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.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Made in the Image - Berakhot 6

It should come as no surprise that the Talmudic rabbis are a product of their own time. So their explanations here using innumerable demons (1000 on the right hand and 10,000 on the left) are understandable - demons are said to be behind tired knees, worn clothing, and bruised feet, and they can be seen by unusual rituals and invocations. Are we shocked to read rabbis using feline placenta to create a vision potion? Even as they claim that the Talmud is part of the timeless Sinai revelation and thus true for all times, they are indeed a product of their age.

And so too is their theology. Why the importance of connecting God to the Synagogue? In the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (also considered the "house of God - Beit El") in 70CE, there was obviously a feeling of greater distance between Israel and its God; both were now homeless. Thus the need to claim that prayer is heard in the synagogue, that God misses the absent ones, why you should pray closer to the front where the Torah is kept, and the Divine presence (Hebrew Shekhina) appears among 10 for prayer, three for a rabbinic court, and two or even one for Torah study. God is annoyed when a prayer quorum, or minyan, fails to assemble. Do you want to encounter God, even on your own? Read his book.

The God that one encounters, however, is also a function of the humans looking for him. The Bible claims that humans were made in the image of God; I believe that God was made in the image of human beings. In his last book, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:

I believe with perfect faith
That prayers came before God.
Prayers created God,
and God created humanity
and humanity is the creator of prayers
That create God that creates humanity.

What does God do, according to the Talmud? He lays, or ritually wears, tefillin [prayer boxes] and praises Israel as his chosen people - just as they would want him to do. The contents of his tefillin might be different, but reading this one would believe that God is a lot like me, only more so. And not only is he a lot like me, but he likes me a lot for what I do for him.

In the context of explaining the importance of such enthusiasm for divinely-ordained pursuits, the Talmud makes some beautiful statements about the truly important goals of certain activities: agra d'shma'ata sabra - the merit of hearing [a tradition] is explaining it; agra debay temia sh'tikuta - the merit of visiting mourners is the silence; agra d'ta'anita tsedakta - the merit of a fast is the charity [it produces]. Here we can see that ethics has little to do with imitatio dei [imitating God] and a lot to do with thinking of others as well as oneself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Further Reading

Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open - פתוח סגור פתוח
Available in English translation (tr. Chana Bloch, Harcourt, 2000)