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.

Monday, March 07, 2005

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