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 10, 2005

Rabbinic use of the Bible - Berakhot 10

Our Talmud page begins with a fascinating character – Beruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir. Even though Rabbi Meir has good intentions, his wife is able to prove him wrong by her detailed knowledge of the Bible – because one passage refers to an end of “sins” and not “sinners,” Meir should curse the sin but not the sinner, thus turning the sinner into an ordinary man. And Beruria is also able to mock and confound a sectarian (min) by telling him haughtily to finish reading the verse he tried to use against her.

Beruria is most famous not for marrying well but for her unusual facility with Biblical interpretation and citation. In general Talmudic rabbis are dubious of women’s intellectual abilities, so much so that even clear Biblical supports are weakened. A line from the praising of a “woman of valor” (Eshet Hayil) in Proverbs 31 is interpreted here not as a woman having wisdom but as David. Women are not the only ones whose Biblical praise is modified – Ecclesiastes praises human wisdom, but in the Talmud the text is read as praising God! For the Talmud, original context is not strictly important when studying individual verses, or even phrases in verses, and exploring new ideas using old texts as justification.

Today’s Talmud page demonstrates the Rabbinic approach to interpreting the Bible – collecting aggadot. Rabbinic Biblical interpretation is based on the assumption that the text is divine and thus operates under different rules. Thus one may study and use individual verses and phrases independent of the original context or even pronunciation. If God wrote two passages that both used the same word, then the two must be related for interpretive purposes. Our legal jurisprudence might restrict that kind of “smukhin” (juxtaposition) to significant words like “obligation” or “contract” – multiple contexts do help clarify what was intended by the term. But the Rabbis are free to use just about any shared language to compare two passages.

Sometimes Rabbis use the text to get to a general rule – what is the meaning of a verse? And sometimes they begin with a general rule and bring prooftexts to bear. The weaving together of these two sources of authority grounds the Rabbis and brings forward the Bible. And because God is imagined to have written the Bible in a Hebrew language he created, puns are not just amusement but actually interpretation – the Rock (zur) becomes the artist (zayyar), the interpretation (pesher) becomes the reconciliation (peshara).

Thus Hezekiah and Isaiah are imagined to have a battle of wills to see who will break first, and a battle of prophecies over the best way to handle previous dire predictions. What is most important for us to understand is the implication of the end of this retold story – the rabbis approve or disapprove of his behavior. Later generations always have the power of interpretation and judgment of what came before. Talmudic Rabbis took their inheritance and interpreted it for their own perspective; our obligation is no less.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For Futher Reading:

On Beruriah: “Women as Sources of Torah in the Rabbinic Tradition” by Anne Goldfeld in Elisabeth Koltun, ed. The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives.