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, May 03, 2005

Children and Builders, Past and Future - Berakhot 64

This last page of tractate Berakhot is actually a half a page – each “daf” [page] of the daf yomi [daily page] actually is two sides of a piece of paper – 32a (side 1), followed by 32b (side 2), and so on. And the subjects discussed at the very end of Berakhot seem to hold little connection to our first discussion of the Shema and its recitation. We find general discussions of good fortune and bad, and how to say goodbye – leaving one’s friend, one should say lekh l’shalom [go to peace] rather than lekh b’shalom [go in peace] because of what happened to Biblical examples of each, but when leaving the dead one should say “go in peace” instead. In modern usage, either would be a positive statement of hope with which to take one’s leave.

We also find a story about the choice of the head of a Babylonian Rabbinical academy at the beginning of the 4th century CE between Rabba and Rabbi Joseph – Rabbi Joseph is called “Sinai” (i.e. holder of the traditional teachings going back to Sinaitic revelation), while Rabba is called “uprooter of mountains” [oker harim] because of his cleverness with argument and debate. When they send back to the land of Israel to ask whom they should choose, they are told “Sinai” – follow the ancestral tradition. But Joseph fears he will only serve in the post for 2 years because of what “astrologers” [khaldai – literally “Chaldeans”] have told him, and he declines. Thus Rabba and argument and debate rule for 22 years, and Joseph after that for only 2. Having read through an entire Talmudic tractate and its many arguments on matters far divergent from “blessings,” we can see the truth of that proportion.

The most interesting interpretation on this page, however, appears at the very end of the entire book. The claim is made that the students of the wise [talmiday khakhamim] increase peace in the world, because a clever rabbinic re-reading of “your children” [banayikh] as “your builders” [bonayikh] in Isaiah 54:13 would change the original to suggest that religious education leads to greater peace in the world. This may or may not be the case; but if we focus on the change from “children” to “builders,” we can find a still more important lesson.

In a profound letter called “The Builders” to his friend and collaborator Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “nothing Jewish may be excluded as alien,” the animating philosophy behind this Talmud blog for liberal, secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews. He also wrote the following about the experience of being an educated Jew between past and present:

“This is just the very basis of our communal and individual life: the feeling of being our fathers’ children, our grandchildren’s ancestors. Therefore we may rightly expect to find ourselves again, at some time, somehow, in our fathers’ every word and deed; and also that our own words and deeds will have some meaning for our grandchildren. For we are, as Scripture puts it, ‘children’; we are, as tradition reads it, ‘Builders.’” {cited in On Jewish Learning, ed. Nahum Glatzer (Schocken Books), p91}.

This is our challenge; this is our privilege. On to tractate Shabbat!

Rabbi Adam Chalom