I have two items for my write-up today on Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 1: You Shall Be Holy.
1. On page 118, Telushkin talks about greeting people. He quotes Babylonian Talmud 17a, which says that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai greeted people first in the marketplace, even if they were Gentiles. Telushkin then tells a story about how Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky found that he could not cheerfully greet everyone he met in Vilna, since that was a large city. Imagine trying to greet everyone you encounter in New York City. You really can’t, since you are coming across hordes of people at a time! After telling this story, Telushkin lays out the principle that “it is appropriate to greet those whose eye we catch, and all those whom we know, even if only slightly.”
The above discussion is a good example of why I am enjoying this book so far: it teaches social skills. I myself struggle with greeting people. I fear rejection or not being remembered, or I wonder if I know the person well enough to greet him. But I’m getting better at greeting people, I hope. Elsewhere in this book, Telushkin reinforces a point that I have heard in another setting: that, even if another person does not remember you, you can take the opportunity to reintroduce yourself and remind him of where he met you.
Telushkin’s discussion about greetings reminded me of what the New Testament says about this issue. There’s Matthew 5:47, which says that greeting our brethren does not bring us reward, for everyone does that. Jesus makes this point within the context of talking about the importance of loving our enemies. And then there’s Luke 10:4, in which Jesus tells his disciples not to greet anyone while they’re on their way to evangelize a city. II Kings 4:29 has something similar: Elisha is sending Gehazi to raise a child from the dead, and Gehazi is to greet no one along the way.
On an important mission, a person is to be single-minded, not distracted by the need to greet people. Of course, Jesus was not saying that his followers should never greet people—-after all, he said that they should greet their enemies—-but, on an important mission, their mission should be what is foremost on their mind. I wonder why, though. There are biblical scholars who would say that the disciples believed their mission to be urgent because Jesus thought that the end was near, and so they had to get busy and start getting converts because time was short, and they could not get bogged down in greetings. If Jesus did not believe that the end was near, what would be the reason for his disciples not to greet people along the way? Where’s the emergency? At the same time, if the disciples were continually in emergency mode because they felt that the end was near, why did they allow themselves at least some opportunities to greet people—-such as their enemies (according to Matthew 5:47)?
2. Telushkin talks about how common sense plays a role within Judaism in defining what God wants for Jews to do. Telushkin gives a variety of examples, but one that I’ll mention is in Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a, in which Jerusalem is conquered because a rabbi was inflexible in his application of halakah. Essentially, Bar Kamtza, who was upset with Jewish leaders, made a blemish on a sacrifice that was to be offered on the Roman emperor’s behalf, and the Torah prohibits the sacrifice of blemished animals. There were some dilemmas. Should the rabbis refrain from offering the sacrifice on the emperor’s behalf and thus incur the wrath of Rome? Should they kill Bar Kamtza to prevent him from telling the emperor that the Jews decided not to offer a sacrifice on the emperor’s behalf? On these issues, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas was a stickler for the letter of the law: he said that the Jews should not sacrifice the blemished animal because that is prohibited by the Torah, and that they should not kill Bar Kamtza because causing a blemish in a sacrificial animal does not merit death. Because people chose to go with his inflexibility, which defied common sense, the Romans got mad at the Jews’ refusal to offer the sacrifice on the emperor’s behalf and thus destroyed Jerusalem.
Does reason supercede divine revelation? There are times when reason dictates an exception to the law within Judaism. Telushkin mentions, for example, the Maccabees’ rule that Jews could fight to defend themselves on the Sabbath, even though they’re technically not supposed to do any work on that day. At the same time, there is the rabbinic writing known as the Sifra, which affirms that the Jews should go with divine revelation, even though it may say things that they would not logically conclude. The Sifra repeatedly says that one might reach a certain conclusion logically, but the Torah says something else, and so one should follow the Torah. This makes a degree of sense, for, if logic were sufficient, why did God give the Torah? And yet, Jewish thinkers have pointed out that God did not give us the Torah to hurt us, and so they crafted exceptions to laws when strictly following those laws could result in (say) death. Still, they did acknowledge times when Jews should take their stand and keep the law, even when doing so brought the death penalty from Gentile persecutors.