4/29/2007

Where does God Live? A Reading of Brachot 48a

[The first Talmudic Reading that I posted, exactly one year ago, was of a narrative on the same Daf as this one. It can be accessed here, and is a personal favorite.]

Abaye and Rava were sitting before Rabbah. Rabbah said to them, “To whom do we pray?”. They said to him, “To The Merciful One.” “And where does The Merciful One live?” Rava gestured toward the rafters. Abaye went outside and gestured toward the Heavens. Rabbah said to them, “You will both be Rabbis”. And so people say, ‘The gourds are known from their sap’.
This is one of my favorite Gemaras to teach. It starts off seeming so silly, and by the end of the lesson, everyone’s blown away. On the surface, I mean, geez, my little kids run around singing Uncle Moishy’s ‘Hashem is here’! What makes Rabbah so proud of Abaye and Rava?

[I should point out that the Tosafot already point out that this Gemara is only linguistically connected to the Halakhic discussion that precedes it, but doesn’t really suggest that little kids can be included in a mezuman.]

Let’s assume that the Gemara is more sophisticated than Uncle Moishy, and that the discussion between the youthful Abaye and Rava, and the question posed by Rabbah, were more than first-grade theology. Furthermore, the method by which Abaye seemingly ‘one-up’s Rava is silly. Why would the Gemara communicate that? Is Abaye really giving a different answer?

Maybe the question is, “Where do you encounter God? Where can you find Him?”

When I pose the question in this format, and ask what the difference between the answers of Abaye and Rava are, it’s like someone turned on a faucet. All kinds of great suggestions simply start spilling out of the students, be they high-school students of adults. They start picking up on the fact that Rava’s approach is more ‘sheltered’ or ‘structured’ or ‘closed’. Rava looks for God in the details, Abaye in the big picture. I’ve had suggestions that Rava is a ‘Misnaged’ and Abaye is a ‘Chussid’, or that Rava is ‘Orthodox’ and Abaye is ‘Reform’, or that Rava is ‘Haredi’ whereas Abaye is ‘Modern Orthodox’, that Rava is like R’ Soloveitchik whereas Abaye is like R’ Kook, or that Rava is the ‘Halakhic Man’ whereas Abaye is ‘Homo Religiosus’, which actually seems to be the suggestion of R’ Kook in Eyn Ayah ad loc. Some have said that Rava is a conformist whereas Abaye is ‘out of the box’. Rava is religious, but Abaye is spiritual. Rava is a learner, but Abaye is a doer (sounds like another Gemara). Rava needs a framework, but Abaye is free-spirited.

The point is, it’s a wonderfully open-ended piece of Agadah (which, according to R’ Kook’s intro to Eyn Ayah, is as it should be) which acknowledges that indeed there are more than one path to God. I don’t think I’d agree with all of the suggestions I elicited, but the fact that a single Gemara can elicit this variety of responses really engenders that sense that indeed there ARE many ways to find God, each of which can be affirmed and developed, and each of which can lead to greatness, and each of which can be tailored to the individual searcher or worshipper.

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