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.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Of Prayers and Precision - Berakhot 4b

Moderns are accustomed to ambiguities. Knowledge changes all the time, and exact dates and times are less important than "ballpark" estimates (or "guesstimates"). This is not true in every field - if structural engineers took the same approach to detail late-arriving wedding guests do, every bridge would collapse. Nevertheless, in many areas of life (including theology and religion) we are more and more willing to allow for creativity, individual choice, and flexibility in practice and belief.

The Talmud holds a different perspective - if God told you, through his authorized authorities (the Rabbis) exactly what needs to be done to obey The Law and receive rewards, then determining precisely how to live, how to work, and how to pray is essential. Why did the Sages permit reciting the Shema until midnight instead of even later? To keep you extra far away from transgression. Your physical needs for food, drink and rest might distract you from your obligations to praise and thank, and you might sleep through the night unaware that you have violated the words of the sages and "deserves to die" by omitting the evening prayer ("Tefillah"). Today we remind you to brush your teeth or take your medicine before bed for your continued health and good life; the Talmud reminds you to "say your prayers" exactly correctly for continued life now and even eternal life in the future.

We know from the beginning of this debate that "The Master" has decided that every evening and every morning one is supposed to recite the Shema first and the Prayer (evening or morning) second. Nevertheless we still see a detailed exploration of the thought process of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who disagreed and thought the Shema should be the last thing you say at night and first in the morning. This is the attraction of Talmud study, and its limitation - I love the opportunity to relive the thought process of previous generations, even as I would ask very different questions. Today we might ask, why does it matter if both are said? Why does an omniscient, omnipotent deity require rote recital at all? These are questions outside the parameters of Talmudic thought, since the precise recitation of what tradition commanded was assumed to be the way to the world to come.

We would like to think that meriting (literally, 'being a son/child of') the world to come would be based on being a good person, making ethical decisions, and caring for other people; here we discover that a high virtue worthy of eternal reward is reciting Psalm 145, praise after praise after praise. Is this flattery, buttering up God for rewards? Is it encouragement, asking God to do what he's supposed to do? Or is it gratitude for wonders performed and those yet to arrive? In the end, appeals for cosmic assistance result in ambiguity - we don't know if they work or not. But we DO know that our actions make a difference, because we can see the tangible results. More than being a "child of the world to come," I'm concerned with the "world to come" my coming child will inherit.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Text for Psalm 145 in English:, then click on "Psalm 145."