Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Whose Torah is it Anyway?

Yesterday at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, I taught the following Midrash to my Jewish Philosophy class. I thought it would be interesting to share it on the blog especially in the lead-up to Shavuot. It is quite an incredible story as found in Vayikra Rabba 9:3:

"Rabbi Yannai
was on a walk and met a man who looked very elegant. Yannai said, "Would you
please accept my hospitality and come to my house?" The man replied, "Yes," and Yannai brought him
into his home and gave him food and drink.

As they were eating
and drinking together, Yannai tested the man in his knowledge of Talmud, and
found that he had none. He tested him in Aggada, in Mishnah and Bible, and in all these areas the man
knew nothing.

Then Rabbi Yannai asked the man to
recite grace after the meal, and the man answered, "Let Yannai recite grace in his
own home."

Seeing that the man could not even recite a
blessing, Yannai
asked him, "Can you repeat what I say to you?" "Yes" answered the man. And Yannai said, "Repeat these
words: 'A dog has eaten of Yannai's bread.' "

Offended, the
man stood up, grabbed Rabbi Yannai andexclaimed: "You have my inheritance, which you
are withholding from me!"

Puzzled, Yannai asked, "What inheritance of yours do I have?"

The man replied, "Once I passed by a school, and heard
the voices of the schoolchildren saying, 'Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe - Moses gave us the Torah, Morasha Kehillath Yaakov - the inheritance
of the congregation of Jacob' (Deuteronomy 33:4). - It is not written 'the
inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,' but the 'congregation of Jacob' -- which
means all the Jewish people."
To this, Yannai said, "And what is your merit?" The man
answered, "I have never in my life repeated gossip, nor have I ever seen two
persons quarrelling without making peace between them."

And Rabbi Yannai said, "Woe is
me, that I should have called you dog, when you are such an ethical person!"

Yannai is one of the early Amoraim, a Talmid of Rabbi Yehuda Hanaasi and an aristocrat. He was a man who was apparently on the lookout for fellow scholars and seeing an honourably dressed gentleman in the street, he assumed that he was a Talmid Chacham. He probably wanted to discover a new perspective from a scholar who had a different tradition than his own. Sitting around the table engaging in scholarly conversation, Yannai discovers to his dismay that the man is absolutely ignorant. It would appear that his dinner guest is not really a partner in conversation at all!

However the man proves to be more than a match for Yannai. Not only would he seem to be quite a Tzaddik in matters "bein Adam Lechavero," he teaches Yannai a vital lesson. This focuses back upon a reading of a passuk. After the man has been insulted and rejected by Yannai, he insists that Yannai has his "inheritance." After all , Yannai, the Talmid Chacham , has Torah, which rightfully "belongs" to every Jew. "How dare you" the man tells Yannai, "look down at me! You have a duty to restore my inheritance to me! If I am ignorant, then you should be teaching me, not distancing yourself from me nor mocking me!"

In the perspective presented by this Midrash, there is a sense that the Talmid Chacham is in some manner beholden to share his Torah, obligated to pass it on to others; certainly never to withhold it from another Jew. The focus then of "Morasha" is the sense of ownership of Torah, by ALL Jews – Kehillat Yaakov - of all walks of life and all backgrounds and abilities.

And certainly, this is a challenge in the contemporary Orthodox world. How much are we caught up in our own enclaves, our institutions with "enough problems of our own"? Do people who are less observant of Torah and Mitzvot feel comfortable in our shuls and Batei Midrash? To what degree do we welcome people who are outside the fold, the unaffiliated, the people with whom we disagree with ideologically? If our Torah is Emet, true, enriching, compelling, then what attempts are we making to restore the inheritance to other Jews? Or are we too insecure, too complacent, too lazy, to happy with our cosy communities where pretty much, everyone is like me?

I say all this because it is on my mind. I have recently started a new job at Pardes. Pardes describes itself as non-denominational. And yet it is a place that exemplifies Ahavat Torah and Ahavat Yisrael, serious learning and deep tolerance and respect for all. The students you find there would be unlikely to walk into a standard Yeshiva, Midrasha or Orthodox Beit Midrash. Some do not share the assumptions or lifestyle of the standard Orthodox community. I may not agree with their life choices. But when I teach Torah - which I teach there as in any other place - I am teaching Jews who could otherwise be excluded from serious Torah learning. Jews meet there with a sense that they are not being spoken down to, that they are fully respected. and only because they are truly respected, are they happy to engage rigorously in Limmud Torah, reclaiming their inheritance. Sometimes a feel that Pardes takes me out of my cosy safety homogeneous zone and brings into an encounter, over Tanach and Gemara - with other Jews. And sometimes it is unnerving because they take the Torah that I teach and absorb it, digest it, from their perspective, from their set of values. But it is exhilarating too, because after all, it is their inheritance, and how can I not share it with them.

But only too often I delight to find that, just as in this story, my students have much to give me. Their middot tovot, many virtues and insights, acts of kindness, their Jewish activism, their deep love for Israel, can always contribute a page to my thinking, my Torah U'Mitzvot.

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