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.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Life, Death, and Divine Justice - Shabbat 55

In a lengthy theological digression from Shabbat rules and regulations, the Talmud turns to questions of divine justice. We saw at the end of the previous page that one has an obligation to inform others of their incorrect behavior, and today’s page clarifies that even if they will not accept the correction, still one has an obligation to inform them. This obligation derives from a rabbinic midrash [story based on a Biblical passage] on Ezekiel 9:4, where God commands that a tav [last letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet] be put on the foreheads of those in Jerusalem “who sigh and who cry for all the abominations that are done in its midst,” so that

The midrash creates a dialogue between God and the “midat ha-din” [attribute of justice], a side of God’s decision-making process whose counterpoint is the midat ha-rakhamim [attribute of mercy]: God puts a tav of ink on the righteous and one of blood on the wicked, but midat ha-din asks what the difference is since “they had the power to protest and did not.” God tried to defend them by saying “I knew their protest would not be received,” but he is answered, “You knew, but did they?” In other words, no human can know in advance whether a protest against wickedness will be heard or ignored, so we have an obligation to protest. In this case, rabbinic midrash has interpreted the original narrative even more cruelly – while Ezekiel seems to save at least those who “sigh and cry,” this version condemns them as well for their failure to protest to the wicked.

The case of Holocaust bystanders provides a powerful parallel – who can say what might have happened if more had chosen to protest earlier in the process? The parallel to the Holocaust experience is even more powerful when one of the rabbis interprets the two different tavs – one is for tikhiyeh [you shall live], and the other is for tamut [you shall die]. Just as Nazi doctors played God in the concentration camps, pointing to the right or the left for the gas or life, so does the Talmud’s God play God by supposedly condemning or rescuing those who live or die. Facing the classic conundrum of providential religion – why do people suffer and die if God is good and all-powerful - Rabbi Ammi puts the rabbinic perspective flatly: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.” Many today would just as flatly disagree.

While there are some minimal attempts to refute this bald conclusion in today’s page, there are far more attempts to soften the sins of Biblical figures – where the Torah says Reuven slept with his father Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22), the Rabbis have decided he must have simply turned over her bed, because how could his descendents in Deuteronomy have cursed those who committed the same violation? More on this topic in tomorrow’s page, but suffice it to say here that from our perspective, hypocrisy would be nothing new under the sun.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For information on the German Pastor Martin Niemoller and his famous quotation on the importance of protest during the Holocaust, see: