Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Talmud Circle 8: Bringing Hannah's Fervor to the Liturgy we Now Have

Start of 2016 Bay to Breakers
Sunday May 15 was a windless glorious day in San Francisco. A major pilgrimage festival was underway. A crowd of more than 50,000 was walking, gawking, or running in costume from the Bay to the breakers of Ocean Beach. I foolishly attempted to traverse the City from the far side of Fell Street by car, and despite fervent prayers, the sea of people did not part, the diverted traffic did not clear, and I arrived late for our final shot at placing Hannah in context with the later rabbinic tradition. Unlike the Bay-to-Breakers race, which gets spread out and slows down as it approaches the finish line, our Talmud class sped up and compressed as we neared the end.

That was Then, And This is Now;  or, We Need to be Practical in our Praying

We picked up at the bottom of p. 217 with the rabbis contemplating some excessive prayer habits. The Mishna, they note, reports that the early generations of pious men used to spend an hour in preparation for prayer and an hour in contemplation afterwards. They took their time to get in the right frame of mind to approach God, and they did not want to seem rude by leaving too abruptly.

And the rabbis who wrote the Gemara marveled: three times a day the Mishnah directs us to pray! And these pious men spent three hours each time?  How did they get anything done? How was their Torah preserved, wondered the rabbis. And the Gemara answers: (don't worry) because they were pious it worked out.

And the rabbis tell a story to suggest we not take everything we read in the Mishna literally. The Mishna says "don't interrupt your prayer even if a king is greeting you." Everyone knows this may result in you getting your head chopped off. Rav Yosef (Babylon: 280-310 CE) implied "don't take this directive from Mishna not to interrupt your prayer literally. If it's a King of Israel who understands, fine. But if it's some foreign king... go ahead and abbreviate your prayer if you can, or interrupt it if you must."

And the rabbis elaborate with a story about a particularly pious man who was praying while traveling along his path [middle of the road?] when an officer came along and greeted him. The pious man did not respond and the officer waited for him to finish his prayers. When he finished he asked incredulously--what were you doing? Don't you know I might have had your head chopped off for insubordination, or a seditious act? Steinsaltz points out that the rabbis commenting on this story suggest the pious man didn't really take his life into his hands because the officer had a "tell." The pious man knew this particular officer was an understanding fellow and would listen to his explanation. And the pious man gave an analogy to the officer that indeed satisfied: just like the officer would not stop to greet a friend in the presence of his king, the pious man could not interrupt his prayer to The King of Kings, God, in order to greet the officer.  The pious man read the tell correctly and the officer understood.

The moral of these stories is that we be practical in our prayers: "don't follow the example of these early pious men in the Mishna  literally; be mindful of the limitations and dangers posed by our environment." Mishnah was then, and this is now! It's good advice for a religion to be practiced as a minority in Diaspora.

Aside 1: The rabbis are talking about the Amidah in these stories, the core of every worship service (also referred to as HaTefillah, or “The prayer.”) It literally means, “standing” because it refers to a series of blessings recited while standing. Using the image of master and servant, the Rabbis declared that a worshipper should come before his or her master first with words of praise, then should ask one’s petitions, and finally should withdraw with words of thanks. Thus, every Amidah is divided into three central sections: praise, petitions, and thanks. The Amidah is recited silently by all members of a congregation–or by individuals praying along–and then, in communal settings, repeated aloud by the prayer leader or cantor, with the congregation reciting “Amen” to all the blessings of the Amidah. This specific and prescribed form of The Prayer is in marked contrast to Hannah's prayer, which is pre-temple, and improvised.

Aside 2: The "Eloheinu" ["Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha`olam"] [Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe] migrated into the daily prayer over time in different places until it became a universal part of the liturgy. The Catholic Church used to have an office with oversight of synagogues, which influenced the development of liturgy [?][I have not been able to find reference to this on the internet and I may have misunderstood as well]

Snake wrapped around your ankle is o.k, but don't step on one. The rabbis reinforce the idea about the need for prudence in our approach to prayer with another story.  Mishnah said do not interrupt prayer "even if a snake is wrapped around your ankle." Fine, said the rabbis. If you don't disturb the snake it won't bite... so go on with your prayer. But if a scorpion approaches you had better stop. Mishnah was then, this is now. We must be practical and realistic in our prayer.

