Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pain & Pleasure, Blessing & Curse

--> More than 2,300 years ago, Epicurus noted that the purpose of pursuing philosophy was to attain ataraxia (tranquility, peace, and freedom from fear) and achieve aponia (avoid pain). Twenty-one centuries later, British philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, father of modern utilitarianism wrote: Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud wrote of the natural biological instinct of all human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain. He wrote: It seems that our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, that it is automatically regulated by the Pleasure Principle. The Pleasure Principle, Freud explained, derives from Eros, the life instinct associated with sexuality, and Thanos, the death instinct associated with aggression and destructiveness.

In this weeks Torah, Moses tells Israel that they face a similar choice: blessing or curse, life or death:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.  אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.  וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים--אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.  וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--וְנָתַתָּהאֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל.



See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessings at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. (Deuteronomy 11:26-29)

This is pretty much a biblical formulation of the Pleasure Principle: how to seek pleasure and avoid pain in Gods world, under Gods covenant. In speaking of last weeks Torah portion, Ekev, I mentioned Deuteronomic theology, a term one finds in academic discussions. Deuteronomic theology refers to a set of beliefs that govern the writings in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here they are in short, and note how many are reflected in the four verses above:
     God is the divine and final authority of the Israelite theocracy. Israel is Gods elect people, with whom God has a legal covenant; God has chosen Israel to follow Gods Torah, which spells out Gods will through their covenantal obligations. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:1.)
     Israel is commanded to practice generosity and compassion toward those most vulnerable: the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers residing among them, and to treat one another as brothers and siblings. (For example, Deuteronomy 14:2915:11.)
     God has given the land of Canaan to Israel as their inheritance and they retain control of the land only so long as they obey Gods covenant. If Israel keeps the covenant, God will reward them with blessings. If they violate the covenant, they will lose possession of the land. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:28.)
     Worship is restricted God, alone, and to a centralized cult in the place that Adonai your God will choose. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:14 and 16:5-6.) Although Deuteronomy does not specify that location, we know from other books of the Bible that this is Jerusalem.

In the 21st century, few liberal Jews (let alone Orthodox Jews) hold to this theology. Indeed, few Americans of any religious tradition, when push comes to shove, hold this theology strongly. Even if they curse God for the trials and tragedies that befall them (How could God let this happen to me?), they are not likely to credit God with their personal accomplishments. If they thank God for their blessings (God saved me for a reason), they are unlikely to thank God when their desires are not fulfilled. Theology that entails the claim that God intervenes in our world and directs our lives is a messy business. Where does Gods providence end, and our own will and agency begin? If God rewards and punishes, why can no human being discern even the hint of a pattern of justice in the blessings and sufferings of human beings? And if God is not behind the events of our lives, let alone the larger events of the world, what is God and is there a God who promulgates Torah, mitzvot, and ethical principles for our lives? And an inescapable corollary: Is what we hold to be holy scripture truly divine in some way, or the composition of people who understood the Pleasure Principle and sought to bring order to society lest it devolve into chaos?

There are big questions and cannot be answered in brief, however pithy the response. What is more, there is no one set of answers to these questions; we each find our own understandings. However, Id like to offer a beginninga direction to proceed to find answers.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza (1765-1827) was a hasidic master, a student of Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa. His commentaries on Torah are collected in a work entitled Mei Shiloach. Commenting on the verses above, the Isbitzer rebbe tells us:

Everything is from God. It is the nature of a person to shout and cry out to God, What have You done to me? in a time of trouble. Yet at the time when God bestows goodness, [the same persons] eye becomes clouded from seeing that it is from God. Then that person says, My own power and the strength of my hand has made me this wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17); therefore the blessed God shows that person, See! this day I set before you, (Deuteronomy 11:26), meaning that everything is from God.

The Isbitzer tells us that God is the source of everything. This would seem to accord with the Mishnah, which tells us:

חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את ה' אלהיך בכל לבבך וגו' בכל לבבך בשני יצריך ביצר טוב וביצר הרע ובכל נפשך אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך ובכל מאדך בכל ממונך ד"א בכל מאדך בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו.

