Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Talmud Circle 4: January 31, 2016 ... (Empowering Personal Prayer in a Communal Setting)

It has been nearly two months since the last class.  The delay was scheduled in order to accommodate a Lehrhaus tour to Jerusalem which was to be lead by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. Alas, the trip was cancelled in light of ongoing unrest. But trip or no trip, we're glad to have Rabbi Peretz among us safe and sound. Looks like the next Lehrhaus tour is coming up this July and will go to Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Berlin.

In this class we covered Berakhot 31b to the beginning of 32a, pp. 210-212 (top) in the Steinsaltz ed. The rabbis are establishing direct intimate prayer, instead of sacrifice, as the basis of the relationship with God.


The Talmudic sages are discussing Hannah and the Book of Samuel. Writing significantly after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE they are reaching back a millennium to a time before King Solomon and the construction of the temple in order to bring Judaism forward into the post-temple period. Hannah is set at the end of the bronze age, before King David consolidated a kingdom from an aggregate of small tribes and wrested the secrets of the iron age from the Philistines.

Prior to the consolidation of the kingdom the Hebrew tribes in the hills of Judea were priodically threatened by the coastal seafaring peoples. Biblical references to the Philistines refer to five cities in the coastal plain (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath).

A map of the Eastern Mediterranean ca. 830 BCE (i.e. about a century after Solomon and the split of the kingdom) indicates the following:

If we think of roads parallel to rivers as signifying peace, and bridges signifying strife, perhaps we can envision roads leading from the seashore to the hills of Judea and Israel as signifying strife. In the wake of the late bronze age collapse, the bible reports, King David triumphed in such strife and managed to unify the hill tribes under one kingdom. But ultimately, what comes of kings? asks Wolf-Pruzan: "they take our horses for chariots, our sons for soldiers, our daughters for widows, and our mothers for grief."

Better to place our faith in God said the rabbis. But how do we commune with God?

Priests in the time of judges communed with God by administering the sacrifices. Consolidation of the tribes under kings marked the end of local control. Local priestly functionaries who presided over sacrificial offerings during the era of Judges, like Eli at Shiloh (1 Samuel), were ushered aside by the kings and a new priestly establishment centered on the temple in Jerusalem. But sacrifice remained central.

The priesthood was not a mystery cult. Animals were brought, and sacrifices were administered per instructions that were public. The role of the priests was not to improvise. It made their role ministerial rather than powerful.

The Ark of the Covenant

Israelite religion in the period preceding the kingdoms is not object centered. Cliff Detz asked what about the ark of the covenant? What was its function during the period of the Judges? It went to war, says Wolf-Pruzan, but it did not play a role in making sacrificial offerings. King David made it important by bringing it to Jerusalem where it was enshrined in the temple.

The Ark of the Covenant is a sacred chest ... that contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and at one time occupied the holiest shrine in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.  .... According to Biblical tradition [it] was built in the wilderness of Sinai during the travels of the Hebrews to the Holy Land. Eventually, it was placed in the inner shrine in the Temple of Jerusalem. Both the Ark and its sanctuary were said to be "the beauty of Israel" (Lamentations 2:1), and Zion was consecrated because of its containing the Ark (2 Chronicles 8:11). Some Jewish Midrashim suggest that two Arks existed—a temporary one made by Moses and a later one made by Bezalel (Hertz 1936). In any case, the Ark of the Covenant disappeared (was hidden or destroyed) following the invasion of the Babylonians and their destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Many subsequent myths and legends arose about the Ark's potential whereabouts. 
....The Bible describes the Ark as made of acacia wood. It was a cubit and a half broad and high and two cubits long (about 130 by 80 by 80 cm). The Ark was covered with gold. On each of the two sides were two gold rings, wherein were placed two wooden poles (with a decorative sheathing of gold), to be used to carry the Ark (Numbers 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6). Over the Ark, at each end, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward one another (Leviticus 16:2; Num. 7:89). Their outspread wings over the top of the ark formed the throne of God, while the ark itself was his footstool (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9). The Ark was deposited in the inner shrine of the Temple of Jerusalem (called the "Holy of Holies)," and was placed so that one end of the carrying poles touched the veil separating the two compartments of the tabernacle (1 Kings 8:8). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in a veil, in badger skins, a blue cloth, and was carefully concealed, even from the eyes of the Levites (priests) who carried it....
It is referred to as the most holy place (Ex. 26:34)....  The ... high priest would go in, once a year, on ... Yom Kippur, to sprinkle the blood of an animal upon the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat which sat on top of the ark. The animal was sacrificed on the Brazen Altar and the blood was carried into the most holy place. It is said that the Lord would appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat, and at that time the priests should not enter into the tabernacle (Leviticus 16:2).....
The only mention of the Ark in the books of the prophets is the reference to it by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah (Jer. 3:16), prophesies a future time when the Ark will no longer be needed because of the righteousness of the people. In the Psalms, the Ark is twice referred to. In Ps. 78:61 its capture by the Philistines is spoken of, and the Ark is called "the strength and glory of God"; and in Ps. 132:8, it is spoken of as "the ark of the strength of the Lord." 
The Ark is mentioned in one passage in ... 2 Maccabees 2:4-10, which contains a reference to a document saying that the prophet Jeremiah, "being warned of God," took the Ark, and the tabernacle, and the altar of incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Nebo (Deut 34:1), informing those of his followers who wished to find the place that it should remain unknown "until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy." 
After destruction of the First Temple its importance receded again, only to reemerge as the fetish of the Torah Ark in synagogue practice. 

