Friday, July 19, 2013

Tisha b'Av (Ramban)

God’s Prayer and His Blessing

A brief thought for Tisha b’Av. The gemara at b. Berakhot 7a brings two closely related stories about God’s prayer and His pain:

R Yohanan said in the name of R Yossi: From whence do we know that God prays? As it is said: “And I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and I shall rejoice them in My house of prayer” [Isa 56:7]. It does not say, “[the house of] their prayer” but “my prayer.” It follows from this that the Holy One blessed be He prays. And what does He pray? Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name Rav: “May it be My will before Myself that My mercies conquer My anger, and that My mercy overwhelm My [other] qualities, and that I may behave with My children with the quality of mercy, and enter with them beyond the measure of the Law.”

It is difficult to imagine anything more paradoxical than God praying. We think of prayer as a human expression of need, of petition addressed to the Almighty. How can God pray to Himself? And how can He possibly need to pray, to request anything of Himself, if He is already omnipotent? The immediate midrashic explanation is based a clever word-play, shifting the referent of the conjunctive pronoun: the phrase “My house of prayer” in Isaiah 56, which in the literal sense refers to that House consecrated to prayer addressed to Him, is here, in an almost Hasidic twist, read as the “house of My prayer.” (Incidentally, a page or two earlier the Talmud discusses the idea that God, as it were, wears tefillin, as a counterpart to Israel’s tefillin; like a man wearing a wedding ring, God wears tefillin as a sign of His side in the covenant with Israel.) As to why God needs to pray, and for what, we shall examine the next passage and then elaborate:

A tannaitic teaching: R. Yishmael ben Elisha [who was a high priest] said: Once I entered to offer incense in the innermost sanctum [evidently on Yom Kippur], and I saw Akatriel Yah the Lord of Hosts seated upon a high and exalted throne. And He said to me: Ishmael my son, bless me! I said to Him: May it be Thy will before Yourself, that Your mercies overcome Your anger, and Your mercies overwhelm Your attributes, and that You act with Your children with the attribute of Mercy, and enter with them beyond the letter of the Law.“ And he nodded to me [as if in agreement] with His head. We learn from this, that the blessing of a layman ought not be a trivial thing in your eyes.

The idea of God being in need of the blessing of a human being is almost as paradoxical as that of God praying. (What we usually refer to as berakhot, often translated as “blessings,” are in fact something quite different, more precisely rendered as “benedictions”: that is, liturgical formulae of praise and thanksgiving for all the various gifts that God bestows upon us in our lives in the world.) R. Yishmael did not miss a beat: he immediately formulated a blessing, very similar to God’s own self-prayer. (Incidentally, the name Akatriel means something like “God encrowned”: as far as I can tell, it is a rare term, in all of Rabbinic literature appearing here alone; it seems to refer to a vision of the Godhead Itself, and not to an apotheosis.)

What is this all about? The essential idea is that God, far from being a complete and perfect being, is in conflicted within Himself, pulled in two divergent directions: on the one hand, He is filled with love and compassion for His Creation and for human beings, in general, and for the people of Israel, in particular, accepting and tolerating their all-too-human weakness and foibles as part of their nature (as He Himself created them). On the other hand, His awareness of the moral standard, of the dimension of Law—which He has created as one of the deepest expressions of His will, and which in some sense must be an absolute—brings him in the direction of Judgment, of Sternness—this is Midat ha-Din. It is not simply a matter of being harsh and severe, but that the world can only exist if there are objective rules by which it is run. Just as the stars and the sun and the moon and planets move by the laws of celestial mechanics, so too must human beings live by a certain moral law—and if they disobey it must be enforced by sanctions, even by harsh punishments ands retributions—for without sanctions there can be no meaningful law. Yet He is nevertheless torn between the two. The God portrayed by the Sages is not the Neo-Aristotelian unmoved mover of Maimonides negative theology, but a passionate being, a Heavenly Father who is involved with His “children,” who loves them, who doesn’t want them to experience suffering or harm — yet who also knows that from time to time they must be chastised and punished, even harshly, to make the Law meaningful and real. This inner conflict is portrayed here in graphic human terms, in the poignant cry, “Ishmael, my son, bless me!” As if God somehow needs the blessing/affirmation/encouragement of a human being to push Him in the direction in which, deep down, He wishes to go.

This is the essential dynamic entailed in Tisha b’Av. Critics of Judaism often portray it as a religion of a harsh, vindictive, cruel God. Christianity often contrasts the “wrathful God of Old Testament” with the “God of Love” of the NT—and the prime example of this is Tisha b’Av: the destruction and exile which are portrayed by prophets such as Jeremiah as punishment for sin. Yet at the same time God Himself is portrayed in the aggadah as being “with them” in their suffering, as going into exile with them or, as in these two aggadot, praying to Himself that His mercies emerge triumphant over His stern lawfulness. At times this duality is embodied in the figure of the Shekhinah, the female personification of God (which, in Zoharic Kabbalah, becomes a kind of consort; the mythic-sexual union of the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhinah, or of other male and female symbols such as Hokhmah and Binah [also called Abba and Imma] or Tiferet or Yesod and Malkhut, serving as being the central metaphor for that longed-for cosmic unity that will heal the brokenness of this world.) There is one kinah for Tisha b’Av, Az bimlot sefek, perhaps the most mysterious and enigmatic in the entire collection, which describes the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a “beautiful but disheveled woman” who bemoans the loss of her children, who is evidently a personification of the Shekhinah.

Tisha b’Av is, in fact, not merely a static day of bereavement and shock, “like one whose dead one lies before him,” but is marked by a kind of dynamic process. It begins with a sense of total alienation and estrangement between God and His people (“You have covered yourself with a cloud, from allowing prayer to pass through to You”: Lam 3:44) —from which there developed the Ashkenazic custom of not wearing tefillin on Tisha b’Av morning.

(Interestingly, I discovered this year that Ramban sees the evening and morning as a time when public prayers as a whole is abolished or greatly modified: in Torat ha-Adam he states that in the evening each person prays by himself, without Kaddish and Barkhu, or any other public response, and that even in the morning there is Barkhu and Kaddish, but no Kedushah!) But then, in the afternoon, it turns towards a kind of reconciliation and the beginning of a healing of the ruptured relation with God, symbolized by the more muted mourning of the afternoon, so that at Minhah one once again dons tallit and tefillin, sits on regular chairs, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are read from the Torah, there is a special prayer, Nahem, asking God to comfort us, and the service culminates with the recitation of the Priestly Blessing.

* * * * *

One more thought about the Vikuah, which we discussed last Shabbat: It occurred to me, after writing up Ramban’s Barcelona confrontation with his Christian interlocutors and his defense of Judaism’s rejection of the Christian Messiah, that this was what he did his whole life. Ramban was Judaism’s great polemicist, who argued, with well-crafted arguments and proof-texts, in the areas of both Written Torah, Talmud and halakhah, with Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Onkelos, Ba’al ha-Maor, Saadya Gaon, Rambam, and many others. For such a man, arguing with Pablo Christiani must have been a piece of cake!


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