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 31, 2005

Role Models - Berakhot 31

Talmudic rabbis often look for role models to demonstrate the finer points – statements of law only go so far. In today’s page, when they re-assert the importance of seriousness of purpose even in times of joy, they give two examples: when asked to sing at a wedding he attended, one rabbi says “Alas for we who will die! Alas for we who will die!” [it is unknown if he sang these words]. Another takes an expression of joy upon returning from Babylonian Exile to mean one should not “fill one’s mouth with laughter” until the world to come – his student never laughed that fully again. To stand up to say the Amida, or even to leave another person’s company, one should not be sad, or lazy, or frivolous, or laughing – one should be in the mindset of religious duty and law. While I appreciate that leaving a friend is treated on a similar level of importance to the Amida prayer, all in all this represents a suppression of the very human desire to laugh, to be friendly and to be joyful. Must Jewish ceremony always be serious and without laughter?

The most detailed role-model employed in today’s page is Hannah, the woman who in I Samuel 1 is the first person in the Bible to pray to God – she asks for a son. As we saw in Berakhot 20, women are exempt from reciting the Shema but ARE required to recite the Amida, which the Talmud refers to as simply “THE prayer – Tefillah”. From Hannah’s narrative, they “learn” (or confirm) the importance of internal focus, to mouth the prayer and not say it aloud, to not pray if drunk (as a priest accuses Hannah), to correct one’s fellow if they err (as the priest does), to defend yourself if wrongly accused (as Hannah does), and to apologize and even bless someone erroneously accused (as does the priest).

The best side of Hannah in this passage, in addition to the use of a woman as a role model for all, is the cleverness the Rabbis give her in their midrash (creative retelling) of the story. If God will not grant her request, Hannah threatens to get herself falsely accused of adultery. Why? Because the end of the Torah-prescribed (Numbers 5) ritual for such situations promises pregnancy to a woman falsely accused! However, in the very next teaching we are reminded of the problematic role of women in Talmudic Judaism – Hannah reminds God that she hasn’t broken any of the rules that cause women to die in childbirth: menstrual purity, bread offerings, and Shabbat candlelighting. As if a family who had lost a mother in childbirth would blame her for their tragedy. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom