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.

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

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