Monday, January 30, 2017

100 Blessings a Day: A Practice of Mindfulness

Our Talmud Circle met on January 8, 2017, the 202nd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The wind howled like the voice of God at Sinai. We were not deterred. We are in Berakhot 35b and the rabbis are concerned about work-life balance, how to approach their study of Torah, and the role of blessings. They, and Rabbi Peretz, set forth a vision of blessings as a practice of mindfulness.

Worker/Workers from Judah Touro to Mark Zuckerberg

Sanctuary of Touro Synagogue,
New Orleans (built 1908)
Judah Touro (1775-1854), the son of a Hazzan at a Sephardic synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, moved to New Orleans in 1801. When the United States acquired the city in the Louisiana Purchase two years later, business boomed. Touro was all in. He enlisted in Andrew Jackson’s army and hauled ammunition in the War of 1812. Wounded in the war, he survived to become a wealthy merchant, shipper, real estate mogul, and, eventually, philanthropist. He donated for the construction of a free public library in New Orleans in 1824. He purchased a Christian Church building, assumed its debts, and allowed the congregation to use the building rent-free in perpetuity. “I am a friend to religion” he explained to a friend. He founded a home for the poor and a hospital. He purchased slaves in order to free them. And at his death he donated more than $500,000 to various institutions, including Jewish institutions in 14 states, (the equivalent of $2 billion today as a percentage of GDP).

Touro thrived in the American milieu. His philanthropy embraced Christian, secular, as well as Jewish causes. In 1840 he gave $10,000 for the restoration of the Bunker Hill memorial and was eulogized for it by Daniel Webster. He gave money for the assistance of persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Through all this “Touro remained a devout Jew, although for most of his life he was without a synagogue,” says his Philanthropy Roundtable profile. It seems safe to say that in the taxonomy of Rabbi Peretz’s cousin in Los Angeles, he was an assimilated earner/earner, and a philanthropist.

Is it enough? Was Judah Touro a good Jew? The rabbis wrestled with the question.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai and the Learner/Learner Model of Life-Balance

Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai and his son would not have been impressed by Judah Touro and his philanthropy.

Berakhot, 35b (p. 241 of Steinsaltz):

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai says: Is it possible that a person plows in the plowing season and sows in the sowing season and harvests in the harvest season and threshes in the threshing season and winnows in the windy season?. . . . What will become of Torah? Rather, one must dedicate himself exclusively to Torah at the expense of other endeavors.

Shimon Ben Yohai was a second century Tannaim. He is the fourth most mentioned sage in the Mishna. God’s work is to study Torah, he said. All the time. Forget about gainful employment, forget about the business of merchant, shipper, and real estate developer.

[Aside 1: Ben Yohai and his son, to be sure, have some textual support for their extreme position. Isaiah 61:5-7 says: “Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the Lord, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Instead of your shame, you shall have a double portion.” It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off, but earner/earners from Judah Touro to Mark Zuckerberg will tell you, you don’t get to be a big league philanthropist by ignoring the ways of the world.]

Ben Yohai was critical of Roman administration, as we might expect based on his extreme and uncompromising position. He was forced to flee. With his son he went to hide in a cave. They found a great cave, the best cave, as our president might say. A carob tree and well with sweet water graced the entrance to the cave and this sustained them for thirteen years. They removed all their clothes and buried themselves up to their necks and studied all day. They became all mind—no body. They were head cases.

Ben Yohai and his son emerged twelve years later, after Hadrian (emperor 117 CE – 138 CE) has died. Pax Romana has been restored, the Bar Kokhba revolt is over; there are even attempts to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Ben Yohai and his son emerged into this word like Rip Van Winkle. As they looked out they were disappointed that people appeared to be living normal, assimilated lives; why are they not rending their clothes over loss of the temple, they wondered?  Ben Yohai and his son burned the fields with their laser vision; they burned people alive, and God said “back in the cave!”

Entrance to ben Yohai tomb
 There was more to be learned.

[Aside 2:  Shimon ben Yohai is held in unique reverence by the Kabbalistic tradition. It is said that he was sent to Rome where he exorcised a demon from the emperor’s daughter. It is said he died on the 33rd day of Omer, and that on his deathbed he revealed deep kabbalistic secrets that form the basis of the Zohar.  Daylight was miraculously extended until he completed his final teaching and died. There is an annual pilgrimage to his tomb located near Meron, in Northern Israel. There, it is a tradition that three year old boys are given their first haircut (upsherin) at this celebration.]

