Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Role Models - Berakhot 31

Talmudic rabbis often look for role models to demonstrate the finer points – statements of law only go so far. In today’s page, when they re-assert the importance of seriousness of purpose even in times of joy, they give two examples: when asked to sing at a wedding he attended, one rabbi says “Alas for we who will die! Alas for we who will die!” [it is unknown if he sang these words]. Another takes an expression of joy upon returning from Babylonian Exile to mean one should not “fill one’s mouth with laughter” until the world to come – his student never laughed that fully again. To stand up to say the Amida, or even to leave another person’s company, one should not be sad, or lazy, or frivolous, or laughing – one should be in the mindset of religious duty and law. While I appreciate that leaving a friend is treated on a similar level of importance to the Amida prayer, all in all this represents a suppression of the very human desire to laugh, to be friendly and to be joyful. Must Jewish ceremony always be serious and without laughter?

The most detailed role-model employed in today’s page is Hannah, the woman who in I Samuel 1 is the first person in the Bible to pray to God – she asks for a son. As we saw in Berakhot 20, women are exempt from reciting the Shema but ARE required to recite the Amida, which the Talmud refers to as simply “THE prayer – Tefillah”. From Hannah’s narrative, they “learn” (or confirm) the importance of internal focus, to mouth the prayer and not say it aloud, to not pray if drunk (as a priest accuses Hannah), to correct one’s fellow if they err (as the priest does), to defend yourself if wrongly accused (as Hannah does), and to apologize and even bless someone erroneously accused (as does the priest).

The best side of Hannah in this passage, in addition to the use of a woman as a role model for all, is the cleverness the Rabbis give her in their midrash (creative retelling) of the story. If God will not grant her request, Hannah threatens to get herself falsely accused of adultery. Why? Because the end of the Torah-prescribed (Numbers 5) ritual for such situations promises pregnancy to a woman falsely accused! However, in the very next teaching we are reminded of the problematic role of women in Talmudic Judaism – Hannah reminds God that she hasn’t broken any of the rules that cause women to die in childbirth: menstrual purity, bread offerings, and Shabbat candlelighting. As if a family who had lost a mother in childbirth would blame her for their tragedy. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Role Models - Berakhot 31

Talmudic rabbis often look for role models to demonstrate the finer points – statements of law only go so far. In today’s page, when they re-assert the importance of seriousness of purpose even in times of joy, they give two examples: when asked to sing at a wedding he attended, one rabbi says “Alas for we who will die! Alas for we who will die!” [it is unknown if he sang these words]. Another takes an expression of joy upon returning from Babylonian Exile to mean one should not “fill one’s mouth with laughter” until the world to come – his student never laughed that fully again. To stand up to say the Amida, or even to leave another person’s company, one should not be sad, or lazy, or frivolous, or laughing – one should be in the mindset of religious duty and law. While I appreciate that leaving a friend is treated on a similar level of importance to the Amida prayer, all in all this represents a suppression of the very human desire to laugh, to be friendly and to be joyful. Must Jewish ceremony always be serious and without laughter?

The most detailed role-model employed in today’s page is Hannah, the woman who in I Samuel 1 is the first person in the Bible to pray to God – she asks for a son. As we saw in Berakhot 20, women are exempt from reciting the Shema but ARE required to recite the Amida, which the Talmud refers to as simply “THE prayer – Tefillah”. From Hannah’s narrative, they “learn” (or confirm) the importance of internal focus, to mouth the prayer and not say it aloud, to not pray if drunk (as a priest accuses Hannah), to correct one’s fellow if they err (as the priest does), to defend yourself if wrongly accused (as Hannah does), and to apologize and even bless someone erroneously accused (as does the priest).

The best side of Hannah in this passage, in addition to the use of a woman as a role model for all, is the cleverness the Rabbis give her in their midrash (creative retelling) of the story. If God will not grant her request, Hannah threatens to get herself falsely accused of adultery. Why? Because the end of the Torah-prescribed (Numbers 5) ritual for such situations promises pregnancy to a woman falsely accused! However, in the very next teaching we are reminded of the problematic role of women in Talmudic Judaism – Hannah reminds God that she hasn’t broken any of the rules that cause women to die in childbirth: menstrual purity, bread offerings, and Shabbat candlelighting. As if a family who had lost a mother in childbirth would blame her for their tragedy. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Intention and Fixed Form - Berakhot 30

One of the ongoing struggles in Rabbinic Judaism, from the Talmud’s time until the present day, is the battle between kavvanah (intention) and keva (fixed form). On one hand, some advocate the performance of prayers with absolutely positive and focused intention. The Mishnah text commented on here claims that the pious ancestors (Hebrew Hasidim – “lovers [of God]”) focused for an hour before praying so that they would have the correct frame of mind. On the other hand, we have seen how much time and effort the Talmudic Rabbis spent trying to determine the EXACT fixed form for their prayers – what time, what words, and in what circumstances may one recite the precise text?

This same battle played out at the beginning of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, as pietistic revivalists wanted to emphasize emotion and enthusiasm over fixed forms and rigid intellectualism. A famous Hasidic story claims that a poor man, who knew no more Hebrew than the Alphabet, instead of his prayers recited the Alphabet with pure intention and love, and it was joyously accepted above. On the other side, the Misnagdim (“opponents”) insisted on the strict forms of the laws and on serious, rigorous Talmudic study and mitzvah observance as the best and only way to divine reward.

In today’s Talmud page, the Rabbis seek a Scriptural source for the Mishnah’s claim that intention is needed, and what they find as the best proof is also their means to articulate a balance: “Serve YHWH with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). To “rejoice with trembling” (gilu bir’a’da) is interpreted to mean not to become too joyful – even in the midst of celebrations and good times one must remember the serious side of life. Or, to tie our two themes together, one needs a balance between the seriousness of fixed forms (trembling – in Hebrew Heradah – connected to Haredi, “ultra-Orthodox”) and the joy of positive intentions (love – Hesed – connected to “Hasidic”).

This same balance is our challenge as well – if we are too serious, life has no joy. If we are only joyful, life is not serious. If there is a disaster and we only celebrate those who are “miraculously” saved, we miss the big picture. If there are good times and we grimly focus on the fear of what might come after “the Judgment,” we similarly miss out. The best solution to the problem of keva (fixed form, metaphorically seriousness) vs. kavvanah (intention, metaphorically joy) is to find one’s own articulations of Judaism, philosophy, and life, so that one can feel joy in one’s own “fixed form,” and a seriousness of purpose in one’s joys in life.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Blessings and Actions - Berakhot 29

One of the central liturgical text for Talmudic practice is discussed at length in today’s daf (page). Sometimes it is called the Amida (“standing”), because one stands while reciting it. It is also called the Shmonei Esray (18) for reasons explained below, and sometimes just Tefillah (prayer). Traditionally recited in some format every day, its “standard” structure is assumed knowledge in the Talmud’s discussion and the questions discussed here focus on alternatives and variations. The traditional word for the prayerbook itself, Siddur, comes from the word for order (like the Passover Seder).

The Amida is a series of 19 blessings – 3 opening praise blessings, 13 petition blessings, and 3 thanksgiving blessings. This makes sense psychologically – praise someone before asking for something, ask for it, then thank them in advance for their time and attention. The requests are for everything from personal understanding and healing to national redemption through rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple under the Messiah. The reason the “18 blessings” actually have 19 is that one was added to the petitions after the destruction of the JerusalemTemple, as described in yesterday and today’s Talmud pages – a condemnation of the Minim (variously translated as heretics, slanderers, or separatists), that they be quickly destroyed. While one may make a mistake in any other blessing, a mistake in that one raises suspicions of heresy. Fortunately for most modern Jews, the Minim blessing has yet to be effective against its targets.

Today’s Talmud page presents several concessions to reality. Mistakes are made in recitations, even by Rabbis, and can be corrected. There may be times when it is dangerous to stop and perform the complete Amida with all of its attendant rituals and behavior, so alternative abbreviated texts are formulated. And a particular dispute is left unresolved with the admission that it is a kushiya – a difficulty.

The most insightful line in the entire page is part of the abbreviated prayer said in danger, because it really formulates the essence of the Rabbinic prayer system – “the needs of Your people Israel are many, and their knowledge is little.” Many of the requests in the Amida are for good results we all would want to see – understanding, healing, abundance, justice, peace. If our approach is that cited above, we have little hope of doing it ourselves. If we spend our time focusing on and using the power we DO possess, we can move demonstrably closer to our goals.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For more background and summary information on the Amida, visit

Monday, March 28, 2005

High Stakes - Berakhot 28

In our previous page we were left with a “cliffhanger” – Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi or head of the Rabbinic Assembly, was about to be replaced by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah for having shamed Rabbi Joshua one time too many. They removed the customary door guardian, and all students were able to enter, requiring many more seats than normal. Gamaliel and Joshua continued their sparring, this time over whether the Biblical prohibition on accepting a convert (ger, literally “resident alien”) from the Ammonites was still in force. Joshua won a battle of citation and argument, and this convinced Gamaliel to apologize. He visited Joshua, and, realizing that Joshua had to work as a smith as well as a Rabbinic teacher, he apologized. Joshua at first refused, but on an appeal to his respect for Gamaliel’s father, he accepted.

