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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ideals and Public Perception - Berakhot 43

In the midst of a discussion of what blessings are to be said of certain fragrances and perfumes, we find a fascinating series of ethical and personal recommendations. Some are based on profound insights into the human condition, others are based on a cultural ethos we find very foreign, and still others are based on the fear of public perception.

We first find three sayings of Rabbi Zutra, the first only loosely connected to the topic of blessings by its attention to “beauty” and the second simply another saying of Rabbi Zutra, What does Ecclesiastes 3 mean by “God made everything beautiful in its time/season?” Just that God makes everyone find his own profession beautiful. This is sometimes true in human experience, but certainly not always! In the second saying, at night a torch is like two people and the moon is like three – for vision? No: in order to ward off “evil spirits,” which may harm one, show themselves to two, but hide from three – the Talmud it self doesn’t even use the word for “spirits,” but the implication of their danger is clear.

It is the third saying of Rabbi Zutra that is the most inspirational: “It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than put his fellow to shame (literally yalbin panav -“make his face pale”) in public.” And where do we learn this? From the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, where she didn’t publicly shame Judah even though she was threatened with a fiery death for being thought promiscuous. THIS is an inspirational ethical lesson for any age, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn it from the example of a Biblical woman.

Much of the remainder of the page is spent interpreting what is considered “unbecoming” for a scholar (literally Talmid Khakham – “wise student”): going into the street/market perfumed, going out at night alone, talking to a woman in the street, eating a meal with the ignorant (amei-ha-aretz, literally “people of the ground” or “peasants”), being the last to enter the Beit Midrash (house of study), and some say taking long strides or walking stiffly. The page goes on to clarify the perfume restriction applies only when going to “a place where people suspect laying down with males” – a very interesting anecdote for further historical study. Why not go out alone or speak with women? People might suspect immorality, even with one’s female relatives since they may not know you are related. Why not eat with the ignorant? One might be drawn astray. Why not be the last to the Beit Midrash? This one, at least, is obvious to us as well – lest one be thought an idler.

Today, the fear of public suspicion is much less of a concern – as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about.” Heaven forbid that one eat with those of a different perspective, or risk suspicion to talk with one’s sister, or enjoy one’s life outside of formal obligations as one wishes. Thank goodness for our freedoms today to do just that.

Rabbi Adam Chalom