One should thank God for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good, as it says, You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all of your means (Deuteronomy 6:5). With all your heart means with your two impulses [the word heart is spelled with two bets]the evil impulse as  with the good impulse. With all of your means”—by whatever measure [the word for measure sounds much like the word for means in Hebrew] God calculates for youwhether good or badyou should thank God. (BT Berakhot 54a)

Mishnah acknowledges that good and bad things happen to us, but wants us to be thankful for the bad as much as for the good. A tall order indeed! A few dapim (folios) later, we are treated to a story about R. Akiba that illustrates the principle that ultimately all that God does is for good.

הא דרבי עקיבא דהוה קאזיל באורחא מטא לההיא מתא בעא אושפיזא לא יהבי ליה אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב אזל ובת בדברא והוה בהדיה תרנגולא וחמרא ושרגא אתא זיקא כבייה לשרגא אתא שונרא אכליה לתרנגולא אתא אריה אכליה לחמרא אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב ביה בליליא אתא גייסא שבייה למתא אמר להו לאו אמרי לכו כל מה שעושה הקדוש ברוך הוא הכל לטובה

R. Akiba was once going along the road. He came to a certain town and looked for lodgings but was everywhere refused. He said Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good, and he went and spent the night in the open field [a patently dangerous thing to do]. He had with him a cock, a donkey, and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp. A weasel came and ate the cock. A lion came and ate the donkey. [R. Akiba] said: Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good. That same night some brigands came and carried off the inhabitants of the town. He said to them:  Did I not say to you, ‘’Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?’” (BT Berakhot 60b-61a)

We are to understand that the cock crowing, the donkey braying, or the lamps light would have alerted the brigands to R. Akibas presence in the field. Hence, what he might have perceived as losses were actually blessings that saved his life.

But how often does life work out this way? Does this story help us see good in all the bad that befalls us? Does it work for you?

The Isbitzer rebbes approach is far gentler. He wants us to understand that the universe is a unity in God; all things are intertwined, connected, inseparable. What happens to us is part of what is happening to the entire world. He tells us:

This means that each time the Holy One blessed be God bestows goodness on a person, [God] dresses it in a garment so that it appears on the outside to be the opposite of that goodness. In this way, a person may refine himself by his actions and bring to light the goodness that is at the depths. Then it will be called the work of his hands.

For the hasidim, grounded in Kabbalah, the theme of reality not being what it seems is ubiquitous. We see bad and do not realize that it is good-in-disguise. On the surface, this sounds much like the Mishnahs claim and Talmud illustration in R. Akibas story. But Rabbi Mordecai Yosefs wisdom comes from a different place, a different theology. For Kabbalists, like the Isbitzer, this is not a fragmented universe. The universe is complex and often incomprehendible, to be sure, but it is all one universe, with one source of being: God. The distinctions we make between God and the universe are merely our perceptions. The distinctions we perceive between what God does and what I do are also perceptions, not ultimate reality. Ultimate realitythe unity of allis God. Everything is contained within God: you, me, the rest of the world; good and bad. We experience things as good and bad but do not think about the full extent of the event under consideration, nor the long-range consequences. It is not easy to think on this broad scope, but doing so can ease some of our pain.

It is customary upon hearing the news of the death of a loved one to say: ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed is the Judge of truth. To many people this sounds like the suggestion that it is our duty to accept the death of one we cherish as good in some way we cannot understand, as the unfathomable act of an incomprehensible God of infinite power. I dont think it means this at all. I think the blessing is saying that the universe is constructed in such a way that being born and having life means that one day we must surrender that life and die. That is "the way of the world, and it is all happening inside God. In the larger scheme of things, it is the way things must be, but here in this moment, with the pain of our dead before us, it is hard to view what is happening from that vantage point. The Rabbis give us this blessing to help us gain some perspective, because perspective brings a measure of solace. Even if we cannot appreciate this blessing in the pain of the moment and in the throws of grief, in time we may come to.

We have always been creatures who seek pleasure and avoid pain. Epicurus framed it in philosophical terms, Jeremy Bentham in social-political terms, and Freud in psychological terms. Torah places into our hands the capacity not to avoid pain altogether, but by making choices that reach for blessing to lessen the pain. The Isbitzer rebbe reminds us that everything exists within God. This does not mean that what we experience as bad is necessarily good, but that everything is part of the tapestry of creation, a perspective that helps us cope with reality.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, August 15, 2014

Blessings & Lice / Parshat Ekev 2014


Texts and emails lack tone and are often misunderstood. Add to this the brevity with which they are written, the punctuation often lacking, and the tendency to overuse pronouns in place of proper nouns, and you have a connoisseurs recipe for misinterpretation. This can happen with the best of intentions.

