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.

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