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 30, 2005

Impulses, Righteousness, and Martyrdom - Berakhot 61

Sometimes the smallest detail is the opportunity for rabbinic interpretation. In today’s Talmud page, an second and extra yud in the word for “he created” in Genesis 2:7 is the opportunity for three interpretations – that God created humanity with an evil impulse [yetser ha-ra] and a good impulse [yetzer ha-tov], or that a man says “woe is me!” [oy lee] whether he fights his evil inclination or submits to it, or that God created humanity with two faces (in front and in back). The three interpretations can each stand, and one can consider the others from each perspective. This page is a good example of that style: if you hold interpretation X to be the case, what would you respond to interpretation Y?

The third explanation of the double yud alludes to the Biblical contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, where first God creates “male and female” seemingly simultaneously and then creates man first and then woman from man’s tsela [rib or side]. In this rabbinic midrash, or creative interpretation, the original intention was to create two, but one was created in Genesis 1 – one with two faces, faces later split in Genesis 2. While some modern Jewish feminists have argued such an interpretive approach justifies gender equality (as both were created simultaneously and have a primordial unity), later passages on this page qualify that claim: a man must never walk behind a woman on the road. Why? For fear that his “evil inclination” will lead him to sin. No fears about a woman’s desire being inflamed following a man are offered, and the practical result is women walking in public behind their men in what outsiders understand to be a subordinate status.

As we read in today’s page, the wicked follow the evil inclination, the righteous follow the good inclination, and the beinonim [average] are swayed by both. Raba, an eminent rabbi, himself claims to be average, for the ideal of righteousness is almost beyond reach. The most striking narrative in today’s page is the story of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). Akiva continues to teach Torah even though the government forbids it, is thrown into prison, and executed by flaying. During his suffering, he “accepts the yoke of heavenly kingship” (i.e. recites the Shema), prolonging the last word ekhad [one] until he dies. He is pleased to have finally interpreted the commandment to love God “with all your soul,” and a voice from heaven promises him a share in the world to come.

Akiva’s model of dying a martyr’s death for Kiddush ha-shem [sanctification of God's name] served generations of religious responses to persecution. Today it is an example of commitment to ideals, even if we differ on what those ideals are for ourselves. For what values would we be willing to sacrifice? For our family, or our country, or our community, or our dignity? These are questions every generation and every individual may ask themselves for good reason. And even if our good and evil inclinations are not separate powers (that live in our kidneys, according to today's page), we can use the categories to understand our life-affirming and subversive impulses in better relief.

Rabbi Adam Chalom