Identity, Politics, Religion

Keeping the Torah from Israel

Talmud Bavli
This summer, I’m studying the evolution of the Haggadah with Rabbi Reuven Cohn through a Hebrew College Online course.
In coming to understand some of the choices made in the development of the Hagaddah, we have journeyed through several different sections of the Talmud, getting to know some of the players who pop up in our seder. Tonight, I studied Brachot 27b – 28a, which relates the story of the impeachment of Rabban Gamliel from his post as Rosh Yeshiva (head of the Jewish learning institution).
Embedded within this story (towards the top of 28a) is a baraita that took my breath away. The day that Rabbi Elezar ben Azaria is installed as the new Rosh Yeshiva, the entrance restrictions Gamliel had placed, barring many students from the yeshiva, were lifted. (These restrictions are summed up as “All students who aren’t the same within and without may not enter the house of study.” Cf. the comments on David A. M. Wilensky’s post below about tzitzit to see how this kind of policy is still crippling to those seeking to find their place in Jewish observance today.)
There’s an incredible influx of students to the yeshiva once this entrance requirement is loosened – the sages tell us that more seats needed to be installed to accommodate all the new students. The Talmud records a debate of whether there were 400 or 700 new students. The Talmud also notes that in the first day of learning under new leadership, the entire slate of halachic disputes to be discussed is resolved — learning in the new atmosphere is more productive.
Impressed? So was Rabban Gamliel. Seeing the sheer number of new recruits rushing to learn Torah, he despairs:

What if, heaven forbid, I kept the Torah from Israel?

Powerful stuff, no? This is the preeminent Rabbi of his generation wondering if his insular approach to Jewish learning and Jewish community put up a roadblock between the Torah and the Jewish people.
To drive the point home, the Talmud goes on to relate the story of Judah the Ammonite, a ger (“resident alien” – a non-Israelite, non-idolater living within Israelite community) who wishes to marry a Jewish woman (and thereby “enter the congregation” – i.e., become a Jew). You may recall that the Ammonites and Moabites are forbidden from marrying Jews way back in Deuteronomy 23:3. Long story short, Gamliel loses the argument and Judah is admitted. The Talmud privileges opening the community to those who seek to learn over a Biblical prohibition. There’s a lot of reasoning about why this prohibition doesn’t apply any more – I don’t mean to oversimplify. But the overwhelming message to this entire section is clear. Don’t keep the Torah from Israel. Don’t define “Israel” so narrowly that you inadvertently keep the Torah from Israel, either. Don’t let one authority silence the debate and discussion in the study house that will open access to the Torah for so many more.

9 thoughts on “Keeping the Torah from Israel

  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this baraita. It’s a really powerful story and testament to what can happen when barriers to Talmud Torah are taken down.
    But I also think it’s important to complexify what the story is teaching. Because I’m not sure it’s so straightforward.
    First, I’m not so sure the rabbis were so into democratizing Torah. I mean, they loved excluding women from the beit midrash, and rabbinic thought and practice began (and is still biased as) a practice reserved for an elite, highly literate few who were familiar with an intricate and somewhat arcane body of knowledge.
    Also, I don’t think it’s clear that the Stam are totally in approval of hundreds of new students coming to the beit midrash. Under the watch of Rabban Gamliel, the shomer ha-petach (the guard at the front door) was charged with making sure that applicants’ “insides matched their outsides.” While this likely did lead him to exclude hundreds of promising learners who lacked the money to wear nice clothes (and the baraita goes on to show that Rabban Gamliel didn’t have the sense to realize that many of his colleagues in the beit midrash actually had to *work* for a living), it also reveals a concern about the inner capacity for deep spiritual inquiry. While Rabban Gamliel has his existential crisis about whether or not he withheld Torah from Israel, some beings (angels? God?) send him a vision of white barrels full of ash, signifying that perhaps the new students aren’t so deserving after all (although the Talmud goes back to negate something about that vision, but it’s unclear what).
    I’m also struck that after all the newcomers made it into the beit midrash, there were no halachic disputes. While we think that resolving conflicts is a good thing, I’m not sure this assumption holds in a beit midrash. The essence of Talmud Torah is discussion – ongoing discussion. When a question is put to rest, the back and forth of impassioned, lively engagement dies. My Talmud teacher often remarks about the “ball” that’s in play in rabbinic dialogue, and that the rabbis constantly find new angles on an issue in order to keep the inquiry and dialogue going. By doing so, they can keep the Divine Presence in the midst of the beit midrash just a bit longer.
    But maybe it’s in that spirit that we should look at this baraita: that it’s through the debate and discussion of stories that we can invite and encourage dialogue about the meaning of Torah study and how we engage the divine.

  2. While this likely did lead him to exclude hundreds of promising learners who lacked the money to wear nice clothes
    I haven’t learned berachos 28a, but I have read mishne torah. I think you may be misinterpreting the meaning of, “whose inside did not reflect his outside”.
    Based on the way I remember it, that quote is speaking about those who like to dress and appear as Torah scholars (on the outside), but do not exhibit the character traits (the inside) of a Torah scholar.

  3. Pretty sure that the word ger by the time these stories are being told meant someone who had already converted. He’s already an Israelite, just because of his country of origin was suspect of being unable to marry an Israelite-by-Birth.

  4. This is also one of my favorite stories as well. I have been trying to place it into the context of the mishnayot being discussed – the limits of shortening davening and the back and forth between the “learned class” and the not so knowledgeable. I once taught a shiur called “Keeping Torah from (for) Israel.”In it I tried to identify the political voices within this text. Could it be that Gamliel is the classic conservative and Yehoshua the classic liberal? Both have faults. While an elite group of scholars may be able to draw out new knowledge, what happens when it stays within those elite circles. That being said, the democratized learning environments where everyone’s voice is equal often denigrates expertise and scoffs at tradition. It seems to me the voices at play here do not offer one side or the other as the true winner but beg us to be a part of the conversation.

  5. It’d be nice if the massacre and its victims were remembered without any crass political appropriation.

  6. How about this interpretation?
    “All students who aren’t the same within and without may not enter the house of study,” was Gamliel’s way to prevent women from studying in the Yeshiva. Like Yentl, they were trying to get in by dressing up as men.
    His lament “What if, heaven forbid, I kept the Torah from Israel?” was his acknowledgemnet that women are Israel too and should have the same rights as men to study and teach.

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