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.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Honor and Insult - Berakhot 47

In hierarchical societies like Rabbinic academies, the balance of honor is very important – one must respect one’s elders, even to sitting in the correct order for a meal as explored in Berakhot 46. Today’s Talmud page begins with an egalitarian claim: one does not give honorific deference on the road, on bridges, or in washing the hands (this may explain Jewish pushiness). However, in buildings of deference “where a mezuzah is suitable,” honor must be observed. When Rab Akha, a famous rabbi, declines to bless the end of a meal he entered at the end in a gesture of humility, the Talmud makes sure to add that “the law is that the greatest blesses even if he comes in at the end.” And even if there no practical difference in wording, a student must speak in the exact words of his teacher (rabbo – his rabbi). I always say: put it in your own words to make the teaching your own – that way, it’s easier to repeat and to believe, and you’ve given your intellectual agreement by internalizing the teaching in your own way.

While the rabbis seem very cautious about offense when talking amongst themselves, they are less restrained when addressing others. Can a Kuti, or Samaritan be invited to bless a meal? The Samaritans, who still exist in small numbers today but are more famous for a New Testament parable, were an offshoot of Jewish practice who read a Torah almost identical to the Rabbinic version but in their own script. Though the Rabbis were dubious about Samaritan claims to be descended from the Hebrews, it is decided here that since Samaritans can be even more scrupulous with mitzvah (commandments) than the Jews, and since they tithe their produce correctly, they are acceptable.

The am ha-aretz, the Jewish ignoramus, is another matter, and is never invited. The Rabbis here define who is an am ha-aretz, and we may hear some of ourselves in their condemnations: anyone who doesn’t recite the Shema twice daily, or put on tefillin, or wear a fringe on his garment, or put a mezuzah on the door, or raise one’s sons to study Torah. The best formulation? Even if one has learned Bible and Mishnah, but does not attend to the Rabbis (talmiday hakhamim – students of the wise). From a Talmudic perspective, it makes no difference what one has chosen to perform or not – that fact that one has rejected Rabbinic authority is an automatic proof that one is an am ha-aretz. Though we reject the label, having chosen our observance out of knowledge rather than from ignorance, if anyone ever calls you this name you can know that you are in great and numerous company – there are a lot more of “us” than there are of “them.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom