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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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Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

According to Jacob Neusner, religions come in two forms. The first relies on a personal and immediate connection to their god or gods and may or may not rely on a written scriptural foundation; rather the emphasis is on the idea of personal salvation or enlightenment that comes from experience. The second, relies on a compilation of written texts that outline one’s relationship with god or gods focused heavily on the exegesis contained within the sacred textual books. This latter form of religion connects through historical referents rather than through personal experience and relies almost exclusively on the written word. Neusner places Judaism in the latter category. In arguing this position, Neusner places an emphasis on the Tractates of Talmud Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud as the re-invention of Judaism that the Sages of Talmud Bavli completed in the year 600 C.E., at roughly the same time that the Moslems conquered much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean coast of Africa along with large portions of the Iberian Peninsula, a time period that saw the end of late antiquity and the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages.”

What Neusner is quick to point out; a point he repeats quite often, is that the re-invention of Judaism did not take place by offering mere commentary on the texts that preceded the Talmud Bavli, rather, the re-invention completely subjugated all other documents that came before it as secondary to the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud Bavli was intended to be the definitive take on what it means to be a Jew in the world. In order to take up this task, the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli connected it to the already accepted lineage of the Torah itself, the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Mishnah, as an expanded connection between the written Torah and the Tractates of the Talmud Bavli. Neusner’s argument, while foundationally connected to the tradition attached to the Talmud by the Sages who redacted the document, insists that the document is much more than that; it is the re-imagination of the very foundational structure of Judaism.

All this, Neusner argues, occurs through the formalized use of language, rhetorical technique and the application of two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, to stress specifics of the rhetorical. First, the Sages dissect the Mishnah, on the surface a compilation of laws, but on a far deeper level a text that focuses on the crisis created in Judaism by the destruction of the Temple (and thereby the destruction of the Temple cult of animal sacrifice) and the rabbinical response to that destruction, by picking and choosing how they will comment on the Mishnah itself.

Neusner argues that the Mishnah provides the bricks of response to the period beyond the Temple itself while the Talmud provides the mortar and internal structure of the newly created rabbinical response (a new Temple contained within the structural formality of the Gemara or commentary on the Mishnah) to the absence of a sacrificial alter. The Mishnah is written in middle Hebrew, the Gemara in Aramaic with a smattering of biblical Hebrew thrown in when proof texts from the Tanakh, the Torah plus the Histories and other writings (the Jewish Bible if you will), are used. In this structural formalism, middle Hebrew indicates the foundational aspect of the law, Aramaic provides the reader with the thread of discussion and argument that ties the law to the Tanakh with proof texts interspersed to cement the argument written in Ancient or Biblical Hebrew using Aramaic structure and grammar.

Taken as a whole, the Talmud Bavli connects the practice of rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism practiced in much of the world today, to the beginning of creation by insisting on a direct line of communication from Moses at Sinai to the Rabbis and ultimately to the Jews through the rabbis. The Talmud Bavli also incorporates all of the texts, both biblical and rabbinical into one long textual platform that is then connected by a particular three-fold formalism of argumentative dialectical discourse: First, the statement of the Mishnah being commented upon thereby setting the stage for further commentary. Second, commentary that is directed directly or indirectly at the particular questions that arise from the generalization of the Law contained within the Mishnah, an act of clarification. Finally, the rabbis of the Talmud Bavli ignore the Mishnah entirely and pursue ideas that are loosely connected or perhaps not connected at all to the Mishnah’s approach to the Law and present a dialectical argument that may or may not result in clear results. When read in this way, Neusner argues, the Talmud Bavli becomes more than an arcane document, rather, it provides one with a foundational tool for thinking in Jewish, a method that provides one with a way of thinking that, while apparently different that that of philosophy, is foundationally similar to philosophic inquiry.

I actually look forward to seeing Neusner’s analysis unfold as I continue to read and study Jewish rabbinical texts including Talmud Bavli.

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