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, August 26, 2005

Shabbat 116 Sectarians and their Writings

In its discussion of what counts as Holy Scripture worthy of saving from a fire on Shabbat, the Talmud turns to consider the Minim [sectarians] and their writings. Minim is a catch-all term for Sadducees, Samaritans, or Jewish Christians, though as we’ll see today’s page may well be referring to the last group. The difficulty we face in Talmud study today is that over the centuries the original text of the Talmud was censored in Christian lands to remove the most anti-Christian passages – both for self-preservation by the Jews themselves and by converts who pointed out the problematic passages to Church authorities. For example, an unedited text of this page includes mocking of the Gospels as the sin or the falsehood of blank paper – indeed, this entire discussion was sparked by the question of whether the blank spaces from accepted Jewish holy writings could be saved from a fire on Shabbat, so the comparison is insulting to Christians but makes sense in context.

Why such animosity? After all, these people come from a Jewish background, today would be called a “Jewish sect”, and use Jewish scriptures and language as part of their religious life – so are their books worth saving? Exactly the opposite: Rabbi Yose says that on weekdays he cuts out the holy names from their books, puts those scraps into a geniza, and burns the rest of the books. And Rabbi Tarfon vows to bury his son if he doesn’t burn them together with the divine names in them! If he was being pursued by a murderer, he would rather take refuge in a pagan Temple than in their buildings: they know better and still sin.

So when Rabbi Gamliel’s sister, Imma Shalom [mother of peace], goes to visit a "philosopha," she tries to trick him by asking to inherit with her brother against Torah law - if there is a living son, the daughter gets nothing. The philosopha allows her to divide it, and Rabban Gamliel points out his “error.” The response: “since you have been exiled, the oraita d’moshe [Moses’ Scripture] has been replaced by a new law that says son and daughter inherit equally.” But the next day, Rabban Gamliel comes again, and one of them says, “Look in the book, where it says ‘I did not come to destroy the oraita d’moshe nor to add to it,’ and in Moses’ law it says where there is a son the daughter does not inherit.” Unfortunately the context is not clear as to which of them says it, but it is an almost exact quotation of Matthew 5:17 from the New Testament. Striking that it appears here, even more striking if it was Rabban Gamliel who was able to cite it – meaning he had read the book! Perhaps he agreed that to read a book does not make one an adherent – I am no more a Christian for having read the New Testament than I am an Orthodox Jew for having read the Talmud.
Rabbi Adam Chalom