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.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Purity Laws and Non-Jewish Interactions - Shabbat 17

One of the ironies of Shabbat from the rabbinic period to our own day is that traditional-minded Jews have observed their Shabbat restrictions and ritual purity laws while surrounded by a world that couldn’t care less. In fact, in the ancient world Jews were thought of as lazy because they insisted on resting once every seven days! A major confrontation between Hillel and Shammai concerned whether baskets of grapes could become impure – when Hillel asks why Shammai cares about grapes and not olives, Shammai responds, “watch out, or it will apply to olives too!” The point here for us is that Hillel, the head of the Sanhedrin [rabbinic council] is outvoted and shamed; but the outside world could not make heads nor tails of why.

In trying to list the 18 legal issues enacted that same day, many nominations deal with relations with the other 99% of the world. Imagine the non-Jew’s response to the scenario envisioned by this teaching: “one should give his wallet to a nokhri [stranger – non-Jew] if Shabbat evening falls on him while he is on the road.” That would certainly provide amusement and pleasure, but the very next teaching would not: non-Jewish bread, and oil, and wine, and daughters (i.e. wives) were forbidden. In other words, the basic social courtesy of ‘breaking bread together’ is impossible.

They debate why these items – the bread and oil are forbidden because of their wine, which was used for libations to idols (a historical fact not mentioned in the Talmud because it was known or assumed). And their wine was forbidden because of their daughters, who in turn were forbidden because of davar akher [another matter], and “another matter” because of “another matter!” What could be so terrible that it has two layers of euphemism? Commentators believe it refers to idolatry, and the second layer is explained in the Talmud itself – “Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: They decreed that a nokhri child shall defile as if by ziva [impure sexual discharge], so that an Israelite child should not associate with him for ‘lying with a male.’”

Is that all “they” do? Is that what we would all “do” with them? Just as their daughters are treated as niddah [menstrually impure] from birth, their babies are instantly sexually impure. How often was “lying with a male” between Jews and non-Jews a problem? Obviously more than zero, but we will never know. What we do know today, however, is that discrimination in one direction is no pardon for hatred and slander in return.

Rabbi Adam Chalom