Monday, January 6, 2014

Controversial Talmud

I expect to participate in a panel discussion next week on "Controversial Talmud" - dealing with three talmudic passages which seem to be in direct conflict with modern western ethics. It should be fun.

Here are the selections; I'd be very interested in your thoughts:

1.       Berachot 20a – Freedom of Religion
אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי: מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא, ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?...
אמר ליה: קמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם, אנן לא מסרינן נפשין אקדושת השם. כי הא דרב אדא בר אהבה חזייה לההיא כותית דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא, סבר דבת ישראל היא, קם קרעיה מינה; אגלאי מילתא דכותית היא, שיימוה בארבע מאה זוזי...
Rav Pappa said to Abbaye: Why were the early ones different, such that miracles happened for them, and why are we different, such that miracles don't happen for us?...
He replied: The early ones gave their lives for the sanctity of the Name; we do not give our lives for the sanctity of the Name. As in the time when Rav Ada bar Ahavah saw a non-Jewish woman wearing a karvalta in the market, and he thought she was Jewish, and he tore it from her. It turned out that she was not Jewish, and restitution was set at 400 zuz.

Question: Modern western society believes in freedom of religion. How do we reconcile that with the Talmud's advocation of coercion to comply with our religious sensibilities?

2.      Sanhedrin 76b – Non-Discrimination
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: המשיא את בתו לזקן, והמשיא אשה לבנו קטן, והמחזיר אבידה לנכרי - עליו הכתוב אומר למען ספות הרוה את הצמאה לא יאבה ד' סלח לו.
Rav Yehudah said, citing Rav: Regarding one who marries off his daughter to an elderly man, one who marries off a [mature] woman to his young son, and one who returns a lost object to an outsider, the Torah says, 'To join the quenched with the thirsty, G-d will not forgive him.' (Devarim 29:18)

Question: Modern western society prohibits discrimination between one human being and another on the grounds of race, gender, religion, etc. How do we reconcile that with the Talmud's apparent favouring of discrimination?

3.      Talmud Yerushalmi Shekalim 5:4 – Economic Freedom
דלמא רבי חמא בר חנינה ורבי הושעיא רבה הוו מטיילין באילין כנישתא דלוד אמר ר' חמא בר חנינה לר' הושעיא כמה ממון שיקעו אבותי כאן אמר ליה כמה נפשות שיקעו אבותיך כאן לא הוה אית בני נש דילעון באורייתא?
רבי אבון עבד אילין תרעייה דסדרא רבא אתא ר' מנא לגביה א"ל חמי מאי עבדית א"ל [הושע ח יד] וישכח ישראל את עושהו ויבן היכלות לא הוה בני נש דילעון באורייתא?
Once Rabbi Chama bar Chanina and Rabbi Hoshia Rabbah were strolling among those synagogues of Lod. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said to Rabbi Hoshia, "How much money my ancestors sank here!" He replied, "How many lives your ancestors sank here! Were there no people exhausting themselves in Torah?"
Rabbi Avun decorated the gates of the great study hall. Rabbi Mana came to him, and Rabbi Avun said, "See what I have done!" He replied, "'And Israel forgot its Maker, and built palaces.' (Hosheia 8:14) Were there no people exhausting themselves in Torah?"

Question: Modern western society licenses every individual to decide how to spend his money, and what causes to support. How do we reconcile that with the Talmud's condemnation of someone's spending, which was actually for a mitzvah?


  1. imho cherry picking Talmudic statements can make for an interesting discussion but istm that a ben torah develops a weltanschauung based on the entire corpus of the Talmud which includes seemingly contradictory statements on such issues (how this develops based on nature and nurture is its own fascinating question). Perhaps the Talmud is like this because both opinions had supporters amongst chazal. I like to think that it's because when the oral law had to be written, chazal realized that no hard and fast rules could apply in every combination of future realities and thus left us general guidance to apply with wisdom in each situation (as per R' Kenny rogers - you gotta know when to hold em, when to fold em)

  2. Wow, where to start? Rabbi, I certainly hope there will be no apologetics, as such a thing would be beneath both your dignity and that of the Torah sh'b'al peh.

    That said: In example 1 the focus was on a person being willing to go to great lengths based on his beliefs. Even being willing to lose out monetarily and even to embarrass someone else. Such a thing may clearly still be the ideal (would that more people were willing to risk embarrassment for the sake of the torah!) but as indicated in the piece, the time of such heroes had already since passed.

    2. there is a difference between discrimination and just being plain stupid. The talmud is not (in that passage) assigning a lesser inherent human value, it is describing acts that are inadvisable. Marrying a daughter off to someone whom she will likely have to care for (and keeping in mind that during those times girls will married off quite young) is setting her up for a lifetime of hardship. Returning the lost article of a non-Jew may lead to closer relations with an idol worshipper.

  3. Joel-
    I think you'll like my treatment of it...

    Anonymous 12:37 PM-
    Do you mean apologies or apologetics? As I understand it, apologetics are explanations that resolve conflict, and I see no shame in that.

    Going to your particular points on the cases at hand:
    1. Are you sure it was the willingness to lose monetarily? He doesn't seem to have known he was going to lose money.

    2. I like where you started here, but you lost me after "inadvisable". How does your point fit the pasuk that is quoted?

  4. For number 1, not that according to abaye, already within his times they wouldn't have done it. Such compulsion or zealotry is best admired from a distance, in the early ones, rather than something to be implemented...

  5. R' Josh-
    Indeed - but still, it is considered to be beloved by Gd!

  6. To get technical, I don't think that the section in Berachot 20a that begins "ki ha derav ada, etc." is attributable to Abaye. It was probably a later contribution of the stama degemara.

    That doesn't make much difference, since the stam is also considered authoritative.

  7. Anonymous 4:08 PM-
    I tend to agree with both of your comments.