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.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Traditions and Innovations - Berakhot 11

At the end of Berakhot 10, a Mishnah text is cited that describes a dispute between two schools of interpretation: Beit Hillel (the house or school of Rabbi Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Rabbi Shammai). Both are respected, but in the end the issues on which they disagree must be decided in favor of one or the other, often but not always for Beit Hillel. The issue here is how to recite the Shema – must one actually lie down for the evening recitation and stand up for the morning (Shammai), or is it merely at those times and not in that precise manner (Hillel)? What is fascinating is that the Talmud here asks why Beit Shammai didn’t just agree with Beit Hillel. And it goes on to imagine reasons, to dignify a rejected position with further argument.

We also see that the behavior of the sages can set the model for later generations – at the beginning of Berakhot we saw an anecdote about Rabban Gamliel and his sons regarding how late one may recite the evening Shema. In this case, Beit Shammai’s rejected opinion is accorded such respect that centuries later Rabbi Ishmael must make sure that he and his companion are not both reclining lest later generations assume that they both agreed with Beit Shammai and fix the halakha (religious law) incorrectly. This respect does not prove that relations between the two houses were always smooth – they could invalidate each other’s rulings, and even claim that to follow the other was life-threatening. The tradition of learning from not just the words of the sages but also from their deeds is common to many religious traditions – Muslim hadith are accounts of the deeds of Mohammed as verified by authoritative chains of transmission, and New Testament gospels tell of the words AND the deeds of Jesus as seen by apostles, just as Talmudic accounts are from Rabbi X who heard it from Rabbi Y who was there.

A third authoritative source of religious practice also described in this Talmud page is the religious practice already taking place: the rituals, customs, and blessings well-known to adherents. The formal prayers that Jewish tradition has ordained are not debatable – if they formulated it a particular way, or ordained that a long blessing was required in a particular sequence, there is no room for individual modification or personal creativity. In some cases, the Talmud text assumes that its readers already know the traditional blessings, and thus refers to them by a minimal phrase. In others, it gives the full text of the blessing and who created it, as here with the blessings for reading the Torah. But that creativity is imagined to have long since ended.

What if today one doesn’t agree with the content of those blessings - that one reads the Torah to fulfill commandments, or that the divine must be referred to in masculine language, or that the Jewish people has been Chosen from all the nations, or even that one author (let alone God) wrote the Torah? There is no flexibility for these questions in the Talmudic tradition, but fortunately enough of contemporary Judaism is open enough to admit even those who challenge the assumed blessing basics. Just as with Beit Shammai, the minority opinion deserves respect.

Rabbi Adam Chalom