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, August 22, 2005

Shabbat 112 A Mensch Lower than Donkeys

One of the implicit principles in many strict religious traditions is the decline in generations – one might also call it “de-volution.” The founders were, of course, more holy than their heirs, and their direct heirs were more holy than more remote inheritors, and our teachers were of course better than we are today. And things will probably only get worse from here forward. We’ve seen examples of this in how the statements of the Mishnah are treated by the Talmud’s rabbis as a new kind of sacred teaching, and how the earlier generation of amoraim are more authoritative than the later tannaim.

In today’s page, while trying to resolve the question of what to do with a sandal strap that happens to snap on Shabbat, one rabbi comes up with an innovative solution to the status of a repaired sandal that breaks again. And another exclaims, “This one is not human [Aramaic bar enash]!” to be so inventive. But others interject – he is indeed human, a paragon of humanity. The Hebrew translation for a generic human is ben adam [literally “son of Adam”], and a Yiddish equivalent which has made its way into English is mensch. But a mensch is more than a person – it is what the others interjected, the highest kind of person one can be.

Nevertheless, for the devolutionist perspective of traditional rabbinic perspective, the best of today cannot hope to equal what was in centuries before. As Raba ben Zimuna said, “if the rishonim [first (scholars)] were sons of angels, we are sons of people. If they were sons of people, we are donkeys.” And not like the saintly donkeys of Rabbi Pinkhas ben Ya’ir (which refused to eat untithed grain) or Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (which would deliver its wage back to its master, but only if the amount were exactly correct, no more and no less) – we are like all the rest of the donkeys!

I much prefer to think of the people of the past as people, no more and no less. We may be wiser in many areas of life than they were, and they experienced the natural world very differently and more immediately than we do today – I’m sure that the stars were brighter at night than in our cities and suburbs. What does that make us if they were people? Simply people too.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Note: The Soncino Talmud translation renders “donkeys” as “asses,” but I restrained myself. . .