An ox story. The Gemara teaches that we must interrupt our prayer in case of certain danger. We get out of the way of an ox, unless we know it to be non-aggressive (shor tam). When you see a black ox, especially during the days of Nisan (Spring rutting season) you had better interrupt your prayer and give way, for that's "when Satan dances between its horns."

The non-aggressive oxen (the one who is shor tam) is simple, unperturbed, and calm. He is like Ferdinand the Bull in the children's story, like the simple child in the Passover story. Like the simple child is in dialectic with the angry child in the four questions of the Passover Seder, the shor tam oxen is in dialectic with the black ox of Nisan with Satan dancing between his horns. Both the angry ox and the angry child are agitated--they cannot connect.

A joke: A pious Jew was camping in the woods. After a long day he returns to his tent. There he encounters a fierce Grizzly bear. We think of Timothy Treadwell's last moments. The man is certain he will die. He begins to recite:  "Sh'ma Yisra'eil Adonai Eloheinu ...." when suddenly he pauses mid-prayer, because to his astonishment, he hears the bear join in .... "Eloheinu Adonai echad." With great surprise, and relief, the man asks incredulously--"You are Jewish?" The bear looks at him, and begins to recite: "Hamotzi ...." 

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa: a Cautionary Tale Against Zealotry?

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was a first generation Tannaim (1st Century CE) living in the north of Israel at the end of the second temple era. He was a student of Yohanan ben Zakkai. He is not known for developing law (Halakhah) but rather as a mystic and miracle worker. He was particularly fervent in prayer, and there are several stories about his prayers being successful. He was a miracle worker. Not an ordinary mortal we are led to assume.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and the arvad.  There was a place where an arvad (snake) was harming people. So the people asked Rabbi ben Dosa for his help. He came and asked them to show him where the hole of the arvad was located. They showed him and Rabbi ben Dosa placed his heel over the mouth of the hole. The arvad came out and bit him, and the arvad died. Rabbi ben Dosa slung the dead snake over his shoulder ostentatiously and marched off to the yeshiva (study hall). There, he taught the assembled students an object lesson: "See," he said, "it's not the arvad that kills, rather transgression kills."  And the sages appreciated the story, but wrote the miracle off to ben Dosa's special nature: "Woe unto the person who was attacked by an arvad and woe unto the arvad that was attacked by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa." Don't do like ben Dosa, said the sages. Don't be an idiot and place your heel over the hole of the arvad and provoke it to bite you. Don't be a zealous fool, they implied. Focus on your prayer, but be careful.  We want to be able to do this again tomorrow.

The Rabbis of the Gemara were aware that Judaism in Diaspora is not like practicing inside the safety net of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There in Jerusalem there are no snakes, oxen, scorpions, or highwaymen. In Diaspora we encounter people unfamiliar with our tradition and we are liable to be misunderstood. So it's best to be careful. Indeed, zealotry, as illustrated by Rabbi Ben Dosa and the arvad, can be more dangerous than a snake.

Zealotry and the Fear of Sin

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa opposed Hellenism and was devoted to strict observance of Halakhah (the ritual law). A saying is attributed to him: "Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure” [Avot: chapt.3]  Some suggest that this means what we are doing here in Talmud Circle doesn't cut it: we lack the requisite fear of transgression to gain wisdom. See e.g. Rabbi David Rosenfeld at Torah.org

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, as I understand it, says the rabbis of the Gemara didn't endorse this potentially zealous view of sin, as illustrated by their commentary on the Hanina ben Dosa stories. They remembered that it was zealotry, in part, that lead to the loss of the Temple. For Hanina ben Dosa to say that dying from the bite of an Arvad is attributable to sin, is rather like blaming hurricane Katrina on sin. It's not what the rabbis of the Gemara are after. 

Cliff Detz pointed out that the point of religion is wisdom not just piety (mindless rule following?). The rabbis of the Gemara were not holding up nine hours of prayer (zealotry) as the way to live. And Rabbi Peretz directed us back to the beginning of Berakhot 30b (p. 203 of the Steinsaltz) where the rabbis stress that prayer is to be approached with reverence and gravity: it's about quality not quantity. 

