Jacob, escaping his murderously angry brother, more or less stumbles unto "the gates of heaven," described laconically in the Torah's narrative as, simply, "the place." According to the Talmud, each of the forefathers initiated one of the three traditional daily prayers, creating a model of practice for the Jewish people to follow. Driven from his wealthy father's home, heading for an unknown land, Jacob chances on the gateway between worlds, and initiates the practice of the evening prayer.
Unlike the morning and afternoon prayers, the evening prayer is considered by the Talmud to be a matter of choice, not obligation. Jacob's experience on the awesome night in which he set the prayer can shed light on its original non-obligatory nature. Exhausted, Jacob lays his head down on a rock expecting nothing but a night's sleep on his road into exile. Instead, he has a vision of a vast ladder bridging heaven and earth, angelic beings, and finally God Himself. "And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said 'Yes, there is God in this place, and I didn't know." Keeping the element of surprise, of freshness and true feeling alive in prayer is no easy task —and when prayer becomes an obligation, instead of an outcry, the task becomes harder.
Religions are often their own worst enemy — torn between the desire to find the gates that lead to God and the need to create order, impose discipline, and build community. And yet it is when a person is marginalized and threatened, stripped of home and possessions like Jacob, that the gates of heaven are most available. The impulse to create an ordered uniformity of practice helps to preserve traditions, but it can create a stranglehold that blocks the emotions and experiences that are our spiritual oxygen.
In Tractate Brakhot, the Mishnah records these contending religious inclinations. "Rabban Gamliel says, 'Every person must pray the Shmonah Esreh [the whispered 18 blessings that are the central component of the Jewish prayer service] every single day.'" But Rabbi Eliezer, another important sage, disagrees. The Mishnah continues: "Rabbi Eliezer says, 'Whoever regulates his prayers, his prayers are not supplication.'" The Talmud offers several possible ways to harmonize these two opposing statements, but taken at face value, Rabbi Eliezer's words are a stinging-rejection of the very notion of setting times, frequencies and liturgy for prayers. The inner need and desire to talk to God, Rabbi Eliezer seems to be saying, is the very essence of prayer. Like touching the wings of a butterfly, obligating a specific form of prayer irreparably damages prayer's power of flight.
Prayer is a wondrous possibility, a miraculous privilege; the very opposite of obligation. A story that is told in Tractate Baba Metzia of the Talmud brings the conflict between Rabbis Eliezer and Gamliel to devastating life. The story begins when Rabbi Eliezer refuses to change a halakhic ruling so as to bring himself into line with the majority opinion. Even after Rabbi Eliezer brings the laws of nature to testify that his opinion is right — he gets the water flowing in an aqueduct to reverse its course and a carob tree to jump one hundred cubits — the majority will not be cowed. A voice speaks from heaven on Rabbi Eliezer's be-half, which only prompts the other sages to quote Deuteronomy 30:12, "It [the Torah] is not in heaven."
Finally, the rabbis, led by their highest authority, Rabban Gamliel, excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for his refusal to accept majority rule. They send Rabbi Akiva to inform Rabbi Eliezer of their decision. From the moment Rabbi Eliezer hears that he has been excommunicated, Rabban Gamliel is in danger. The forces of nature that testified on Rabbi Eliezer's behalf rise up to avenge his humiliation. Rabban Gamliel is in a boat at sea by the time Rabbi Eliezer gets the news. A huge wave rushes towards him, and he saves his life only by invoking the merits of his forefathers and the sincerity of his motivations.
From then on, Rabbi Eliezer's wife, who happens to be Rabban Gamliel's sister, keeps a vigilant watch on her husband in order to prevent him from "falling on his face" in prayer in exactly the kind of spontaneous emotional supplication that Rabbi Eliezer champions in the Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer's wife knows that on the day her husband expresses the pain of his excommunication before God, her brother, Rabban Gamliel, will die.
One day a beggar knocks on the door; her vigilance is interrupted. When she returns to the room, she sees her husband has fallen on his face in prayer. "Get up," she says. "You have just killed my brother," and indeed, at that very moment she hears the town crier's announcement that Rabban Gamliel is dead. "How did you know?" Rabbi Eliezer asks his wife. "In my father's house I learned, all the gates to heaven can be locked, except for the gates of the prayer of the persecuted."
The ideological conflict in the Mishnah between prayer as spontaneous outcry and prayer as sacred duty achieves a strange realization in this Talmudic account. Rabban Gamliel, leader of the establishment, icon of majority rule, advocate of prayer as discipline rather than emotion, is literally killed by the spontaneous prayer of his opponent, Rabbi Eliezer. The battle to institutionalize the religious impulse, to tame the power of the personal, can never be completely victorious, because of the people it virtually always must leave out and cut off. The gateway to heaven, the ladder reaching from the earth to the sky, is most accessible to the marginalized, to the defeated, to the excommunicated and destabilized, to those who stumble across its entrance while running into exile. •