All is not resolved, however – the other Rabbis had already chosen Gamaliel’s replacement! And because Rabbi Akiva had locked the doors to prevent Gamaliel’s servants from disturbing the Rabbis, they could not hear the good news from a messenger! So Rabbi Joshua himself came to announce the reconciliation. But what to do with Rabbi Eleazar, who had already been promoted to a higher Rabbinic level and can’t be demoted? The solution: Rabban Gamaliel would teach 3 Shabbats, and Rabbi Eleazar one. We find from this narrative fascinating details – the political intrigues of the Rabbis, the respect of honor accorded to lower authorities like Rabbi Joshua, even Rabbis of the Rabbinic Assembly had to earn a living with outside work, and “power-sharing” compromises are nothing new.

As we have seen earlier, the stakes for the Rabbis are high, for their study is not only to determine the halakha, or religious law, here on earth, but also to earn their reward in the “world to come” through performing the commandment (mitzvah) of studying. When they pray upon entering the Beit Midrash (house of study), they ask to judge correctly and not make mistakes; when they leave, they thank God for making them students who study the law and thus pursue eternal life, while the others waste their time on frivolities that will condemn them. And when Yokhanan ben Zakkai, one of the founding Rabbis after the Jerusalem Temple Destruction, is about to die, he cries because he knows that he’s about to be judged by God into Paradise (Gan Eden “the Garden of Eden”) or Hell (Gehinom), and even he is not sure which way it will go.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus, from whom the Rabbinic epithet Apikoros for a free-thinking heretic derived, solved the problem of “theophobia” (fear of gods) very simply – there were no gods to fear. Afraid of an afterlife of judgment and hell? Since we are atoms that disperse on our death, there is none to worry about! The blessing added to the “18 Blessings” (Shmonei Esray) to condemn the “Minim”, or heretics, may have been aimed at just such an approach to the problem. We’ll discuss those 18 blessings in tomorrow’s daf.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Rabbinic Authority and Honor - Berakhot 27

The system of Rabbinic learning that produced the Mishnah and the Talmud was at once democratic and authoritarian – the majority of Rabbis qualified to vote on a particular issue would prevail, but duties of honor and obedience must be paid to one’s “teacher” (Rav, or Rabbi). Here we read that you must not pray next to your teacher, as if you were on the same level, or greet him with only an ordinary greeting and no title, or disagrees with his school of thought (yeshiva), or use sayings not heard from the teacher’s mouth – if you do any of these, “the Divine Presence departs from Israel”! Today, our teachers are important, but if we never felt on the same level as them in order to challenge them as equals, they would have failed at their task.

The Rabbinic reliance on authority is why lessons are drawn from teachers’ behavior, and why the chain of authority in reciting sayings is so important. An English translation can be creative - “R. Zera said in the name of R. Assi reporting R. Eleazar who had it from R. Hanina in the name of Rab” – but the original is literally “R. Zera said R. Assi said R. Eleazar said R. Hanina said Rab said.” This is not simply a game of “telephone;” it is an attempt to pass down the “Oral Law” in as clear and authoritative a way as possible.

Beyond the authority of one’s teacher, in early Rabbinic assemblies there was a Nasi (“prince”) who was the head of the assembly and lead teacher. Today’s page records one episode in an ongoing conflict between Nasi Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Joshua at the end of the first century CE. Gamaliel required the evening prayer, but Joshua thought it was optional. Rather than simply mention the disagreement, we find a narrative of how the conflict played out.

One student asked both privately for their opinions on the question, but in the assembly of the Sages Gamaliel pronounced his opinion, asked if there is any disagreement (already knowing about Joshua’s teaching), and then he shamed Joshua by making him stand and confess that he has changed his tune. Joshua continued to stand as Gamaliel continued teaching, until the other Rabbis finally demand that the interpreter stop the lesson. The other rabbis feel that Gamaliel has gone too far, and they consider replacing him. They nominate Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who is wise enough to answer questions, rich enough to negotiate with the powers that be, and of sufficient pedigree (z’khut avot - “merit of the fathers”) to compete with Gamaliel, who claims descent from the Nasi line. Thus the three qualifications for the position are enumerated: good mind, good wallet, good family.

Will Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Gamaliel be able to resolve their differences? Will Rabban Gamaliel be deposed as Nasi? You’ll have to turn the page to the next daf (sheet) to find out.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Antiquity and Tradition - Berakhot 26

In the midst of the continuing Talmudic discussion of prayer, piety, and excrement, we find a debate that cuts to the heart of the innovations of Rabbinic Judaism. Over 20 pages after we began the discussion of berakhot (blessings) and tefillot (prayers), we stumble upon the question – when did this whole prayer tradition started? In one’s answer to this question lie profound assumptions about history, authority, and individual obligation.

On one side, there is the claim that tradition is timeless – founded by the founders, established by the establishment. Rabbi Yose claims that the Avot (Biblical Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) initiated the tradition. When Abraham got up in the morning and “stood” (amad) in Genesis 19, it must have been for the morning standing prayer (Amida), in Rabbinic terminology Shakharit. Why? Because a text from Psalm 106 associates “standing” with “praying.” When Isaac went into the field to meditate before evening, it must have been for the afternoon prayer (Minkha) because Psalm 112 connects prayer and meditation. And Jacob created the evening prayer (Aravit) because he “encountered” (translated as “lighted upon”) a place at evening, and Jeremiah 7 claims that an angry God did not want to be “encountered” (translated as “make intercession”) through prayer.

Is it possible to “stand” without establishing a tradition? Not if one lives the mythically-charged life of a Biblical patriarch in the mind of Rabbis looking for roots for their own innovations. The fact that three subsequent founding figures initiate three sequential ritual actions makes a clever parallel but does not prove an historical argument. According to Talmudic chronology, the Psalms and Jeremiah were written centuries after the Genesis Patriarchs; but for the Rabbis, who consider all Biblical texts of divine origin, that detail is irrelevant to their comparison of Biblical terminologies. MANY innovated traditions have tried to claim the mantle of antiquity, and thus authority, using just such a-historical connections. If the hallowed and saintly ancestors initiated this tradition, who are we to challenge or to change it? And we can feel even better about our own performance of the same ritual believing that it is part of an ancient tradition rather than an innovation of recent centuries and even decades.

Trying to discover actual historical origins, on the other hand, requires more discerning investigation than rhetorical appeals to authority and revelation, and are often more complicated. Fortunately, the other side of the debate on today’s page is from a more historical perspective - Rabbi Joshua ben Levi claims that the prayers were instituted to replace the sacrifices (once the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE). He supports his claim not by Biblical prooftext but by comparing when one was able to offer daily sacrifices with when Rabbinic tradition claims one may offer specific prayers – and the descent from the former to the latter is very clear. By the end, the Talmud has a rhetorical Rabbi Yose concede that even though he still claims that the Patriarchs initiated the daily prayers, the Rabbis did indeed define and establish the practice based on the daily sacrifices.

Thus the Talmud at once claims the sanctity of timeless tradition, and also admits the reality of historical innovation. And it also implicitly confesses that later generations necessarily define and refine the detailed performance of rituals initiated by previous ones. We historically-minded thinkers may question ascribing Rabbinic prayers to Biblical Patriarchs, but we can also understand Rabbinic root-searching in the aftermath of profound dislocation and destruction.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For further reading:

Biblical passages – visit, then go to desired book.

Friday, March 25, 2005

In the Presence - Berakhot 25

WARNING – reading today’s blog may adversely affect appetite.

When imagining early historical periods, we often romanticize what was actually a difficult and dirty existence. No such romance is found in today’s Talmud page, which explores in great depth many possible juxtapositions of prayer, excrement, and urine. If there is excrement on one’s hand, may one recite Shema? If one is in the presence of human, or pig, or dog, or chicken excrement, may one recite? If there is doubt whether or not one is near excrement, err on the side of caution and do not recite, but if urine’s presence is doubtful, you may recite. They even explore how long one must wait for bodily waste to settle – how dry must the dung and urine be before one may recite? One rabbi claims that one may not recite Torah only in the presence of the “active stream”, while another permits it in the presence of urine even in a dungheap. Does the urine still moisten the ground? Has the excrement dried on the top? And on and on.

There are two aspects of today’s page of particular interest. First, Talmudic rabbis often use understatement and euphemism to get their message across. In the aforementioned discussion, urine is called “mei raglayim – water of the ‘legs’ (itself a euphemism for sex organs),” while the “active stream” is “amod – standing, or column”. And a great example of rabbinic sarcasm appears when debating if a man in a bath may recite the Shema, since if he kneels his heel may touch his erva (shameful nakedness). Why is it permitted in such a circumstance? “Lo natna torah l’malkhay ha-sharet – the Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels.” In other words, for all that we try to elevate our holiness, we remain human beings with flaws, dirt, sex, and physical reality.

Second, the attitude towards non-Jews in Talmudic Judaism is always a pitched debate –it is stated here that one is forbidden to recite Shema in the presence of a naked non-Jew. Why bother saying this, if we have already seen restrictions on reciting it to yourself in the presence of your own nudity? Surely the nudity of another human being would automatically stop you. The Talmud explains that one might have thought that since Ezekiel 23:20 says of non-Jews, “their flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, and their ‘flow’ (semen) like that of horses,” their nudity would be like that of an animal. No, says the Talmud, their nudity is in fact erva because they are indeed human. While this passage does conclude that non-Jews are humans, many of us object to any less-than-automatic acceptance of our neighbors' humanity.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Body, Sex, and Holiness - Berakhot 24

Yesterday’s page spoke of restrictions on the reciting of prayers concerning certain bodily functions, and today’s continues in a similar vein. What happens if one belches, or yawns, or sneezes, or spits while reciting one’s prayers? One side reports seeing Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, the complier of the Mishnah, do all of the above during his prayer, while another cites a saying that to do so is arrogant and a bad sign. A clever rebuttal appears: one receives relief below (in this world) as a sign of relief to come above.

