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 18, 2005

Outside the Box - Shabbat 47

Jewish culture has always had fruitful interactions with its non-Jewish surroundings. Exhibit A on today’s page is the originator of a tradition – a chain of rabbis 5 removed from the actual event relies on the authority of testimony by “Rabbi Romanus.” For all the official enmity between the rabbis and Roman/Hellenistic culture, obviously there was some interchange if a rabbi could be named Romanus! There have been many studies done comparing Talmudic dialectical argument to Hellenistic philosophy, and there are over 2500 terms of Greek linguistic origin in the Talmud (cited in Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, 1993, p31). Even if those terms are rare in theological, literary, or philosophical discussions, their prevalence in areas of government, society, and personal behavior indicates a profound linguistic and social interaction.

Another interesting detail demonstrated in today’s page is the ability of the rabbis to come up with ways around strict yes or no answers. You would think that behavior would simply be defined as “do this” or “don’t do that,” but the rabbis are very creative in refining these categories. Here they consider the case of assembling a bed –the sockets for the legs or the legs themselves should not be inserted, but if they are inserted the individual is not liable for a sin offering. But it is still forbidden to do it! This concept of patur aval asur [exempt but forbidden] runs the risk of becoming a rule without any penalties other than “I’d be very disappointed in you.” Yet it also provides for shadings of grey in behavior – something could be forbidden and liable for punishment, or forbidden but exempt, or permitted. And this is independent of considering whether an action was intentional or not!

The best example of new options is Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who says if the legs are loose, it is permitted. Who would have thought outside the box to come up with another option beyond inserting the legs or not? Or that shoddy workmanship could exempt you from a sin offering? The best parallel I can think of to this in modern Jewish life is how Israeli parliament votes take place. You would think there could be three options: yes, no, or abstain. But at every sensitive vote, certain legislators use the “outside the box” option – they are absent. I know that this strategy is not unique to or created by Jews, but just as Hellenistic vocabulary and argument have found their way into the Talmud and inform Jewish identity, so too have parliamentary maneuvers.

Rabbi Adam Chalom