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 03, 2005

Of Demons, David, and Doctrine - Berakhot 3b

Our page today begins with another example of later generations trying to decipher exactly WHY the sages formulated their law the way they did because of a large authority disparity. The sages said that there are 3 reasons one doesn't enter a ruin because of {sexual} suspicion, falling debris, and demons. Why not go into a ruin? If it's a new ruin, there's no fear of falling debris, so you need the other reasons. If you're with someone else, there's less fear of demons but you could have licentious plans afoot; and so on. The point to all of this elaboration is that because the sages have ASSUMED one doesn't go into a ruin and then give reasons, all the later generation can do is discover more details about why not to enter ruins; they do not and cannot challenge the blanket restriction on ruin exploration. If archaeologists followed this rule, our knowledge of the ancient world would be much poorer. But just as assumptions of elevated Jewish ideology are challenged by these clear acknowledgement of demons and superstitions, our sense of history is irrelevant to Talmudic theology.

One of the central supports of Talmudic theology is the belief (not supported today by historical study) that Judaism was always essentially the same from the time of Moses on Sinai, where he received the written Torah and the "Oral Torah" (i.e. the core of the Talmud and its interpretive principles). From that point forward, Rabbinic theology and practice was dominant. Today the majority of scholars believe the Torah was compiled in its final form in the 6th century BCE, and David supposedly lived 450 years before that, so we find a description of him here studying Torah at midnight at the least ahistorical. But for Talmudic rabbis and later generations of students who looked for themselves in their heroes and forebearers, having the hero David ALSO study Torah ennobled their own practice.

Again the Talmudic rabbis debate 3 watches or 4 watches through the night - did David, the assumed author of the Psalms, know the exact time of midnight, and did Moses? What does a psalm mean by the word "neshef"? Through all of these questions, we find a common thread - a feeling of disconnection, trying to reclaim what once was clearly known. At one point in Talmudic memory, it was clear how many "watches" there were through the night; by the time this debate took place, that knowledge has been lost but is being sought. We today try to discover the past through what we consider to be evidence - archaeology, comparative literature, detailed textual study. The rabbis used what they considered evidence, with their own assumptions, to try to discover their past as well - even if they imagined it in their own image.

One also begins to wonder - this is the tractate on Blessings, we have not seen any texts of blessings yet, and we are caught up in a debate about how to count time overnight, or how previous generations did so. When will we get to the lifestyle of Blessing? Since traditional Judaism considers the Talmud part of the Oral Torah, reading these "tangents" earn cosmic rewards for obeying the commandment to study Torah. So for those NOT aspiring to life in the "world to come," I counsel patience - part of the journey through Talmud is the detours that may frustrate the systematic but delight those who think, argue, and debate for their own sake.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation