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 20, 2005

Parallels and Patriarchy - Berakhot 51

Over 50 pages into the Daf Yomi (daily page), one can find amusing parallels between Talmudic approaches and modern life. A good portion of the first half of today’s page is consumed with advice of how and why to consume aspargus (a brew of vegetable stalks related to the Greek word “asparagus” – another interaction between Greeks and Rabbis). Like some suggest for red wine today, aspargus is good for the whole body if used regularly, but if used to get drunk is bad for the whole body. And like all “old wives tales,” there are alternate versions: some say it is good for LaAT [heart (lev), eye, (ayin), and spleen (tehol)] and bad for RaMaT [head (rosh), bowels (me’ayim), and hemorrhoids (tahtoniot)], while others say the opposite. The Talmud’s job is to harmonize the advice – the first must refer to a brew with wine, the other with beer. If only all diet and health advice could actually be harmonized, and we could be perfectly healthy! And we also see Rabbinic, pre-scientific versions of E.N.T (Ear, Nose, Throat) - type affiliated specialties.

The second parallel concerns the status of women, and here the parallel is not in the values but in the personal reaction. ‘Ulla was invited to a dinner at Rabbi Nahman’s, where Nahman asked ‘Ulla to pass the cup to Nahman’s wife Yalta in order to spread the blessings to her. Despite the preceding Talmudic discussion that encourages such generosity, ‘Ulla refused, citing Rabbi Judah’s claim that “the fruit of a woman’s body is only blessed through the fruit of a man’s body,” since Deuteronomy 7:13 promises fruitfulness to “bitnekha - your belly” (masculine form of you). Because the Torah text has no vowels, they could have simply reread Deuteronomy as referring to a woman (bitnekh) and given her the cup. However, if Deuteronomy meant a woman, the Rabbis assume it would have said “bitna – HER belly” since the audience listening to Torah is, of course, men. A very different values system from liberal Judaism today, to say the least.

Yalta’s reaction, however, is entirely understandable – she heard that ‘Ulla refused to pass her the cup, and she rose up in a fury, went to the winery, and smashed 400 jars of wine. Rabbi Nahman tries to appease her by offering her a second cup of wine from the same flask, which he claims partakes of the same blessing. Her answer in so many words: what else could you expect from a jerk like ‘Ulla. In her anger at exclusion, we can hear a pre-modern frustration that found its voice in recent times, for the good of wine jars everywhere.

In tomorrow’s page, we will consider the discussion of differences between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel concerning blessings and Shabbat rituals. In the Talmud’s patient explanation of both sides of the argument, rather than simply articulating the winning perspective, we can take a lesson for political and personal disputes of our own times.

Rabbi Adam Chalom