Who Can Follow These Rules?
This week’s Talmud reading prompts strikingly contemporary questions about observance and belief
And the other residents of the courtyard? “They,” Abaye says, “do not care if there is a shituf in the mavoi.” Now, this answer could be taken in one of two ways. Perhaps the neighbors don’t care if there is a shituf because they have no intention of carrying into the alleyway on Shabbat. But I wonder if there isn’t also the suggestion that they don’t care because they’re not too particular about observing Shabbat laws. This raises an interesting question about the relation of Rabbah and Abaye to the average Jew of their time. Could it be that all the details of shituf and eruv mattered only to a self-selected Jewish elite?
That suspicion deepens in Eruvin 69a, when the rabbis discuss whether it is permitted to make an eruv with Jews who do not accept rabbinic authority. This could mean a Sadducee—that is, a member of a sect that rejects the Oral Law on principle. But it could also be, in the words of a baraita, “a brashly irreligious person.” Rav Huna defined such a person: “Who is considered an irreligious Jew? This is anyone who publicly desecrates Shabbat.” A Shabbat violator, the Gemara goes on to explain, is equivalent to an idolator, since it can be assumed that a Jew who violates one category of laws will violate them all.
The key word here is “publicly.” Thus we learn about “a person who went out publicly on Shabbat wearing a bag of spices. As soon as he saw Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah approaching, he covered it.” Yehudah’s response was that “A person like this may relinquish rights.” In other words, the man was aware that he was violating Shabbat by wearing a bag of spices (because a bag is not a normal adornment, this would be considered a kind of carrying). But since he was sufficiently ashamed to want to hide his infraction from Rabbi Yehudah, he could still be considered Jewish for the purpose of making an eruv. If, on the other hand, the man had been a Sadducee or a “brash” freethinker, who had worn his bag of spices openly and unapologetically, he would not be eligible for participating in an eruv.
What is at stake here is the difference between a sinner and a heretic. A sinner accepts the system of law under which he is condemned. Even if he is a hypocrite, like the man who hid his bag of spices, his very hypocrisy is, as the saying goes, a tribute that vice pays to virtue. But a heretic flatly denies that virtue is virtue; he undermines the entire legal system by rejecting its authority. Thus we learn in Eruvin 69b that “we accept sacrifices from Jewish sinners” but not “from an irreligious Jew, or someone who makes libations of wine to an idol or someone who desecrates the Sabbath publicly.”
At the time the Talmud was written, of course, there was no such word or concept as secularism. But the case of the modern secular Jew seems highly relevant here. Such a Jew rejects the divine authority of the Torah and Talmud and replaces it with the authority of human reason and custom. Like me, the secular Jew might read the Talmud out of respect and intellectual curiosity, even claim it as a part of his Jewish heritage. (For another secular take on Daf Yomi, check out the charming website inhaiku.wordpress.com, which renders each daf as a haiku.) But he does not live by it, and that makes all the difference. He is, in the Talmud’s eyes, an idolator—an idolator of reason. Reading passages like this in the Talmud helps me to understand why there is such distrust between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews and why calls for Jewish unity so often fall on deaf ears.
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