Thursday, April 14, 2016

Talmud Circle 7: Learning not to Expect Too Much

Peretz dedicated this session to Werner Gleitzman, a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El who  handed out prayer books for 40 years and always marked each one at the correct location.  He died last December but his obituary only appeared in the Chronicle this past month.

We're in the Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 32b. The rabbis are continuing to wrestle with Hannah and the nature of her prayer as a model for our prayers.

In a very dense page and a half (pp. 216-217) the rabbis try to reconcile the obligation of personal prayer with the fact that our prayers are often not answered. This raises the question of "what should we expect of our prayers?" The rabbis struggle with the distinction between attitudes of "expectation" and "hope" with respect to our prayers. They also focus on the qualities of "strength" and "courage" in our approach to Torah, good deeds, prayer, and how we conduct ourselves in the world. Finally, the rabbis struggle with the idea of redemption: does God forget us or our transgressions? Does God forsake us for our transgressions? And what avenue might there be for redemption?

These passages skirt the mystical and have given rise both to Jewish Kabbalah and to Jewish ethical renewal movements.

Western Wall, 2009/Salman

A Mandate for Prayer

The biblical mandate for prayer is thin. Exodus 23:25 says "You shall serve the Lord;" and Deuteronomy 6:13 says "You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear his name;" and the famous section of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (the Shema) says we shall keep the Lord's words "upon our heart" and you "shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." And then there is Deuteronomy 8:10: "And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."  That seems to be it. None of this would suggest a mandate of Hannah-like prayer three times a day.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, in creating a Judaism not centered on the land and animal sacrifice, the rabbis moved to a model of prayer in lieu of the required sacrifices, and they used Hannah as the model. She provided the formula: prayer with fervor and sincere feeling of awe, silent, directly towards God, on our knees, in a room with windows facing Jerusalem. The formula includes praise, petition, and thanks. Three times a day.

Praying with no Expectation that our Prayers will be Answered: for Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick

Rabbi Hanina, says the Gemara, once promised that "Anyone who prolongs his prayer is assured his prayer does not return unanswered" (p. 216, 4th paragraph). He invoked Moses, as one does.

But this guarantee of efficacy raises complications since prayer can be notoriously ineffective. The Amoraim (writers of the Gemara, ca. 200 CE - 500 CE) noted the problem and so they turned the adage on its head: "Anyone who prolongs his prayer and expects it to be answered will ultimately come to heartache," they said. Indeed, "hope deferred makes the heart sick."

So pray, as we are commanded to do--by the rabbinic tradition--but do not expect your prayers to be answered. In fact, those who prolong their prayer but do not expect it to be answered--those people are praiseworthy. So said Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba.

Instead of getting sick of heartache waiting for your prayers to be answered, they said, "engage in Torah study. As it it stated: '() desire fulfilled is the tree of life." And Steinsaltz cites to Proverbs 13:12 ("Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.")

Aside 1: A Tree of Life

On a site dedicated to the mystical Judaism of St. Louis born Rabbi Ginsburgh, they say this about the "tree of life:" 
In the Torah, the tree symbolizes both man (“You [the Jewish people] are called ‘man'”)–“for man is the tree of the field”–and the Torah–“It [the Torah] is a tree of life for all that hold onto it.” Both man and the Torah possess all of the four major components of the tree: roots, trunk, branches, fruit. 
The roots of man (the Jewish people) are our ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people–“the holy ones who are in the earth.” The trunk corresponds to the full body of the people of Israel that were redeemed (“born”) from Egypt, received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and entered the land of Israel. 
The branches represent the tribes of Israel (in Hebrew, the word for “tribe,” shevet–identical with the name of the month of Shevat–literally means a “branch” of a tree), and the individual tribe-members, which spread out and away from one another, each settling his own portion of the Holy Land (and who subsequently become even more dispersed, around the world, in time of exile). The fruit of the tree are the good deeds performed by each Jewish soul. 
The roots of the Torah are the inner secrets and mysteries of the Torah, the mysteries of God’s immanence in His creation (the concealed “mother”-principle in Kabbalah, corresponding to the matriarchs) and the mysteries of His absolute transcendence (the concealed “father”-principle in Kabbalah, corresponding to the patriarchs). The trunk of the tree is the body of the written and oral Torah as revealed to Israel at Sinai. The branches correspond to all of the diverse “disciplines” and methods of interpretation of the Torah, each individual soul possessing his own unique portion (approach and perspective) in the Torah. The fruit are the new insights, whose “flow” never ceases, that those who devote themselves to the study of the Torah merit to receive and reveal to the world. 
God gave the Torah to Israel to be our “eyes.” Just as God “looked into the [blueprint of the] Torah and created the world,” so did He give us the Torah in order that we look into it and thereby gain the power and direction to create and rectify the world around us.
This seems to suggest that the body of the Jewish people and the life of individual Jews runs through Torah: the study of Torah, and the knowledge of Torah.

Back on p. 216 (para. 5) the rabbis continue: "And the tree of life is nothing other than Torah.... 'It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.'"