[Aside 3. The days of Omer (seven weeks plus one) are the days between Passover and Shavuot. See Leviticus 23:15-16, “And you shall count from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven full weeks shall they be, counting fifty days to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall present a cereal offering of new grain to the Lord.” The counting starts on the second day of Passover, and the idea is to prepare to mind in anticipation of the commemoration of the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai.]

[Aside 4. The edicts of Roman emperors automatically expired upon the death of the emperor. The new emperor started with a clean slate. It’s a feature of empire that Donald J. Trump appears intent on resurrecting.]

Rabbi Yishmael and the Learner/Earner model of Life-Balance

The sages recognized that all study and no work (and play?) was not workable. Being extreme is not the answer.

Rabbi Yishmael (d. ~135 CE) sets forth a more reasonable work-life-balance option. Berakhot 35b, (Steinsaltz p. 241):

The Sages taught: What is the meaning of . . . “And you shall gather your grain?” Because it is stated: “This Torah shall not depart from your mouths, and you shall contemplate in it day and night.” I might have thought (this means one should study all the time). But the verse states “and you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil.” (In doing so) we adopt the way of the world; we set aside time not only for Torah, but also for work. This is the statement of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Abaye (280 – 340 CE) summarized the dispute a couple centuries after ben Yohai, suggesting that studying Torah to the exclusion of all else can lead to ruin:

Many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, and combined working for a living and learning Torah (and they were successful in their Torah study). Many others have acted in accordance with the opinion of Ben Yohai and were not successful….

And Rabbi Rava (280-352 CE) made a point of doing something about it: he closed his yeshiva during the planting and harvest seasons. “Engage in your agricultural work so that you will not be preoccupied with your sustenance all year,” he said.

Work-life-balance is good, the rabbis taught. Even ben Yohai, after another 12 months in his cave, caught on. When he and his son emerged from their cave a second time they observed a man running home for his Shabbas meal with two bunches of myrtle. “What is this!” said the son, “the myrtle is only meant for Sukkot; there is no mitzvah to bring fragrant myrtle home for Shabbat.” “Idolatry!” says the son; but ben Yohai interrupts him and says: “No. How great is Israel that they have increased how to celebrate Shabbat.” After 13 years in the cave, Rabbi ben Yohai had mellowed.

Now he can leave the cave. He has learned how to live in this temporal world, even while paying attention to the eternal world. He has learned how to be spiritual and practical at the same time.

Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908), Talmudists School
Before coffee?/Wikicommons
A Practice of Mindfulness: 100 Brachot Trigger a State of Awe

There is a requirement to recite at least 100 brachot (blessings) each day, said the rabbis. It puts us in a state of awe. It sets the tone. Buber talks about this, says Peretz: Buber encounters everything in the world in a way that sanctifies. Indeed, it is the essence of Hasidism to be in a state of awe. To encounter everything in life in away that makes it holy brings us into a state of awe. It changes us. 

Say your blessings, be in awe, follow God’s path. It’s a curriculum.

Samuel Holdheim
People can differ over how to engage in this curriculum. We have different attention spans, said Peretz.  There is a tension point between different liturgical movements (reform, orthodox, etc.) that centers on the efficacy of liturgy. It’s not about theological differences. For example, David Ellison recounts a story about Rabbi Samuel Holdheim who was serving a Reform community in Bremen. After completing an abbreviated one-hour High Holiday service for his congregation, he was spied in a café completing the service, the rest of the traditional prayer book, on his own. Holdheim was struggling between his role as a community leader and his own spiritual needs. But the difference between him and his congregation was not theological; the difference was about the extent of the practice, over how to engage in the curriculum of mindfulness for it to be effective.

Peretz directs us to Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear (be in awe of) the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord our god with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statues of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good.”

“For your good.”

[Aside 5:  The passage is generally translated with the word “fear,” but it really means “awe.”]

There is a link between some of the early prophets and Deuteronomy—in terms of language and intent. The opening here (“what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear (be in awe of) the Lord your God”) is familiar from the book of Micah: “What does God want of you—to seek justice, walk humbly, and follow your God.” This suggests an aspirational relationship. We aspire to be in awe; we aspire to seek justice, walk humbly, and follow our God. 

[Aside 6:  At the online site Naaleh they add the following:

There is a requirement to recite a minimum of 100 brachot a day. The end of the book of Shmuel recounts how 100 Jews were dying every day in a plague. To counteract this, King David enacted that every Jew should recite 100 brachot each day. The prophet relates that after the Jews began doing this the plague stopped.

