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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Living and the Dead - Shabbat 30

While rabbinic attribution of certain books of the Bible to famous figures may simplify historical investigation by eliminating it, it does create other problems. David is traditionally understood to have written Tehillim [Psalms], even though many were clearly sung at a Jerusalem Temple not built in David’s lifetime. And Solomon is considered the author of both Mishlay [Proverbs] and Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], even though their focus on wisdom and occasional cynicism about divine justice seem closer to Hellenistic philosophy of late antiquity than to Jewish religious thought of Solomon’s day.

Kohelet 4:2 says, “I praise the dead that are already dead more than the living who are still alive,” and the context indicates that the dead are lucky because the living are still suffering with no deliverance – hardly traditional rabbinic theology! Yet it would seem to contradict Kohelet 9:4, which prefers life to death: “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” How to reconcile this disagreement? The first verse is interpreted as praise of holy ancestors, as when Moses convinces God to relent from destroying Israel by appealing to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or Moses himself whose laws (unlike a regular prince) have lasted far beyond his death. An affirmation of tradition is created out of its negation.

And the second is the opportunity for a story: David supposedly wanted to know the end of his life, but was told he could not know it. So David studied all day on the Shabbat he was supposed to die, and while he was studying the Angel of Death [malakh ha-mavet] could not take him! But David was tricked into climbing a ladder in the garden, which broke and distracted him from his study, and he lay dead on the ground. Solomon asked the Sanhedrin [rabbinic court] what to do to keep the dogs away, and they told him to cut up a carcass and pick up the body, even though it was Shabbat. Thus the “living dogs” were better off than the “dead lion” (David). What is the Shabbat connection to all of this discussion of Kohelet? The question was can one extinguish a lamp on Shabbat for a sick person, and the answer is: better for the physical light to go out than the human soul. But I could have told you that without any stories – life should always be more important than a simple light.

Despite these creative interpretations, there was obviously some discomfort with the theological challenges posed by Kohelet and Jewish wisdom literature – here we read that the Rabbis wanted to “hide” it because of contradictory teachings like the one examined above, and the same for Proverbs 26:4-5, which say the exact opposite, each with their own reasons. The rabbinic answer, which is the right one, is that what is wise to do in some circumstances is not wise in others. There are times the dead are better off than the living, and there are times life is better than death. True wisdom is knowing the difference.

Rabbi Adam Chalom