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 19, 2005

Rabbinical Honor and Excommunication - Berakhot 19

During the Jewish Diaspora in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Rabbinical authorities often did not have the legal power to execute a death sentence, but they had the next best thing – they could excommunicate, or threaten to excommunicate, the offender. In a much smaller and circumscribed world than we now inhabit, losing all family and personal connections was akin to social death. Today’s page describes one kind of offense worthy of excommunication (Hebrew herem or here nidui) in the opinion of the Rabbis. That offense? Lack of respect for the Rabbis!

Those that mock or challenge the “scholars” (Hebrew Khakhamim, literally “the wise”) are sent straight to the underworld, and others are expelled and so reviled that the Rabbinical court stones their coffin after their death! Sometimes Rabbinical power is not absolute, however – a famous Roman Jew named Thaddeus is described as establishing a custom among Jews in Rome of eating lambs at Passover roasted exactly as they were at the Jerusalem Temple, and Shimon ben Shetah threatens that if Thaddeus were anyone else he would be excommunicated for making it look like the Jews were performing Temple rituals away from the Jerusalem Temple. In addition to showing the flexibility of Jewish practice by geography and personality, even in the ancient world, this also shows the power of the macher (Yiddish for "mover and shaker") to do what they want.

Some of the less supportive readers of my Talmud blog might agree with a ban of excommunication for those who they feel “disrespect” the teachers of tradition, but then I would be in good company – Baruch Spinoza, one of the founders of modern philosophy, and Mordecai Kaplan, the innovator of the modern Jewish Center and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, are two of the most famous to have been “kicked out” by religious authorities. And I am fortunate that, like Thaddeus, if enough people agree with what I’m doing, the threat of excommunication is that much weaker.

Or I can draw a lesson from a Baraita, or teaching from the time of the Mishnah that was not included in the Mishnah, cited on this same Talmud page: “Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah” or rabbinical laws based thereon. If to speak my truth, to have my dignity, requires questioning absolute authorities, so be it. And thank goodness for the freedom for each of us to seek our own truth, and if we disagree to say (in Yiddish) gaye gesunter hayt, loosely translatable as “go in health,” or better “live and let live.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom