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.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Rabbinic Authority and Honor - Berakhot 27

The system of Rabbinic learning that produced the Mishnah and the Talmud was at once democratic and authoritarian – the majority of Rabbis qualified to vote on a particular issue would prevail, but duties of honor and obedience must be paid to one’s “teacher” (Rav, or Rabbi). Here we read that you must not pray next to your teacher, as if you were on the same level, or greet him with only an ordinary greeting and no title, or disagrees with his school of thought (yeshiva), or use sayings not heard from the teacher’s mouth – if you do any of these, “the Divine Presence departs from Israel”! Today, our teachers are important, but if we never felt on the same level as them in order to challenge them as equals, they would have failed at their task.

The Rabbinic reliance on authority is why lessons are drawn from teachers’ behavior, and why the chain of authority in reciting sayings is so important. An English translation can be creative - “R. Zera said in the name of R. Assi reporting R. Eleazar who had it from R. Hanina in the name of Rab” – but the original is literally “R. Zera said R. Assi said R. Eleazar said R. Hanina said Rab said.” This is not simply a game of “telephone;” it is an attempt to pass down the “Oral Law” in as clear and authoritative a way as possible.

Beyond the authority of one’s teacher, in early Rabbinic assemblies there was a Nasi (“prince”) who was the head of the assembly and lead teacher. Today’s page records one episode in an ongoing conflict between Nasi Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Joshua at the end of the first century CE. Gamaliel required the evening prayer, but Joshua thought it was optional. Rather than simply mention the disagreement, we find a narrative of how the conflict played out.

One student asked both privately for their opinions on the question, but in the assembly of the Sages Gamaliel pronounced his opinion, asked if there is any disagreement (already knowing about Joshua’s teaching), and then he shamed Joshua by making him stand and confess that he has changed his tune. Joshua continued to stand as Gamaliel continued teaching, until the other Rabbis finally demand that the interpreter stop the lesson. The other rabbis feel that Gamaliel has gone too far, and they consider replacing him. They nominate Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who is wise enough to answer questions, rich enough to negotiate with the powers that be, and of sufficient pedigree (z’khut avot - “merit of the fathers”) to compete with Gamaliel, who claims descent from the Nasi line. Thus the three qualifications for the position are enumerated: good mind, good wallet, good family.

Will Rabbi Joshua and Rabban Gamaliel be able to resolve their differences? Will Rabban Gamaliel be deposed as Nasi? You’ll have to turn the page to the next daf (sheet) to find out.

Rabbi Adam Chalom