We even see a detailed description of the appropriate way to pass gas while in the midst of prayer – the original says l’hit'atesh, “sneezed,” but context indicates this is a euphemism. Rabbi Abba snuck from Babylon back to Israel to learn by eavesdropping from Rabbi Judah, since Rabbi Judah had forbidden any to return from Babylon as a contradiction of the divine will to exile the Jews there. While listening, he learns that one is supposed to either wait for the “wind” (ruakh) to dissipate, or others say he should step back four cubits (the same distance from a privy at which one should remove tefillin) before release and say a special explanatory prayer, part of which today is the traditional prayer on leaving a bathroom.

The general theme of this section is the relationship of the body to prayer – keeping ordinary and “base” bodily functions and material world separate from the elevated words and content of the prayers. In a dirty alley, one covers their mouth to say the Shema. In a bed with others, he must turn away from them and separate himself from his children by a garment. If he is naked in his own bed, he must make a partition between his heart and his “nakedness” (erva) to recite his prayer. Erva in Biblical law is a shameful nakedness that shames the observer as well as the exposed one.

Many examples of Rabbinic bodily anxieties are here mapped onto women – seeing your wife’s finger during a personal Shema, or seeing a woman’s leg, or hearing her voice, or seeing her hair are all erva. From this emerged traditional Jewish prohibitions on women singing or praying with or in front of men, covering their natural hair with wigs, and wearing modest clothing – several steps away from imposing Islamic purda (head to toe covering), but emerging from a similar impulse.

While we today object to the restrictions on personal freedom and dignity this approach imposes, when seeing the latest fashions for teen girls makes you wonder if there isn’t a middle ground that could leave something to the imagination, and to privacy as well. Your body is your own, but that doesn’t mean that privacy, discretion, and consideration are irrelevant to your choices.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What you do do with Tefillin - Berakhot 23

If Talmudic Rabbis do nothing else, they try to consider all of the practical consequences of their rules, regulations and rituals. Thus in today’s page, we find an extensive discussion of the rules concerning the placement of one’s tefillin (prayer boxes) when one needs to “heed the call of nature.” While we may snicker with bathroom humor, for the Rabbis this is a very serious discussion – if one is praying and wearing tefillin, and then needs to relieve oneself, how to do so without disrespect? The Talmudic Rabbis don’t just say (as many grandmothers do today), “do your business beforehand;” they want to consider what to do in worse scenarios.

To relieve oneself in any manner during prayer would be very disrespectful – there is a natural and healthy human instinct, expressed in most cultures, that considers excrement and urine unclean. So if one manages to excuse oneself and get to a “privy,” or outhouse, what to do with the tefillin? First we can distinguish between an outhouse that has been previously used and a new outhouse – tefillin evidently should not be worn within 4 cubits of excrement, so take them off and put them on again away from a used one. In a brand new outhouse, however, one may take them off at the last minute, do one’s business, and then put them on again at a distance of 4 cubits.

What if you’re going into a used one only to do “Number 1”? Some object that you never know which call of nature will strike once you get started. Others suggest you may hold them in your hand or in your clothes, but then there is the risk that they will fall in (!). But it is made clear that one needs to hold them, for putting them in a hole inside the building leaves them vulnerable to mice, while setting them in a hole outside the building means they could be stolen – one student’s tefillin were stolen by a prostitute who then claimed he had paid her with them, and he was thus shamed into suicide. One of the proposed solutions to this dilemma became an institution in Rabbinic Judaism – to put them in a special tefillin bag when not in use.

The point of this and the remainder of the discussion about what to do with tefillin when eating or sleeping is very simple – tefillin are for prayer; while they need to be protected and respected at other times (thus they may be slept on at one’s head but not at one’s feet), they should not be worn while eating, excreting, or anything in between. This is also why tefillin are not comfortable symbols for secular, cultural or Humanistic Jews to use in their celebrations – while they value and celebrate Jewish culture, some elements of Jewish culture are so clearly attached to a traditional theology and practice foreign to their personal philosophies that philosophy trumps culture. Knowing what something is does not require its use to be an educated Jew.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ritual Purification - Berakhot 22

Those who admire the Torah from a distance (i.e. without really reading it) as a collection of Jewish ethics and beautiful stories are surprised to discover that many of the Torah’s rules and regulations concern the treatment of those who have become tameh, or “ritually unclean” – how do they become unclean, what are they prohibited from doing while unclean, how do they become pure (tahor) again. The most common example of becoming tameh is a menstruating woman (niddah), but one may also be “contaminated” by touching a dead body or by having a “nocturnal emission,” which today we would call a wet dream, or else some kind of infection.

The Baal Keri discussed in today’s Talmud page is the name for the last case, and we see that the restrictions on offering sacrifices or approaching the Temple while ritually impure have been translated to Rabbinic Judaism – if unable to purify himself, he is restricted from the Rabbinic “holy of holies”: reciting certain blessings and reading the sacred words of Bible and Rabbinic tradition. However, the “words of Torah specialist” Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra explains that he may recite what he knows from memory, because the holy words themselves cannot be made unclean, even if a scroll might.

So how does one become ritually pure again? Authorities differ as to how much water must be used: some suggesting a smaller amount needs to be thrown on the sufferer, others that the sufferer must immerse himself in a larger amount of water (more like a mikvah, or ritual bath). One rabbi was even sitting in a larger bath and asked a servant to throw the smaller amount over him to purify him! Clearly, in Rabbinic thought as in the Torah ritual purity and physical cleanliness are not really related – ritual impurity is a kind of “spiritual schmutz” (dirt) that requires symbolic solutions.

What does all this have to do with the more secular lifestyle observed by most Jews today? Many of us believe that ethical “cleanness” is more important than an arbitrary ritual standard, and that personal cleanliness is more of a sign of self-regard than ritual impurities one cannot control. Yet this is an historical record of Jewish practice, and Jewish concern. Even if we prefer to sing N’taher Libaynu (“Let us purify our hearts”), this text helps us understand both the role of reading the holy books as a substitute for sacrifice and the concept of ritual impurities in Talmudic Judaism - just as the impure could not offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple, so now they may not read the holy books.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, March 21, 2005

To Bless or Not To Bless? - Berakhot 21

Let me try to give you a brief exploration of Talmudic logic through an extended argument about why one is supposed to recite blessings before and after Torah reading and meals. Biblical supports are claimed for blessings after meals and before Torah study, but why not before and after for both? The Talmud initially argues from each to the other using the same argument, the kal va’homer (from easy to hard, or “how much more so”). If meals, that require no blessing before them have a blessing afterwards, how much more so should Torah study, which DOES have a blessing before it, require a blessing after. And the reverse as well: if the Torah, which does not require a blessing after it, needs one before, how much more so should a meal, which DOES need a blessing after, need one before [this makes slightly more sense if you say it out loud than read it – honestly!].

In the end, this double reason is rejected – not for redundancy or self-reference, but because one act feeds the body for life in this world, and the other the soul for eternal life in the next one. Of course, for the Talmudic Rabbis rejecting the Scriptural basis does not mean one is free to reject the practice! One is still supposed to recite both blessings for both practices – but the reason for it must be found elsewhere. For some today, however, if the reason is not there, then neither will be the performance. Thus the lengthy arguments one may read about claimed health benefits to a kosher lifestyle that try to convince the non-kosher to start, when traditionally following laws of kashrut were one more example of submitting to the “yoke” of the commandments regardless of reasons.

This Talmud page not only speaks about the individual context of blessings, exploring the case of the Baal Keri, or the man who has had a “nocturnal emission” and thus become ritually impure – may he recite certain prayers, and under what circumstances. It also examines a communal setting – we see here a justification of the tradition of having ten (men) to constitute a minyan (prayer quorum) for reciting certain prayers, and also the ruling that one who had already prayed alone could only do so again in a group. Once, after the Holocaust, the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade was approached on the street and asked to join a minyan; he refused, saying “ikh hob shoyn gedavent (I have already prayed).” His companion, knowing Grade to be a strict secularist, asked him, “When?” Grade’s answer: “1937.” Knowing Jewish tradition as he did, Grade was able to refuse the request in a way that the praying Jew would understand and respect. And in a way that also gave him a private chuckle.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading:

Chaim Grade, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in The Seven Little Lanes (1972). There is also a movie adaptation called The Quarrel (1991).

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Merits and Demerits: Piety and Jewish Women - Berakhot 20

Fundamentals to the Talmudic approach to Jewish tradition is the assumption that earlier generations were holier, wiser, and more upright than the current generation. That is why the Talmud cites earlier traditions before commenting on them and why it tries to harmonize sayings of different sages that “seem” to disagree. Moderns, on the other hand, might sympathize with the question Rabbi Papa asks – “How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed?” After all, he explains, we have learned and studied more than them because the tradition has grown. And we might say that even though we know more about the world, the more we know the less orderly, sane, and cosmically just the world appears to us.