The Gemara mentions another source for this enactment. In Parshat Eikev the Torah says, “V’ata Yisrael mah Hashem elokecha shoel m’imcha.” What does Hashem ask of you? The Gemara says mah can be also read as meah (100). Hashem asks of us to fear Him, to cling to Him, to love Him and the way to reach this is through reciting the meah brachot.

The Kitzur (condensed code of Jewish law) says that there are 100 curses mentioned in Devarim, 98 specific curses and two general curses. The 100 brachot protect us from these curses.

On a regular day most of the brachot can be covered by the shemone esrei, which is recited three times a day. Some authorities are lenient and count another 19 with the repetition of the shemone esrei. But most say not to rely on this. ]

Deuteronomy 10:12-13 uses the pronoun “you” in both its plural and singular sense when it suggests “get ye in a state of awe!” What does God require of “you” is ostensibly addressed to “you Israel,” but “you” is also singular—meaning each one of us. But Deuteronomy does not tell us whether to engage like Rabbi Samuel Holdheim in Bremen, or like his congregants.

And as we recall from last month, we go to an adept to learn how to engage in this practice of mindfulness. We don’t go to a “sage,” which connotes an old white man; we go to “an adept” like our yoga teacher, four years ahead of us.  It is a model of copying: we do what they do.

Rabbi Samuel Holdheim completing his practice by himself in a café in Bremen notwithstanding, it’s a communal activity. We educate our children. It requires schools and teachers, and entire infrastructure of urban life. It leads us to urban life. “How many schoolhouses do you have?” asks one. “None” was the answer.  “It’s a dead town, I’m not coming,” was the conclusion. This is a Judean idea. We need scholars around centers, we need broad literacy, we need education.

The camping movement is part of the program of following adepts. A parent asks, “What did you learn at camp?”  The child answers, “We celebrated Shabbat, we danced, we sang.”  We learn by doing, by following role models.

Following adepts at Camp Coleman
Shabbat, 2011 (Georgia)
Following a role model is accessible to anyone. In the United Sates the Orthodox have been most engaged in teaching disabled students; any child can learn by modeling. None are hidden away. We can teach them by modeling.

[Aside 8:  In creating Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis replaced sacrifice and the tithe for the Levites at the temple with prayer and blessings. If we are awake 16 hours a day, and we are engaged in prayer and blessings for 1.6 hours/day, we think of this as our tithe, our offering.] 

A hundred blessings does not take all day. As we wake up in the morning we recite the Modeh Ani (thank you for my soul), then when we hear the cock crow, or our alarm clock ring, we say a blessing for opening our eyes, we say a blessing over getting out of bed, over getting dressed, over putting on our shoes. We recite the Amidah and its 19 blessings three times a day. They don’t take long, these blessings; but they make us mindful of our actions. 

Is it a Belief Statement, or Observed Correlation?

We should be in a state of awe says Deuteronomy and say the rabbis; and if we are in a state of awe, our determined outcome will be to follow God’s path. It’s inevitable. This is an Aristotelian ideal, says Peretz: ethics is a curriculum (and a practice) that produces a moral outcome. That observation runs deep in Talmud, says Peretz.

But is it a statement of faith, or is it observed correlation?

Is awe sufficient, or do we also need laws and mitzvoth: rewards and punishment? The discussion back and forth through time between ben Yohai, Yishamel, Abaye, and Rava seems to point towards “we do this because it’s effective.” In Deuteronomy, and in Berakhot 35b, we see the rabbis wrestle with the curriculum. What should we teach? What is the curriculum? What works? And they come up with a plan: a hundred blessings a day. . . because it works. . . like Four Hugs a Day that they sang of in my daughter’s pre-school.

It’s an old debate, suggests Peretz: is humanism a natural outcome of a state of being? Do we just get there naturally on our own from a state of awe, or do we also require mitzvot and a scheme of rewards and punishments? The debates in Talmud reflect this tension between that which is fixed and formalized, but not felt; and that which is felt but not formalized.

We explored the question “Can we do away with the 100 blessings once we are in a state of awe?” The answer is “No.” And we borrow from meditation practice: nothing stays with us. If we stop the practice we drift. There is a balance between the practice of saying blessings, and the outcome which is awe; but awe is not permanent, it drifts.

“I was in a state of awe for the Raiders,” said Peretz; “it’s gone. Just like that. The Season, gone!” Another season will come back.

That all sounds like observed correlation, cause and effect, not dogma. We can look back and find a model of success. We can investigate what are successful models. Our practice of mindfulness is not revealed by God—it is based on practical success.

