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

Piety, Doubt, and Ultimate Reward - Berakhot 4a

The problem with strict piety is that one can never be pious enough to be certain. If your God is a god who rewards good behavior and punishes sins, how can you be sure that you've built up enough rewards to overbalance the inevitable sins that creep into life? David, the supposed author of Psalm after psalm of praise, the "midnight scholar" who "studied Torah" all night, here described as the king who literally gets his hands dirty deciding his people's fate and one who has the humility as a student of the Law to consult his teacher for confirmation - this pious (in the original, Hasid) David is still not sure he has been good enough to merit a share in the "world to come" (the Jewish version of "heaven" some Jews think Jews don't believe in).

David (and his ventriloquists, the Talmudic rabbis) are certain that if one has built up enough positive points, one will receive their reward in the world to come - but has he built up enough, or can he be still holier, still more pure? After all, David has slain his tens of thousands, betrayed Uriah the Hittite by sleeping with and stealing his wife, and even commissioned Uriah's murder. And so Talmudic Rabbis, and the strictly pious today (many of whom use that very title Hasid), could always add more restrictions, more caution, more positive requirements to meet minimum qualifications for the next life when rewards earned will be paid out, if not before.

For me, the most profound statement in this page is one buried in the midst of debating whether Moses knew when midnight was - in English translation, "For so a Master said: Let thy tongue acquire the habit of saying, 'I know not', lest thou be led to falsehoods [lying]." Even though we today understand more about the workings of the universe than Talmudic Rabbis ever imagined, we can also learn and extend this lesson about the importance of saying, "I don't know." If we really don't know something about history or science or the universe, it's better to say, "I don't know," though I often emend it to say, "I don't know yet."

Examining the question David and the Rabbis take for granted: Is there a "world to come", and are there rewards for pious behavior from the cosmic scorekeeper? It might be easier personally and psychologically to say "I don't know" rather than "of course - tradition tells me so." Having the courage to say, "I don't know", and nevertheless living a good life of concern for others, of conscientious learning and teaching, and personal ethics makes this life worth living not for the sake of something unkown, uncertain, and unnerving in its absoluteness, but for its own sake. Our ultimate reward is not a world to come, but a life well-lived in this one.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation