The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.”

In these passages the sages have set before us a glimpse of their own struggle between faith and doubt. They repeatedly give voice to their faith that the God of Israel lives and still has a great purpose for the Jewish people, yet they reveal their despair over feelings of Divine abandonment, blocked access to God, and the apparent futility of prayer.

As I write these words at the end of July [2014], I can identify more deeply than ever with the spiritual struggle the rabbis sought to work through in these passages. I’m sure many of us can. The current Gaza war has shaken my faith. As someone whose spiritual foundation rests on a fairly straightforward Reconstructionist theology, I realize now that I had developed a sense of complacency about the solidity of that faith. After all, I don’t put my faith in shaky ideas like infallible scriptures or stories of miracles, or even in a God who literally hears as we hear or answers prayers in an anthropomorphic way. My faith has been pretty Kaplanian – a trusting that there really is an animating Life Force that connects everything, and an inner sense that the universe, at its core, is good – ki tov – and that despite all that’s wrong there really is reason to cultivate a kind of cosmic trust.

But these days I find myself acutely struggling with a sense of cosmic void, of Absence. I imagine myself as Luke Skywalker being told by Obi Wan’s ghost to “use the Force” and, instead of closing my eyes and searching my feelings, snarling and saying, “F**k off, you old bat. My father’s an evil robot and there were probably lots of innocent kids on that Death Star I blew up. I quit.”

I’m not sure if it’s my faith in a Higher Power that’s being disrupted, or my discovery of just how much faith, and hope, I have been putting in humanity. I had hoped that peace and two states could somehow be possible. I had hoped that Islamic extremism would flame out, since spiritually distorted systems usually collapse after a while. I had hoped that Bibi would change. I had hoped that nuanced politics and the human urge towards understanding would begin to rise above the din of propaganda wars, that we would all do better than this.

The same Talmud page I cited above also contains these words from Rav Hiyya bar Abba (quoting Rav Yohanan): If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of prayer, in the end what comes back is an anguished heart (sof bah l’yidai ke-ev lev), as it says, ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ (Prov 13:12). My heart  is sick. I do hope the gates of tears are truly always open.

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