Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Talmud Circle 5: A Drash with a Hollywood Ending

Our JCCSF Talmud Circle met on Sunday, February 21, 2015. Over bagels and lox we started off with an aside on identity politics. Thereafter we picked up with the second paragraph on p. 212 of the Steinsaltz Berakhot, and we covered everything to the middle of page 215 (end of Daf 32a).

The rabbis are still trying to understand the significance of (or is it make significant) the intense prayer of Hannah in Samuel I.

Aside 1:  From Bernie Sanders to Isaac Deutscher and Jon Stewart

When I entered the room people were discussing Bernie Sanders. Although Bernie Sanders is not the first Jew running for president (Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman preceded him), he is the first to win a primary contest and the first to mount a credible campaign. But Sanders is down-playing his Jewish identity: he is the "son of a Polish immigrant" says a campaign ad. And he is not particularly embraced by the Jewish community as their champion. Despite Sanders having spent some months on Kibbutz Sha'ar HaAmakim in the Galilee in 1963, Hillary Clinton's pro-Israel bona fides are perceived as stronger than those of Sanders. 

But of course there's more to Judaism than Netanyahu and Israel. After all, the whole Hannah project that the rabbis are discussing in Berakhot 30-32 is all about establishing Judaism as a tradition independent of Eretz Israel. 

“People say [Sanders] looks like a prophet,” noted Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan to Dan Pine in the J. 
“If you look at the [prophetic] Book of Amos, this country will be judged by how it treats its least able. [Sanders] is conducting a seminar in social economic justice with the American people. ....Everyone wants to vote for the nice Jewish boy, but prophets are annoying. They tell you things you don’t want to hear, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s not concerned about winning Jewish hearts and minds, but with saving the American people.”

Bernie Sanders, a secular prophet 

He's a "non-Jewish Jew" in the phrase coined by Isaac Deutscher, said Rabbi Peretz. Deutscher was a Jewish humanist:
He coined the expression "non-Jewish Jew" to apply to himself and other Jewish humanists. Deutscher ... had little time for specifically Jewish politics. In Warsaw, he joined the Communist Party, not the Jewish Bund, whose "Yiddishist" views he opposed.
His definition of his Jewishness was: "Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews."
Like Freud, Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Jon Stewart, and Deutscher, Sanders is secular but identifies as Jewish and is acting in accordance with Jewish values. Like them he will be embraced as Jewish in hindsight. Like Simon and Garfunkel who provide the music in Bernie's ad above.

A Talmudic Drash with a Hollywood Ending

Every once in a while in Talmud, the rabbis insert a Drash, a story. Like a Lincoln speech, or an Emerson essay--it's meant to explain and persuade. These stories have a particular form, with an opening, a middle, and a closing.

They often have happy endings appended. Take the story of Job which has this inexplicably happy last paragraph.  Job 42:10-17 ["And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job...and .... gave Job twice as much as he had before."]  It makes no sense..., but there's a reason Hollywood favors happy endings.

Take a look at the end of Ecclesiastes--a depressing philosophical reflection--with a sudden upbeat ending. Ecclesiastes 12:9-13. It was added by later writers with the purpose of making the reader feel better.

The Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliette written by Ukrainian born Boris Tomashevsky (the grandfather of conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas) follows this tradition. In Tomashevsky's Yiddish version there is a happy ending ("meine Kindele!") It's a trick as old as Talmud.

Here (going back to Berakhot) the rabbis start their set piece--their Drash--in the third paragraph on page 212... and it continues right to the middle of p. 215.


The rabbis begin by turning from Hannah to Moses. "Moses also spoke impertinently toward God on High" notes Rabbi Elazar at the top of p. 212. He invokes Numbers 11:2 (the people were complaining in the desert and God became angry and Moses prayed to God and his anger subsided). And the words Moses used suggest "hurl" and "insult." This is not abstract prayer Moses is engaged in. It's personal. (Moses prayed not "to" [el] but "on" [al] the Lord; right up close, stepping on his toes). The rabbis play on the fact that the sounds are similar in Hebrew. 

