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.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Talmudic Principles and Obligations - Berakhot 14

Talmudic legal discussions have certain principles, but it is not always clear even to the Rabbis involved whether a particular principle applies to a particular discussion. One of the most common appears in today’s page – kal va’homer, or “simple and difficult” (sometimes translated by the Latin a fortiori). If we know the law is a certain way in this particular case, how much more is it so in a less difficult scenario. Often the issue is whether the two scenarios are really close enough to draw a conclusion from one to the other. Here, if it is permitted to interrupt the Shema to greet someone, how much more so may one interrupt a prayer recitation of lesser authority!

This passage also demonstrates different levels of commandment – reading the Shema is called de-oraita (from Scripture), while saying Hallel (praise) is called de-rabanan (Rabbinic). Even though Talmudic Rabbis have claimed the mantle of authorized interpreters, they understand their pronouncements to be derivative, not original. The irony is that our previous Talmud pages show Rabbis determining exactly how, in what order and which texts to recite to define what reciting the Shema fully means! In other words, even though the Rabbis define both “Scriptural” and “Rabbinic” laws, they treat commandments more clearly based in the Bible on a higher level than their own.

There is a conceptual need to differentiate the two, because the divine realm (i.e. Scriptural) is envisioned as far superior to the human – witness the terms for accepting divine reign and rules: ‘ol malkhut (“yoke of kingship) and ‘ol mitzvot (yoke of commandments). If one accepts another’s yoke, a collar used to drive oxen in the right direction, one’s own decisions are necessarily on a lower plane. This sense of absolute obligation is why the Rabbis are very cautious about performing prayers in the correct order, for the risks of incomplete performance are high – reciting Shema without tefillin (prayer boxes bound on hand and forehead) is called bearing false witness against oneself.

For liberal Jews, commandments are a record of historical Jewish practice and theology but not authoritative and binding. They are the “suggestions,” the “guidelines,” or at best “the options” – one need not perform them all (as under a yoke) to find meaning in some. Thus Israeli McDonald’s restaurants during Passover serve cheeseburgers on matza, and one may freely attend both Shabbat services and a movie on Saturday. These choices that we enjoy are the fruits of individual freedom.

Rabbi Adam Chalom