R. Papa is answered: other generations had greater faith – they were willing to die for God (Hebrew kidushat ha-shem, literally “sanctification of the name”), and we are not. Earlier rabbis risked great fines and shame in their zeal for the law – one even sat outside the baths telling women how to bathe! They were not afraid of the Evil Impulse (Hebrew yetzer ha-ra) or the Evil Eye because they knew they were holy, whereas later Rabbis were not so sure of themselves. And yet, despite this supposed "holiness advantage," they did have a blind spot - the role of women.

We find on side “b” of today’s page an explanation of the exemption of women from reciting the Shema and from wearing tefillin (prayer boxes). We noted earlier that women are placed in the same legal category as slaves and children – as Rachel Adler, a Jewish feminist, once dryly noted, slaves can be freed and children grow up, but women can never “graduate” from this status. What is the problem if they are exempt – isn’t it just one less obligation to perform?

The problem is three-fold. First, performing obligations (or mitzvot) is the means by which Rabbinic Judaism honors its God, so not having the opportunity to fulfill an obligation is to be of a lower status. Second, the general category of obligations from which women are called exempt – positive commandments of fixed time – are often the more prestigious. For example, all of Berakhot’s earlier discussions about how and when to recite the Shema are largely irrelevant to women. Third, as explained here, one who is not obligated to perform a mitzvah cannot do so on behalf of someone else, so women could not lead a congregation of men in praying the Shema. And even if they are of similar obligation, as for the meal blessing, the sages say “A curse light on the man whose wife or children have to say grace for him” because he doesn’t know enough to say it for himself.

The early battles of Jewish feminists to open up Jewish religion and culture to the equal participation of women began by challenging just such an approach. And I would argue that both Jewish women AND Jewish men are better off for the active and enthusiastic contributions of all Jews that have resulted from the opening up of Jewish life to full participation by all. Today women rabbis lead congregations, women teachers teach boys and girls and adults of both genders, and Jewish women can feel Jewish at home AND in the synagogue. And that is a great step forward.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading:

Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law.

Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman” in Susannah Heschel, ed. On Being a Jewish Feminist.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Rabbinical Honor and Excommunication - Berakhot 19

During the Jewish Diaspora in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Rabbinical authorities often did not have the legal power to execute a death sentence, but they had the next best thing – they could excommunicate, or threaten to excommunicate, the offender. In a much smaller and circumscribed world than we now inhabit, losing all family and personal connections was akin to social death. Today’s page describes one kind of offense worthy of excommunication (Hebrew herem or here nidui) in the opinion of the Rabbis. That offense? Lack of respect for the Rabbis!

Those that mock or challenge the “scholars” (Hebrew Khakhamim, literally “the wise”) are sent straight to the underworld, and others are expelled and so reviled that the Rabbinical court stones their coffin after their death! Sometimes Rabbinical power is not absolute, however – a famous Roman Jew named Thaddeus is described as establishing a custom among Jews in Rome of eating lambs at Passover roasted exactly as they were at the Jerusalem Temple, and Shimon ben Shetah threatens that if Thaddeus were anyone else he would be excommunicated for making it look like the Jews were performing Temple rituals away from the Jerusalem Temple. In addition to showing the flexibility of Jewish practice by geography and personality, even in the ancient world, this also shows the power of the macher (Yiddish for "mover and shaker") to do what they want.

Some of the less supportive readers of my Talmud blog might agree with a ban of excommunication for those who they feel “disrespect” the teachers of tradition, but then I would be in good company – Baruch Spinoza, one of the founders of modern philosophy, and Mordecai Kaplan, the innovator of the modern Jewish Center and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, are two of the most famous to have been “kicked out” by religious authorities. And I am fortunate that, like Thaddeus, if enough people agree with what I’m doing, the threat of excommunication is that much weaker.

Or I can draw a lesson from a Baraita, or teaching from the time of the Mishnah that was not included in the Mishnah, cited on this same Talmud page: “Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah” or rabbinical laws based thereon. If to speak my truth, to have my dignity, requires questioning absolute authorities, so be it. And thank goodness for the freedom for each of us to seek our own truth, and if we disagree to say (in Yiddish) gaye gesunter hayt, loosely translatable as “go in health,” or better “live and let live.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Dead and the Ghosts - Berakhot 18

In some cultures, the afterlife is so important that the dead body itself is comparatively irrelevant – an empty shell without the spirit. Not so in Rabbinic Judaism, where the body and spirit are intimately connected and treated with respect. In the context of determining who in death and mourning is exempt from Shema recital, today’s page presents some basic rabbinic beliefs about death. And some of them may be surprising to those raised to believe that all of Judaism was rational and modern.

The respect paid to the dead body is immediately obvious – watching (the Hebrew root shamar can also mean “guarding”) the body is so important that it takes precedence over the Shema and eating, even if one is not personally related to the body being watched. The same is true for visiting a cemetery, and failing to join a funeral procession is like mocking the poor (and by extension God). Even if one is righteous and called “living” even if dead, as the memory of one’s good deeds lives, death in Talmudic Judaism is real and the dead deserve respect.

We discover here, however, that they deserve respect not only for who they were, but also because they are still listening to us and talking to each other! We read a fascinating “ghost story” set the evening before the New Year: a pious man scolded by his wife for giving charity in a drought year must spend the night in a cemetery. While there, he overhears two spirits, one able to wander the world but the other restricted by her manner of burial. The wanderer discovers when the agricultural disaster will strike, and relates it to her fellow ghost. Thus the pious man is able to avert personal disaster, and again the same way the next year. However, his wife asks what his secret is, he tells her the whole story, and the next year the spirits know they’ve been overheard. This page also tells of voices from beyond the grave helping to find hidden money or predicting imminent death for someone else.

In the middle of these ghost stories, we do find a small beauty – money for orphans hidden by Abba ben Abba father of Samuel (because there are too many Abbas or Abba ben Abbas to find the right one more simply) is covered on top and bottom by his own money. If there are thieves, they will take his; if there is an earthquake, it will take his. But the orphans’ money will be safe. If every ghost story had such a moral, we might be much less afraid of them.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, March 17, 2005

New Sacrifices – Berakhot 17

When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Rabbis faced a serious challenge – what to do with the Jewish religious tradition of sacrificial worship without their only shrine? Their answer was re-interpretation: Temple “service” (Hebrew avodah) became prayer “service”, animal sacrifices became gifts of words, and even fasts are transformed – in today’s page one rabbi asks that his loss of blood and fat through fasting be counted as the sacrifices were before. And just as the sacrifices are detailed at great length in the Written Torah, so too do these new “sacrifices” get lengthy treatment in the “Oral Torah.”

In last 50 years, some have claimed that the Holocaust has been an equally-shattering destruction of Jewish theology, requiring equally-radical changes. Yet anyone who has read the book of Job knows that undeserved suffering has always been a problem, and Jewish thinkers before 1946 have also emphasized as a result the importance of living a good life in this one – when Rabbi Johanan would finish reading Job, he would say in his own way that while everyone and everything dies, those who pleased their Creator and “grew up with a good name and departed the world with a good name” are happy.

No one event, even the Holocaust, led to the intellectual climate change that led us to question statements that women earn merit by sending their kids to school and their husbands to the house of study – in other words, by facilitating the holy study of others rather than by doing something themselves because they are not permitted. And no one experience enables us to admire a future world where there is no “eating nor drinking nor propagation nor business nor jealousy nor hatred nor competition” but also be bored imagining eternity “feasting on the brightness of the divine presence.”

We could take the loophole in the Mishnah text on the prayer requirements of mourners at the end of page 17 and run with it – a mourner with a dead one before him is exempt from all Torah commandments, and if we after the Holocaust are haunted by the dead, who can pray? But this would be a losing game – the Talmudic discussion goes on to require observance on Shabbat, and to qualify that absolute exemption. And who wants to live, even conceptually, as a mourner? Better to accept our clear break with the past and then explore it for sayings that emphasize what we emphasize, even if different reasons because of our own times. Let us grow up with a good name and depart with a good name, and let the rest take care of itself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

NOTE: the Mishnah cited at the end of 17b mentions the loaded concept of “women, slaves, and minors” being exempt from the Shema – it is discussed in greater depth in Berakhot 20, so we will explore that topic at that point.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Exceptional Circumstances - Berakhot 16

One would think that when it comes to a commandment, there would be two options – do it, or do not do it. Far be it from the Talmudic Rabbis to accept only black and white! In their jurisprudence, there are at least four possibilities: one could be required to do something, required not to do something, exempt from the positive requirement (but the “saint” may still choose to do it), or exempt from the negative law (but the “saint” may still choose to refrain). And even then there can be exceptional circumstances and exceptional individuals.

Rabban Gamliel was not obligated to recite the Shema on his wedding night, but he chose to do so nonetheless – an example of the conceptual difference between the “saint” and the normal human. Workmen in certain trees or scaffolding may recite from their somewhat precarious positions, but those in more risky positions should descend first. The new bridegroom of a virgin is exempt from Shema recitiation, but not if he has married a widow! Exceptions are often possible, perhaps including even mourning for a slave’s death, as long as one is appropriately qualified for the more permissive or elevated behavior.

