Talmud pages

Chagigah 22

Toward Jewish unity.

We live in a world of real diversity. Even just within the world of Jews, we have diversity of denominational affiliation, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of class, sexual orientation, gender identity, country of origin and politics, as well as diversity based on ancestral traditions rooted in Ashkenaz, Sepharad and many other regions. Living in community with other people means recognizing the diversities inherent in one’s community, and figuring out how to live alongside people who are different from you.

Today’s daf reminds us that this diversity is not just a challenge of the modern world. The rabbis of the Talmud were themselves one community of Jews alongside other Jews in the late antique world. According to the Talmud, these non-rabbinic Jews, who the rabbis refer to as amei ha’aretz, people of the land (singular: am ha’aretz), had a different set of Jewish practices and priorities and so were less stringent than the rabbis about issues of purity and impurity.

In a world where purity is both materially significant and contagious, how do we live in community with people who have such different practices and priorities? 

The Gemara states:

We do not accept terumah(tithes set aside for the priests) from amei ha’aretz.

Amei ha’aretz do not accept rabbinic laws about ritual purity as it relates to terumah, so members of the rabbinic community cannot eat their terumah. So far so good. But then the Gemara discusses a different type of ritual food:

If so, we should also not accept from them kodesh (sacrificial food)?!

So apparently, members of the rabbinic community can accept sacrificial food from an am ha’aretz (meaning the sacrifices they make at the Temple which are subsequently eaten). So what is the difference? Why can we not accept terumah from an am ha’aretz, but we can accept kodesh?

They will have antagonism.

Turns out, it comes down to maintaining peaceful relations. The rabbis are concerned that rejecting the sacrificial food of amei ha’aretz will lead them to be antagonistic toward the rabbis and their teachings. 

The Gemara next explains why the rabbis distinguish between taking terumah from an am ha’aretz and taking sacrificial food from them. In the case of terumah:

He does not care, as he can go and give it to an am ha’aretz priest who is his friend.

Terumah can be given to any priest, not just one who follows rabbinic laws. So rabbis can be stringent about who they accept terumah from because their stringency won’t affect whether or not non-rabbinic Jews can participate in the mitzvah of terumah. (That’s right, it’s possible for a priest to be an am ha’aretz! Those who are used to thinking of the am ha’aretz as synonymous with “ignorant Jew” might find this surprising. But in fact, the priests were famously opposed to the rabbis and so it’s actually not surprising that the rabbis would characterize a good number of them as amei ha’aretz, which really just means not invested in the stringencies of rabbinic law.)

But sacrificial food is different — after all, there is only one Temple. Rejecting someone’s sacrificial food cuts off their access to Temple ritual. And as Rabbi Yosei explained in an earlier tradition quoted on the page, the rabbis must accept the Temple offerings of amei ha’aretz:

So that each and every individual should not go off and build an altar for himself and burn a red heifer for himself.

In his dissertation, Jonathan Pomeranz has shown that the early rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud “were apathetic toward the ammei ha’aretz. Near the end of the rabbinic period some Babylonian sages adopted a welcoming and conciliatory attitude toward the ammei-ha’aretz.” As their community developed and grew, the rabbis became more welcoming, not less. 

Jewish unity requires compromise. Sometimes we think that compromise means holding everyone to the highest standard, because everyone can choose to meet that standard and participate. But today’s daf reminds us that compromise sometimes means recognizing that not everyone wants to meet those higher standards, and requiring them to do so may lead to alienation, division and the creation of multiple Temples. (Yes, that actually happened in antiquity. For instance, we have archaeological and textual evidence for a Jewish temple in Leontopolis, Egypt.) 

Living with diversity means recognizing that people aren’t necessarily going to become more similar, but that we can build a community together anyway.

Read all of Chagigah 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 3rd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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