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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Jews and Non-Jews - Berakhot 58

One of the most complicated issues in contemporary Jewish life is the question of relations between Jews and non-Jews. For most of the last 2000 years, Jews have lived among non-Jewish populations, sometimes as welcome and often as unwelcome guests. Today’s Talmud page has a nice discussion of good guests who acknowledge generosity and bad guests who minimize the host’s generosity and focus only on the negatives. But a common thread through the entire page is the different treatment the Talmud accords to Jews (here referred to as yisrael/Israel) and non-Jews [umot ha-olam – nations of the world].

On one hand, one is supposed to say blessings on seeing Jewish AND non-Jewish sages and kings – different blessings to be sure, but both are important. On the other hand, seeing a crowd of Israelites elicits praise for their individuality, while a crowd of nokhrim [“strangers”/non-Jews] should be met with “Your mother shall be greatly ashamed; she who bore you shall be disgraced” (Jeremiah 50:12). The same verse is to be recited when seeing non-Jewish graves, while a Jewish cemetery inspires praise for future resurrection. Inhabited Jewish homes are praised, and destroyed ones provoke “Blessed is the true judge,” but standing non-Jewish houses warn of coming divine punishment, and destroyed non-Jewish homes are a reminder of God’s vengeance. Given that non-Jewish empires destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, taxed the Jews separately and at times persecuted them violently, such animosity is regrettable, not to be emulated today, but perhaps understandable.

The most difficult story in today’s page concerns Rabbi Shila, who whipped a man who had sexual relations with a non-Jew [literally baal nokhrit – husband of a foreign woman]. The man complained to the authorities that Shila was judging without state authority, and Shila counter-accuses the man of having sex with a female donkey [khamarta]. The authorities ask why he wasn’t killed, and Shila answers that the Jews don’t have that legal power while in exile. Elijah miraculously appears to offer testimony to the truth of Shila’s accusations, Shila flatters the authorities, and they grant him legal power to judge. The accused man charges Shila with lying, and Shila cites Ezekiel 23:20, which refers to non-Jews as “their flesh is the flesh of donkeys” – in other words, Shila claims he didn’t lie to the authorities because “they” ARE like donkeys! The accused man turns to explain to the non-Jewish authorities that Shila called them donkeys, and Shila names him a rodef [“pursuer,” someone about to kill another who can thus be justifiable killed] and summarily executes him.

Is this inter-ethnic animosity justified by past experiences of persecution? Or is it objectionable to modern sensibilities of equality, justice, and freedom? Should the punishment for violating such boundaries flogging and death, a violation treated as if one had sex with an animal? Or are individuals free to seek love with other people on their own, and may they enjoy it when they find it? In short, past persecutions are no justification for present prejudice., whether by words or by deeds.

Rabbi Adam Chalom