08 August 2012


I have returned to studying Talmud. Fifteen or so years ago I headed down into my basement and began to study in Bava Metzia. I remember my father telling me that when he began Yeshiva that this was the first tractate with which he began his study of Talmud, though that wasn’t my motive for beginning study in either Talmud or Bava Metzia. I found a great deal in Talmud that concerned education, and I published numerous articles and three books based in Talmud concerning curriculum studies, and I loved the work. I think that somewhat recently I became somewhat distracted (by what I cannot say exactly), and though once lost, now am found.
I have chosen for my effort the tractate Berakhot, in which the Rabbis deal with the prayers and worship of Israel. In nine chapters the Rabbis discuss the regulations concerning the substance and practice of daily prayer, and the forms that prayers of thanksgiving take over food and other occasions. In the latter category, for example, the Rabbis wonder what prayer should be recited when one sees a rainbow or hears a clap of thunder!
Berakhot is also filled with stories and anecdotes, the aggadah. Thus, in the midst of an extended discussion over various mishnayot of the obligations concerning the recitation of the Shema, the following appears: following the recitation of “the tefillah,” the Amidahvarious Rabbis offer different prayers. The concluding prayers of Rabbis Eleazar, Johanan, Zera, Hiyya, Rab Safra, Rabbi (Judah Ha-Nasi), Alexandri, Raba, and Mar are presented. The concluding prayers of Rab Sheshet at the end of his fast and the words of Rabbi Johanan after concluding the Book of Job are also quoted. Why, I wonder, are the prayers of each of the Rabbis given though a preference for no one of them is offered. Though I recognize the concluding prayers of Mar as closest to what has become liturgically customary, this listing in Talmud suggests that prayer is not a prescribed script, and that though there may be set prayers, to recite them as if they were no option is to issue a false supplication. Each of these scholars had a personal prayer to offer and each prayer was equally acceptable.
This democratic rationale seems to be made explicit in the passage that appears subsequent to the listing of the various final prayers of each of the Rabbis. This next section offers favorite sayings of some individual Rabbis. And in the midst of this particularized listing is the following: “A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh was: ‘I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country, I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little. We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one provided he directs his heart to heaven.’” This saying, unlike the previous and those that immediately follow, is attributed not to a single Rabbi but to all of the Rabbis in Jabneh—the center of the Babylonian exile and the seat of the judicial and intellectual authority. And it seems to me that this saying and its placement in the text asserts that at the base of their ethics the Rabbis argue for a radical philosophy of egalitarianism and acceptance. No exceptions. There is here expressed an egalitarianism that is remarkable in its uncompromising absoluteness. As long as we aspire to a certain devotionI am holy therefore you should be holywe are all the same regardless of our worldly situation. To engage in holiness is to remember the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midstthose most on the margins of society and most in need. How much better might the world be if it practiced what the Rabbis preached.
And then at the end of this Mishna appears the following: “Rabban Simeon B. Gamaliel says: Not everyone who desires to pass as a scholar may do so.” What does this mean in the context of this sugya, this piece of Talmud? I think here Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel suggests that to act in any way contrary to the favorite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh is to deny one’s stature as a scholar.
I look at the front pages of the newspapers and I despair how few scholars exist today exist . . . 


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