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.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Shabbat 88 – “We will do and we will hear”

The most important difference between Orthodox Judaism and more liberal approaches concerns the issue of a covenant to follow the Torah entered into at Mount Sinai. Orthodox Judaism sees this promise as real, binding, and obligatory for all Jews everywhere and in every generation. On the other hand, liberal Jews everywhere consider the complete revelation of the Torah (written and oral) at Mount Sinai a pious myth rather than actual historical fact. Nevertheless, the “event” remains the central myth of rabbinic Judaism, whether or not one believes it happened or is binding today.

Just before the Sinaitic revelation described in Exodus, Exodus 19:17 says the Israelites “stood b’takhtit [under or at the foot of] the mountain.” According to one rabbi, this means that God held the mountain over them saying, in essence, accept my Torah or die. Another rabbi wryly notes that this gives ammunition to reject its observance, seeing that it was not a free choice, but a third retorts that a later generation accepted its obligations again in the days of Esther. One does indeed wonder, however, what implications this has for enforcing the punishment provisions of the Torah if punishment was threatened for its rejection.

This “forced” interpretation is in stark contrast to the very next discussion on this Talmud page – that of the famous “na’ase v’nishma – we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). In other words, they agreed to follow the covenant before hearing what it was! We read here that 600,000 angels (one for each male Israelite) gave them each two crowns at that moment – one for na’ase and one for nishma. An outside critic generations later points out that the Jews must have been rash, giving precedence to their mouth over their ears and not listening before accepting. Raba responds that this was a sign of faith and integrity rather than impetuousness.

IS absolute acceptance, before hearing the conditions, an ideal? The traditionalist might respond, “it’s unconditional love of God – no matter what! Don’t you love your family unconditionally?” And my response: “Continuing to love anyone who is violent, abusive, neglectful, arrogant and distant unconditionally is a recipe for personal pain and tragedy. It may hurt to say goodbye, but that will be better for me than the silence.” Reading the fine print in any contract is always a good idea!

Rabbi Adam Chalom