The following exchange between myself and my students was a familiar one throughout my year long fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders (RWB):
Me: I’ll be away for a few days but I’ll see you when I get back.
Student: Where are you going?
Me: I have a fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders this year.
Student: Cool! Are you going to [fill in space with poverty stricken, war torn location]?
Me: No, I’ll be in Midtown Manhattan.
Student: Oh… O.k. Why is it called Rabbis Without Borders then?
Indeed, it is quite easy to conflate Rabbis Without Borders with the renowned organization, Doctors Without Borders. Yet, as you may have surmised, we were not delivering first aid care to the suffering habitués of Midtown Manhattan. Although, perhaps some emergency pastoral care would have been quite useful.
The objective of RWB (as I understand it) is to bring together rabbis from all different locations and denominations and facilitate meaningful conversations about bringing Judaism public: translating Jewish teachings and wisdom into a language that can be heard by people of all religions and no religion, throughout the public square, and impact culture, society and the public discourse and serve as a catalyst for positive steps towards that end. I often have said that another name for Rabbis Without Borders could have been Rabbis Without Accents. In other words, rabbis who are able to meaningfully and comprehensibly bring themselves and their teachings into the larger communal, societal and global conversation.
This endeavor, this striving to bring about positive change through the vehicle of the wisdom of the Torah is not a new one. In every age there have been individuals who have both existed firmly within the rooted tradition and within the sometimes fine, almost indiscernible space and sometimes 12-lane super-highway amount of space between “us” and “them.”
One such example is sourced within the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah 44b. This source reflects a polemical confrontation between two distinct ideological worlds but also reveals fascinating insights. The Mishnah records:
שאל פרוקלוס בן פלוספוס את ר”ג בעכו, שהיה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי, אמר ליה, כתוב בתורתכם: +דברים יג+ לא ידבק בידך מאומה מן החרם, מפני מה אתה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי? אמר לו: אין משיבין במרחץ. וכשיצא, אמר לו: אני לא באתי בגבולה, היא באה בגבולי, אין אומרים: נעשה מרחץ נוי לאפרודיטי, אלא אומר: נעשה אפרודיטי נוי למרחץ. דבר אחר: אם נותנים לך ממון הרבה, אי אתה נכנס לעבודת כוכבים שלך ערום ובעל קרי ומשתין בפניה, זו עומדת על פי הביב וכל העם משתינין לפניה, לא נאמר אלא אלהיהם, את שנוהג בו משום אלוה – אסור, את שאינו נוהג בו משום אלוה – מותר
Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabban Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite. He said to him, “It is written in your Torah: ‘Nothing of the banned property shall adhere to your hand (Deut. 13:18):’ Why are you bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite?” He replied to him, “We may not answer in a bath house.” When he came out, he said to him, “I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine. Nobody says, the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite, but he does say, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath. Another reason is, if you were given a large sum of money, you will still not enter the presence of one of your revered statues while you were unclothed or relieve yourself in front of it. But this statue of Aphrodite stands by a sewer and all people relieve themselves before it. In the Torah it is only stated “their gods (Deut. 12:2),” i.e. what is treated as a deity is prohibited, what is not treated as such is permitted.
Here we have the famed Rabban Gamaliel, one of the most important Talmudic rabbinic figures, situated in one of the most important Roman institutions, the bath house. And indeed it is not just any bath house but rather it is a bath house dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation. If this seems like a dissonant moment to you than you would be in a similar position as our antagonist, Proclos.
We can reason that Proclos, both by his name and by his designation as a son of a philosopher, is certainly not of the rabbinic community and also not a Jewish individual. By labeling him the son of a philosopher, the Talmud very much locates him within the cultural nexus of the Greco-Roman world in distinction from the very rabbinic and very Jewish, Rabban Gamaliel. This makes it all the more striking that the proof text by which Proclos summons a challenge against R. Gamaliel’s behavior is none other than the Torah itself. It is as if Proclos says to him, “Aren’t you living a hypocritical life? I’ve read your book and I know what you’re doing is wrong!”