In this Talmud page, we find a continuity and a discontinuity with our own days. Rabbis create new prayers and new endings to their personal recitations, just as contemporary liturgical creativity flowers today. Yet we also read that full mourning for the death of slaves (Hebrew avadim, sometimes creatively translated as “servants”) is not allowed. One rabbi even flees his own students to avoid receiving their condolences, and we are told to lament their death as one would lament a donkey or an ox.

There are attractive details in this page, to be sure – students who are very slow to get the hint are told “I thought you would be scalded by warm water, but you’re not even scalded by boiling water.” There are wishes for long life, health, and happiness in this life, not only in the world to come. The balance of a laborer’s duty to work and to pray, between personal and professional obligations, is still very important. And the question of why a bridegroom who marries a virgin is more “agitated” than one who marries a widow could be very interesting to explore...

In the end, though, we find that the Rabbis are not radical exceptions to the ordinary circumstances of every human being – they are a product of their time and place, a setting where slavery was common and the humanity of slaves was doubted. The Rabbis of the Talmud, just like Rabbis of our own days, are neither saints nor devils; they are human beings like everyone else.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Reputable On-Line English Talmud – but not for Berakhot

Though not organized by the traditional pagination, I have found a reputable on-line Talmud translation for those who wish to look at the original texts for this Talmud blog but do not have the Aramaic ability to work through the daf.

It is an on-line version of M. L. Rodkinson’s 1918 translation of two major sections of the Talmud, which unfortunately does not include tractate Berakhot (Blessings), the Talmud section currently under study. The website hosting it is a well-regarded internet “sacred texts archive” that makes public domain religious texts available for general understanding and also for sale.

If you are interested in purchasing an English translation of the complete Talmud on CD-ROM, Davka Corporation sells them at - look at either the "Soncino Talmud" or the "Soncino Classics" collections. Both have English + Hebrew texts of the Bible and the Talmud, but the "Soncino Classics" also has English + Hebrew for the Rabbinic Midrash collections and the Zohar (for a higher price, of course). Davka has periodic sales that significantly reduce their prices, so check back periodically. also has occasional CD-ROM sales that might be worth looking through.

The search for an easily-accessible, complete yet reputable on-line English Talmud translation for the general and Jewish audience continues. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

The “Literal Truth” – Berakhot 15

Much of today’s Talmud page is taken up with a Mishnaic discussion of whether or not to fulfill one’s obligation one must recite the Shema aloud to hear it. Or, more precisely, if one does recite it silently to oneself, does it count? One side, Rabbi Judah, says yes, but another opinion, Rabbi Jose, says no. Creatively drawing examples from the deaf (who can’t hear what they say) being exempt from certain recitations and a saying about the grace after meals, the Talmud resolves that one should not say Shema silently in the first place, but if it happens it still counts. What if one slurs the letters? Here Rabbi Jose says it would count, but Rabbi Judah does not. We discover at the end of the discussion that the law follows the more lenient in both cases – even though it is preferable to recite it clearly and aloud, in a pinch silently or slurred are acceptable.

The larger question here is how precise one must be with performance, and how flexible evaluations of that performance should be. Of course, everyone should do everything correctly every time, but reasonable people know what when dealing with human beings, behavior will be varied and imperfect. Here we see an acknowledgement of that reality, which does not demand absolutely perfect behavior and condemn any mistakes, but rather forgives within very narrow boundaries.

The other side of this debate, however, is how literally to take commandments – when the Shema begins “Hear, O Israel,” the Rabbis assume ideally one should literally hear it in one’s ear. When Deuteronomy 6, speaking about the words of the Shema and immediately following, says, “write these words on the doorposts of your home and on your gates,” is this speaking metaphorically? When it says to speak of them “when you lie down, and when you get up,” is that rhetoric for “all the time,” or is it to be taken literally? For all the creativity of rabbinic interpretation, here finding affinities between the underworld and the womb to argue for the truth of the resurrection of the Dead being a Scriptural doctrine, the Rabbis also believed that “ayn mikra’ yotze mi’peshuto – Scripture never leaves its plain meaning.” If Deuteronomy says, “write these words,” then you don’t only write the words of the Shema on your doorposts (mezuzot) - you also write “write these words,” for all is included in a literal reading of the command.

The modern temperament among liberal Jews is much more suited to metaphor than to literal command. We are much more comfortable being told to think a lot about an important idea than being told to literally write words on the doorposts of our homes and bind them on our foreheads – the spirit of the law is assumed to be more important than, and even independent of, the letter of the law. If we live lives of ethical action and mutual consideration, does it really matter if we slur specific words, say them under our breath, say them in our own way, or even choose not to say them at all?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, March 14, 2005

Talmudic Principles and Obligations - Berakhot 14

Talmudic legal discussions have certain principles, but it is not always clear even to the Rabbis involved whether a particular principle applies to a particular discussion. One of the most common appears in today’s page – kal va’homer, or “simple and difficult” (sometimes translated by the Latin a fortiori). If we know the law is a certain way in this particular case, how much more is it so in a less difficult scenario. Often the issue is whether the two scenarios are really close enough to draw a conclusion from one to the other. Here, if it is permitted to interrupt the Shema to greet someone, how much more so may one interrupt a prayer recitation of lesser authority!

This passage also demonstrates different levels of commandment – reading the Shema is called de-oraita (from Scripture), while saying Hallel (praise) is called de-rabanan (Rabbinic). Even though Talmudic Rabbis have claimed the mantle of authorized interpreters, they understand their pronouncements to be derivative, not original. The irony is that our previous Talmud pages show Rabbis determining exactly how, in what order and which texts to recite to define what reciting the Shema fully means! In other words, even though the Rabbis define both “Scriptural” and “Rabbinic” laws, they treat commandments more clearly based in the Bible on a higher level than their own.

There is a conceptual need to differentiate the two, because the divine realm (i.e. Scriptural) is envisioned as far superior to the human – witness the terms for accepting divine reign and rules: ‘ol malkhut (“yoke of kingship) and ‘ol mitzvot (yoke of commandments). If one accepts another’s yoke, a collar used to drive oxen in the right direction, one’s own decisions are necessarily on a lower plane. This sense of absolute obligation is why the Rabbis are very cautious about performing prayers in the correct order, for the risks of incomplete performance are high – reciting Shema without tefillin (prayer boxes bound on hand and forehead) is called bearing false witness against oneself.

For liberal Jews, commandments are a record of historical Jewish practice and theology but not authoritative and binding. They are the “suggestions,” the “guidelines,” or at best “the options” – one need not perform them all (as under a yoke) to find meaning in some. Thus Israeli McDonald’s restaurants during Passover serve cheeseburgers on matza, and one may freely attend both Shabbat services and a movie on Saturday. These choices that we enjoy are the fruits of individual freedom.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Best of Intentions – Berakhot 13

Today’s Talmud page starts with language of halakha (religious law) and mitzvah (commandment), but soon moves to another realm – intentions. In a tangential discussion of the names Abraham and Sarah, originally Abram and Sarai before Genesis 17, we know that one is required to use the new names. But why, asks the Talmud? Is it based on a positive commandment (“do X”), or a negative commandment (“do not do Y”)? A clear answer to this question is not resolved, nor is one really required, because the conclusion is already known.

Other issues here do require resolution – first, may those present greet each other during a prayer service, and when? During “breaks” between blessings, and there is some debate over what counts as a break. There is no question that the prayer service will be interrupted by other conversations – anyone who has attended traditional services knows that half of the battle is keeping kibitzing (chatting) volume lower than the prayers! The stereotypical WASP ideal of a full hour of devoted prayer and decorous silence between recitations is foreign to this approach.

Second, in what language may one recite the Shema or read the Torah? We know the result of this debate from historical Jewish practice – Hebrew for prayers and Torah, sometimes with Torah translation in addition to but never substituting for Hebrew. However, there is a division between “the Rabbis” and “the Sages” – the former assert the Shema must be recited in Hebrew (literally “as written”), while the latter allow one to recite in a language one understands. This prefigures 19th century arguments within early Reform Judaism about translating the prayer book, but also raises an important question about the goals of the prayer service itself.

Why debate the language? The ultimate question is: are you meant to understand what you are reading, or is the traditional form more important? As Jews became progressively less familiar with Hebrew as a spoken language (even centuries before the Talmud), reciting Hebrew prayers became more exercise than inspiration. The question of understanding leads to an equally important question – how much do you need to mean it? How important is the attention, or kavanah, paid to the meaning of the text? Does God need/want the words, or the emotional focus of his worshipper? While we might assume that praising God and reciting his Torah would require 100% attention at all times, here some Rabbis accepted much less.

This issue relates directly to celebrations of contemporary Jewish communities outside of Israel. If they doesn’t understand Hebrew, how much to use? Or is understanding less important than reciting the traditional text? Some might consider it fortunate that the congregation doesn’t know what it’s saying – if they did, they might not say it! The Hasidic movement hinted at elevating kavanah over keva (fixed form), and this is the approach of every Jewish group that has modified the traditional prayer service – better to agree with what you’re saying than to just keep saying what’s traditional. Others make the reverse argument – better to say what’s traditional and create new kavanot than to change it. Each community, and each individual Jew, must resolve the balance of continuity and integrity for themselves.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Prayer Precision - Berakhot 12

In the modern, individualized world, many of those who do pray to a god use any words or emotions that are personally meaningful. In the world of the Talmud, precise wording and sequence was required to navigate the world of divine praise and petition in Rabbinic liturgy. Thus the Talmudic debate about correct text and order, very important to a volume entitled “Blessings,” continues unabated.

