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, September 09, 2005

Shabbat 130 - Accepting Mitzvot

Rabbinic law is based on the obligation of origins – since your ancestors accepted these rules, you are obligated to follow them. We can sympathize with this approach to a limited extent –national constitutions are not re-authorized every 10 years but continue their authority based on the tacit acceptance of inheritance. The major difference between these two cases is the question of historicity – it is in recorded history with much evidence that the American Constitution was signed, while the only ancient source for the Torah’s authority is the Torah itself! But just as contemporary scholars investigate the “framers’ intent,” so too did the Talmud’s Rabbis believe that how mitzvot [commandments] were accepted in earlier generations set the tone for later generations.

In today’s page, we find interesting insights into the relative importance of certain mitzvot based on their historical experience. Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar suggests that actions for which Jews had died as martyrs based on the decrees of non-Jewish governments (e.g. the Hellenistic king Antiochus or the Roman emperor Caligula) are taken more seriously. If previous generations died rather than worship idols and insisted on pain of death on circumcising their male babies, these traditions “remain strong in their hands” [adayin hee mukhazeket b’yadam]. On the other hand, mitzvot like tefillin [prayer boxes] that were not the source of martyrdom are “weak in their hands.” And this is reflected even in modern-day Jewish experience – circumcising male children and not bowing to idols or converting to other religions continues in great numbers among very secularized Jews in America and Israel, but tefillin use has certainly declined!

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, from an earlier generation, goes even further back in “history” to the original reception of the mitzvot – those accepted in joy, like circumcision, are still performed in joy; but those accepted with unhappiness like rules of permitted marriage (see Leviticus 18) are still the source of misery. As this rabbi put it, delikha ketubah d’lo rimu ba tigra – there is no marriage agreement in which they do not have a dispute! As someone who performs marriage every year, this tradition has definitely been continued.

We also see on this page that what we think of today as “the tradition” was not always so – while today chicken is considered meat for kashrut [kosher] rules to separate milk and meat, it was not universally thought so, even among the Rabbis. Rabbi Jose the Galilean had ruled that since the rule in Deuteronomy 14 said to not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, and chickens do not produce milk, then they were not included in the rule. Thus in his district they ate milk with fowl! A traditionalist would say that the intervening centuries of rabbinic practice impose their own authority, but the cultural historian can point out that what was later is not necessarily what always was.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation