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Monday, 30 June 2014

Jewish Activism: Challenging an Ancient Tradition


Taanis 19

Prior to the messianic era, chutzpah will reign supreme, says the Talmud.  That’s certainly the case in our generation.   People have no problem challenging G-d, Torah and our rabbinic tradition.   Why shouldn’t they?  After all, didn’t Abraham challenge G-d?  Didn’t Moses challenge G-d?  And the Vilna Gaon often challenged his forebears’ opinions! 

We believe in activism!  What’s wrong with a little challenge to the tradition?

They once asked Choni the circler, “Pray that it rains.”
He replied, “Go and bring in your Passover ovens from the courtyards, so that the clay doesn’t dissolve in the rain.”  He then prayed, but nothing happened. 

What did he do?  He drew a circle on the ground and stood inside it and declared to G-d, “Master of the Universe, Your children turned to me because I am like a member of Your household.  I hereby swear by Your great name that I shall not move from here until You have mercy upon Your children.”  And it began to sprinkle.

Choni said, “That’s not what I requested.  I want sufficient rain to fill the pits, ditches and caves!”  A torrential downfall began to pour.
He said, “That’s not what I requested.  I want rains of goodwill, blessing and generosity.”

It began to rain pleasantly until the inhabitants of Jerusalem had to ascend the Temple Mount due to the abundance of rain.  They said to him, “Just like you prayed for the rain to fall, now pray that it stop.”
He replied, “Go and check if the Wanderers’ Stone has been rubbed out.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach sent him a message: If you weren’t Choni, I would excommunicate you for your insolence to the Almighty!  But what can I do? You act mischievously before the Almighty and He does your bidding just like a child that acts mischievously with his father who then gives in to him.  Concerning you, King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Your father and mother shall rejoice and those who bore you shall be happy!”

Listen to the holy words of Rabbi Shimon.  Not everyone has the right to challenge.  Had anyone but Choni spoken with such chutzpah to the Almighty, he would have deserved to be excommunicated from the community. 

We are certainly all entitled to have a conversation with the Almighty and ask him for our needs, but there’s a certain level of respect that is required when you do so.   He’s not your friend; He’s the King of kings.   Choni earned his place in the Almighty’s palace.  Most of us have a long way to go to reach that level.

And similarly with our rabbinic tradition:  There’s a bizarre trend amongst people ranging from the laity to rabbis whereby many believe that they have a right to challenge the rabbis of yore.  Did they earn the right?  Do they even hold a candle to the level of spirituality and scholarship of our Sages?

Certainly, you should have an open conversation with the Almighty.  Speak to Him regularly.  Tell Him your needs.  But always remember who He is and who you are. 

Certainly, you should engage with the tradition and find your place within our heritage.  Speak to our Sages; let their words jump off the page of the Talmud and come alive.  But always remember who they are and who you are.


Yes, before the messianic era, chutzpah will reign supreme.  But you should strive to be part of the solution, not part of the problem!