Rabban Gamaliel does several things in response to the challenge set before him. The first one reveals to us precisely how R. Gamaliel understood himself. After Proclos finishes speaking, R. Gamaliel responds by saying “We may not answer in a bath house.” It is a Jewish legal principle that one may not speak words of Torah in either a restroom or a bath house or other places where the nature of the place brings people to wear less than an otherwise normal amount of clothing. By insisting on maintaining this practice, R. Gamaliel sends a clear message that he does not view his actions as being disjointed from his fundamental Jewish beliefs. He is not leading two separate lives, one public and one private, but rather the entirety of his life is bound up in his worldview.
Yet, nonetheless, he still was found in the bath house dedicated to Aphrodite. How could you possibly reconcile this belief with that action? Professor Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University, in his essay in the book Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (1998, Cambridge University Press), understood R. Gamaliel’s defense of his action to be that of laying forth the groundwork for a new paradigm for relations between “us” and “them.” By reshaping the way he saw the bath house; not as a Roman religious institution, but a decorative Roman cultural institution, he constructed a neutral space, where both Jews and others (in his case, pagans) could meet and interact.
In fact, the very ability for a person like Proclos to be able to have the opportunity to raise a challenge to a person like Rabban Gamaliel presupposes the existence of a conceptual and physical space in which they could meet. Thus, it is possible to see the redefinition of the bath house by R. Gamaliel as the transformation of a particular cultural institution of the Roman world into a public square where a multiplicity of voices could be heard and be in dialogue with each other.
The wisdom of understanding that to be a person committed to specific religious convictions does not necessitate being only in or only out but that the genuine path lies in being a bit of both, is one that needs further cultivation and expression.
Thankfully, we have women and men today in the Jewish community who serve as inspirations and role models for this path. I have had the privilege of hearing Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks twice now as he has come to speak at Harvard. During both of his visits, the respective lecture halls were filled to capacity. In the audience were Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, academics and professionals. Why did all these people from so many disparate backgrounds come to hear a rabbi? It can not just be on the basis of his rabbinic title alone for if that were the case I would have a standing room only audience for each of my classes! I believe it is because he translates the profound teachings of our tradition and transmits them eloquently in direct application to the issues most on the minds of people today.
We can look throughout Jewish history up until contemporary times and discover a history replete with people like R. Gamaliel and Rabbi Sacks. Those individuals who serve as guiding posts for living a Jewish life that impacts the broader world. The prophet Isaiah calls upon us to be a light unto the nations and the special thing about light is, as the Chasidic masters have taught, a little bit of light can dispel a whole lot of darkness. Whether you are a rabbi without borders or a rabbi without accents or simply a human being who wants to make their impact in changing the world for the better: Where is your light? How are you cultivating it and how are you using it to dispel the darkness in our society?
- Rabbi Ben Greenberg
I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service. I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.
The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”
I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:
With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.
As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.
Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on MyJewishLearning.com! Humm, “Rabbis Without Borders” sounds like “Doctors Without Borders,” so this must be blog about rabbis traveling around the world tending to people’s spiritual needs, right?
Well, not exactly. Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer Jewish wisdom, wisdom from the Jewish tradition, in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish in your life, to help you live and grow. The “with out borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we want to offer you wisdom from a variety of perspectives. There will be 10 different rabbis writing on this blog and each rabbi comes from a different stream in Judaism. Some of the rabbis will answer your questions on the weekly Torah portion. Some will answer your questions about what Judaism has to say about what is going on in the world today. Some will answer your questions about God and spiritual matters. And some will answer your questions about parenting, household issues, and navigating challenges in life. The Jewish tradition has wisdom on each of these subjects and many more. Our goal is to help you access that wisdom and use it in your life.
All of the rabbis writing here are Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at Clal- The National Jewish Center for learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal (www.clal.org) is a think tank, leadership training institute and resource center. For over thirty years Clal has led the way in building creative, compelling, pluralist Jewish community and life. Rabbis Without Borders is the next phase of this work.
Rabbis Without Borders (www.rabbiswithoutborders.org) Fellows have completed a year long intensive Fellowship which has pushed them to think out side the box. These are rabbis who use our ancient tradition in new and exciting ways. We are networked with each other and continually challenge each other to try new things. We are excited to partner with myjewishlearning.com in sharing our ideas with you.
We hope that you find our thoughts to be meaningful and useful. We look forward to reading your comments and hearing your thoughts on our posts.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
Director, Rabbis Without Borders, Clal