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.

Friday, March 25, 2005

In the Presence - Berakhot 25

WARNING – reading today’s blog may adversely affect appetite.

When imagining early historical periods, we often romanticize what was actually a difficult and dirty existence. No such romance is found in today’s Talmud page, which explores in great depth many possible juxtapositions of prayer, excrement, and urine. If there is excrement on one’s hand, may one recite Shema? If one is in the presence of human, or pig, or dog, or chicken excrement, may one recite? If there is doubt whether or not one is near excrement, err on the side of caution and do not recite, but if urine’s presence is doubtful, you may recite. They even explore how long one must wait for bodily waste to settle – how dry must the dung and urine be before one may recite? One rabbi claims that one may not recite Torah only in the presence of the “active stream”, while another permits it in the presence of urine even in a dungheap. Does the urine still moisten the ground? Has the excrement dried on the top? And on and on.

There are two aspects of today’s page of particular interest. First, Talmudic rabbis often use understatement and euphemism to get their message across. In the aforementioned discussion, urine is called “mei raglayim – water of the ‘legs’ (itself a euphemism for sex organs),” while the “active stream” is “amod – standing, or column”. And a great example of rabbinic sarcasm appears when debating if a man in a bath may recite the Shema, since if he kneels his heel may touch his erva (shameful nakedness). Why is it permitted in such a circumstance? “Lo natna torah l’malkhay ha-sharet – the Torah wasn’t given to the ministering angels.” In other words, for all that we try to elevate our holiness, we remain human beings with flaws, dirt, sex, and physical reality.

Second, the attitude towards non-Jews in Talmudic Judaism is always a pitched debate –it is stated here that one is forbidden to recite Shema in the presence of a naked non-Jew. Why bother saying this, if we have already seen restrictions on reciting it to yourself in the presence of your own nudity? Surely the nudity of another human being would automatically stop you. The Talmud explains that one might have thought that since Ezekiel 23:20 says of non-Jews, “their flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, and their ‘flow’ (semen) like that of horses,” their nudity would be like that of an animal. No, says the Talmud, their nudity is in fact erva because they are indeed human. While this passage does conclude that non-Jews are humans, many of us object to any less-than-automatic acceptance of our neighbors' humanity.

Rabbi Adam Chalom