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.

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