Loving the Stranger, Even When He’s Estranged

Originally published on

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed some radical reconfiguring of my own views on inclusivity and exclusivity in Jewish community and Jewish tradition. I’ve become much more conscious of the ways we speak about Jews of multiple heritages, Jews born into other faiths, etc.

From the time I was a kid (I’m going to guess the seventh grade, when we spent a year of Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust), I have been very uncomfortable by any reference to Jews as a race. (“That’s how Hitler defined us!” I was trained to think.) But I never really thought about the concept of “Jewish Blood” as anything other than metaphor until BatyaD objected to the phrase in a comment on this blog.

Her comment got me thinking about the way we speak of converts. There’s a somewhat accepted, conventional (dare I say “traditional?”) narrative of the “Jewish soul” that many people use to conceptualize conversion into the Jewish faith. Somehow, the idea that converts were born Jewish but just didn’t know it yet is supposed to make someone feel more comfortable about including them in the Jewish people. This bothers me. If someone finds that the teachings of Judaism feel like the appropriate framework for her life, and wants to cast her lot in with the Jewish people, I don’t know what benefit there is to say “it was predestined.” Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway.

But there’s another problem with this creepy Jewish soul business. Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?) are those insisting that if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish no matter whether you renounce Judaism or take on some other religion or no religion or what have you. This, to me, feels hypocritical. I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path. Either souls can get born into the “wrong” religion or not. Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not.

I know I’m largely (but not entirely) preaching to the choir here, but I had to get this off my chest. I feel better already. Keeping the Torah from Israel

Originally published on

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.