In addition to this exacting debate, however, today’s Talmud page does provide a glimpse into the creative process of Rabbinic liturgy. While some would have recited the 10 Commandments as part of their religious devotion, others avoided it because of what “Minim” [“heretics” – Jews who disagreed with the Rabbis or the early Christian Church] insinuated about that ritual. If one only reads from the 10 Commandments and the Shema, perhaps the rest of the Torah is not as authoritative. As an aside, some contemporary Christian activists who want the 10 Commandments publicly displayed might agree – they don’t keep kosher or stone disobedient children or many of the other laws of the Torah, but they do value the 10 Commandments, at least as a symbol.

At that point in Jewish history, Rabbis made decisions about their own ritual based on what “outsiders” said about them. In the 19th century, early Reform rabbis were strongly criticized by the Jewish religious establishment for making ritual changes for similar reasons – why? Because a second principle had taken over: according to this passage, Rabbis in Babylonia at the major Talmudic academies of Sura and Nehardea centuries after the “Minim decision” were unable to return to the original ritual because of that earlier decision and the accumulated weight of tradition. Even if the Minim in question are no longer a problem, or an answer to them could be found, the wisdom and power of the earlier decision is not questioned.

This is the dilemma modern Jews, particularly theologically-questioning Jews, face when they try to fashion liturgical texts that speak to them. This Talmud page cites authorities who claim that a blessing without God’s name (YHWH, pronounced “Adonai”) or divine kingship (the phrase melekh ha-olam, “king of the universe”) are no blessings. One doesn’t need to be a Talmudic authority to have heard this argument – anyone who tries to change such traditional blessings formulae hears similar complaints. “Who are you to make these changes in ancestral tradition?” If as Reconstructionist, Reform, feminist, secular or Humanistic Jews we question a personal god with a specific name or an external, ruling king (male) god, that’s fine philosophically; but beware the wrath of those who don’t live traditionally but object to change nonetheless.

There are times that we have to admit that traditional answers and texts do not speak to us as powerfully as they did to our ancestors who lived very different lives. We have to be brave enough to challenge ancient decisions with the strength of our own convictions, to make choices for ourselves without fearing “what would the Rabbis say?”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, March 11, 2005

Traditions and Innovations - Berakhot 11

At the end of Berakhot 10, a Mishnah text is cited that describes a dispute between two schools of interpretation: Beit Hillel (the house or school of Rabbi Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Rabbi Shammai). Both are respected, but in the end the issues on which they disagree must be decided in favor of one or the other, often but not always for Beit Hillel. The issue here is how to recite the Shema – must one actually lie down for the evening recitation and stand up for the morning (Shammai), or is it merely at those times and not in that precise manner (Hillel)? What is fascinating is that the Talmud here asks why Beit Shammai didn’t just agree with Beit Hillel. And it goes on to imagine reasons, to dignify a rejected position with further argument.

We also see that the behavior of the sages can set the model for later generations – at the beginning of Berakhot we saw an anecdote about Rabban Gamliel and his sons regarding how late one may recite the evening Shema. In this case, Beit Shammai’s rejected opinion is accorded such respect that centuries later Rabbi Ishmael must make sure that he and his companion are not both reclining lest later generations assume that they both agreed with Beit Shammai and fix the halakha (religious law) incorrectly. This respect does not prove that relations between the two houses were always smooth – they could invalidate each other’s rulings, and even claim that to follow the other was life-threatening. The tradition of learning from not just the words of the sages but also from their deeds is common to many religious traditions – Muslim hadith are accounts of the deeds of Mohammed as verified by authoritative chains of transmission, and New Testament gospels tell of the words AND the deeds of Jesus as seen by apostles, just as Talmudic accounts are from Rabbi X who heard it from Rabbi Y who was there.

A third authoritative source of religious practice also described in this Talmud page is the religious practice already taking place: the rituals, customs, and blessings well-known to adherents. The formal prayers that Jewish tradition has ordained are not debatable – if they formulated it a particular way, or ordained that a long blessing was required in a particular sequence, there is no room for individual modification or personal creativity. In some cases, the Talmud text assumes that its readers already know the traditional blessings, and thus refers to them by a minimal phrase. In others, it gives the full text of the blessing and who created it, as here with the blessings for reading the Torah. But that creativity is imagined to have long since ended.

What if today one doesn’t agree with the content of those blessings - that one reads the Torah to fulfill commandments, or that the divine must be referred to in masculine language, or that the Jewish people has been Chosen from all the nations, or even that one author (let alone God) wrote the Torah? There is no flexibility for these questions in the Talmudic tradition, but fortunately enough of contemporary Judaism is open enough to admit even those who challenge the assumed blessing basics. Just as with Beit Shammai, the minority opinion deserves respect.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rabbinic use of the Bible - Berakhot 10

Our Talmud page begins with a fascinating character – Beruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir. Even though Rabbi Meir has good intentions, his wife is able to prove him wrong by her detailed knowledge of the Bible – because one passage refers to an end of “sins” and not “sinners,” Meir should curse the sin but not the sinner, thus turning the sinner into an ordinary man. And Beruria is also able to mock and confound a sectarian (min) by telling him haughtily to finish reading the verse he tried to use against her.

Beruria is most famous not for marrying well but for her unusual facility with Biblical interpretation and citation. In general Talmudic rabbis are dubious of women’s intellectual abilities, so much so that even clear Biblical supports are weakened. A line from the praising of a “woman of valor” (Eshet Hayil) in Proverbs 31 is interpreted here not as a woman having wisdom but as David. Women are not the only ones whose Biblical praise is modified – Ecclesiastes praises human wisdom, but in the Talmud the text is read as praising God! For the Talmud, original context is not strictly important when studying individual verses, or even phrases in verses, and exploring new ideas using old texts as justification.

Today’s Talmud page demonstrates the Rabbinic approach to interpreting the Bible – collecting aggadot. Rabbinic Biblical interpretation is based on the assumption that the text is divine and thus operates under different rules. Thus one may study and use individual verses and phrases independent of the original context or even pronunciation. If God wrote two passages that both used the same word, then the two must be related for interpretive purposes. Our legal jurisprudence might restrict that kind of “smukhin” (juxtaposition) to significant words like “obligation” or “contract” – multiple contexts do help clarify what was intended by the term. But the Rabbis are free to use just about any shared language to compare two passages.

Sometimes Rabbis use the text to get to a general rule – what is the meaning of a verse? And sometimes they begin with a general rule and bring prooftexts to bear. The weaving together of these two sources of authority grounds the Rabbis and brings forward the Bible. And because God is imagined to have written the Bible in a Hebrew language he created, puns are not just amusement but actually interpretation – the Rock (zur) becomes the artist (zayyar), the interpretation (pesher) becomes the reconciliation (peshara).

Thus Hezekiah and Isaiah are imagined to have a battle of wills to see who will break first, and a battle of prophecies over the best way to handle previous dire predictions. What is most important for us to understand is the implication of the end of this retold story – the rabbis approve or disapprove of his behavior. Later generations always have the power of interpretation and judgment of what came before. Talmudic Rabbis took their inheritance and interpreted it for their own perspective; our obligation is no less.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Futher Reading:

On Beruriah: “Women as Sources of Torah in the Rabbinic Tradition” by Anne Goldfeld in Elisabeth Koltun, ed. The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Night and Day, Law and Legend – Berakhot 9

Returning to our initial Mishnah text concerning the evening Shema, we find renewed attempts to reconcile sayings of famous Rabbis. The astute observer will have noticed by now that the Talmud goes to great lengths to cite authorities, and then the authorities behind those authorities. So if one considers dawn daytime and another considers it night, the two must be reconciled, even if the solution is semantic – one calls it day or night because people go to bed or wake up at that time.

The ultimate difference in the Mishnah text between fulfilling a nighttime obligation until dawn and the Sages saying it may be performed until midnight is a question of caution. The Sages add to the strict bounds of Halakha, or law, to keep people “far from sins.” Making fine distinctions is a significant part of Halakhic discussions, whether it is telling day from night, blue from white or a friend from a stranger. For all of the freedom and tangential discussions we have seen, the Rabbis are engaged in defining the “path” they must follow – halakha derives from the Hebrew root H.L.Kh., which means “to walk.” And as such they sometimes need to determine, as they do here, that the Halakha follows X instead of Y.

As they move on from laws of night and day, however, the Rabbis stray into a different field of studying tradition – from Halakha to Aggadah. While Halakha tries to define the law, Aggadah teases out new meanings to dialogue, phrasing, and narrative, in addition to telling its own stories. Very loosely translated as “legend,” Aggadah and Halakha are two ways to read the Biblical text. These readings are generally called “Midrash” (from “to seek out”), and they can appear side by side in Talmudic texts.

Here, our Aggadah explores the Exodus narrative – when did the Israelites leave Egypt, how did they receive property from the Egyptians, and what did God mean when talking to Moses at the Burning Bush? No laws are derived from these explorations, but greater insight is claimed into traditional narratives by this process of textual explorations.

