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.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

New Sacrifices – Berakhot 17

When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Rabbis faced a serious challenge – what to do with the Jewish religious tradition of sacrificial worship without their only shrine? Their answer was re-interpretation: Temple “service” (Hebrew avodah) became prayer “service”, animal sacrifices became gifts of words, and even fasts are transformed – in today’s page one rabbi asks that his loss of blood and fat through fasting be counted as the sacrifices were before. And just as the sacrifices are detailed at great length in the Written Torah, so too do these new “sacrifices” get lengthy treatment in the “Oral Torah.”

In last 50 years, some have claimed that the Holocaust has been an equally-shattering destruction of Jewish theology, requiring equally-radical changes. Yet anyone who has read the book of Job knows that undeserved suffering has always been a problem, and Jewish thinkers before 1946 have also emphasized as a result the importance of living a good life in this one – when Rabbi Johanan would finish reading Job, he would say in his own way that while everyone and everything dies, those who pleased their Creator and “grew up with a good name and departed the world with a good name” are happy.

No one event, even the Holocaust, led to the intellectual climate change that led us to question statements that women earn merit by sending their kids to school and their husbands to the house of study – in other words, by facilitating the holy study of others rather than by doing something themselves because they are not permitted. And no one experience enables us to admire a future world where there is no “eating nor drinking nor propagation nor business nor jealousy nor hatred nor competition” but also be bored imagining eternity “feasting on the brightness of the divine presence.”

We could take the loophole in the Mishnah text on the prayer requirements of mourners at the end of page 17 and run with it – a mourner with a dead one before him is exempt from all Torah commandments, and if we after the Holocaust are haunted by the dead, who can pray? But this would be a losing game – the Talmudic discussion goes on to require observance on Shabbat, and to qualify that absolute exemption. And who wants to live, even conceptually, as a mourner? Better to accept our clear break with the past and then explore it for sayings that emphasize what we emphasize, even if different reasons because of our own times. Let us grow up with a good name and depart with a good name, and let the rest take care of itself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

NOTE: the Mishnah cited at the end of 17b mentions the loaded concept of “women, slaves, and minors” being exempt from the Shema – it is discussed in greater depth in Berakhot 20, so we will explore that topic at that point.