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Flinging open the doors to our beit midrash: the potential for integrity and new beginnings in the Conservative movement

[Thanks to BZ for encouragement posting this, originally given as a dvar torah Friday night.] 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.

10 thoughts on “Flinging open the doors to our beit midrash: the potential for integrity and new beginnings in the Conservative movement

  1. nice connection!
    it seems what happened is that the progressive voice on this issue was made to stand up, and unfortunately only a small minority of the CJLS stood up. fortunately some did stand up. the CJLS yeshiva still has more people sitting than standing but perhaps in time they dissent will be as universal as the mythic moment in rabbinic days. what an interesting approach the conservative yidden have to halachic pluralism in that they allow for multiple mutually exclusive, even directly and entirely contradictory rulings. i still haven’t wrapped my head around the implications of that approach. wild.

  2. great post
    maybe the difference is that the cons mvmnt is letting people be on the outside what they are on the inside whereas rabban gamliel wanted to check that everyone was, on the inside, the way that they presented on the outside (traditionally pious)

  3. what an interesting approach the conservative yidden have to halachic pluralism in that they allow for multiple mutually exclusive, even directly and entirely contradictory rulings. i still haven’t wrapped my head around the implications of that approach. wild.
    While I personally wish the CJLS had spoken with one voice to uphold the equality of all Jews, the existence of “multiple mutually exclusive, even directly and entirely contradictory rulings” goes back at least to the Gemara. A sugya (Talmudic discussion) will not infrequently end with a technical term indicating that the rabbis never came to a unitary ruling on the issue. At least according to David Kraemer and his Mind of the Talmud, the Gemara’s chronologically increasing emphasis on the process of argumentation (vs. definitive conclusions) reveals the rabbis’ underlying belief that Ultimate Truth was ultimately unknowable to to human beings, and that multiple answers to a question were reflections of different ways of trying to access that truth.

  4. Yehudit,
    Below is the complete sermon as I delivered it last year just before the law committee began considering the question of gay rabbis. I would be pleased if you would acknowledge it.
    Rabbi Paul Arberman
    Parshat Terumah – Ordaining Gay Rabbis
    Modiin, Israel
    The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the law making body of Conservative Judaism will vote next week on whether to overturn the Movement’s ban on same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay rabbis. That’s the subject of this piece – but it will take me a moment to get there…
    In Parshat Terumah we read that God wants a mishkan, a portable sanctuary, built for Him in the desert. A number of commentators point out that God doesn’t need a house to live in — rather, it is a foothold for God on earth — a symbol of God’s presence among us.
    And we read that the aron, or ark itself, had to overlaid with gold on the outside and on the inside as well ( Ex.25:11), and that the menorah itself had to be solid gold (Ex. 25:31).
    The question is, why? Gold of course is beautiful, but almost no-one would see the inside of the ark, and in fact gold is a soft metal so the menorah would be much stronger if it were just gold plated.
    The Talmud in Yoma 72b, explains that it was done to teach an important lesson – that our own inside should be just as pure as the outside – in Hebrew, the term is “tocho k’varo.”
    The Talmud compares the aron which contained the laws (the Ten Commandments) to our great students – our talmidei chachamim. It says:
    “Rava taught, any talmid chacham whose inner essence does not resemble his outer appearance is not a talmid chacham.” In other words, don’t just learn the wisdom of the Torah. Don’t just study halachah in an academic way, or go to parshat hashuvua class to learn some facts – be an integrated person and make it part of your life! As they say, don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.
    As modern Rabbi Hillel Silverman explains: “This is the true meaning of integrity. A person’s exterior — words and deeds — must reflect his inner being and character.”
    Now, that’s the standard understanding of tocho k’varo. However, this week – because of the important upcoming vote of law committee on gay issues and the Conservative Movement — I began thinking about how this phrase fits the gay community as well.
    The issue of hidden identity or open identity – of coming out of the “aron” the closet, is a very real one for the gay community. Gays and Lesbians struggle with trying to fit into society that doesn’t always allow them to be who they are; or to “own” their true identity. Just as on Purim Esther hides her Jewish identity from King Achashverosh until (near) the end of the Megilah; gays and lesbians are often required to hide who they are from family and friends, from employers and of course, in religious institutions.
    But in our religious institutions, that may be about to change. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who, by the way, convinced me to go to rabbinical school, wrote one of the teshuvot that will be considered next week. And it cuts a brilliant but also in some ways awkward middle line.
    It says, and I’m summarizing almost 40 pages of modern research and Jewish law, that he could not find a reasonable way to undue the Biblical prohibition of; “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman” (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). However, he said, let’s keep this prohibition in place and affirm that it only covers one specific sexual act. Establishing loving, (hopefully) long-term relationships – even with all other lovemaking acts — will be allowed. Serving as Jewish leaders will be allowed.
    Again, in a sense this is a revolution, but in a sense it is just a narrow reading of the law and our tradition. It will please some and disappoint or perhaps anger others.
    But it will have a great effect on gays and lesbians being able to have tocho k’varo – to be themselves – inside and out.
    Before I conclude, I want to show you how accepting gays and lesbians as rabbis and Jewish leaders is an issue of “tocho k’varo” may seem like a relatively new issue but that actually the tensions at work are ancient.
    In the Talmud, Brachot 28a, a great power struggle is played out between two roshi yeshivah, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, for control of a great Jewish academy.
    Rabbi Eleazar ben Azairah wins out and Rabban Gamliel was deposed as leader of the Jewish community and the head of the school. We read that they immediately removed the guard who stood at the door and gave permission to all the students to enter the Bet Midrash; for Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed that any student who was not “tocho k’varo” could not enter the school. The Talmud relates that on that day many benches were added to Bet Midrash (Brachot 28a).
    Rabban Gamliel upon seeing this became depressed. Why? The Gerrer Rebbe (Chidushei haRim) explains that Rabban Gamliel had tried to accept, by his own standards, only “perfect students.” He thought he was protecting the quality of the school. But when the hundreds of new students joined the school he saw something amazing happen. By spending time in the Bet Midrash, learning and growing, they in fact, became “tocham k’varam” – pure on the inside and outside – they studied and they integrated what they learned into their lives.
    In retrospect, therefore, he regretted his former policy when he saw the influence of Torah study on these students. He cried out loud: “Chas v’shalom, heaven forbid, to think that I held back Torah from Israel!”
    In our case, the law committee has the power to throw off the guard and open wide the doors of Jewish learning and leadership. But it is even more significant than that – because by accepting gays and lesbians and helping them to be who they are and attain the integrity of “tocho k’varo” – the law committee is actually bringing together Rabban Gamliel who wanted to keep the high standard of “tocho k’varo” of all students, on the one hand; and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah on the other hand who wanted to open the bet midrash doors to all those who wanted to study.
    In other words, the law committee and the Conservative Movement can have the best of both worlds, maintaining high quality…and adding hundreds of benches.
    Remember that we are a diverse community and that is one of our strengths. But for me, I say, with appreciation to the man who opened up the doors to rabbinical school for me – the Dorff teshuvah gives kavod to our tradition and it gives kavod to our people.
    And I believe it will contribute to our efforts to bring God out of the aron – the mishkan, or the synagogue, and to help turn God’s mere foothold here on earth, into a world filled with God’s teachings.
    Shabbat Shalom

  5. what an interesting approach the conservative yidden have to halachic pluralism in that they allow for multiple mutually exclusive, even directly and entirely contradictory rulings.
    Ortho people have been doing it for as long as there have been Ortho people. It’s not so weird. The Gemara did it, the Mishna CERTAINLY did, etc. Even contemporary charedim (whom some might not expect to have any kind of intellectual/religious diversity) do it all the time. Providing multiple answers is a basic, intrinsic feature of the halachic system.

  6. Thank you Rabbi Arberman for posting your serman. Having never visited Modiin, I am glad that we both were making the connections. I *was* inspired when I gave my dvar torah last week by a faint memory of Rabbi Andy Sacks’ talking about the making of the mishkan instruments and their purity eight months ago in March and should definitely have acknowledged him when posting it online. Perhaps he heard you speak as well and I did not remember him mentioning it. My apologies if you felt slighted, and I am glad there are many people working on this issue through an engagement with the texts of the tradition.
    Since I have only recently started my gemara study and spent the semester learning this particular perek, it is possible that I did not remember if there was a Rabban Gamliel connection in Rabbi Sacks’ original talk eight months ago. Belated thanks to Rabbi Sacks for his dvar torah last March and for inspiring me to reexamine the issue.

  7. Yehudit,
    I appreciate your reply. I would like to add that I work in the same office as Andy Sacks and shared with him my sermon last March — he indeed used it with my permission that he requested. I of course am thrilled to have people sharing my divrei Torah — I just feel that if it is written up — we should be extra careful to acknowlege sources. If I am able to publish my sermon in the future and I wouldn’t want the origin of the ideas to be unclear.
    Rabbi Paul Arberman

  8. If I am able to publish my sermon in the future and I wouldn’t want the origin of the ideas to be unclear.
    kavod harav is certainly a value, but this just rubs me the wrong way… it seems completely antithetical to the humility i would expect from a teacher of torah. you should be pleased enough that the torah you gave over is making its way into the world. that you need your name attached to it says but one thing: geyvah.

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