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.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

For Appearance’s Sake - Shabbat 64

There are times when the rabbis of the Talmud can sound as puritanical as any fundamentalist religious authority – today’s page asks why the Israelites of the generation that wandered in the wilderness for 40 years under Moses were in need of atonement. The answer: shehzanu eyneihem meen ha-ervah – literally, they whored their eyes through nudity. And what does it mean that their atonement, according to rabbinic interpretation, included casts of breasts and wombs? They symbolize “outer” and “inner” lusts, and from this Rabbi Sheshet learns that whoever looks upon a woman’s little finger is as if he gazed on her “special place.” Not that far away from a fundamentalist Islamic authority who decrees women should be covered head to toe for similar reasoning.

The more important legal concept explored here, however, concerns the importance of appearances. “Rab Judah said in Rab's name: ‘Wherever the Sages forbade [aught] for appearances’ sake, it is forbidden even in one's khidrey khadarim [“room of rooms” or innermost room].’” The principle of mar’it ayin [“seeing of the eye” or appearance’s sake] means that one should not perform a certain action lest it lead to the perception of incorrect behavior. To draw a modern parallel, sitting in a non-kosher restaurant, even if one eats nothing, looks like un-kosher behavior is taking place. Or, in an example brought by the commentator Rashi, one should not lead camels tied together on Shabbat lest others think you are taking them to market to sell them. But Judah is going even farther – just because no one is there to watch you and judge you incorrectly doesn’t mean you can still do the action! Even in private, you are not free of the tyranny of popular prejudice.

If we ran our lives based on the perceptions of others, no one would fear “Big Brother” because there would be many judging eyes on everyone at every moment. Thank goodness that we are not only free to make our own decisions about life, but that we are free to make them without being constrained by others’ senses of propriety. We do sometimes choose based on the possible perceptions and sensitivities of others, but these are free choices we make from our generosity towards their sensibilities. We could also choose to tell them it’s none of their business. Or, in one of my favorite lines in the fabulous movie The Price Above Rubies, when the main female character is chastised for not covering her hair, “You can look at the ceiling, or you can look at the shoes, but it’s not my problem!”

Rabbi Adam Chalom