12/20/2007

An Ecumenical Reading of Kiddushin 31a?

I wanted to follow yesterday's Christological Talmudic reading with an ecumenical Talmudic reading today. The narrative in question is recorded in Kiddushin 31a, as part of a longer halakhic/aggadic treatment of the mitzvah of kibbud av va-em. The components of the sugya cannot really be divorced from their overall context; perhaps I'll get to the entirety of it some day:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף לא עמוד א

דרש עולא רבה אפיתחא דבי נשיאה, מאי דכתיב: +תהלים קלח+ יודוך ה' כל מלכי ארץ כי שמעו אמרי פיך? מאמר פיך לא נאמר אלא אמרי פיך, בשעה שאמר הקב"ה +שמות כ+ אנכי ולא יהיה לך, אמרו אומות העולם: לכבוד עצמו הוא דורש, כיון שאמר +שמות כ+ כבד את אביך ואת אמך, חזרו והודו למאמרות הראשונות.

The great Ullah sermonized at the door of the Patriarch's house: What is meant by 'All the kings of Earth will acknowledge You, for they have heard the statements You spoke' (Tehillim 138); it does not say 'statement', rather 'statements'? When God uttered 'I am God' and 'You shall have no others', the nations said 'He seeks his own honor'. But once he said 'Honor your father and mother', they recanted and acknowledged the first statements.

Before addressing the unique setting, let's note the content. The first four 'dibrot', at least as formulated in the first version (in Yitro, where Shabbat contains no explicit social element), all pertain to man's relationship with God. The fifth, honoring parents, begins the transition to the 'bein adam le-chaveiro' commandments. From elsewhere in this sugya it is clear that kibbud av va-em was viewed as something in between man-man and man-God.

This mitzvah, then, is the first one (in the dibrot, anyway) which begins to show that the man-God mitzvot imply a certain social order as well. This is the beginning of what we call 'ethical monotheism' - that belief in a Deity requires the absorption of His values and not a simple obedience. This was one of Judaism's great contributions to the world, and forms the basis of our covenant with God ('keil rachum ve-chanun, etc.). The formulation of this mitzvah opens the door for a theology with moral implications. The Gemara is saying just that. The 'nations' heard the first mitzvot, and they sounded just as familiar as the purported commandments of any other self-serving deity. The shift toward the ethical and moral plane changed their opinion, even causing the re-evaluation of the original dibrot.

The process which Ullah reads into this verse parallels the theological development of the Western world. At some point, paganism was replaced by systems whose cores were ethical monotheism. The Roman world, especially its upper classes, began a love affair with Judaism and, eventually, Christianity.

Ullah lived during this interesting time. Christianity had already taken a turn away from its Jewish roots, and was gaining steam amongst the Roman nobility. Relations between Jews and Christians were stable - the schism with the early Judeo-Christians had ended, but Constantine had not yet made Christianity a true power, with its effective license to persecute non-believers. The last great Roman persecution of Christians happened at the end of the reign of Diocletian.

Ullah was never the head of any of the Yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael, and this is the only time he is called 'Ullah Rabbah'. I believe that he obtained this moniker specifically for this occasion since he was, by this point (late 3rd-early 4th Century) an 'elder statesman' of the rabbis. It seems that he delivered this sermon at some sort of public event; the door of the Patriarch's house seems to be an honored venue (perhaps like the White House Lawn?). I would like to suggest that there was some sort of gathering of Roman nobility, by then heavily Christian, and Jewish nobility at the Patriarch's residence in Tiberias. It seems far-fetched to suggest that Diocletian himself was there, although we know that he visited Tiberias on his way to and from campaigns against the Sassanian Persians. In any event, Ullah addresses the crowd and speaks about the emerging world-order, where the nations of the world acknowledge God and His morality.

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