The "fear before wisdom" distinction ben Dosa (and Rosenfeld at Torah.org) point to makes the claim that fear of sin precedes wisdom. The rabbis of the Gemara commenting on the Hanina ben Dosa arvad story raise the possibility (a view a secularist would endorse) that wisdom must precede the fear of sin, because only through wisdom can we determine what sin to fear. 

Aside 4: There are literary parallels to this Hanina ben Dosa arvad story. There is Jacob who grabbed his twin brother's heel during birth, only to later steal Esau's birthright. "Yaakov" means "heel" in Hebrew. There is, of course, also the heel of Achilles. When his mother (Thetis) gives birth to Achilles there is a prophesy that he will die young. So Thetis takes him to the river Styx, which marks the boundary between earth and the underworld, and she dips Achilles into the river, holding him by his heel.  The river has magical powers that can make you invulnerable--but because Thetis held Achilles by his heels, it left him vulnerable in that spot.

Aside 5: Here is the biblical description of Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb: ""And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the Lord. And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22–23)  And just like Jacob who grabbed Esau's heel and struggled with Esau, Judaism was the first born and became subordinate to the second born religion of Christianity.

Aside 6: Rabbi Moshe Meisles of Vilna, youngest son disciple of Rabbi Schenur Zalman, was a renowned Chasid. He was also a spy for the Russians against Napoleon.  Hired to  translate for the French High Command he was able to relay intelligence to the Russian commander in Vilna and save the Russian arsenal. Why would he do such a thing? The Vilna Chasidim were afraid of the French Enlightenment; they were afraid of emancipation. They liked the separateness of life in the Shtetl. The walls of the ghetto were keeping the Jews Jewish. Russia offered tradition; France threatened modernity.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and Erring in Prayer as a Bad Omen

We skipped an extended discussion of the halakhot (laws) of prayer contained at pp. 220-229, to continue with another Hanina ben Dosa story on p. 229. 

After laying out detailed rules governing prayer, the Mishna on p. 229 (Berakhot 34b) notes that it is a bad omen to err in your prayer. They said about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa that when he prayed for the sick he could correctly identify who would recover and who would not. And when they asked him how he knew this, he said: "If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that [it] is accepted. And if not, I know that my prayer is rejected." In other words, in order to be effective, the prescribed manner of prayer had to be recited accurately and fluently. Established liturgy matters. 

And Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was very good with his prayers. Because his prayer was fluent in his mouth he managed to successfully intercede with prayer on behalf of Raban Gamaliel's son, and on behalf of the son of his teacher Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. But it is "his" (i.e. Hanina's) prayer that did the trick. Hanina illustrates the importance of liturgy, but the point of the story is not that our prayers will be answered if only they are fluent in our mouth. 

Hannah and Hanina: Direct Prayer but now with a Prescribed Liturgy

Hanina and Hannah are linked by more than the similarity of their names: they are bound together by the intense and direct manner in which they approach God. In the story of Hanina successfully praying for Rabbi Gamaliel's son to get well, Rabbi Hanina goes alone to the roof to pray. Like Hannah, he does this outside the minion structure, but unlike Hannah he follows a prescribed form of prayer.  Like Hannah (who wants a child) Hanina (who wants healing of another) makes a direct and fervent appeal. But whereas Hannah's prayer was inarticulate and unstructured, Hanina's Amidah was highly structured. Hannah remains the model with her fervent direct prayer, but now this is supplemented by an established liturgy. 

Judaism has made it through the post temple period by replacing the temple and sacrifice with an established liturgy and text. Hannah and Hanina together provide the model. 

Rabbi Peretz left us with a Hasidic tale: the community in a small town in Poland was gathered for Shabbat services in the local synagogue, ready to recite the prayers. All was ready and perfect but they were interrupted by a wild and crazy person. Like in a trance, obviously not knowing the details of the prayer, he fervently recited "shema, shema, shema..." over and over again. The congregants stare at him, annoyed. When will this crazy man stop so they can go on with their prayers--properly--they wondered? At this moment the Baal Shem Tov wandered in. "This man opened the gates of prayer for all of you," he said. 

The question is, can we bring the intensity of Hannah's prayer to the text and liturgy that we now have? It is a question and a challenge. 

Chagall, 1923 (one of two versions after a 1917 painting)
Chicago Art Institute

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