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 03, 2005

Tangential Time and Theology - Berakhot (Blessings) 3a

Talmudic discourse does not follow a straight line - it demonstrates associative rather than systematic logic. Here, a discussion of whether to divide the twelve hours from dusk to dawn in 3 sets of 4 hours or 4 sets of 3 hours jumps to a fascinating story of a supernatural encounter that teaches interesting lessons having nothing to do with nighttime timing. Because of technological advancements that have made using when babies nurse to keep track of time obsolete (though no less beautiful), we find the tangential story more meaningful than the context in which it appears.

A prooftext (a Biblical text cited to prove a point) in the nighttime discussion uses the threefold appearance of the word "roar" in Jeremiah's prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction in 586 BCE (Jeremiah 25:30) to argue that three watches of 4 hours each are observed in heaven. And what does God roar at those times? A lament for the sins of Israel that led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish Exile in 70 CE - more on this theology below. The prooftext creates a connection between daily time and historical destructions.

The legend of Rabbi Jose (pronounced "Yo-seh", not like Spanish "Jose") jumps from that reference to divine roaring to a story with the same "punchline." While praying in a ruin of Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 CE, R. Jose hears a divine voice and meets Elijah, the prophet who ascended to heaven and occasionally returns for cameo appearances. Elijah teaches lessons about where not to pray and how to do so when on a public road, and R. Jose mentions that he heard the same divine lament for Israel's sins and Jerusalem's destruction. Elijah supports its threefold daily recitation, and he gives insight into "divine psychology:" as Elijah quotes God, the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of Jewish exile are painful to God as well, just as it hurts a parent to punish a child - even human praise reminds God how much better it would be if he could receive it in "his house" (the Jerusalem Temple) that is now a ruin like the building in which R. Jose offered his prayer.

From a discussion of dividing the night, we have landed in a theological episode. Today we don't accept that sins are the reasons for disasters and human suffering - suffering can strike the good and the wicked, because the universe is indifferent to our fates. We know historically that many Jews left Israel long before the Temple was destroyed - by 70 CE, more Jews lived in Alexandria and the Roman Empire or East in Babylonia than in Israel itself. In other words, they were not exiled as punishment; many left by choice and stayed in Diaspora by choice, as they do today. It is quaint to imagine a God who suffers as a punishing parent multiple times a day, but it also reminds me of a parent who passively watches their child suffer and says, "this hurts me more than it hurts you."

It is natural to want a cosmic reflection of our own suffering, but wanting doesn't make it so. To reduce human suffering, or to respond to a feeling of "exile," or even to keep track of time in a reliable way, we don't need to wait for signs and voices and visitors from heaven. The universe knows no clock - it is we who have applied time to our existence. Drawing on our own ingenuity, strength, and insight, we can make our lives better. "Who could ask for anything more?"

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation