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 28, 2005

High Stakes - Berakhot 28

In our previous page we were left with a “cliffhanger” – Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi or head of the Rabbinic Assembly, was about to be replaced by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah for having shamed Rabbi Joshua one time too many. They removed the customary door guardian, and all students were able to enter, requiring many more seats than normal. Gamaliel and Joshua continued their sparring, this time over whether the Biblical prohibition on accepting a convert (ger, literally “resident alien”) from the Ammonites was still in force. Joshua won a battle of citation and argument, and this convinced Gamaliel to apologize. He visited Joshua, and, realizing that Joshua had to work as a smith as well as a Rabbinic teacher, he apologized. Joshua at first refused, but on an appeal to his respect for Gamaliel’s father, he accepted.

All is not resolved, however – the other Rabbis had already chosen Gamaliel’s replacement! And because Rabbi Akiva had locked the doors to prevent Gamaliel’s servants from disturbing the Rabbis, they could not hear the good news from a messenger! So Rabbi Joshua himself came to announce the reconciliation. But what to do with Rabbi Eleazar, who had already been promoted to a higher Rabbinic level and can’t be demoted? The solution: Rabban Gamaliel would teach 3 Shabbats, and Rabbi Eleazar one. We find from this narrative fascinating details – the political intrigues of the Rabbis, the respect of honor accorded to lower authorities like Rabbi Joshua, even Rabbis of the Rabbinic Assembly had to earn a living with outside work, and “power-sharing” compromises are nothing new.

As we have seen earlier, the stakes for the Rabbis are high, for their study is not only to determine the halakha, or religious law, here on earth, but also to earn their reward in the “world to come” through performing the commandment (mitzvah) of studying. When they pray upon entering the Beit Midrash (house of study), they ask to judge correctly and not make mistakes; when they leave, they thank God for making them students who study the law and thus pursue eternal life, while the others waste their time on frivolities that will condemn them. And when Yokhanan ben Zakkai, one of the founding Rabbis after the Jerusalem Temple Destruction, is about to die, he cries because he knows that he’s about to be judged by God into Paradise (Gan Eden “the Garden of Eden”) or Hell (Gehinom), and even he is not sure which way it will go.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus, from whom the Rabbinic epithet Apikoros for a free-thinking heretic derived, solved the problem of “theophobia” (fear of gods) very simply – there were no gods to fear. Afraid of an afterlife of judgment and hell? Since we are atoms that disperse on our death, there is none to worry about! The blessing added to the “18 Blessings” (Shmonei Esray) to condemn the “Minim”, or heretics, may have been aimed at just such an approach to the problem. We’ll discuss those 18 blessings in tomorrow’s daf.

Rabbi Adam Chalom