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My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

What does he pray? Rav Zutra bar Toviyah said in the name of Rav: May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger, and that My mercy overcome My sterner attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.
Talmud Bavli, Berachot (Blessings), 7a

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

The snippet of Talmud above comes from the tractate dealing with blessings, the law of blessings, when they should be said, how they should be said, where one can perform them and so forth.In this brief encounter with the Gemara (the rabbinic commentary on the earlier Mishnah), Rabbi Zutra bar Toviyah informs us, not in his words, but in the words of another sage, Rav, that Rav prayed for mercy in three distinct places, to control his own anger, to overcome his sterner behaviors, and that he be able to show mercy to his children when needed. He goes on to consider the very idea of mercy as being beyond the boundary of judgment or reason. Embedded in this brief encounter with Rav Zutra and Rav himself is one of the foundations of Jewish ethics, the attribute of mercy or, perhaps, translated as compassion for the other.

I find it interesting that the translators of the Aramaic text chose to use an upper case ‘M’ in My. Perhaps this is to emphasize the fact that Rav was not asking to understand God’s will for him in this instance, Jews rarely do this, rather he was praying to control his own willful behavior; to restrain his natural propensities toward anger and stern action and not to have God intervene to change his nature. In this act of translation (or interpretation) the translator understood that, especially in the time when the Talmud was being constructed, the sages understood that interpretations of laws (and, perhaps, the behavior of living human beings) was not governed by what goes on in heaven, rather the duty to interpret the law and to engage in willful behavior, was in the hands of living human beings almost as if there were no God in the heavens at all. By praying to control his own relationship to the concept of mercy or compassion, Rav was acting consistently with the attitudes of the sages of the Talmud. But I digress…

The notion of compassion or mercy is also an important aspect of the very idea of responsibility in an ethical sense. I have written about this idea many times but it still bears repeating: The primary ethical obligation is to make oneself available to become responsible for the welfare of the other [parson] without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. In is monograph, Hospitality, Jacques Derrida focuses on the very idea of reciprocation through the eyes of a host. Emmanuel Levinas, in almost all of his writing, both philosophical and his Jewish commentaries, focuses on the idea of offering up the self without reservation for the welfare and benefit of the other. When Rav prays for his own mercy, the overcoming of personal negative attributes, what he is also praying for is to become available to the other, to become aware of other people around him in order that he be better able to become response-able.

Rav is not praying for reason or judgment, rather, he is praying for unthinking restraint in order that he can ‘see’ the other, to become available emotionally and not rationally. He is not abandoning reason, rather he is putting reason in its proper place by acknowledging that reason has little place in his personal relationships with others. He recognizes that this is a personal journey, one in which there is no intervention from a higher power, an intervening God. Rav is announcing in his prayer Hinani (Here I am!). Here I stand, naked, waiting for the call of the other to engage. No judgment here, only raw emotion waiting to become. When the call comes, Rav wishes to show mercy before anger, mercy before strictness, and mercy before his children.  Rav is praying to become response-able. So am I.

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6 thoughts on “Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39

  1. Pingback: History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40 | Surviving In This Very Moment...

  2. Beautiful. Mercy and Grace are perhaps what we need more than anything else.

  3. Pingback: Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42 | Surviving In This Very Moment...

  4. Alesia:
    Good morning. I half agree. Grace is not a concept that makes much sense to me. The very idea that God provides some with grace and others without is abhorrent to my sensibilities. It seems like wishful thinking to me. Mercy, on the other hand, is a human attribute, one we can practice each and every day without having to worry about whether or not some higher power will intervene on my behalf or not. By acting with responsibility toward my fellow man I am able to take part in a simulacrum of the infinite as a mirror of the relationship I have with the ineffable Absolute Other. Since I cannot define the Other I can have no expectations of favors from the Other. In this life, it is up to me to exercise My will as if I embodied the attributes of the Other without relying on the Other to do my bidding. I think this is one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and both Christianity and Islam. In the latter two, God’s will plays an extreme role in the behaviors of man while in the former, human beings are asked to act their way to understanding of the Other exercising one’s own will to achieve this difficult understanding. It is embedded in this idea that allows me to be a Jewish atheist, rejecting the existence of God without rejecting the fundamental understanding contained in the foundational texts of the religion to which I was born.

  5. Grace is the most important aspect of my belief system, but I can not articulate this to you as well as you can your own thoughts. I wish I could. I am so glad I met you online and truly received so much good information from you. I am going to be taking a break from blogging for awhile , but I will continue to read yours. You are a gifted writer and now a cancer survivor. For me I have some issues I have to deal with on a personal level so I must take time off from the computer. In time , I hope to be back. I will try to read your messages from time to time. With much respect, Alesia

  6. You will be in my thoughts. I wish you the very best.

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