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.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Human Responsibility - Shabbat 54

A classic ethical debates concerns the limits of human responsibility – am I only responsible for my own actions, or am I also responsible for the actions of others under my authority? On one hand, we know that we have a duty to teach our children correct behavior, and that we should be held responsible for failing to do so. On the other hand, if we are adults and independent individuals, we have no need of and are insulted by others having the khutzpah [gall] to tell us how to live our lives.

The Mishnah mentions that a cow is forbidden to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, but also that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s cow would go out like that but without the permission of the rabbis. The Talmud’s rabbis ask if it truly was his only cow, as implied by the Mishnah’s phrasing – after all, another tradition holds that this rabbi was so wealthy that his annual tithe was 13,000 calves annually! Rather, it is claimed that it was his female neighbor’s cow, and since he could have easily corrected her but did not, it is referred to as his.

From this specific case, the Talmud turns to the general philosophical question highlighted above. Four rabbis sat and discussed the question and taught their conclusion: whoever can stop the people of his house from transgression and does not, is responsible. And the same is true for the people of his city, or even for the entire world [kol ha’olam kulo]. I am at once inspired by the willingness and generosity to take responsibility for the moral behavior and education, and made nervous by contemplating what counts as a “transgression” worthy of intervention. Is my choice of diet, or dress, or Shabbat observance, or marriage partner, or any other of the freedoms I enjoy, subject to nosy intervention by well-meaning “responsibility-takers?”

Today, one would hope that Rabbi Eleasar ben Azariah could address his situation like this: he could politely inform her one time of the rabbinic rulings on Shabbat and cows, and then let her be mature enough to make her own decision and take responsibility for those actions. Thus he has taken responsibility for informing her, but not taken away her dignity by assuming she can’t make decisions for herself. Wouldn’t the world be much nicer if values arguments proceeded on this basis instead of the way they work today?

Rabbi Adam Chalom