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.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Divinity and Authority - Berakhot 48

One of the greatest conceptual shifts between the time of the rabbis and modern times is in the area of authority – the rabbis believed that their authority was an extension of divine authority, which was absolute. Today we give much more authority to the individual to define meaning, truth, and meaningful religious practice for themselves. In today’s page, this story appears: when two rabbis were young boys, an older rabbi asked them where God was. One pointed to the roof, and another went outside to point at the sky, and both are praised with the prediction that they too will become rabbis. Today we would consider this a too-simple cosmology – contemporary thought ranges from a divine internal presence to God as a creation of human imagination (in OUR image) with no independent existence. In any case, knowing that we live on a spherical earth orbiting the sun in the vast emptiness of space, simply pointing “up” seems quaint.

In the context of discussing whether one must have eaten something to participate in blessing a meal, we also see the challenge of earthly authorities, as the Jewish Hasmonean king Yannai battles with the proto-rabbis of his day (c. 100 BCE). Having persecuted them, understandably none attends his meal to say a blessing. His wife Salome (Hebrew Shulamit) extracts a promise not to harm the one she brings, who turns out to be her brother Shimon ben Shetakh. As she sits him with the king, she asks her brother to note how he has been honored by royalty. His response: not you but Scripture has honored me. King Yannai takes affront that religious authority has taken precedence over his own. Fortunately, Shimon composes a blessing honoring both God and Yannai, and ultimately during Salome’s reign after the death of Yannai the Pharisees and the Jewish monarchy were reconciled. Conflicts between earthly Jewish governments and the authority of malkhut ha-shamayim (the Heavenly Kingdom) continue today – witness the battles in Israel over “withdrawal.”

Ultimately, the authority of the Rabbis relies on their belief that they have inherited God’s authority by serving as the authorized interpreters of His Rulebook - the Torah. Even though the Rabbis may define the specific circumstances for blessings, they claim that Biblical figures instituted most of them (here, for example, Moses, Joshua, Solomon and David all contributed blessings for after meals) and that the Torah itself alludes to the need for such blessings. They ask, “Where is the blessing of meals in the Torah?” and they find Deuteronomy 8:10 which they parse into the four rabbinically-prescribed blessings. But then they want to know, “Where is there Torah authority for blessing the Torah?’ Without a direct text, they resort to kal va-homer (how much more so – if we bless food for this temporary life, how much more so should we bless the Torah for giving us eternal life in the world to come?) and gezerah shavah (shared language – the meal blessing citation says “give”, and elsewhere God “gave” commandments and the law, so the two texts must be related).

In the end, of course, it is a circular argument. If one already believes the Torah to be true, one can prove that the Torah is true by referring to the Torah. But this standard of proof only works from within the already-religious framework – in the world of science, philosophy and logic, a document cannot prove itself from itself. I could claim that this blog entry is truly 500 years old and then prove it by showing that the blog entry says so! This is the ultimate change in authorities from ancient times to today – the power of the individual to question what the tradition “knew” to be true, and to come to their own conclusions.

Rabbi Adam Chalom