Today we distinguish history from story, though not always successfully – a recent lawsuit against Israel to reclaim Egyptian property looted during the Exodus, countersued for back-wages for 400 years of slavery, is like suing George Washington’s estate for willful destruction of a cherry tree. And we distinguish later comments from the original story – Exodus says what it says, and later generations (including our own) read it from their own perspectives. But those later understandings are not the only or even the original way the text was read. The Rabbinic tradition is one of many that read the Bible in their own way, and they don’t have to say the same thing for us to appreciate their creativity.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Cultural History Through the Talmud - Berakhot 8

The Talmud believes that if one is blessing and praying regularly, such prayers should be effective and not just meditative for your own psychological well-being. Thus we see here that the person who studies Torah, does acts of charity, and prays regularly is considered as if he had redeemed Israel and God from suffering in exile. Conversely, the man who doesn’t even have to leave town to go to synagogue and still doesn’t go is blamed for continuing the exile for himself and his descendants. And, very simply, going to synagogue can make you live longer, even in exile! We have heard today that being a member of religious organizations can be good for longevity, but I suspect that it is as much a function of communal support, not living in isolation, and having a purpose for living more than a function of supernatural theology.

Then we find a marvelous passage asking if one praises God at a time of “finding,” what has one found. One Rabbi suggests it means finding a wife, but one must ask “Matza or Motze,” code words for a good wife or one “more bitter than death.” Another suggests it means finding death, from a verse in Psalms – one of the 903 varieties (based on the numerical value, or gematria, of the word “findings”), from a violent cough to the gentle “death by a kiss.” A third proposes it means finding a peaceful grave, but the best answer is given by Mar Zutra: one praises God for finding a latrine. That may indeed provide the most satisfying relief!

The other intriguing aspect of this Talmud page is the window it provides on life in Talmudic times, both by direct description and by implication. We read that the rabbis preferred to pray where they studied, and that it was considered better for them to earn a living than to live off of their “fear of God”; i.e. by the charity of the community that would have to support their piety (this has been an issue among non-Orthodox Israelis for many years). They read the Torah in their synagogues in both the Hebrew original and in Aramaic translation, and having someone leave in the middle was problematic but not unheard of.

We also read of the encounters of Talmudic rabbis with other peoples, even foreign women. If one imagined the Talmud’s authors to be isolated from and hostile to their surroundings, it was not so. We see a warning not to sit on the bed of an Aramean woman, or perhaps to marry a female convert to Judaism, indicating that Rabbinic encounters with both Aramean women and female converts to Judaism were real events. And the admiration of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Gamliel of traits of the Medes and Persians, including their modesty and temperance, indicate that even very important rabbis could learn values from the people around them. If they could learn thus, so may we.

We finally return at the end of the page to the Mishnah text that started this whole discussion. We have journeyed from reciting the evening Shema to Persia and back again.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, March 07, 2005

Special Note regarding online English Talmud

To "Talmud Bloggers:"

I recently was made aware that the website I found that hosts the English Talmud text is run by an antisemitic organization decrying the “Talmudization” of American society because of increasing Jewish influence. Their goal in making available the English text of the Talmud is to make the world more aware of the Talmud's pernicious influence.

So far, my comparisons of the original Talmud text and this online source suggest (but do not guarantee) that it is an accurate transcription of the Soncino Talmud translation. If you are uncomfortable using this source, I suggest purchasing a CD-ROM edition or finding a print edition at a local Jewish library. I have removed links to the site from my Blog so that it would not be listed higher in online search engines.

I certainly do not endorse anything on this website beyond its accurate presentations of the Soncino Talmud. Please DO NOT rely on the site for anything other than the English text of the Talmud, unless you want to see an example of rabid antisemitism. I apologize for any discomfort or inconvenience this may have caused.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Berakhot 7

This page continues to articulate a divine image in the image of human beings - a God that prays to himself just as humans pray to him, and a God who gets angry, albeit for .0023 seconds a day. The point of such detail and a description emerges from the following sections - one should not curse others in moments of anger, self-reproach is much stronger and more effective than external punishment, and mercy can sometimes be more important than justice.

The most interesting question addressed here is again the challenge of theodicy, or why the righteous suffer. Rather than accept the two-sided proposition of righteous suffering and wicked prosperity, complexity preserves theology - a righteous sufferer had a wicked father, just as a wicked prosperer had a righteous father, and two generations of consistency does lead to the correct reward or punishment. In other words, the merit or demerit of previous generations affects the following ones. Even if we object in courts of justice to this logic, our understanding of family psychology (abusers begetting abusers) and genetics (e.g. alcoholism) has similar results even as we no longer assign blame.

The challenge is that the Bible both agrees and disagrees with this logic - in Exodus 34:7, God promises to punish sins through many generations, but in Deuteronomy 24:16 he prohibits punishing children for sins of their fathers. From an historical perspective, conflicting sources merely indicates different traditions and time periods combined in the Torah text. As we have seen, for the Talmud there can be no contradictions in the absolute truth of tradition and revelation - Exodus must refer to wicked fathers and sons, while Deuteronomy must mean wicked fathers and righteous sons. Or you can think differently - a righteous suferrer is not a perfectly righteous man, just as a wicked prosperer is not perfectly wicked; no one is a saint, and a murderer may be good to his mother.

Thus one may still argue with the wicked that they are wicked, even if they prosper - if this theology holds true, the prosperous are not automatically in divine favor and thus to be emulated. Recent experience with very affluent criminality and the problems of conspicuous consumption and its attendant snobbery lend credence to this conclusion. But this hairsplitting denies the reality of the question. In the end, it is Rabbi Meir who makes the most sense to us - if there is a God apportioning reward and punishment, he is generous or punishing in a very arbitrary way.

The remainder of this Talmud page shows the meandering of Talmudic logic and study - from explanations of the development of Hebrew phraseology for God to a stream-of-consciousness association from Leah to her son Reuven and from Reuven to Ruth, and from there to debating the challenges of difficult children, the title of a Psalm, and the power of prayer. We are far afield from declaring at the end of the original Mishnah text on 2a allegedly under discussion that they fixed the time of the evening Shema to keep people from sin. But for the student who believes this pursuit is meritorious in and of itself, does it really matter? And for us, who are looking through the Talmud to find what we can of value and importance for our own perspectives, the journey is more important than the destination.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Futher Reading

Biblical book of Exodus

Biblical book of Deuteronomy

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Made in the Image - Berakhot 6

It should come as no surprise that the Talmudic rabbis are a product of their own time. So their explanations here using innumerable demons (1000 on the right hand and 10,000 on the left) are understandable - demons are said to be behind tired knees, worn clothing, and bruised feet, and they can be seen by unusual rituals and invocations. Are we shocked to read rabbis using feline placenta to create a vision potion? Even as they claim that the Talmud is part of the timeless Sinai revelation and thus true for all times, they are indeed a product of their age.

And so too is their theology. Why the importance of connecting God to the Synagogue? In the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (also considered the "house of God - Beit El") in 70CE, there was obviously a feeling of greater distance between Israel and its God; both were now homeless. Thus the need to claim that prayer is heard in the synagogue, that God misses the absent ones, why you should pray closer to the front where the Torah is kept, and the Divine presence (Hebrew Shekhina) appears among 10 for prayer, three for a rabbinic court, and two or even one for Torah study. God is annoyed when a prayer quorum, or minyan, fails to assemble. Do you want to encounter God, even on your own? Read his book.

The God that one encounters, however, is also a function of the humans looking for him. The Bible claims that humans were made in the image of God; I believe that God was made in the image of human beings. In his last book, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:

I believe with perfect faith
That prayers came before God.
Prayers created God,
and God created humanity
and humanity is the creator of prayers
That create God that creates humanity.

What does God do, according to the Talmud? He lays, or ritually wears, tefillin [prayer boxes] and praises Israel as his chosen people - just as they would want him to do. The contents of his tefillin might be different, but reading this one would believe that God is a lot like me, only more so. And not only is he a lot like me, but he likes me a lot for what I do for him.

In the context of explaining the importance of such enthusiasm for divinely-ordained pursuits, the Talmud makes some beautiful statements about the truly important goals of certain activities: agra d'shma'ata sabra - the merit of hearing [a tradition] is explaining it; agra debay temia sh'tikuta - the merit of visiting mourners is the silence; agra d'ta'anita tsedakta - the merit of a fast is the charity [it produces]. Here we can see that ethics has little to do with imitatio dei [imitating God] and a lot to do with thinking of others as well as oneself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading

Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open - פתוח סגור פתוח
Available in English translation (tr. Chana Bloch, Harcourt, 2000)

Talmud Schedule Revision

The pace of Talmud study accelerates. . .

Covering half a page a day was a start-up luxury that has ended. From this point forward, we will examine both sides a and b of the Talmud page the same day. For March, this system works out relatively easily - page 9a and 9b are on March 9th, pages 10a-b on March 10th, etc.

So fasten your seatbelts for an even faster tour through the Talmudic forest.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Ethics, "Oral Torah", and Human Suffering - Berakhot 5a

On this one page we find attractive, anti-historical, and problematic Talmudic discourse for secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews. Rabbi Levi bar Hama exhorts humanity to employ the "good impulse" to fight the "evil impulse" in ourselves. Even if these impulses sound like indepedent forces at war in our souls, we can easily understand this as a battle between our best intentions and our personal weaknesses. And if at first you don't succeed, try something else - study, basic principles, even reminding ourselves of our own mortality can inspire better behavior.

