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

Ethics, "Oral Torah", and Human Suffering - Berakhot 5a

On this one page we find attractive, anti-historical, and problematic Talmudic discourse for secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews. Rabbi Levi bar Hama exhorts humanity to employ the "good impulse" to fight the "evil impulse" in ourselves. Even if these impulses sound like indepedent forces at war in our souls, we can easily understand this as a battle between our best intentions and our personal weaknesses. And if at first you don't succeed, try something else - study, basic principles, even reminding ourselves of our own mortality can inspire better behavior.

Then we turn to a creative interpretation of Exodus 24:12, in which one verse justifies the Rabbinic canon by an anti-historical appeal. The claim that the 10 Commandments, the written Torah, and even the Oral Torah (Mishnah) were given to Moses on Sinai is basic to Rabbinic theology. However, even though according to Rabbinic tradition itself later books of the Bible were written by later figures (e.g. Psalms ascribed to David), here it is claimed that they too were given to Moses on Sinai. There is a sense that ALL wisdom, revelation, and truth has its roots in that experience - if the Gemara (or Talmud itself) can claim to be part of the Sinai experience even as it is being composed in Bablyonia over a thousand years later, then authorized interpretation has the status of revelation. A naturalistic perspective sees literature as an intersection between personal creativity and cultural context; revelation is beyond both time and space. Thus may two Jews read the same text, like this page of Talmud, in very different ways.

So too can human beings read the human experience in radically divergent ways. Some see undeserved human suffering as a sign of an indifferent universe, but for the Rabbis there must be other explanations since God makes everything that happens happen. As articulated here by Raba, facing suffering you can:
a) blame yourself (examine your conduct, or neglect of Torah study);
b) treat it as a test of your faith, and accept the suffering with joy; or
c) assume that the suffering is part of God's plan for your benefit (i.e. a chastening of love - washing away sins to earn a "gift" like the world to come).
Modern Jewish theologians have challenged each of these approaches - David Blumenthal wrote that if you blame yourself and idealize God for undeserved suffering, you are in a cycle of abuse just as abused children idealize their cruel parent and blames themselves (Raba: if God loves you, he crushes you with suffering). Richard Rubenstein claimed that believing in the same God as Jewish tradition meant that God wanted the Holocaust, a suffering so intense and undeserved that tests and sin purgation fail as reasons.

In the Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz's masterful short story "Three Gifts," Peretz inverts the 3 gifts our Talmud page says were given to Israel through suffering (Torah, Land of Israel, World to Come). In the punchline of Peretz's story, narratives of pious Jewish suffering are "very beautiful. Totally worthless, but very beautiful nonetheless." Suffering that does no one any good in this world may have a terrible beauty, but it is terrible because the pain we feel is a natural sign that something is wrong and should be fixed, not a sign of love.

Welcoming suffering is a denial of life and its joys. The less suffering in the world, the better. Period.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading:

David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest
Y. L. Peretz, "Three Gifts" in many collections of Peretz short stories
Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism