The Modern Rabbi
“THE FAMILY OF Benjamin the Physician used to say: ‘Of what use are the Rabbis to us? They never permitted us the raven, nor have they forbidden us the dove.’” Thus the Babyl6nian Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b, 100a) reports an early instance of the contemporary American Jewish parlor game of “rabbi baiting.” Benjamin the Physician meant, evidently, that the sources of rabbinic decisions were as available to the layman as they are to the rabbis: for the Bible itself forbade eating ravens, while permitting the eating of doves. And the rabbis had done no tampering with the Biblical law, neither to mitigate it nor make it more stringent. The Talmudic report goes on to say, however, that when dietary questions of a doubtful nature arose in Benjamin’s household, recourse was had to the rabbis, after all. In answering such questions, the rabbis did not fail to append a gloating reference to the rabbinate’s usefulness to society.
But we moderns looking back can see that the ancient rabbinate did far more than hold the key to decisions in doubtful cases. They in fact adjusted more than one Biblical statute to the changing conditions of life, and to men’s increasing moral sensitivity. They interpreted the lex talionis, for instance, in terms of monetary compensation; they virtually set aside the law governing the sabbatical year; and the “rebellious son” law (Deuteronomy 21: 18ff.) they spelled out in such a way as to make its application impossible. The marked aversion of the rabbis to capital punishment was evident in the restrictions they placed on the law concerning it-in contrast to the Bible, which rather freely commands that penalty. As to women, the rabbis allowed them many more rights than the Bible does, and in general the ancient rabbinate laid the foundation of a system of Bible interpretation which made of literalist fundamentalism a heresy.
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