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.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Death and Justice - Shabbat 32

One can think of few worse tragedies than a woman dying in childbirth, an occasion that is much less frequent today than in previous generations because of modern advances. Yet for rabbinic theology, women dying in childbirth must have done something wrong to deserve it! A Mishnah text cited at the end of the previous page and discussed in today’s daf jumps out at us – “for three sins women die in childbirth: not being careful in niddah [menstrual impurity], khallah [offerings from bread], and lighting Shabbat candles.” As our page tells it – “the soul in you is called a ner [lamp], thus I warned you about the ner (of Shabbat). . .if you neglect it, I will take your souls.” Whatever consolation we can derive from the important position of women with regard to these responsibilities is negated by their condemnation.

Why in childbirth, the rabbis ask? Several sayings are brought to make the point that times of danger are when actions are judged: “leave the drunkard alone – he will fall of himself.” And so the next question is: when are men judged? The answer: when crossing a bridge. For this reason, Rab would not cross a bridge where a non-Jew sat, lest the non-Jew be judged and he be caught up in the tragedy! A more sober conclusion was reached by Rabbi Yannai, who proclaimed that “one should never stand in a dangerous place and expect a miracle, lest it not happen.” And, continued Yannai, even if one does happen, it’s deducted from your total of merit so don’t feel so good about yourself!

Indeed, even falling seriously ill is considered to be under death sentence – when you go in the street you’re arrested, when you have a headache you’re in chains, and taking to bed is like going to the gallows. What are the best advocates for clemency? Teshuva u’ma’asim tovim – repentance and good deeds. There are still more tragedies to explain: some women die from their husband’s unfulfilled vows, but others argue that unfulfilled vows cause one’s children to die instead. Or perhaps the latter tragedy is for neglect of Torah study, or of the mezuzah [doorpost], or tzitzit [fringes]. I suspect that few of these explanations do anything to really address the agonizing pain of losing a child, other than to add guilt to injury.

We also learn that ame’ ha-aretz [the ignorant] die for two reasons: calling the aron ha-kodesh [holy ark where the Torah is kept] an arna [chest – same word but in Aramaic], and for calling a beit kenesset [synagogue] a beit am [house of the people]. Heaven forbid that elements of rabbinic culture be more closely connected to the people’s life by using their own words and changing to focus of the synagogue from the supernatural to the human! To my mind, the synagogue should be a house of the people, by the people and for the people that it claims to serve.

Rabbi Adam Chalom