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, July 24, 2005

Shabbat 83 – Defilement and Holiness

When I was an undergraduate in Jewish studies, I sometimes got the feeling that I was learning about the Jews as if they lived in a bubble – outside world history seems only tangentially related to the internal developments of Jewish civilization. The truth is, as is evident from any study of even rabbinic sources, that Jews have lived among, been influenced by, and dealt with non-Jews for over 2000 years. The Talmud is addressed to the Jews, but it is very aware of the involvement of non-Jews in Jewish experiences.

One case in point is today’s page, which discusses a tangential Mishnah ruling that idols defile someone by carrying them just like something menstrually impure [niddah]. Aside from feminist objections to treating menstruation as “impure,” the discussion still further beyond a modern multicultural respect for religious difference: a foreign man or woman, as well as their idol and its serving utensil ALL defile if they are carried, even if they are not physically touched. In fact, non-Jews are declared here to be impure like zabin [those with impure sexual discharge] in all respects! And not just they themselves, but anything they move or carry acquires their impurity. An idol may defile only if it is the size of an olive or larger, but this small concession is little consolation to our offended sense of tolerance and human dignity. So much for shaking hands with your neighbor – or for choosing to live near anyone not Jewish.

While the Rabbis could not create a hermetic seal between the Jewish world and its surroundings, they could imagine a world where it would be so – at the end of today’s page, one rabbi offers a new insight into a particular rule, and another exclaims that one should never leave the beit hamidrash [house of study] even for an hour because this law had been studied for many years until someone found its reason. And others emphasize the importance of studying Torah every hour, even at the hour of one’s death. Indeed, the Talmud claims, the Torah can only survive with those willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Is there anything today that WE would sacrifice as much for? Or has our love of life become a positive value that outweighs loyalty to an ancestral tradition that, as we have seen today, commands an ambivalent allegiance?

Rabbi Adam Chalom