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.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Shabbat 84 – The Limits of Possibility

Sometimes we can give up too easily. Many times when we say to others (or to ourselves), “I just can’t do it,” we really mean, “I just don’t want to do it.” If the task at hand were important enough to us to put our full minds and resources towards it, we would; but if it isn’t important enough to justify a radical refocusing of our priorities, then we “can’t” do it. At the same time, of course, there are literal no-win situations where fulfilling others’ expectations ARE simply impossible.

As we explore the Talmud’s labyrinth of laws and rituals, we can concede that in many cases, if it were important enough to us we could manage like this – although our choice to pursue a different course for our lives is frequently reaffirmed. It is also nice to see that one of the legal assumptions behind Talmudic reasoning is that fulfilling one’s obligation should not be absolutely impossible, even if it is ridiculously difficult.

In debating what kind of objects are susceptible to becoming defiled by a zab, or one ritually impure because of a sexual discharge, we find the following discussion: certain objects cannot be cleaned in a mikvah [ritual bath], so if they can’t be cleansed are they susceptible to defilement? The answer: it depends on the material. If other objects made of similar material (e.g. clay, wood) are able to be cleansed by a mikvah, then it can become defiled; but if nothing made of that material can be so cleansed, it is not at risk. Thus at the same time some objects may be made useless, but some limits to contamination are possible.

My approach to the question, particularly in the kitchen, is: if I can’t clean them, I don’t want to use them! Further, cleanliness is a much more clear-cut issue to worry about than ritual impurities which are invisible and a human construction with no physical reality behind them.

Rabbi Adam Chalom