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 15, 2005

The “Literal Truth” – Berakhot 15

Much of today’s Talmud page is taken up with a Mishnaic discussion of whether or not to fulfill one’s obligation one must recite the Shema aloud to hear it. Or, more precisely, if one does recite it silently to oneself, does it count? One side, Rabbi Judah, says yes, but another opinion, Rabbi Jose, says no. Creatively drawing examples from the deaf (who can’t hear what they say) being exempt from certain recitations and a saying about the grace after meals, the Talmud resolves that one should not say Shema silently in the first place, but if it happens it still counts. What if one slurs the letters? Here Rabbi Jose says it would count, but Rabbi Judah does not. We discover at the end of the discussion that the law follows the more lenient in both cases – even though it is preferable to recite it clearly and aloud, in a pinch silently or slurred are acceptable.

The larger question here is how precise one must be with performance, and how flexible evaluations of that performance should be. Of course, everyone should do everything correctly every time, but reasonable people know what when dealing with human beings, behavior will be varied and imperfect. Here we see an acknowledgement of that reality, which does not demand absolutely perfect behavior and condemn any mistakes, but rather forgives within very narrow boundaries.

The other side of this debate, however, is how literally to take commandments – when the Shema begins “Hear, O Israel,” the Rabbis assume ideally one should literally hear it in one’s ear. When Deuteronomy 6, speaking about the words of the Shema and immediately following, says, “write these words on the doorposts of your home and on your gates,” is this speaking metaphorically? When it says to speak of them “when you lie down, and when you get up,” is that rhetoric for “all the time,” or is it to be taken literally? For all the creativity of rabbinic interpretation, here finding affinities between the underworld and the womb to argue for the truth of the resurrection of the Dead being a Scriptural doctrine, the Rabbis also believed that “ayn mikra’ yotze mi’peshuto – Scripture never leaves its plain meaning.” If Deuteronomy says, “write these words,” then you don’t only write the words of the Shema on your doorposts (mezuzot) - you also write “write these words,” for all is included in a literal reading of the command.

The modern temperament among liberal Jews is much more suited to metaphor than to literal command. We are much more comfortable being told to think a lot about an important idea than being told to literally write words on the doorposts of our homes and bind them on our foreheads – the spirit of the law is assumed to be more important than, and even independent of, the letter of the law. If we live lives of ethical action and mutual consideration, does it really matter if we slur specific words, say them under our breath, say them in our own way, or even choose not to say them at all?

Rabbi Adam Chalom