It sets up the stories to follow. 

"Impertinence" implies a disparity of rank. Such prayer to the one of highest rank (God) entails Risk. Just ask Job. In Hannah's case, she was driven by great desperation to take on such risk. A hero is like everyone else, Peretz reminds us; heroes just go a few steps further... or are driven five minutes longer by exigent circumstances. 

Hannah, as we recall, prayed silently. Only in Hasidism does permission come to say it out loud like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. 

The moral of the stories in the Drash about to unfold are that Hannah and Moses are aligned in their manner of prayer: but Hannah is the model. [Moses is like Hannah, not the other way around] 

The sages from the school of Yannai introduce the Drash by referring to Moses at Sinai and the sin of the Golden Calf.  Moses returns from the mountain to find the people absorbed in idolatry. God is so upset he wants to destroy them. But Moses intercedes on their behalf. "No, don't do that!" he says, bringing explanation and evidence and arguments; "they behave as they do because of the gold and silver you lavished upon them, that's what caused them to build the golden calf."  
Golden calf with Egyptian God Yah symbol/
unknown derivation
Moses demonstrates how prayerful intercession is done. We instinctively know the three elements of his prayer: 1) a personal recrimination .... "You did...," "You promised...."  2) presentation of evidence of some verifiable harm, and 3) an expectation of restitution or repair.  


There follow a series of small stories (or analogies) meant to appeal to and understood metaphorically by different types of people: there is a rural story (about a loopy cow), an urban story (tempting a son with a brothel) and one appealing to authority (a king restrained in killing his son in anger by the presence of a guest). This is a common technique. 

We should trust that God will be susceptible to understanding our failings, suggest the stories: just like the farmer is understanding of his long limbed cow who kicks him because the farmer fed her lupines (which causes intoxication in cows); just like a father is understanding of his son when he realizes he may not have exercised best judgment in leaving his perfume anointed son with a purse of money around his neck on the steps of a brothel. 

And God's understanding may depend on our actions, suggest the rabbis. We must appeal to God with prayer just like a guest at the king's court  must appeal to the king to use restraint when he realizes it is only his presence that is restraining the king from killing a son in anger. Who would not speak up to calm such anger? And in the same manner Moses realized that it was up to him to intercede with God: "Moses grabbed the Holy One... as a person who grabs his friend by his garment would, and said before Him: ...I will not leave You be until You forgive and pardon them."  

We can learn from stories about the rich and famous realized the rabbis. Hannah and Moses, too.  Such stories hold our attention. It's like watching Downton Abbey, says Peretz.  

In their effort to change attitudes towards prayer, the rabbis are working to get us to think: "What else is it I have been told that is wrong?" It's like  the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) which strives to change attitudes toward "The Other." 


Aside 2: I note Steinsaltz refers (p. 212, para. 4) to "the beginning of Deuteronomy," but the first three chapters of Deuteronomy are Moses giving a historical overview to "all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness."  Deuteronomy 4:12-19 relates God speaking to the people at Mt. Horeb and reiterates the prohibition of idol worship--but it does not discuss the sin of the golden calf or any type of prayerful appeal to God. Deuteronomy 5:1-27 is a recitation of the ten commandments and a statement of the covenant between God and the people to always fear God and to keep all his commandments. Not until Deuteronomy 9:8-22 do we get the story of the golden calf--but it is Moses recapping what happened in Exodus, and he's telling a revisionist tale. In Exodus 32 God says to Moses "leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation." Ex. 32:9-10. Then Moses "besought" the Lord, pointing out that the Egyptians might say God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with "evil intent." Ex. 32:12. And Moses reminds God of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Ex. 32:13. In other words, Moses tries to shame and guilt trip God--and it works.  "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people," it says.  Ex. 32:14. But both God and Moses did not repent too much. A few verses later Moses decides to put down the rebellion by having the sons of Levi slaughter 3,000 with their swords. And the next day the Lord sends a plague upon the people. Exodus 32:35.  There's not a lot of restraint here. These facts are conveniently left out of the recitation in Deuteronomy 9. 

