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.

Monday, April 18, 2005

How much is enough? - Berakhot 49

Talmudic blessings are not minor symbols – they are encapsulations of fundamental beliefs, hopes, and prayers. One concept debated during the period of Jewish Emancipation and citizenship was that of “rebuilding Jerusalem” – did Jews really long for a return to Israel and a recreation of a separate nation, or were they patriotic citizens of the lands where they lived? One could imagine a rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple without a return from “exile”; after all, when the Temple was first rebuilt, not all Jews returned and many others chose to leave to create the Jewish Mediterranean Diaspora long before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. But today’s Talmud page, drawing on Psalm 147, explains the connection: WHEN does God rebuild the Temple? When he gathers in the dispersed of Israel.

This fear of “dual loyalty” is why many 19th century Jewish reformers eliminated prayers for rebuilding the Temple; some even proclaimed that where they were was their new Jerusalem, naming their congregational buildings “temples” for that very reason. Some of those who continue to pray for a “rebuilt Jerusalem” consider modern Israel incomplete without a new Jerusalem Temple under divine rule (which would be where the Muslim Haram al-Sharif or Dome of the Rock currently stands), and others still treat Diaspora Jews as if they’re in “exile” from where they really belong. There are those who argue against changing traditional texts because “they’re just in Hebrew” and American Jews don’t understand them anyways. To my mind, that’s no excuse for not thinking about what one is saying. The Talmudic approach continues to resonate in Jewish culture, even among more secularized Jews, in ways that can concretely affect our lives.

Today’s Talmud page concerns itself primarily with the question “how much is enough?” We find a detailed debate over how much food really counts as participating in a meal to count for the invitation to bless afterwards – according to the Mishnah under discussion, Rabbi Meir’s standard is an olive’s worth (i.e. a standard of “eating anything”), while Rabbi Judah’s is the size of an egg (a standard of “eating that gives satisfaction”). The same kind of questions concerns Rab – if one makes a mistake in their blessing after a meal and forgets to bless a Shabbat, holiday, or new moon, Rab suggests they may say a one-phrase replacement rather than repeat the entire procedure. Later Rabbis refine his replacements to apply only before a certain point is reached, and only for meals which are freely chosen rather than the Amida (standing prayer) which is a fixed obligation.

Similar questions beset modern Judaisms – how much of historical Jewish culture is required to create a meaningful Jewish identity? Need one perform all of the requirements of the Talmud or can one choose from among them? May one make substitutions that more efficiently and effectively address situations? And is one free enough to make the choices needed to speak to one’s own times and with one’s own beliefs?

Rabbi Adam Chalom