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 05, 2005

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