Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Negative thinking in Judaism

I once had a most interesting conversation with a former co-worker who's since gone on to a career as a stay-at-home mom. Somehow, we got on the subject of Sabbath lunch, and she expressed surprise when I told her that we don't make a big deal of it, and often have tuna sandwiches.

"Why? Is there a rule about that?”

"You have to have something hot for lunch. It's an inyan (? not sure that's the word she used) against the Tzadokim.”

Okay, here’s a long-winded but possibly necessary explanation:

As you can see (I hope) from the link, the Sadducees (Tzakokim) tended to interpret Jewish religious law pretty literally. One of their rulings—so I’ve heard—was that neither light nor heat is permissible on the Sabbath. Not so, said the Pharisees (P’rushim)—the rule is not that we’re not permitted to have light or heat, the rule is that we are not permitted to create light or heat on the Sabbath. If you light the fire before Shabbat, you’re permitted to use its light and/or heat on Shabbat.

In short, what my former colleague was trying to explain is that we have to eat or drink something hot at lunch on Shabbat to prove that we’re defying the ruling of the Tzadokim and following the ruling of the P’rushim, who ruled that one may keep previously-cooked food hot on Shabbat using some form of indirect heat created before Shabbat.

Now it was my turn to express surprise: “But there haven’t been any Tzakokim in about 2,000 years!”

Fast-forward a few years. My knowledge of the siddur (prayer book) having improved, I’ve noticed a few interesting b’rachot (blessings), and wondered about them.

“Blessed is [the One who] did not make me a non-Jew.

Blessed is [the One who] did not make me a slave.

Blessed is [the One who] did not make me a woman.”

Let’s leave aside (for once :) ) the obvious problem that a feminist has with the third b’rachah and ask, instead, why all three b’rachot are phrased in the negative.

An anonymous commenter to this ancient post of mine explained the wording thus:

“The trio of blessing God for not making "me" (e.g. a Jewish man) a woman, gentile or slave may well have been instituted to directly contrast with Pauline Christian theology, wherein there exists "no man nor women, Jew or Greek, free or slave, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ" (my own paraphrase of the verse). In other words, the purpose of these blessings is to asssert that there are differences between groups which Christianity, then on the ascent, sought to abolish. And we are not all "one in Jesus Christ".

A commenter on a much more recent post of mine disputed that explanation, stating that those b’rachot preceded the advent of Christianity.

In the final analysis, whether these b’rachot were a polemic against Christianity or against paganism makes little difference. The question remains why, in this case as in the aforementioned case concerning hot food on Shabbat, we find it necessary to continue to fight symbolic battles over issues that have long been settled, and/or, depending on your interpretation, why we feel this constant need to polemicize against, prove, and/or express our gratitude for what we're not, rather than praising HaShem for what we are.


Blogger Ezzie said...

I could think of a number of slightly similar reasons, loosely put into one like this: We mention the blessings from the past because their lessons are still applicable - say, the Sadducees: Always remember that while we learn everything from the Written Torah, we also have the Oral Torah which we must learn from as well. Don't take everything literally. It has to make sense, too. Etc. (See Gil's post.)

Wed Jun 13, 10:53:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I assume you're referring to this post.

Again, I just can't understand the negative approach. Why can't we say "who has made me a Jew, a free person, a man/woman?" I understand that there are some very old versions of the siddur/prayer book in which these b'rachot are, in fact, phrased that way. Why didn't the positive version catch on?

As for the Sadducees, I guess I still don't see much point in kickin' a dead horse, as the old saying goes. We got the point about there being an Oral Torah centuries ago.

Wed Jun 13, 11:20:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Evahava said...

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Thu Jun 14, 07:27:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, there's a very significant theory that those three brachot in the morning actually originate from statements made by a famous Greek- I think Sophocles. But that's not the traditional understanding. Go figure.

Sun Jun 17, 09:59:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Debka_Notion, I hadn't heard that theory. Fascinating. Thanks.

Mon Jun 18, 08:05:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Evahava, I checked out that website. I'm not sure it's quite for me, but thanks.

Mon Jun 18, 08:07:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Scraps said...

I've heard an explanation of why those three brachot were phrased in the negative (as well as why the bracha for women, "she'asani kirtzono", is not phrased in the negative), and I'll try to explain as best as I can remember.

Basically, a non-Jew, a slave, and a woman are all types of people that are not obligated in all 613 mitzvot. A non-Jew has the 7 Noachide Laws, and slaves and women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot. Hence, Jewish men are supposed to be thankful that they are such, and are therefore obligated in all the mitzvot, time-bound or not. However, were they to thank G-d for creating them as Jews, free men, and as men, then their statements could be used against them, so to speak, in a Heavenly court of law: "You were so happy to be a free, Jewish man? So why did you do ___ sins, not do ___ time-bound mitzvot, etc.?" (And for Jewish women, we can obviously also fall under the category of Jewish and free.) However, Jewish women do not say "shelo asani ish", because we are not supposed to be glad that we are not obligated in time-bound mitzvot (although most women I know are!).

Did any of that make sense? I hope so...and if I got anything wrong, I hope that someone will correct me.

Fri Jun 22, 01:54:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

So we put those b'rachot in the negative to cover our, um, sins. That's an interesting interpretation.

Sun Jun 24, 01:04:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Sadducee/Karaite argument has also been used to justify shabbat candles- so hot food is duplicative. (Though I do it anyhow - however, sometimes its just a token thing like a potato or two rather than a full cholent).

In any event, I am not sure the hot food thing is really halacha, as opposed to just a pleasant custom some people follow.

Tue Jun 26, 11:42:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Woodrow, from what I've heard, even a cup of hot tea (made from tea "essence" brewed before Shabbat mixed with water heated before Shabbat) will do.

The same "argument" applies to candles? That would never have occurred to me. The candles seem to have become halachah ("v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner--and has commanded us to light a flame"), but maybe the hot-food part is just a minhag/custom, as you suspect. Any takers for this question?

Wed Jun 27, 11:33:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For question #1 -- the Shulchan Aruch mentions that we suspect one who doesn't eat Cholent of harboring heretical views. But this is honored in the breach -- no one takes it seriously as real binding Halacha, AFAIK.

In terms of the underlying point, Karaites to this day do not eat hot food or light candles, adhering to the Sadducee interpretation. And they did pose an ideological challenge at several points in the more recent Jewish past.

But to the deeper question, I think polemics are hugely important in developing a coherent theology. Understanding what makes us different, the existence of "foils," sharpens our own awareness of our core identity. Lighting candles, when held up against Karaite Shabbos in the dark with cold food only, sheds light on our vastly different approach to Oneg Shabbos. So in a sense, it's good that we had the ideological challenge, because it helped us develop a key theme.

Same with anti-pauline polemics. Except here, the antinomianism and total egalitarianism (as distinct from equality) that Paul espoused is still alive and well as a competing ideology against traditional Judaism, albeit in Reform and Conservative Judaism rather than Christianity. As such, asserting the notion of difference -- difference in roles, responsibilities, places in God's grand scheme for the world; and the notion of the eternal binding nature of Divine law -- is just as relevant as in 30 CE, and Pauline Christianity did us a favor by sharpening our self-understanding. There is positive in negative.

Indeed, the Torah itself seems to polemicize, e.g., the ten plagues culminating in darkness as polemic against the cults of Egypt, culminating in Ra, the Sun-god atop their pantheon.

Tue Nov 17, 12:32:00 PM 2009  

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