Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Purpose Behind Blessings


The Talmud, for those who don’t know, is one of the core texts of Judaism. It is, more or less, the first book of the Rabbis, written over a 400 year period, a couple thousand years ago. It’s a very varied, even eccentric book, but it’s largely made up of a hyper-detailed discussion of Jewish law. There is a weekly Talmud class here at Congregation Beth Am, and we’ve been studying the first section of the Talmud, Berachot (blessings). Most recently, we’ve been working through a long section about the blessings we say before eating various foods (which, like much in Judaism, is highly regimented).

Towards the end of a sugya (unit of discussion), the rabbis included a story*. Apparently, there had been a debate about a seemingly minor point — before eating bread, does one thank “One who brings forth bread from the earth,” or, “The One who brings forth bread from the earth?” It seems like the most inconsequential of debates but a) there is no debate to inconsequential for rabbis and b) this probably actually hinted at an underlying theological question. (It’s too much to go into here, but it may have been about God’s ongoing involvement with the world).

* berachot 38a, for those following along at home...

In the story, there was a visit by an expert in the laws of blessings, named bar Rav Zevid. He was brought a piece of bread, and he said the blessing beginning “One” rather than “The One.” A local sage, Rabbi Zeira, chastised him for this — according to Zeira, he should have used “The One.” Zeira then implies that this so-called expert isn’t such an expert, after all. He doesn’t even know the right blessing for bread!

Bar Rav Zevid’s response? “Hey – I was only trying to stay out of the fight.”

It’s a strange thing to say — how could he be staying out of the fight by picking one side in the dispute? Isn’t that, inherently, participating in the argument? We could imagine some technical explanation to explain it, but I think that would miss the point.

Presumably, the students (being relatively “average” folk) thought that this man was an expert because he knew the specifics of the laws. He was technically proficient. But, Zeira wasn’t impressed by this. He knew that this technical dispute actually hid a theological dispute. And, he seems to be saying that someone who focuses on the specific details of a ritual instead of the underlying theology is missing the point. It’s not enough to be technically correct; Zeira wanted to be theologically correct. Most of us would probably agree with that stance.

And that’s what makes Zevid’s response so powerful. It’s as if he’s saying, “The students were interested in the details of the law. You were interested in the theology behind the law. Me? I’m interested in the personal. I’m interested in using blessings in a way that does a contribute to dispute or acrimony. Who cares if I’m technically or theologically correct, if my ritual makes someone angry? All I wanted was to thank God for this bread, and eat it.”

I’m a Rabbi. I’m pretty idiosyncratically fascinated by legal minutia and by theology. But, at the end of the day, if all that leads to people being angry with each other, then it’s possible that we’re missing the point. If we can fight — not just academically debate, but really fight — over something as silly as the word “the” in the blessing over bread, then it’s possible — just slightly possible — that we’re missing the point.

Thank God that we live in a world were no one ever actually fights over such a picayune religious detail. Right?

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