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, April 21, 2005

Dignity and Diversity - Berakhot 52

One of the more inspiring parallels between the Talmud and modern life is the dignity accorded to the losing viewpoint. Just as American Supreme Court justices who dissent from the majority are allowed to compose their opinions, which are preserved alongside the majority’s, so too we see in the Talmud many times both sides of an issue even though the halakha [law] is already decided. If political, philosophical, and even personal debates today were carried out with as much attention to the dignity of the minority, life for both sides would be more pleasant.

A common minority opinion in the Talmud is Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai], who almost always lose out to Beit Hillel [the school of Hillel]. In today’s page, we find many rules concerning blessings where both sides are presented, but Beit Hillel all but embodies the halakha. Even though both have the same number of reasons on each side, the Talmud states that “the halakha is according to Beit Hillel” – the punchline to a story elsewhere in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b). Today’s page also highlights where they agree in order to clarify where they disagree: in blessing havdalah [“distinction” - end of Shabbat] after a meal, they agree that one blesses the meal first and the end of Shabbat second, but the order of havdalah blessings is what is debated.

Is there a general reason for deciding with Beit Hillel? They are often the more permissive (within the limited range of halakha), but not always: Beit Shammai would allow an am ha-aretz [“person of the land” – peasant or ignoramus] to serve as an attendant, but Beit Hillel would not, so one authority follows the law of Beit Shammai. In another context, an alternative tradition of what Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel said is brought to bear to decide the issue – Rabbi Judah remembered the debate differently from Rabbi Meir, and as confirmation it is noted that “the people are accustomed to [following the ruling of] Beit Hillel according to Rabbi Judah.” Imagine a time when the practice of the public had a decisive role in deciding Jewish law – what would Judaism look like today if this were true again?

For contemporary readers, the rules of traditional Jewish religious practice have been fixed for over 1000 years and are imagined to have always been so – what the Talmud shows us is how Jewish practice developed, and that there was diversity of opinions on almost every subject. Thus in this respect, modern Jewish pluralism may have more in common with the time before the Talmud was finalized than with the centuries after. In previous pages, we have seen plenty of dubious rabbinic “science” of diet and health, but in the debate over the havdalah blessing on candles, they are exactly correct – Beit Hillel’s preference for the plural me’orei ha-esh [illuminations of the flame] is based on their observation that there are many me’orot in one light. Today we would say “wavelengths of light” and would agree – the purest white light contains all of the other colors. As a metaphor, the existence of many opinions, perspectives, and practices leads us closest to our personal truths, inspiration, and the warmth of our own meaningful community.

Rabbi Adam Chalom