Misinterpretation sometimes happens intentionally, as well, and Talmud provides a lollapalooza of an example connected with his weeks parashah, Ekev. Moses is addressing the Israelites on Gods behalf. He articulates Gods rewards for faithfully keeping Gods covenant. This is a major facet of Deuteronomic theology: a powerful God Who rewards and punishes, using weather, womb, and enemies as divine disciplinary tools. On another occasion, Ill return to this problematic theology, but for now, my focus is on the actual words of Torah and how they are purposefully misconstrued by a Talmudic sage.

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.  וַאֲהֵבְךָ, וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ; וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי-אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, שְׁגַר-אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ.  בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים:  לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה, וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ.  וְהֵסִיר יְהוָה מִמְּךָ, כָּל-חֹלִי; וְכָל-מַדְוֵי מִצְרַיִם הָרָעִים אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, לֹא יְשִׂימָם בָּךְ, וּנְתָנָם, בְּכָל-שֹׂנְאֶיךָ. וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ--לֹא-תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם; וְלֹא תַעֲבֹד אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי-מוֹקֵשׁ הוּא לָךְ. 

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that made on oath with your ancestors. [God] will favor you and bless you  and multiply youblessing the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land sworn to your ancestors to assign to you. You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock. Adonai will ward off from you all sickness; [God] will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies. You shall destroy all the peoples that Adonai your God delivers to you, showing them no pity. And you shall not worship their gods, for that would be a snare to you. (Deuteronomy 7:12-16)

At first glance, there is nothing unusually or unfamiliar here to someone who has read the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew, however, sports a peculiarity deriving from the fact that Hebrew distinguishes between you addressed to one person (and also distinguishes between male and female) and you addressed to two or more people (again, distinguishing between male and female). Here, Moses couches the entire speech grammatically in second-person-masculine-singular, which means that you and your  (both as object pronoun and possessive) technically refer to one male. We might have expected the use of the masculine-plural you in Hebrew in order to encompass the entire people. Nonetheless, in both Hebrew and English, the meaning is utterly clear. Moses is addressing the entire nation of Israelmen, women, childrenadjuring them to keep Gods covenant faithfully, and assuring them of the rewards that will come to them for doing so.

And if there is the slightest doubt that the use of the masculine-singular you is intended to encompass everyone, consider this verse:

כִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ, רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי; אֵיכָה אוּכַל, לְהוֹרִישָׁם. לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם:  זָכֹר תִּזְכֹּר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְפַרְעֹה, וּלְכָל-מִצְרָיִם

Should you say to yourself [singular], These nations are more numerous than I [singular]; how will I [singular] be able to dispossess them, you [singular] need have no fear of them. You have but to remember what Adonai your God did to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians: the wondrous acts that you [singular] saw with your [singular] own eyes, the signs and the portents, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm by which Adonai your God liberated you [singular]. (Deuteronomy 7:17-18)

Could there be any doubt that Moses is addressing everyone? Could Moses possibly be speaking to one individual who is prepared to fight foreign arms single-handedly? (Even David battled only Goliath, not the entire Philistine army.) Was there only one person who witnessed with awe the signs and portents God enacted in Egypt? Clearly not. Similarly, could the masculine-singular pronoun you be meant to address only men, and exclude women? That is precisely how Ulla, a sage from Eretz Yisrael, visiting R. Nachman in Babylonia, chooses to read the text.

In tractate Berakhot we find a lengthy discussion of Birkat haMazon, the prayers recited after eating a meal that includes bread. The discussion has come to the Kos Berakhah, the Cup of Blessing, which was passed around the table at the end of the recital of Birkat haMazon, affording diners an opportunity to request of God a blessing of a personal nature. R. Acha b. Chanina, Talmud tells us, sent it around to the members of his household so that his wife may be blessed. This is where the story of Ulla and Yalta enters the conversation.

