Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Towards the beginning of the Tractate Berachot (27b-28a) in the Talmud, there is a story about Rabban Gamaliel (the second one, the first person to lead the Sanhedrin after the fall of the second temple) in which he repeatedly humiliates one of his colleagues, Rabbi Yehoshua, leading to Rabban Gamaliel’s removal as head of the community. The whole of the story is scattered throughout the talmud, but as one follows it throughout the various sections, it is clear that Rabban Gamaliel is engaged in a protracted fight over the leadership of the community and which direction it will go in the future.
In one of his humiliations of his colleague, Rabban Gamaliel is finally convinced by his colleagues that his behavior is wrong, and he agrees to go and apologize to Rabbi Yehoshua. “When [Rabban Gamaliel] reached [Rabbi Yehoshua’s] house [Rabban Gamaliel] saw that the walls were black. [Rabban Gamaliel] said to [Rabbi Yehoshua]: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a charcoal-burner. [Rabbi Yehoshua] replied: Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of [those over whom you bear your authority], their struggles to support and sustain themselves!”
Rabban Gamaliel is surprised to see how his colleagues and subordinates are living, that they struggle to earn a living, that they work hard and can’t get ahead. It is a particularly telling moment, as just a few lines earlier, it is revealed that when Rabban Gamaliel was replaced by another rabbi, the other rabbis removed the doorkeeper and let in anyone who wished to study. Rabban Gamaliel had previously issued an edict that “No disciple whose inside is not like his outside [whose character does not correspond to his appearance] may enter the study hall. On that day many stools were added [either four hundred or seven hundred, depending on who is asked].”
Rabban Gamaliel had barred the door staggering numbers of people who wished to become part of the leadership of the community, who wished to learn and study, but he did not even have a good sense of the struggles that it took for people to come as far as the gate. Even of his own colleagues, he had no sense of who they were. But as a leader, he was arrogant, and over and over, the stories about him show him making high-handed decisions that insulted his colleagues and students and risked the future of the community, for the sake, he stated, of God’s honor, and so that “so that strife may not multiply in Israel.”
We seem to be living in a moment that is particularly fraught. Within the Jewish community, leaders who have steered the Jewish community for decades are currently engaged in the game of declaring who is “in” and who is “out.” They have done so without speaking to the generations rising up behind them who have a different relationship with and greater access to information about Israel. They have done so, without speaking to them and understanding their relationships with non-Jews. They have done so without taking note of changes in the world. They have done so without hearing their struggles, understanding their needs.
Our communal heads tell us that they act so that “strife may not multiply,” -but strife is multiplying. It multiplies, now as then, because of the arrogance, the lack of interest in understanding, and the refusal to look deeply at the conditions of the world. Now, as then, the talk is of testing whether “our insides are like our outsides,” and they have determined that any position that is unlike their own means that our insides aren’t like our outsides.
When Rabban Gamaliel finds out that the doorkeeper has been removed, he says to himself, “Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel!” A moment off-balance, a moment in which he thinks, for a moment, that he could perhaps be wrong.
This story ends with our narrator telling us that “He was shown in his dream white casks full of ashes. This, however, really meant nothing; he was only shown this to appease him.”
It is a curious ending – Gamaliel was right to keep them out because these new students were actually unworthy. But no, no, Gamaliel was given this dream just to keep him from despair. Was he right to do what he did? Or wrong? As is the normal case with life, no one will ever know for sure. But it is clear that is has affected him, because it is only after this that Gamaliel finally says to himself that he might be wrong, and goes to apologize to Yehoshua. It is only after the thought crosses his mind that he might be wrong that he goes to where his colleague lives to apologize and sees, for the first time, who his colleague is and begins to have an inkling of who all his students are, that they world they live in is materially different than his own.
There is a story attributed to the Chasidic Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov:
He said, “How I love people is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with several other peasants, drinking. For a long time, he was silent, but then suddenly, he asked the man seated next to him, “Tell me, do you love me or not?” The other replied, “I love you very much, you are my true friend.” But the first man said, “You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.”
One knows the needs of others not by assuming, but by asking. Not by asserting that one knows what is best for them, but by getting involved in the daily lives of those whom we love and seeing its conditions.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.