When the Rabbis turned Marxist… Berakhot 27 and 28a

There’s a phenomenal story today about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel II, the successor of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh.

The story begins prosaically enough, there is a debate as to whether the evening service, Ma’ariv, is obligatory or optional.  Rabban Gamliel holds it is obligatory, Rabbi Yehoshua believes that it is optional.  We are not yet given any insight into what lies behind this debate, we are left to ponder its significance.

A certain student asks Rabban Gamliel about this dispute, and receives the following response:

Wait until the shield bearers enter the Bet Midrash and we will see.

It’s a striking comment, describing the process of study in language both military and combative, hinting at an aggression and exclusivity in his approach to the Academy.

Now, one of Gamliel’s achievements was to bring some harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and it may well have been his forceful approach which made this possible.  But perhaps that approach had run out of steam, perhaps the balance between openness and intolerance had tilted too far by now.

This seems to have been the feeling of the Rabbis of the time.  After Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Yehoshua by making him stand for an extended period, there is an outbreak of protest.  It is too much, the scholars say, this is the third time he has humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua, and it is no longer acceptable.  This man cannot be our leader, he cannot dictate the tone of the Torah,  the flavour of the culture which must sustain the Jews in exile.

The Torah, they seem to say, is not about victor and defeated, it is not about the exercising of power.  Perhaps in bringing harmony between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, too much of Hillel’s basic humanitarian sensitivity has been lost.  If we detect that the institution of learning is being guided by people out of touch with its spirit, then how are we to maintain faith in the Divine power of the Law?  The Law can easily be corrupted, it can become an outlet for the expression of tyranny.

So they depose him.

They discuss who should take over, ruling out Rabbi Yehoshua on account of his involvement, and Rabbi Akiva because his lack of lineage might enable Rabban Gamliel to smear his reputation.  We get from this a feel of quite how fraught the political atmosphere is, Rabban Gamliel had his Josh Lyman waiting in the wings, there would be no holds barred when it was time to attack.

They opt to give the position to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, on account of his wisdom, his lineage and his wealth.  Again, we are dealing with realpolitik here, we are not quite in the business of canonizing saints.

He consults with his wife, who suggests that it may be something of a poisoned chalice, that tomorrow they may turn their outrage towards him.  It may not be the prudent choice.

I love his response:

Let a man use an expensive cup for one day even if it be broken the next.

He’s saying that sometimes we just have to make the most of the opportunities in front of us, to enjoy them, and not to worry too much about the possibility that we may lose them.

Then, famously, his hair turns white before its time.

We then get a feel for the revolution that is taking place in the aftermath of Rabban Gamliel’s ejection:

They dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter.

The guard??  Again, the Academy has ceased to be a democratic institution for furthering the wisdom of the people, for answering their needs with the Divine spirit.  It has become an exclusive club, a gentlemen’s refuge, the preserve of an aristocratic elite.

And what were his criteria for rejecting people:

Rabban Gamliel would proclaim and say: Any student whose inside, his thoughts and feelings, are not like his outside, i.e., his conduct and his character traits are lacking, will not enter the study hall.

Now this relation between the inner and the outer is a huge topic on its own; we touched on it somewhat yesterday.  In the context of this story, however, it seems that it’s a classic expression of upper class snobbery, ‘His manners aren’t terribly well polished, he can’t possibly have anything interesting to say’.  Here in England, there is a wonderful tradition of this subtle and disguised cruelty, of the ability to maintain power with the most delicate insults and refined barbs.

And what was the upshot of this opening up, did the masses indeed feel they wanted to contribute to the growth of this new culture of learning?

Yes, yes and yes:

On that day several benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous students. Rabbi Yoĥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this matter. One said: Four hundred benches were added to the study hall. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added to the study hall.

Rabban Gamliel, rightly, felt bad about this, and the dream which eased his mind was nothing but illusory wish fulfilment, as the Talmud dryly observes.

After Rabbi Yehoshua outwits him in another debate, this time, fittingly, about the extent to which we should be open to converts, Rabban Gamliel decides he must visit Rabbi Yehoshua’s home and apologise.

This is where it gets really interesting.

When he reached Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, he saw that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua in wonderment: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith, [as until then he had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to engage in that arduous trade in order to make a living].

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Woe unto this generation that you are its leader!  For you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, of what they must do to make a living and how they struggle just to feed themselves.

Woe unto this generation indeed!  What an indictment this is:  “You Rabban Gamliel have not got the faintest idea of what it really means to live as a Torah scholar, to balance the challenges of working in the real world and finding wisdom and practice to get you through the day.  The Torah you profess to teach is not hard won wisdom, it is not insight drawn out of the burning crucible of real life.  It is mendacious and decadent ideology, it is a culture born of the luxury of the aristocracy, of people who do not get their hands dirty.”

And now we get the meaning of the dispute about Ma’ariv.  We can hear Rabbi Yehoshua continuing:

You profess to tell me that the Ma’ariv prayer is an obligation!  Perhaps in your easy life you need further obligation, perhaps you need to restrain your energies and instincts.  I am a working man, and when I come home from work and take care of all my other responsibilities, there is simply not always the time nor energy left to say Ma’ariv.  I understand that it is a ‘reshut’, a permission, a privilege, and for the most part I manage to use that privilege, I endeavour to commune with my Maker.  But on the occasions when I cannot manage it, and more than that, on the occasions when the honest working people amongst the Jews cannot manage it, they do not need you, Gamliel, making them feel bad, adding extra guilt into their already burdensome lives.  You have gone too far Gamliel, you have lost touch with reality, you have turned from leader into oppressor, the guilt of your privilege has soured your love for your people.”

Rabban Gamliel accepts the rebuke.  He realises that he had lost his way, and that he must make some serious changes if he is to return.  He begs Rabbi Yehoshua’s forgiveness, who finally gives it, albeit, ironically, only on the merit of Rabban Gamliel’s father.

The study hall is reluctant to return Rabban Gamliel to his position, particularly Rabbi Akiva, but eventually, at Rabbi Yehoshua’s insistence, they do so.  We can only assume that he genuinely did have the mark of greatness, otherwise it’s hard to see why they would give him another chance.

So the debate, once again, is about the spirit of the Law, of the dangers in it become alienated and oppressive, of it losing contact with the honest soil in which it must grow.  Rabbi Yeshoshua is its defendant, arguing for its democratic character in much the same way as when he tells the Bat Kol  ‘Lo Bashamayim Hi’, ‘It is no longer for the Heavens to decide’ (Bava Metzia 59b).

That said, we might have thought there was something crass about opening up this debate, about reducing the arguments of the Tannaim to Marxist considerations about class and integrity, about raising the concerns of the workers.  Not so, the Talmud tells us as a postscript, the student who initiated this debate was also the founder of the mystical tradition in Judaism, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.  I read into this that even the most esoteric mysticism must always grow out of honest proletarian soil, that when it becomes yeasty and indulgent it loses its power to talk to us.

May our Torah always be grounded, and may we never rush to judge the practice of those who do an honest day’s work.

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