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.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Teaching and Learning Torah - Berakhot 63

The last Mishnah text to be explored in depth in Berakhot ends with a simple phrase: “time to work for YHWH” [the name of God, often translated as “The Lord”]. For the Talmud’s rabbis, this means the study and transmission of “Torah,” which they understand as both the written Torah and, more importantly, the “oral Torah” that includes rabbinic halakha [religious law]. As we have seen throughout Berakhot, according to the rabbis one studies Torah for life in the world to come, and for rewards in this world as well – today they say that one weak in Torah study will be weak in a day of trouble, and those who die for Torah hold it the most firmly. Those who abase themselves for Torah will be exalted, and so on.

An important question, then, is who has the authority to define Torah in content, interpretation, and ruling? Hanania, the nephew of the eminent Rabbi Joshua, left the land of Israel for the eastern Jewish Diaspora and began deciding for himself and his community when new months began (based on the new moon) and when leap years should occur in the Jewish calendar. Two scholars, Rabbi Yose ben Kippar and the grandson of Rabbi Zekharia ben Kebutal are dispatched to investigate and bring him back into line. When they claim they have merely come to learn Torah from him, they are praised by Hananiah as great scholars, but when they begin to negate his rulings, declaring unclean what he calls clean and clean what he calls unclean, he calls them worthless. They threaten to excommunicate him, and declare that those who follow him have no share in the God of Israel. The people weep and capitulate to central authority, even though the two scholars broke a rabbinic tradition by declaring clean what another called unclean – one is able to be stricter in declaring objects prohibited, but not more lenient in permitting them. This “holier than thou” phenomenon in religious life of stricter means better is still with us today, as is the question of interpretive and ritual authority.

The problem is that, between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the breakdown of the Rabbinic Sanhedrin, and the dislocations and freedoms of modern life, there IS no more central authority. A teaching in today’s page ascribed to Hillel the Elder, who lived in the early first century CE, tries to strike a balance between openness and authority: if the rabbis of one’s generation are not spreading “Torah,” you should; but if they are, hold yours in to let them proceed. And he also speaks of the ground on which those seeds may fall: in generations eager to learn, spread knowledge; in those with no interest, keep it in to yourself.

We see similar tensions even today between those who say Jewish knowledge and attention should be spread broadly and appeal to many different styles of Jewish identity, and those who say one should only focus on the most intense, serious, strict and traditional styles of Judaism – and if the others aren’t interested in that, too bad. The best approach is that of Raba cited here: “A man should always first learn Torah and then scrutinize it.” In my words, give people many ways to learn about their Jewish identity, and then they can examine it for themselves. That is the entire idea behind this Talmud blog, and adult Jewish education in general.

Rabbi Adam Chalom