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Thursday, October 15, 2009

SLEIGHT OF HAND

I love the Talmud. I believe it forms the foundation of Jewish life since the time of its composition, even if not all Jews agree on its meaning. Nonetheless I acknowledge that the Talmud has a well-earned reputation for drawn out logical examinations of many subjects. True there are many folktales, anecdotes and other material included in the Talmud, but logic is what made its reputation.

So I was tickled to read of a classic sleight of hand technique used to resolve a dispute. In order to appreciate the story it is helpful to know the characters.

The B’nei Bathrya have deep roots in the Talmud. They are mentioned as interim leaders of the community in the time following the death of Shemayah and Avtalion in the late 1st century B.C.E. Our episode occurs about a century later, so the people mentioned in our passage would have to be their descendants. In our story they exert a conservative influence and that is consistent with their historic role as interim keepers of the tradition in the time of Hillel.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is the central character in reshaping Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem. He was secreted out of Jerusalem by his students, petitioned Vespasian to establish a new center at Yavneh and was granted his wish when Vespasian was appointed Caesar in accord with Yohanan’s prophecy. (B. Gittin 56a-b) The extended passage that continues after our story details nine innovations that ben Zakkai instituted at his new center in Yavneh. No surprise that his changes provoked a response from the more conservative forces.

Our story comes from B. Rosh Hashanah 29b.
When the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai arranged that the shofar would be sounded wherever there was a court.
According to a Baraita: Rosh HaShannah once fell on Shabbat and [the people of] all the cities came together [in Yavneh, to hear the shofar].
Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai said to the B’nei Bathyra, “Sound the shofar!”
They said to him, “Let us discuss [the issue].”
[Yohanan] said to them, “Sound the shofar and then we’ll discuss.”
After they had blown [the shofar] they said to him, “[Now] let’s discuss [the matter]!”
[Yohanan] said to them, “The horn already has been heard in Yavneh, and, after the fact, one does not reconsider.”

Once the B'nei Bathyra acquiesced, they had lost the argument. The deed was done and it was too late to take it back. Yohanan’s dismissive response, “The horn has already been heard…,” seems almost a joke. Can you hear him thinking, “I can’t believe they fell for that?”

There is more here than meets the eye. The B’nei Bathyra seek ways to preserve the old traditions, and they wish to hold a discussion to find the most congenial match. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai knows that the most important thing is to do it. For the health and the growth of the community it is essential that the shofar is sounded in a timely manner. The tension here between conservative and progressive voices has a contemporary feel to it.

To give the B’nei Bathyra their due, it is reasonable that interim leaders would be conservatives. Even today when a church or a synagogue employs an interim minister or rabbi the prime directive is to maintain a steady course. They are not the ones who have led the community to its present place nor will they be the ones to chart the course going forward. Their main goal is to stabilize a community in transition and to prepare them so they will be ready to move forward under new leadership. According to the Talmud, here and elsewhere, the B’nei Bathyra were the interim leaders, so of course they seek to restrain Yohanan ben Zakkai.

The question on the table is how to apply a set tradition in radically new circumstances. It could have taken a long time to clarify the rules that apply to the sounding of the shofar, meshing them with the limitations of Shabbat, and coming to an acceptable conclusion. While a conservative voice may have wanted to make sure it was all done according to the rules, Yohanan ben Zakkai did not have that time.

Remember that ben Zakkai was a man on a mission. He understood that the practice of the Temple could no longer hold; the Temple was destroyed and we had to transform the practices so they could fit our new circumstances. He could not afford to be conservative. The fate of the Jewish people depended on finding a compelling way to make Judaism accessible wherever the Jews were. Of course he would say, sound the shofar now.

This is where the story of an ancient sleight of hand trick meets our own day. Change is happening all around us. Every year the Forward names its 50 most influential Jews. Look at the rabbis on that list are creating new pathways for modern Jews. Check out the independent minyanim being formed by young activist Jews in major metropolitan centers from New York, to Chicago, to DC, to LA. Review the list of organizations at the Slingshot Fund, groups they consider to be among the most creative and effective Jewish organizations current today. There are dozens of new initiatives growing up on the edges of the Jewish community, creating new ways for disaffected Jews to return to the fold. They are blending our inherited traditions with new approaches to strengthen the community.

For many years the response to our fading numbers has been to discuss. The plethora of “continuity” programs asked if your grandchildren would be Jewish, but that was the wrong question. The young Jews establishing these new pathways are much more direct – how can I be Jewish. The blend of modern sensibilities and traditional practices is invigorating a new generation. Like Yohanan ben Zakkai they are not waiting for the discussion to come to a conclusion. They are seeking their own funding, advertising in secular media and over the web and doing it now.

I applaud their initiative and want them to know that they stand in a proud tradition that reaches back to Yohanan ben Zakkai and the founding of Yavneh.

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