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.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Prayer Precision - Berakhot 12

In the modern, individualized world, many of those who do pray to a god use any words or emotions that are personally meaningful. In the world of the Talmud, precise wording and sequence was required to navigate the world of divine praise and petition in Rabbinic liturgy. Thus the Talmudic debate about correct text and order, very important to a volume entitled “Blessings,” continues unabated.

In addition to this exacting debate, however, today’s Talmud page does provide a glimpse into the creative process of Rabbinic liturgy. While some would have recited the 10 Commandments as part of their religious devotion, others avoided it because of what “Minim” [“heretics” – Jews who disagreed with the Rabbis or the early Christian Church] insinuated about that ritual. If one only reads from the 10 Commandments and the Shema, perhaps the rest of the Torah is not as authoritative. As an aside, some contemporary Christian activists who want the 10 Commandments publicly displayed might agree – they don’t keep kosher or stone disobedient children or many of the other laws of the Torah, but they do value the 10 Commandments, at least as a symbol.

At that point in Jewish history, Rabbis made decisions about their own ritual based on what “outsiders” said about them. In the 19th century, early Reform rabbis were strongly criticized by the Jewish religious establishment for making ritual changes for similar reasons – why? Because a second principle had taken over: according to this passage, Rabbis in Babylonia at the major Talmudic academies of Sura and Nehardea centuries after the “Minim decision” were unable to return to the original ritual because of that earlier decision and the accumulated weight of tradition. Even if the Minim in question are no longer a problem, or an answer to them could be found, the wisdom and power of the earlier decision is not questioned.

This is the dilemma modern Jews, particularly theologically-questioning Jews, face when they try to fashion liturgical texts that speak to them. This Talmud page cites authorities who claim that a blessing without God’s name (YHWH, pronounced “Adonai”) or divine kingship (the phrase melekh ha-olam, “king of the universe”) are no blessings. One doesn’t need to be a Talmudic authority to have heard this argument – anyone who tries to change such traditional blessings formulae hears similar complaints. “Who are you to make these changes in ancestral tradition?” If as Reconstructionist, Reform, feminist, secular or Humanistic Jews we question a personal god with a specific name or an external, ruling king (male) god, that’s fine philosophically; but beware the wrath of those who don’t live traditionally but object to change nonetheless.

There are times that we have to admit that traditional answers and texts do not speak to us as powerfully as they did to our ancestors who lived very different lives. We have to be brave enough to challenge ancient decisions with the strength of our own convictions, to make choices for ourselves without fearing “what would the Rabbis say?”

Rabbi Adam Chalom