עולא אקלע לבי רב נחמן כריך ריפתא בריך ברכת מזונא יהב ליה כסא דברכתא לרב נחמן א"ל רב נחמן לישדר מר כסא דברכתא לילתא א"ל הכי א"ר יוחנן אין פרי בטנה של אשה מתברך אלא מפרי בטנו של איש שנאמר (דברים ז) וברך פרי בטנך פרי בטנה לא נאמר אלא פרי בטנך תניא נמי הכי ר' נתן אומר מנין שאין פרי בטנה של אשה מתברך אלא מפרי בטנו של איש שנאמר וברך פרי בטנך פרי בטנה לא נאמר אלא פרי בטנך אדהכי שמעה ילתא קמה בזיהרא ועלתה לבי חמרא ותברא ד' מאה דני דחמרא א"ל רב נחמן נשדר לה מר כסא אחרינא שלח לה כל האי נבגא דברכתא היא שלחה ליה ממהדורי מילי ומסמרטוטי כלמי

Ulla once happened to be a guest at R. Nachmans house. He ate a meal, led the grace after meals, and passed the Cup of Blessing to R. Nachman. R. Nachman said to him: Please pass the Cup of Blessing (kasa dvirkhata דברכתא כסא) to Yalta. He [Ulla] replied: This is what R. Yochanan [ben Nappacha] said: The issue of a womans belly (bitna בטנה) is blessed only through the issue of a mans belly (bitno בטנו) as Scripture says: He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (pri bitnkha) (Deuteronomy 7:13). It does not say her belly but rather your belly. So too a baraita teaches: R. Natan said: Where is the prooftext in Scripture that the issue of a womans belly is blessed only through the issue of a mans belly? As Scripture says, He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (pri biknkha). It does not say her belly but rather your belly. When Yalta heard this, she got up furiously angry, went to the wine storeroom, and smashed 400 jars of wine. R. Nachman said to Ulla: Please send her another cup. He [Ulla] sent it [with this message]: All of this is a goblet of blessing (navga dvirkhata). She sent [this reply]: From travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice. (BT Berakhot 51a)

Ulla does not want to include women in the ritual of the Cup of Blessing, and uses a verse from this weeks parashah, Ekev, to bolster his contention that the blessings of fertility devolve only on men. He makes the same argument twice (you know people are on slippery ground when they need to repeat themselves), first ascribing it to R. Yochanan, and then to R. Natan. The proof is the use of the masculine-singular you: specifically,  פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ the fruit of your womb. Ullas refusal to pass the Cup of Blessing to Yalta, the wife of his host R. Nachman, is an insult. His proof is further insult. Yalta, a well-educated, intelligent, and forceful woman in her own right, demonstrates the absurdity of Ullas interpretation in a most unexpected way. She goes to the wine cellar and smashes 400 jars of wine, thereby denying the men thousands of cups of blessing. Who controls the blessing of fertility now? Even when R. Nachman implores Ulla to send another cup to his wife, she responds with disdain, comparing Ullas proof to tale tales and lice.

Ulla has, in the name of R. Yochanan and R. Natan, twisted Torah entirely out of its context in order to exclude women from participating in the prayers of men (and probably  the conversation that precedes and follows them, as well). In addition to the obvious misogyny of Ullawhich is not shared by R. Acha b. Chanin nor by R. Nachman), we find here a purposefully misrepresentation of text to serve a purpose.

There is an inherent tension between reading Torah verses as one-time eventsit happened and now its historyand as universally applicable, regardless of time and place. The Rabbis chose the latter and later secular biblical scholars chose the former. For some, one must choose sides: either you throw in your lot with Rashi in saying ein mukdam vein muchar ha-torah (there is no earlier or later in Torah), or you hitch your wagon to Bible criticism and view all Torah as an ancient text with relevance only to the ancients, and an interesting relic in our era. Those who choose the former lose the valuable insights scholarship has to offer and the mental suppleness to understand that Jewish tradition evolves and adapts to circumstances (as must all lifeand Torah is a living book). Those who choose the latter lose the wisdom, religious imperatives, and spiritual power of Torah values. Happily, in the 21st century, we do not face an either/or choice. We can have our cake and eat it, too. Both approaches live comfortably in the educated and flexible 21st century mind and do so symbiotically, enriching one another with insight. The table is set with multiple delicacieslet the feast begin.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman