In my Talmud class this semester, we are studying tractate Brachot (Blessings), chapter four. In it (27b to 28a), there is an intriguing story about Rabban Gamliel, the great leader of the beit midrash, the house of study of the rabbis, right after the fall of the Second Temple.
So, Rabban Gamliel is not such a pleasant guy. He runs a tight ship. He does not allow multiple rulings in his beit midrash, at least not when the disputed one is his. He sometimes likes to humiliate his peers to make them recant their disagreements with him.
He especially has it out for Rabbi Yehoshua. One day, when Rabbi Yehoshua disagrees with him, he makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand up in front of everyone and deny the disagreement. He then makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand for the rest of Rabban Gamliel’s lecture. Just stand in the front row, in front of everyone, as an example. At this point, the other rabbis in the beit midrash have had enough. It is time for a change in leadership. It is time for a coup. They stand up and stop the lecture.
The rabbis argue amongst themselves over who will replace Rabban Gamliel, who will have enough yichus because their good family name will speak for them, or who has money so that they can be called before Caesar. Who will be impressive enough to represent them to the world. They choose a successor. This is not the most remarkable part, though.
On that day, that day when the rabbis finally decide to depose Rabban Gamliel, they throw open the doors to the beit midrash. You see, when Rabban Gamliel was in charge, there was a very strict admissions policy: any student wanting to come and learn in the beit midrash needed to have his inside be just like his outside — “Col talmid sh’ein tocho c’varo lo yicanes l’beit ha’midrash.” (Needless to say, it was always a he.) They kept the numbers down this way. (I wondered, while learning it, who was the judge of this quality?)
But with Rabban Gamliel out of leadership and this stricture lifted, all of a sudden, everyone is coming in to learn. They add hundreds upon hundreds of new benches to the beit midrash. There’s a discussion even of how many benches did they add, this many or that many new people coming to learn. People are coming from all over, asking if they can learn in the community. Even non-Jews. It is a thrilling time in the beit midrash. No question goes unanswered. The place is buzzing with new ideas.
One thing always bothered me though: this whole business with Rabban Gamliel’s requirement. Because really, it sounds like a good idea, right? Aren’t those the students they should want over at the beit midrash, the ones that have this transparent quality, this honesty about them?
This past week, this thrilling past week of argumentation and deliberation in the Conservative movement, of potential for change, of success and disappointment, it seems to me that we were fighting for both of these things.
We were fighting to fling open the doors of the beit midrash, so that people can come and learn. So people can come and learn.
And, at the same time, we were fighting to fling open the doors of the beit midrash precisely so that people can be the same on the outside as they are on the inside.
Ta shma, the Talmud says when it’s introducing a conclusion to an argument. Ta shma it says, come and learn.
I want to thank all of the agitators inside and outside the Conservative movement, all those brave enough to speak out when they didn’t have to, all those who wrote letters, all those rabbincal students who coordinated press conferences and published articles, all those who performed gay marriages when they weren’t supposed to, all those who said through their actions that gay people too are members of the Jewish people, and all those who claim Judaism as our own, even when it feels like it doesn’t want us.
May we continue to build spaces in which it is safe to be the same on the outside as we are on the inside. And may we have the strength to live up to such an ideal all these thrilling days of our lives.