So study Torah and pray..., but remember "one who prolongs his prayer and does not expect it be answered" is praiseworthy.

And As You Wait, and Wait, and Wait: Turn to God with Hope

We are required to include our personal petitions in our prayers--and these petitions must be sincere and heartfelt--but we must not expect the petitions to be granted. Here is the proper attitude, said Rabbi Hama: "A person who prayed and saw that he was not answered, should pray again, as it is stated: 'Hope in the Lord, strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord." (Psalms 27:14)
Turning to God with hope/from Waiting for Godot
Our petition, says Peretz, should be something that we think could be achieved. The miraculous nature of divine intervention notwithstanding, we should be realistic in our petitions. Like Hannah: she was of child bearing age, she had a loyal husband--her request for a child seemed reasonable. 

The rabbis seem to be saying we (must) pray with sincere hope, and courage; but we must place our hope in the Lord, not in our petition being answered.

Hope versus Expectation

Here's the trouble with expectations: sooner or later they're bound to be disappointed.  If we believe that our prayers will be answered if only we pray correctly, as Rabbi Hanina reputedly suggested, then after a while we'll think "it's not working, so why bother?" 

Hope in the Lord is vaguer, less prone to disappointment. It is sustainable even against the tribulations of Job, or the Shoa. 

Expectation implies a demand; hope is a conversation. Engaging God in prayer with hope is engaging God in a conversation. A conversation may have awkward pauses, but it can be sustained. 

Expectation is a close cousin to trust. There is an Arabic saying, Peretz reminded us: "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel." In other words, when you go to the market with your wares, it's fine to give a prayer to Allah to keep the camel safe, but it's best to tie it up. Or as Reagan said: "trust, but verify."

Hope is akin to faith. I can trust my son won't get in trouble, but such trust is likely to be eroded if he repeatedly gets in trouble. Hope is not eroded no matter how much trouble he gets into. 

Hope is more like "The Giants are going to win the World Series this year." It would be a realistic prayer, but don't expect your prayer to be answered.

Torah, Good Deeds, Prayer, and Occupation

Four things. It's from Mishna, says Peretz. The Tannaim (creators of the Mishna ~20-220 CE) were steeped in the Greek/Roman world of Palestine. They loved the symmetry of "four." [Compare the Babylonian Talmud... Persian culture avoided fours... they used fives]

Four things require bolstering, the Sages taught: Torah, good deeds, prayer, and occupation. 

An issue of translation: Peretz pointed out that the word "occupation" here is translated from derech eretz, literally "conducting yourself in the world." It means how we conduct ourselves in the world without reference to rules. The ways of the world. 

Torah, good deeds, prayer, and how we conduct ourselves in the world.... these need to be bolstered. 

And the rabbis harkened to what the Lord told to Joshua (p. 216 bottom paragraph): "Only be strong and be extremely courageous, observe and do all of the Torah." And Steinsaltz directs us to Joshua 1:1-7 (After the death of Moses... the Lord said to Joshua... Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go)

Aside 2: Look, no Mitzvoth

The Lord says to Joshua "do according to the law which Moses commanded you." But note, this is not presented as a reference to the 613 Mitzvah, or the 10 commandments. It is much more generic.

The ten commandments are a Christian conception. Maimonides wouldn't fight to put a favored ten on a courthouse plaque. There are no ten commandments in Torah, says Peretz. There are only utterances, what God said. There are no particular mitzvoth--these are a later rabbinic tradition. 

In Exodus there is parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18):  "These are the ordinances which you shall set before them...." There are sentences, clear instructions, these are not yet mitzvoth.

Strong and Courageous

"Be strong in Torah and courageous in good deeds," says the Gemara. 

There are two distinct qualities here: (1)  a mental quality (courage); and (2) a physical or material quality (strength). It is the blessing Moses gives to Joshua, said Peretz. 

Rabbinic metaphysics:  being strong and courageous in good deeds has three components--opportunity, capacity, and intention (the right attitude). We must have the opportunity to do good, we must have the ability to do good, and we must have an intention to do good.

Forget and Forsake

The Gemara now turns to a short midrash on the sin of the Golden Calf. The Lord was angry and the people cried out in the desert: "The Lord has forsaken me and the Lord has forgotten me."

Mass grave at Bergen Belsen/Lt. Alan More
Again these are not redundant terms: they fall on the opposite side of the mental/physical divide. To forsake means to physically withdraw help, to abandon, it is active; to forget is mental and passive. 

The people may have sinned and angered the Lord by worshipping their (Egyptian?) idol of the golden calf, but what does this mean? How can the people get redemption? 

As with the "expectation" that prayer will be answered, the rabbis set up a straw man here with respect to redemption, just to knock it down. 

Here is the straw man:  "Forsaken is the same as forgotten," says the Gemara. And Reish Lakish adds: the community of Israel said before the Holy One... even when a man marries  second wife ... he recalls the deeds of his first wife; yet You have not only forsaken me, but You (the Lord) have forgotten me as well." Out of sight out of mind, and no opportunity for redemption, this suggests.

