A View from the Bleachers: ‘You must understand the words you are saying’

A View from the Bleachers: ‘You must understand the words you are saying’

By Rabbi Steven H. Garten

In 1999 I began a weekly Talmud shiur class. The intent was to expose members of Temple Israel to the most important text of the rabbinic period. Many thought that this was counterintuitive. How interested would members of a non-halachic community be in the primary legal document of our people? Others wondered how long individuals committed to Jewish life, but not committed to the traditional understanding of mitzvot and obligation, would be interested in studying Talmud. Now entering our 21st year of weekly study, the questions remain, but the answers are more obvious. We study the texts searching for the meaning obscured by the legal arguments. We study the texts to understand how the brilliance of the Amoriam (writers and editors of the Talmud), can be applied to our lives in 2020.

As Rabbi Asher Lopatin writes in the Daf Yomi newsletter from My Jewish Learning (January 16, 2020), “The second chapter [of Masechet Berachot] begins with a question that focuses on the internal: Do we need to have intention during prayer or is it sufficient to merely recite the words? In Hebrew, the word for this is kavanah, which literally means direction, but also implies intention.” This is especially true in the context of the performance of obligatory behaviours: mitzvot.

The Gemara records a dispute:

The Sages taught that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis disagreed with regard to the language in which the Shema must be recited:

The Shema must be recited as it is written, in Hebrew – this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

The Rabbis say: The Shema may be recited in any language.

As Rabbi Lopatin further notes, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi argues “that you achieve kavanah by saying the actual Hebrew words of the Shema. But the rabbis disagree – you have to say the words in a language you understand.”

It is commonly understood, Rabbi Lopatin continues, that “the first word of the Shema is normally translated as ‘hear,’ but in this case the rabbis read it to mean ‘understand.’” The rabbis seemed to be saying, regarding the words of any prayer, “you must understand the words you are saying. And in fact,” as noted by most denominations, “the practice among observant Jews today is in accordance with the rabbis: the Shema may be recited in any language a person understands.”

Some might believe this conversation is purely academic, intended only for those with a sincere and ongoing commitment to a life of prayer. Yet it appears the rabbis were interested in something more than just prayer. They seemed to be cognizant that many individuals claim to understand the nature of obligation, but in reality are only playing out their commitment. The rabbis seemed to be aware that there are many individuals who make claims regarding their adherence to the law, but in truth do not understand the intention behind the laws.

While this Talmudic conversation ostensibly took place 1,500 years ago, the same conversation is taking place in the Israeli Knesset and United States Senate. Two individuals, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump, are asking their respective elected bodies to ignore intentionality.

Trump has chosen to defend himself against two bills of impeachment by seeming to declare that what he did is not the issue; that it does not matter if he is guilty of the charges; it only matters if these are impeachable offences.

He appears to be similar to the individual who goes to pray daily, but conducts business and gossip continually. The obligatory responsibility to make prayer meaningful is lost on him/her. The president claims that as long as he shows up and doesn’t commit an impeachable offence, anything is OK. Not exactly the words of the presidential oath of office.

Likewise, Netanyahu is asking the Knesset to postpone his criminal trial until he is no longer prime minister. He does not want to argue innocence or guilt. He does not want to argue whether an indicted prime minister has the moral standing to lead his country in perilous times. He seems to be saying that it does not matter how he does his job as long as he shows up and appears to be acting in the best interests of the country. He wants the job to protect him from harm as opposed to his responsibility to protect others.

The Gemara understood that just showing up and just doing things without commitment to the values which the actions imply is not good enough. If it wasn’t good enough for the rabbis, why should it be good enough for us?