Hannah as the Way Back to God

With the loss of the temple the ancient manner of engaging with God (the sacrifice administered by the priests) was lost. Not only was the normal on-ramp to the highway of communication with God lost, but the central authority of theocracy under the Kings and the Sanhedrin was lost as well. 

"Next Year in Jerusalem" suggests hope for the ultimate restoration of the universe under God without the need for human intervention. Without the need for government, priestly or secular? That's fine for that utopian time when the Mashiach comes, but in the meantime, in the absence of a central temple, in the absence of sacrifice, in exile without national power, the rabbis needed to devise a new way. How do we commune with God and keep the community together? The rabbis decided to follow Hannah and her direct appeal to God with intimate prayer, despite all of its dangers. 

Direct intimate prayer introduces the danger of radical variation and the loss of cohesive doctrine. The rabbis devised to control this radical ecstatic prayer by setting it loose in a communal setting. Individual prayer yes, but in a communal setting. The way of the rabbis became to influence through exploration, persuasion, and argument, not to control with power. Although rabbis sometimes were empowered by local states, they had no inherent power. For example the chief rabbi of Jerusalem was appointed by the British in order to exert political control. Nevertheless, rabbis have exerted their influence through authoritative structures. Individuals can argue with the rabbis but individuals don't get to set the rules. Just like children argue with parents; they don't get to make the rules. 

Brief Summary of Berakhot 31b (top of p. 210) to Berakhot 32a (first two paragraphs on p. 212)

"And later in her prayer,"... say the rabbis, Hannah said to God "And you will grant Your servant an offspring of men."  [This is reminiscent of the characterization of "impertinence" that the rabbis attributed to Hannah's prayer with the parable of the beggar who crashes the king's banquet (top of p. 209)]  The rabbis in their discussion make a comparison between Hannah's son Samuel and Moses and Aaron. Samuel is an important person because he gets to anoint two kings, Saul and David. 

Some prayer! 

More rules of prayer are derived--don't sit within four cubits of someone in prayer.  [A cubit is the length from elbow to the tip of the middle finger] 

Samuel is presented as the first rabbi. He taught halakhah in the presence of his teachers (which is forbidden). When Hannah and Samuel come to Eli the priest to offer sacrifice to expiate the transgression, they bring the animal already slaughtered.  This is contrary to priestly practice--but consistent with Torah.  Interpretation of Torah is emphasized over the priestly practice. 

Just like the priests improvised on Torah by appropriating the performance of the slaughter of the sacrifice in the past, Hannah improvised with her direct appeal to God in prayer without the sacrifice, and Samuel improvised by exerting influence with his interpretation and teaching of Torah--as the rabbis are doing to this day.

"For this youth I prayed and I want no other...." says Hannah in response to Eli's desire to punish Samuel and Eli's offer to pray for one who is greater. No thank you says Hannah. The rabbis here harken back to Moses' defense of the Israelites before God's anger in the desert--the rabbis are endorsing Samuel's teaching of Torah (even in the presence of the teacher) over Eli's ways and his proposed punishment: the rabbis go with rabbinic interpretation of Torah over the traditions of Eli the priest.

The "next key move," says Rabbi Peretz is to validate this prayer. When she prayed, "Hannah spoke on her heart."  The Hebrew  here suggests to "hurl accusations/throw stones."  The rabbis unpack this, explaining Hannah spoke to God concerning matters of her heart.  Heart (Lev) suggests one's mass, one's physical substance. But Hannah also speaks passionately; the emotion brings in the Nefesh (the systems that pass through our throat--our animus). And, of course prayer involves the intellect. Hannah prays with her heart and soul and intellect.

The rabbis note that Elijah also appealed passionately to God in 1 Kings 18:37 ("Answer me , O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back") How, ask the rabbis, do we know that God conceded to Elijah? Because God answered the request (I assume).  

The rabbis are trying to work out permission to make direct, passionate, appeals to God (with all our body, our animus, and our intellect) says Wolf-Pruzan.  

We do not walk alone, the rabbis suggest at the top of page 212. And they point to Ezekiel 36:26-27 for support: "A new heart I will give you," says God, "and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will place my spirit within you and I will cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances." It's what comes from a direct appeal, passionate, and personal, like Hannah's. It's the pathway for our communion with God suggest the rabbis. 

We left off with the second paragraph on top of page 212. The next class at the JCCSF is on February 21, 2016. 

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