But the voice of God himself is brought in to clear up the confusion, in the middle paragraph on page 217.  Note, this paragraph is meant to be chanted. If you look at the Hebrew in the margin you can see how repetitive it is--more so than in the English rendering. And if we had a cantor, she would have chanted it for us beautifully (to echo Donald Trump). 

And to paraphrase God,  He says: "I have created the heavens and the firmaments and all of them I have created only for your sake; and you said the Lord has forsaken me and the Lord has forgotten me? Can a woman forget her suckling baby? Have I forgotten the ram offerings and firstborn animals that you offered before me in the desert?" Of course not! 

No, I have not forgotten you, said the Lord. Speaking to all of Israel in the same manner as God spoke to Job, when Job was pushed to the edge of his endurance by the Devil's tribulations at God's invitation. It is the tale of Mephisto... very popular in the Middle Ages. At the Second Act on Haight Street they recently reprised the F.W. Murnau movie version of this tale.  

And the people of Israel in this midrash get nervous. "If there is no forgetfulness before the throne of your Glory," they worry, "perhaps you will not forget our sin of the Golden Calf?" And if you won't forget, how can we be redeemed?

And We Enter the Land of Mysticism

And the rabbis continue with the midrash: "(And) these [elu] too shall be forgotten." And Steinsaltz adds that "These" is a reference to the sin of the Golden Calf, regarding which Israel said: "These [elu] are your gods." 

Note the plural here, "Gods."  The Israelites sinned by denying the very central tenet of Judaism--monotheism.

God forgets, but He doesn't forget! 

But if now God will, after all, forget the sin of the Golden Calf... perhaps he will forget our covenant at Sinai... the Israelites now worry! 

Don't worry, says God "I [anokhi] will not forget you." 

The story leaves us hanging. "The Gemara notes: That is what Rabbi Elazar said that Rav Oshaya said: What is the meaning of that which is written: 'These too will be forgotten?' That is the sin of the Golden Calf. And what is the meaning of 'I will not forget you? Those are the events that transpired in Sinai."

God Does Not "Forgive"

The way we deal with our children when they do wrong is we forgive, and we move on. We don't forsake (because they are our sons and daughters), and we don't forget (because it hurts and we can't, and we don't want to). We forgive and move on. That's not what God is doing here. 

To forgive means to "stop feeling anger toward someone; to stop blaming." Does to forgive also imply acceptance of the past and readiness to move on? I think so. But God very pointedly does not forgive in this midrash. Instead God forgets, but doesn't forget. And God forsakes, but doesn't forsake. 

It opens the door to redemption, says Peretz. To redeem is to "make something better," or to "save from sin or evil." Can the sin of the Golden Calf be "made better" after the fact? Can the transgression become "less sinful, or saved from sin" after the fact?  If it's violation of God's law, can it be less transgressive of the law retroactively? If not, what kind of redemption are we talking about? 

Why would the rabbis not have God forgive and move on? What difference does it make to the religion that God doesn't forgive but insists on this ambiguous attitude of forgetting and not forgetting, of forsaking, and re-approaching?  

Kabbalah took this ball and ran with it, says Peretz. Did they run somewhere, or did they just run in circles? 

The Mussar movement was inspired by these passages as well, says Peretz. From the Wiki entry:  
The Muser movement... (focused on)... moral conduct, instruction or discipline. The term ... refers to efforts to further ethical and spiritual discipline.  [It]... arose among the non-Hasidic Orthodox Lithuanian Jews as a response to the social changes brought about by the Enlightenment, and the corresponding Haskalah movement among many European Jews. ...  Religious Jews feared that their way of life was slipping away from them, observance of traditional Jewish law and custom was on the decline, and even those who remained loyal to the tradition were losing their emotional connection to its inner meaning and ethical core.
Hence a moment of Jewish renewal that focuses on doing justice and walking humbly with your God.

Christian metaphysics: Christianity wrestles with these ideas of "forsaken" and "redemption" as well, Peretz pointed out. In Luke, Jesus cries out from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Has God's essence departed and left behind only the man to die on the cross? This man, of course, was blameless of any wrongdoing and did not require redemption. Or did he?  What does God's forsaking Jesus on the cross say about man and God and redemption? 

Peretz left us with some parting thoughts: There is the talk of God's mistress in Psalms. Okaay. There is the finite and the infinite: how, as finite creatures, can we have a dialogue with the infinite? Does any religion, mystic or not have answers to such questions? Are these well formed questions in a philosophical sense? 

We left off with a typical coda by which the rabbis signal the end of a midrash (third to last paragraph of page 217): "Those are the events that transpired at Sinai." 

Our next class is on May 15, 2016. 


  1. Wow, thank you for putting this together. It was hard to assimilate all the information from the last class and as always you do a marvelous job of doing so, clarifying and summarizing all the in formation in a very articulate, clear way.

  2. Thank you, Ruth. You are very kind. R