Then we turn to a creative interpretation of Exodus 24:12, in which one verse justifies the Rabbinic canon by an anti-historical appeal. The claim that the 10 Commandments, the written Torah, and even the Oral Torah (Mishnah) were given to Moses on Sinai is basic to Rabbinic theology. However, even though according to Rabbinic tradition itself later books of the Bible were written by later figures (e.g. Psalms ascribed to David), here it is claimed that they too were given to Moses on Sinai. There is a sense that ALL wisdom, revelation, and truth has its roots in that experience - if the Gemara (or Talmud itself) can claim to be part of the Sinai experience even as it is being composed in Bablyonia over a thousand years later, then authorized interpretation has the status of revelation. A naturalistic perspective sees literature as an intersection between personal creativity and cultural context; revelation is beyond both time and space. Thus may two Jews read the same text, like this page of Talmud, in very different ways.

So too can human beings read the human experience in radically divergent ways. Some see undeserved human suffering as a sign of an indifferent universe, but for the Rabbis there must be other explanations since God makes everything that happens happen. As articulated here by Raba, facing suffering you can:
a) blame yourself (examine your conduct, or neglect of Torah study);
b) treat it as a test of your faith, and accept the suffering with joy; or
c) assume that the suffering is part of God's plan for your benefit (i.e. a chastening of love - washing away sins to earn a "gift" like the world to come).
Modern Jewish theologians have challenged each of these approaches - David Blumenthal wrote that if you blame yourself and idealize God for undeserved suffering, you are in a cycle of abuse just as abused children idealize their cruel parent and blames themselves (Raba: if God loves you, he crushes you with suffering). Richard Rubenstein claimed that believing in the same God as Jewish tradition meant that God wanted the Holocaust, a suffering so intense and undeserved that tests and sin purgation fail as reasons.

In the Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz's masterful short story "Three Gifts," Peretz inverts the 3 gifts our Talmud page says were given to Israel through suffering (Torah, Land of Israel, World to Come). In the punchline of Peretz's story, narratives of pious Jewish suffering are "very beautiful. Totally worthless, but very beautiful nonetheless." Suffering that does no one any good in this world may have a terrible beauty, but it is terrible because the pain we feel is a natural sign that something is wrong and should be fixed, not a sign of love.

Welcoming suffering is a denial of life and its joys. The less suffering in the world, the better. Period.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading:

David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest
Y. L. Peretz, "Three Gifts" in many collections of Peretz short stories
Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism

Being Humane, Being Human - Berakhot 5b

The most powerful philosophies and theologies can wilt in the face of real human experience and emotions. Today's Talmud page continues exploring the question of undeserved suffering, translated as "chastisements of love" - someone who does acts of "loving-kindness" and studies Torah but neverless loses his children purges sins through suffering, and there is debate as to whether skin ailments or barrenness are punishment for sin or purgation. This page also refers to differences on the latter question between itself, the Babylonian Talmud (in Hebrew Bavli), and the Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud (Hebrew Yerushalmi). Historically, there were parallel discussions on many topics from the beginning of Talmudic debate on the Mishnah until the early 5th century when the Palestinian Talmud closed and the Babylonian Talmud became authoritative. In both documents, however, there is a clear belief that suffering earns a reward, and has a purpose.

And yet, we see here hints of pain and doubt, because the physical reality of human existence and suffering can be stronger than any idea. One would think examples of human suffering cited in the Talmud would exemplify pious and joyful martyrdom, but here they are the opposite - Rabbis are deathly sick, and when asked if they delight in their sufferings, believing they are for the best, the response is "Not in the sufferings and not in the reward." In other words, it's not worth it! What we see demonstrated here are two important values - the importance of visiting the sick and trying to comfort them, but also the importance of facing the reality of human suffering and the human condition - being humane and being human.

The most poignant story is that of the suffering Rabbi Eleazar, who also does not welcome either his suffering or its reward; in fact, he weeps. It is not for lack of Torah study, or material success, or children - he weeps because of the imminent end of his life, and his would-be comfortor and healer Rabbi Johanan says "for that, you have a right to weep" and weeps with him. Sometimes, if we can't perform magic healings like Rabbi Johanan, we can be humane by facing the reality of loss, the reality of the human condition. That can be even more comforting than denying the pain and loss of death by only speaking of a "world to come."

One more example of the importance of the human condition appears at the end of our page. In the Talmud's language, if two enter a synagogue to pray together, and one finishes first and leaves his partner behind, his own prayer is disregarded and God himself moves farther away from the people of Israel. This is clearly strong language of disapproval, even though the first person did complete his own individual prayer. In Rabbinic thought, you can't help yourself while ignoring fellowship and the welfare of others - famously, one cannot receive divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur without first receiving the forgiveness of the person one has wronged.

Is this Humanistic teaching in the Talmud? Talmudic Rabbis are not Humanistic Jews. But their emphasis on the human realm, and on the reality of human experience, is a strong part of our ideological and cultural roots. If we learn from their example to be present for the suffering of others, not denying its reality, we are one of the heirs to this part of their tradition.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, March 04, 2005

Of Prayers and Precision - Berakhot 4b

Moderns are accustomed to ambiguities. Knowledge changes all the time, and exact dates and times are less important than "ballpark" estimates (or "guesstimates"). This is not true in every field - if structural engineers took the same approach to detail late-arriving wedding guests do, every bridge would collapse. Nevertheless, in many areas of life (including theology and religion) we are more and more willing to allow for creativity, individual choice, and flexibility in practice and belief.

The Talmud holds a different perspective - if God told you, through his authorized authorities (the Rabbis) exactly what needs to be done to obey The Law and receive rewards, then determining precisely how to live, how to work, and how to pray is essential. Why did the Sages permit reciting the Shema until midnight instead of even later? To keep you extra far away from transgression. Your physical needs for food, drink and rest might distract you from your obligations to praise and thank, and you might sleep through the night unaware that you have violated the words of the sages and "deserves to die" by omitting the evening prayer ("Tefillah"). Today we remind you to brush your teeth or take your medicine before bed for your continued health and good life; the Talmud reminds you to "say your prayers" exactly correctly for continued life now and even eternal life in the future.

We know from the beginning of this debate that "The Master" has decided that every evening and every morning one is supposed to recite the Shema first and the Prayer (evening or morning) second. Nevertheless we still see a detailed exploration of the thought process of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who disagreed and thought the Shema should be the last thing you say at night and first in the morning. This is the attraction of Talmud study, and its limitation - I love the opportunity to relive the thought process of previous generations, even as I would ask very different questions. Today we might ask, why does it matter if both are said? Why does an omniscient, omnipotent deity require rote recital at all? These are questions outside the parameters of Talmudic thought, since the precise recitation of what tradition commanded was assumed to be the way to the world to come.

We would like to think that meriting (literally, 'being a son/child of') the world to come would be based on being a good person, making ethical decisions, and caring for other people; here we discover that a high virtue worthy of eternal reward is reciting Psalm 145, praise after praise after praise. Is this flattery, buttering up God for rewards? Is it encouragement, asking God to do what he's supposed to do? Or is it gratitude for wonders performed and those yet to arrive? In the end, appeals for cosmic assistance result in ambiguity - we don't know if they work or not. But we DO know that our actions make a difference, because we can see the tangible results. More than being a "child of the world to come," I'm concerned with the "world to come" my coming child will inherit.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Text for Psalm 145 in English:, then click on "Psalm 145."

Piety, Doubt, and Ultimate Reward - Berakhot 4a

The problem with strict piety is that one can never be pious enough to be certain. If your God is a god who rewards good behavior and punishes sins, how can you be sure that you've built up enough rewards to overbalance the inevitable sins that creep into life? David, the supposed author of Psalm after psalm of praise, the "midnight scholar" who "studied Torah" all night, here described as the king who literally gets his hands dirty deciding his people's fate and one who has the humility as a student of the Law to consult his teacher for confirmation - this pious (in the original, Hasid) David is still not sure he has been good enough to merit a share in the "world to come" (the Jewish version of "heaven" some Jews think Jews don't believe in).

David (and his ventriloquists, the Talmudic rabbis) are certain that if one has built up enough positive points, one will receive their reward in the world to come - but has he built up enough, or can he be still holier, still more pure? After all, David has slain his tens of thousands, betrayed Uriah the Hittite by sleeping with and stealing his wife, and even commissioned Uriah's murder. And so Talmudic Rabbis, and the strictly pious today (many of whom use that very title Hasid), could always add more restrictions, more caution, more positive requirements to meet minimum qualifications for the next life when rewards earned will be paid out, if not before.

For me, the most profound statement in this page is one buried in the midst of debating whether Moses knew when midnight was - in English translation, "For so a Master said: Let thy tongue acquire the habit of saying, 'I know not', lest thou be led to falsehoods [lying]." Even though we today understand more about the workings of the universe than Talmudic Rabbis ever imagined, we can also learn and extend this lesson about the importance of saying, "I don't know." If we really don't know something about history or science or the universe, it's better to say, "I don't know," though I often emend it to say, "I don't know yet."

Examining the question David and the Rabbis take for granted: Is there a "world to come", and are there rewards for pious behavior from the cosmic scorekeeper? It might be easier personally and psychologically to say "I don't know" rather than "of course - tradition tells me so." Having the courage to say, "I don't know", and nevertheless living a good life of concern for others, of conscientious learning and teaching, and personal ethics makes this life worth living not for the sake of something unkown, uncertain, and unnerving in its absoluteness, but for its own sake. Our ultimate reward is not a world to come, but a life well-lived in this one.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation