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.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Prophecy and Humility - Berakhot 34

In the ancient world, where humanity had much less control over its own fate, anything could be taken as a sign. While Rabbinic Judaism sharply reduced the number of divine powers giving signs from early polytheism to one, they certainly looked for signs. If one recited a prayer or a blessing and made a mistake, it might well be a bad sign of something to come. One rabbi in the Mishnah text discussed in today’s page would pray for the sick and predict who would live and who would die by how smoothly the prayer came out. Today we might think of recitation mistakes in terms of “Freudian slips” instead, where a verbal stumble reveals a psychological truth or difficulty from the past rather than a sign about the future.

When Talmudic rabbis from later generations relate similar stories of the predictive power of smoothly-pronounced prayer, they deny that they are prophets, and say instead that it’s just the truth of their experience – proven here two legendary anecdotes. How many fluent prayers made no difference in illness or death? Statistics are not provided here, nor would one expect them to be. In a world where one debates how many times and how to bow to God in prayer, such counter-arguments are beyond the acceptable parameters.

The denial that the Rabbis are prophets is not only consistent with the Rabbinic belief that prophecy in Israel had ended centuries before, but also connected to their emphasis on humility. When asked to pass before the Ark (where the Torah is kept), one should refuse once, hesitate when asked a second time, and only the third time “stretch one’s legs” and go rather than rush up (over)confident in one’s purity. And in a very folksy way of putting it, they get at the point that a little humility is a good thing: “[There are] 3 things of which a lot is difficult and a little is beautiful: yeast, salt, and refusal.” Bowing may be too much, but a little refusal can go a long way.

Rabbi Adam Chalom