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.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Night and Day, Law and Legend – Berakhot 9

Returning to our initial Mishnah text concerning the evening Shema, we find renewed attempts to reconcile sayings of famous Rabbis. The astute observer will have noticed by now that the Talmud goes to great lengths to cite authorities, and then the authorities behind those authorities. So if one considers dawn daytime and another considers it night, the two must be reconciled, even if the solution is semantic – one calls it day or night because people go to bed or wake up at that time.

The ultimate difference in the Mishnah text between fulfilling a nighttime obligation until dawn and the Sages saying it may be performed until midnight is a question of caution. The Sages add to the strict bounds of Halakha, or law, to keep people “far from sins.” Making fine distinctions is a significant part of Halakhic discussions, whether it is telling day from night, blue from white or a friend from a stranger. For all of the freedom and tangential discussions we have seen, the Rabbis are engaged in defining the “path” they must follow – halakha derives from the Hebrew root H.L.Kh., which means “to walk.” And as such they sometimes need to determine, as they do here, that the Halakha follows X instead of Y.

As they move on from laws of night and day, however, the Rabbis stray into a different field of studying tradition – from Halakha to Aggadah. While Halakha tries to define the law, Aggadah teases out new meanings to dialogue, phrasing, and narrative, in addition to telling its own stories. Very loosely translated as “legend,” Aggadah and Halakha are two ways to read the Biblical text. These readings are generally called “Midrash” (from “to seek out”), and they can appear side by side in Talmudic texts.

Here, our Aggadah explores the Exodus narrative – when did the Israelites leave Egypt, how did they receive property from the Egyptians, and what did God mean when talking to Moses at the Burning Bush? No laws are derived from these explorations, but greater insight is claimed into traditional narratives by this process of textual explorations.

Today we distinguish history from story, though not always successfully – a recent lawsuit against Israel to reclaim Egyptian property looted during the Exodus, countersued for back-wages for 400 years of slavery, is like suing George Washington’s estate for willful destruction of a cherry tree. And we distinguish later comments from the original story – Exodus says what it says, and later generations (including our own) read it from their own perspectives. But those later understandings are not the only or even the original way the text was read. The Rabbinic tradition is one of many that read the Bible in their own way, and they don’t have to say the same thing for us to appreciate their creativity.

Rabbi Adam Chalom