation to live in the glow of God's unity if we're not figuring out how to fulfill the other obligations related to giving, purification, feeding, celebrating in daily life, providing for our spiritual institutions.