Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Intention and Fixed Form - Berakhot 30

One of the ongoing struggles in Rabbinic Judaism, from the Talmud’s time until the present day, is the battle between kavvanah (intention) and keva (fixed form). On one hand, some advocate the performance of prayers with absolutely positive and focused intention. The Mishnah text commented on here claims that the pious ancestors (Hebrew Hasidim – “lovers [of God]”) focused for an hour before praying so that they would have the correct frame of mind. On the other hand, we have seen how much time and effort the Talmudic Rabbis spent trying to determine the EXACT fixed form for their prayers – what time, what words, and in what circumstances may one recite the precise text?

This same battle played out at the beginning of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, as pietistic revivalists wanted to emphasize emotion and enthusiasm over fixed forms and rigid intellectualism. A famous Hasidic story claims that a poor man, who knew no more Hebrew than the Alphabet, instead of his prayers recited the Alphabet with pure intention and love, and it was joyously accepted above. On the other side, the Misnagdim (“opponents”) insisted on the strict forms of the laws and on serious, rigorous Talmudic study and mitzvah observance as the best and only way to divine reward.

In today’s Talmud page, the Rabbis seek a Scriptural source for the Mishnah’s claim that intention is needed, and what they find as the best proof is also their means to articulate a balance: “Serve YHWH with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). To “rejoice with trembling” (gilu bir’a’da) is interpreted to mean not to become too joyful – even in the midst of celebrations and good times one must remember the serious side of life. Or, to tie our two themes together, one needs a balance between the seriousness of fixed forms (trembling – in Hebrew Heradah – connected to Haredi, “ultra-Orthodox”) and the joy of positive intentions (love – Hesed – connected to “Hasidic”).

This same balance is our challenge as well – if we are too serious, life has no joy. If we are only joyful, life is not serious. If there is a disaster and we only celebrate those who are “miraculously” saved, we miss the big picture. If there are good times and we grimly focus on the fear of what might come after “the Judgment,” we similarly miss out. The best solution to the problem of keva (fixed form, metaphorically seriousness) vs. kavvanah (intention, metaphorically joy) is to find one’s own articulations of Judaism, philosophy, and life, so that one can feel joy in one’s own “fixed form,” and a seriousness of purpose in one’s joys in life.

Rabbi Adam Chalom