Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Talmud Class

I've been very busy on the web tonight. Must be because I'm procrastinating on all the grading I have to do.

So, as you may have read in a previous post, I've been attending a class about the Talmud. The class meets twice a month on the second and fourth Wednesdays. It's a very introductory class but extremely fascinating. A few classes ago, we were discussing some of the "narrative" parts of the Talmud. That is, not the part that necessarily talk about "law" (like dietary laws, etc.). Rav Jeremy (our rabbi) gave us a very interesting passage that I've been thinking about for weeks. So, as you may remember (or not). The section I'm about to quote to you is from the first centuries CE and just blows away my training in medieval (Christian) literature because this seems to be an unthinkable statement. In this passage, the rabbis debate over whether or not God prays. It's a weird question, right? Who would God pray to? Uber-God? Well, one guy answers with a piece of scripture that God does pray. That's not the interesting part. Instead, the passage continues with "if God prays, what does this prayer look like?" The Talmud answers (Rav Jeremy's translation)

"May it be my will that my compassion conquer my anger, and may my compassion prevail over my attributes, and may I behave toward my children with the attribute of compassion, and for them may I go beyond the letter of the law"

Isn't that interesting? It is and it isn't a human prayer. A lot of Jewish prayers ask for "may my better side overcome my weaknesses" and this prayer has that division in it. However, it is also "godly" in the sense that both attributes are very apparent in the Torah. God is sometimes very angry and sometimes shows great compassion. I also find it interesting that in this prayer, God acknowledges that compassion may sometimes go beyond "law," and this "law" also seems to bind God.

But that's not all. In the Talmudic text, the next question is "If God can pray, then can God be blessed?" The answer is: Yes.

In the Temple, the high priest entered and saw God sitting on a throne. God asked "My son, Yishmael, bless Me" and the priest said "May it be your will that your compassion conquer your anger, and may your compassion prevail over your attributes, and may you behave toward your children with the attribute of compassion, and for them may you go beyond the letter of the law." And God nodded.

One could read God's nodding as "right answer" and that the priest had been tested and passed it. I am amazed that this passage is included at all. It smacks of pretention and/or an utter lack of fear by the writers because they do not offer any further commentary than this. Or else, it is a philosophical game akin to "Can God create a rock that God cannot lift?" (or my personal favorite, "can God microwave a burrito so hot that even God cannot eat?"). I'd be interested in seeing what the other Talmudic commentators have to say about it.

However, one can also read this section with the high priest rather poignantly. At the next class meeting, Rav Jeremy told us that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who meets God in the Temple was the last high priest before the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, creating the Jewish diaspora. Therefore, God's compassion did not override the other attributes.


K. A. Laity said...

It's a fascinating text! It really does seem to be the kind of thing you can't really imagine seeing it in a Xtian context. I like the fearlessness inherent in the impression of there being no question you cannot ask.

The Queen said...

So, have you asked all my questions yet or do I need to go to class?
This is so fascinating.