Aside 3: Another Midrash--When Moses sees the Israelites with the golden calf he breaks the tablets with the ten commandments that were inscribed by God. He breaks them out of love because he realizes that if he preserves the tablets they will wind up worshipping them as idols. When Moses returns sheepishly to God after having broken the tablets God says "I'll make you one like the first...," but this time Moses transcribes the commandments. God does not inscribe it with his own hand. 

Aside 4: And in prayer, of course, there is always doubt. "What do we really know?" Peretz reminded us of Abraham Heschel's observations that doubt leads to reflection, to evidence gathering, and as such it is the first step towards wisdom. See, e.g. Man is not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). 


Conclusion: "Beseech" How?

"Moses beseeched before the Lord" (p. 213, para. 6). The word for "beseeched," vayahal, is subject to different interpretations. Rabbi Elazar suggests Moses prayed so fervently that he became ill from overexertion. Rava (c. 280-352 CE) said the word alludes to "nullification" of God's vow and that Moses's "beseeching" prayer "caused the Divine Attribute of Mercy to take effect upon them." Just like the guest standing up and rescuing the son from the king's wrath, Moses's prayer caused God to show mercy. Like the guest stood up to the king, Moses managed to convince God that it would be a sacrilege for God to destroy his people. 

Moses stood in prayer until he was overcome by ahilu, "fire in the bones," i.e. a fever said Rabbi Elazar. He reminded God that he made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob... "in Your name." 

And Moses makes a curious argument:
What is the meaning of in Your name? ... Moses said before the Holy One...had You sworn to them by the heavens and the earth, I would say: just as the heavens and the earth will ultimately be no more, so too Your oath will be null and void. Now that You swore to them by your great name, just as Your name lives and stands for all eternity, so too does Your oath live and stand for all eternity
... and "I have told the people about Your promise," says Moses. "Now what do I say to them?"

Moses seems to be suggesting that if God made a promise "by the heavens and the earth" then if God breaks the promise the heavens and the earth would cease to exist. Hmm. God might not be impressed. The God of Job would laugh at that argument! And I doubt he would buy the corollary, that since God's name is eternal, God's oath is eternal.  But hey, in court, or when your back's up against the wall...., whatever works.

And sure enough, Moses soon goes back to psychological tactics. "If you don't bring the people into Eretz Yisrael," he says,  the whole world will say you're a weak and ineffectual God who could not do it! People will say your strength is weakened, like a female!

And God falls for it.
The Holy One, Blessd by He, said to Moses: And did the nations of the world not already see the miracles and he mighty acts that I performed on behalf of Israel at the Red Sea? 
And Moses know's he's got him:
 Moses said before Him; Master of the Universe, they can still say: The lord can stand up to a single king like Pharaoh and defeat him, but he is unable to stand up to the thirty-one kings in the land of Canaan. 
And the Lord caves. "As it is said: 'And the Lord said: I have forgiven according to your word."

Happy Endings

On top of page 215 we read: "Happy is the student whose teacher concedes to him as the Lord conceded to Moses." And happy is the teacher, for as God said to Moses: "You have given Me life with our words." Don't get carried away and take this literally, suggests Steinsaltz, by adding the explanatory sentence "I am happy that on account of your arguments I will forgive Israel."  

And from this we learn, says Rabbi Simlach: flatter first, then ask for stuff. 

Does prayer work?  We'll never know unless we ask say the Rabbis. Do like Moses, do like Hannah. Moses convinced God that the covenant is forever, he saved the Israelites from destruction, and he was granted his request to see the promised land. Hannah appealed to God and was granted a son who anointed two kings. Happy endings indeed.  

We left off at the end of Daf 32a in the middle of page 215. Our next session is March 13, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment