The Pirkei Avot is often translated as the Ethics of the Fathers, but even though “avot” means “fathers,” “pirkei” more closely translates as “chapters,” not ethics. So why the confusion? It’s because most of these books of the Talmud relate to ethical behavior in our daily lives. Throughout the past two summers and now throughout the past few weeks of this summer, we’ve looked at teachings as varied as how we do business with others, our obligation to bring God into every meal, and the importance of both group and solitary work. It’s amazing how so many of these lessons can be captured and gained from a text hundreds of years old.
Today’s teaching is a little different. Just like moving from the computations of algebra to the theory of calculus requires approaching the same subject with different eyes, it’s important to realize that there is more to daily behavior than simply what our actions define.
3.7 Rabbi Halafta, of Kefar Hananiah, taught:
When ten persons sit together and study Torah, the Shekhinah hovers over them, as it is written, “God is present in the divine assembly” (Psalm 82:1).
Where do we learn that this applies also to five? From the verse “He has established His band on earth” (Amos 9:6).
Where do we learn that this applies also to three? From the verse “He judges in the midst of the judges” (Psalm 82:1).
Where do we learn that this applies also to two? From the verse “Then those who fear the Lord conversed with one another and the Lord listened and heard” (Malachi 3:16).
From where do we learn that this is true even of one? From the verse “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24).
When I first read this teaching, it didn’t quite make sense to me why these proof texts would be the ones used to establish these claims. The second time I read this, however, two things occurred to me: First, I began to see a slant relationship between these claims and the texts that seem to prove them; and second, I noticed that this entire teaching is an application of propositional calculus–a fancy way of saying logical reasoning.
Math made by Rabbis–does it really sound that preposterous? In fact, it’s quite simple. In an elementary logical statement, we can say IF a THEN b, and IF b THEN c, therefore IF a THEN c. Letters like these are sometimes too abstract for a first observance of this sort of statement, so let me establish an example. IF it is sunny, THEN I will put on sunscreen, and IF I put on sunscreen, THEN I will feel uncomfortably sticky for the rest of the day. Therefore, IF it is sunny, THEN I will feel sticky for the rest of the day. It’s an inconsequential proposition, but it helps us to see the logical structure of this teaching.
With the first example we can observe the following. IF “God is present in the divine assembly,” THEN the Shekhinah (the manifestation of God’s presence) will hover over a group of ten people studying. Since we assume that what’s in the Torah is true (whether on a physical or merely spiritual level), we can say the claim–that the Shekhinah will be with them while they study–is also true. This same structure is repeated in each tier from ten down to one. But perhaps the logic that supports this claim is not as important as the statements that are used to prove it–and as I said before, when I first read this, I didn’t understand them.
Growing up, I was introduced very early on to the Jewish principle of a minyan. A minyan is a group of ten Jewish adults (and I specify Jewish adults because in Judaism you’re considered an adult at the age of twelve or thirteen when you have you Bar or Bat Mitzvah and become a “child of the commandments”). This is important because there are certain prayers, services, and rituals that can only be observed in the presence of a minyan, and part of this, I believe, is why Judaism has always been such a communal religion that has survived persecution since its earliest days. I always questioned, however, why ten was such a magical number.
We could come up with many nonsensical answers that could easily pass as true. For example, we could say that we are each born with ten fingers, and therefore it takes ten people to do the work of God. Or we could say that we are each born with ten toes, and therefore it takes ten to walk in a community and observe these sacred rites. The explanation that I’ve always considered the cause (although I think it is only one of many possible explanations) goes back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two wicked cities that were about to be destroyed. However, Abraham was not pleased by this, and he argued with God about it!
“If there are fifty innocent in the city,” Abraham began, “will you still destroy it?” God answered, “If there are fifty innocent in the city, then I won’t destroy it.” Abraham was not satisfied. “What about forty-five?” To this God again answered, “If I find forty-five innocent in the city, then I will not destroy it.” Abraham could never settle for anything. “What about forty? Or thirty? Or twenty?” Each time the Lord agreed to spare the city for these few innocent folk and the debate continued until God agreed to save the cities on account of only ten righteous lives.
