‘Me’ematai korin et haShema?’ – ‘From what time should we recite the (evening) Shema?’.This is the opening of the first chapter of the Mishnah, Mishnah Berachot, and the classic beginning for any aspiring student of Rabbinic Literature.
In this passage, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabban Gamliel and the Sages debate what the cut-off point of saying the Shema is. Can you say it until early evening, midnight or even dawn? Until what point can you fulfill your obligation?
I was teaching this rather pragmatic halakhic text to my Introduction to Judaism students for the Talmud component on their curriculum. I had charted the development of both the Written and Oral Torah on a whiteboard; lines in blue and red marker snaking down Jewish history. I had shown them a real volume of Talmud, opening up the Vilna edition with its obtusely mezmerising pages of handsome block print. But moreover, I had explained to them the sacred concept of ‘makhloket’ – dispute – that underscores the essence of our tradition. ‘We are not fundamentalists or literalists’, I explained to them, not without passion.
‘We interpret and reinterpret, in every age, for every set of circumstances.’Arguing over said interpretations is woven into the tapestry of Jewish theology. It is God Himself (or Herself!) who laughingly wishes to be defeated by sound rabbinic argument, as per the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b).
I believe Judaism has bequeathed infinitely precious gifts unto the world. The Sabbath. Ethical monotheism. A belief in the universal rule of law. And I believe that Judaism can bequeath many more gifts unto the world. Eco-kashrut, the redemptive narrative of freedom from slavery. A love of study-as-worship. Yet, a most unique gift that Rabbinic Judaism has blessed us with is the gift of makhloket.
Upholding dispute and disagreement seems counter-intuitive in religion — religion after all, is often cast as a force of theological hegemony and a concession to conformity. Yet, makhloket is a radical aspect of our tradition; not only through the safeguarding of valued minority opinions but as an exercise in pluralism and democracy.
Judaism was post-modern before we knew it; before it was cool.
We moderns in the Occidental (Western) intellectual tradition pride ourselves on our post-Enlightenment values. We claim to uphold the banner of free speech, or as the aphorism goes (often attributed to Voltaire),
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But how accurate is this self-image? Do we really manage to navigate the choppy waters of diversity and can we truly accept the opinions and passions of others if they violently clash with our own? Given the increasingly polarised and intensified character of our national debates, the question begs to be answered.
And yet here it is; enshrined in the heart of our religious tradition. Religion which is often seen as a bastion of conservatism by avid secularists. The very same structures that seek to conserve and define also seek to liberate and innovate.
There’s a joke that politicians should fight their battles in the boxing ring. But what if we would set down today’s great minds and powerful leaders in a yeshivah (Jewish house of study) with a volume of Talmud instead of the pressing issues of the day? What if we invite them into the healthy, dynamic ‘shakla v’tarya’ (‘give-and-take’) of the Gemara? What if we stimulate both their imagination and empathy through the literary exercise of Midrash? I could imagine political leaders, captains of industry, world-renown scientists challenge their egos as they parse the words of our Sages – and learn something very fundamental about the deep wisdom of our tradition.
It all starts with a question. ‘Me’ematai’ – ‘from when?’
A religion that doesn’t pander certainties but offers inquisitiveness can stand its ground in the marketplace of ideas. Will you come learn with us?
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credit: Folkert Gorter