Summarizing, rabbi bar bar Hana said:

“Come and see that the later generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah fixed and their work occasional (and both work and Torah) was successful for them. The later generations who made their work fixed and their Torah occasional (found neither work nor Torah) was successful for them.”

[Aside 9: The play on “earlier generations/later generations” is a common trope in Talmud to illustrate a point—here that “what works” is to have Torah as a fixed practice, and to work as needed]

[Aside 10:  the word “fixed” in the quotation above is translated in Steinsaltz as “permanent.” “Fixed” is the correct meaning]

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Some of the rabbis of the Mishna may have been just out of earshot of the Sermon on the Mount, but they were at least 1200 years removed from any revelations at Mt. Sinai. There is a dispute between Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, the Rambam (1135-1204 CE), and Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the Ramban (1194-1270 CE) about the effect of our remoteness from revelation.

The Ramban maintained that the further we get away from Sinai, we have more difficulty. That’s why we have disputes. We are unsure what the correct rules are. Our halakhic issues and difficulties, he said, will be finally resolved when the Mashiach comes. The Ramban sees a collection of textual difficulties which must be resolved.

The Rambam, by contrast, said “No, things are getting better all the time. We have more material. We have a clear document of what happened at Sinai, the Torah, and we keep adding to it. And the more we have, the more wisdom we have.” We have experience and we have observed what works. The Rambam sees a growing body of wisdom to be pursued and enjoyed.

Both of these views are in Talmud, but they were clarified in the 12th & 13th century philosophies of these prominent Jewish rabbis. These two thoughts stay with us today.

Idolatry and the Consumer Society

Idolatry is to worship an object as though it were God. It’s what King Jeroboam ben Nevat (r. 928-907 BCE) was guilty of when he reintroduces idols into the temple. Idolatry reduces God to an object we can define and control. It’s a strange practice because it takes God, who is infinite and eternal, and reduces God to a finite and temporal object. It’s objectifying God to a consumer good. 

[Aside 9:  A Jeroboam is also a large bottle of wine; equivalent of six standard 750 ml bottles.  “Curiously, the historic convention for naming wine bottle sizes is based on the names of biblical kings.” See Wine Folly.]

That’s not what we do when we say a blessing over food, or some object. When we say a blessing, the object does not change. We change; we can now engage it because we’ve said the blessing.  We can move, the apple cannot. We can change our condition. A practice of mindfulness can never be idolatry, it can only be more or less efficacious, says Peretz.

And Peretz points us to Maimonides, and his Safer ha-mitzvot, which seems to agree:

“I have already told you, my child that all glory, majesty, good, power, and blessings are God’s. The words of humanity, and all our deeds, good or bad, do not increase or diminish God. Therefore, you must learn that our constant recitation of blessings in praise of God does not mean, as it would appear, that blessings added to the One who requires no addition; we must seek to understand the intent of this matter of blessings.”

Maimonides tells us that the blessing does not (and is not intended to) affect God. Blessings are mindfulness—they are meant to affect our state of mind, our state of being—we are not attempting to affect the object of the blessing. For this reason, blessings can never be idolatry.

The Priorities of San Francisco Jews

Adolph Sutro (1830-'98)
When Jews arrived in San Francisco, beginning in 1848, their first communal organization was the Eureka Benevolent Society (1850) (precursor to Jewish Family and Children’s Services). Their first move was to take care of the widows, orphans, and strangers.  Their second philanthropic organization was Mt. Zion Hospital (1887). Sherith Israel built its first temple in 1854.  Places of recreation, like the Sutro baths (1894) followed.

What Happens when the Temple is Rebuilt?

We have been studying how rabbinic Judaism represented a huge change away from a practice based on sacrifice and tithes in the temple to a transportable practice based on prayer and blessings. We want to say this is a “development,” but there is the nagging fact that the rabbis always wanted to keep open the door to restore the temple and sacrifice.

When Jews did return, some early Zionists wanted to throw out all the trappings that Judaism had assumed outside the land of Israel: “just farm, baby, farm” as Al Davis might have said. “Farm and follow the biblical calendar,” they said. These pioneers wanted to throw out the Talmudic gloss (and dross). “We speak the language, we live on the land. It’s enough. Who needs these prayers and blessings the rabbis came up with in Babylonia and Vilnius?”

But today Judaism is practiced both inside and outside the land of Israel. Jews have brought back their practices from Vilnius to Jerusalem, and as Heraclitus observed, “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” There is no pre-Talmudic home to return to.

“And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.”

What should we keep and what should we discard? Let experience be our guide suggest the rabbis in Berakhot 35b.

Our next class is Sunday, February 5, 2017.

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