Did you notice the parallel logical structure of that argument compared with the Rabbis’ argument here? IF this, THEN that. Perhaps that’s why they chose to phrase this teaching in such a logical manner if they’re beginning at ten–the same number where Abraham left off. In any case, this for me is the lesser reason why ten constitutes a minyan (it’s possible the idea of ten making a group existed even before this account in the Bible, so I’m truly not certain where it originated). In any case, the greater reason for me came in the pages of my high school physics book when I learned that it takes ten equal sources of sound to double their amplitude–that is, to double their loudness. For me this realization reconciled science with faith when I immediately envisioned the doubling of our voices in prayer symbolically lifting our words into the heavens, higher and higher towards God.
It was one of the most powerful experiences I ever had. Simply because I saw in my faith a reflection of the nature of the world itself.
What about groups greater than ten? Although not necessarily pertinent to this conversation, if you have a group greater than ten, you can always choose ten members of that group to consider as those to which the Shekhinah will appear. If you add one to ten, there are 11! (that’s eleven factorial for those also new to this notation)–or 11x10x9x8x7x6x5x4x3x2 possible permutations and when we correct for the number of unique combinations we obtain a much smaller number: In this case, only eleven–but if each of those eleven groups are groups of ten to which the Shekhinah appears equally, the addition of one person to the group has amplified God’s presence eleven times! Suppose we had a group of a hundred, like the US Senate–the presence of God would be more than a trillion times that of only one group of ten. The Senate isn’t “studying Torah,” so that’s not the case–but the potential is outstanding!
Alright, so we’ve proved ad nauseum that God’s presence will appear to groups of ten. The challenge now is to prove this is true for even smaller groups as well. I’m not familiar with the verse that proves this is true for groups of five, but it’s a simple realization that the verse proving this for groups of three (“He judges in the midst of the judges”) is a reference to the Bet Din, the House of Judgement consisting typically of three rabbis–scholars who study the Torah. Although not all those who study the Torah are rabbis, this proof-text sufficiently extends our awareness of the Shekhinah to groups of only three people.
The next proof text, from Malachi, states that “Then those who fear the Lord conversed with one another and the Lord listened and heard.” Here, “one another” implies the people breaking into pairs to talk to each other. If God was present for each of these couplings, then he is present for all couplings–of those who study the Torah.
Finally, the Rabbis proclaim “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.” At first this verse from Exodus sounds a little pompous and, quite frankly, a little silly: If you say my name, quoth the Lord, I will appear. It’d almost be more fun to just say if you rub a lamp I’ll come out and grant you all your wishes–but this initial observance is clearly not the crux of what I’m getting at. In the Jewish tradition, God has seventy-two names–seventy-two, you say, as in two more than than seventy?
Yes, I do say.
Most of these seventy-two names are derived from Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, but they’re not God’s only names: In the Bible, there are a myriad of epithets and titles that also refer to God. This alone doesn’t truly explain how God’s name being mentioned can bring God’s presence to an individual, but perhaps another example will suffice. One of God’s names is Shalom–or “peace” and “wholeness” (and also “hello” and “goodbye”)–and in times of solitude, peace and wholeness are two feelings we often strive to obtain. The moment in which we reach these states is the moment in which God’s presence is brought into our lives. Of course, that’s not to say that we can’t bring God closer to ourselves just by praying to him–that certainly mentions his name, too.
As always, the Rabbis constrained this principle to only those studying Torah. In my perspective, however, “studying Torah” is the same as living by its values–values that are not restricted to Jews alone. Jews practice tikkun olam, repairing the world, and Baha’is believe in abolishing prejudice–an element of tikkun olam, and Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all supposed to give to charity as part of their religious practices. Living according to the principles of righteousness prescribed in the Torah doesn’t even apply only to the religious–I don’t know anyone who believes stealing is right, so simply by not stealing while alone, a person is living by the laws of the Torah–and therefore open for God’s presence to fill their lives.
My beliefs about God are complicated. I believe wholeheartedly that he does exist, although the manner in which he exists is often still a source of questioning and doubt. Is God science? Is God some bearded figure in the sky watching over us? Is God something entirely transcendental and unknowable, or something inherent in all things? Perhaps a single definition of our understanding of God is unnecessary, however, when we realize that in every moment of every day, we hold the potential to bring God into every element of our lives.
I started this post talking about ethics and behavior, noting that behavior is not merely how we act. Behavior is also how we think and how we choose to see the world. It may be insignificant to some to know the Shekhinah is hovering about us in every moment–or else is waiting to reach us–but for me, this thought, soundly proven by propositional calculus, assures me that no matter where we are, no matter who we are, God is always nearby.