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 04, 2005

Tragedy and Judgment - Shabbat 33

There is a macabre competition the religiously-inclined can pursue when facing tragedy – which is more numerous, the varieties of sins worthy of punishment or the varieties of cosmic punishment for sins? Today’s page explores the punishments for robbery, for perverted or delayed justice, for vain oaths and profaning God and Shabbat, for bloodshed, and for blasphemy – any number of tragedies, from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and national calamity to an individual falling ill are connected to Jewish transgressions. Even about this there is disagreement – some argue that askarah [digestive trouble] comes from neglecting tithes, or slander, for eating untithed food, or for neglecting Torah study. We would point to “diet,” but that’s missing the rabbinic point of explaining tragedy in a just universe. We can, however, take heart that we agree that several of the issues they call transgressions are still objectionable, even if for us their correction relies more on human than on divine justice.

This last “reason” of neglecting study raises predictable questions: why then would women, or children, or non-Jews (all of whom are not commanded to study) – or for that matter school children [tinokot shel beit rabban – literally “babies of the Rabbi’s house”] who DO study enough - suffer from askarah? The answers: for women – because they interfere with their husbands’ study; for non-Jews, because they interfere; for children – because they make their fathers neglect to study. I would argue the last one is actually a worthy replacement! Why do school children suffer? Rabbi Gorion (or perhaps Rabbi Joseph ben Shemaiah) claims that the righteous suffer for the sins of their generation, and if there are no righteous the school children suffer instead. One begins to sympathize with Job and ask, “is that justice?”

This page also contains a fascinating story about Rabbi Simon bar Yohai and the dangers of loose lips. Rabbi Judah comments how great are the public works of the Romans, and Rabbi Simon retorts that they built streets and markets to install whores, baths to clean themselves, and bridges to take tolls. This is the reverse of a marvelous scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where Jewish revolutionaries ask disparagingly “what have the Romans ever done for us?” and come up with a large number of answers: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Rabbi Shimon’s comments were reported to the authorities, and he and his son fled to a cave where they hid for 12 years. They took of their clothes (to prevent them wearing out) and sat in sand up to their necks until it was time to pray, at which point they got dressed, prayed, then took them off again. Having been told by Elijah that the Roman emperor was dead and the decree against them annulled, they leave the cave, only to be so judgmental of people living ordinary lives plowing and sowing rather than studying Torah that their gaze causes everything to burn up. They are returned to the cave for a year, after which they come out and see someone hurrying to observe Shabbat, which calms them down.

What can we get from this fable? Shimon bar Yohai is traditionally claimed (impossible historically) to be the author of the Zohar, the most important book in Jewish mysticism, so this story is understandably celebrated in those circles. We see the danger of critical comments, and also the problems created by being unnecessarily negative about the good works of others with whom we have conflict – even if the bridges were to collect tolls, now you can cross the river! Studying in isolation from the outside world is dangerous, because you won’t accommodate your ideas to messy reality. And even if we can’t burn up others with our judgmental eyes, the emotional impact and its consequences are similar.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

You can read or hear the entire The Life of Brian scene at: