Cultivating a Multivocal Rabbinic Tradition

April 1, 2001
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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

For the past four years I have taught rabbinic literature, primarily Talmud, at a small rab-binical seminary, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Last fall I accepted a position in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Here, my students are mostly undergraduates, and texts are taught primarily in translation, within the framework of thematic classes on rabbinic Judaism that are designed to attract students from various backgrounds and disciplines. The majority of students in my class, “Introduction to Rabbinic Culture” are Jewish, but few come from a traditional background. Some students bring a general curiosity about religion, while others are looking to find out more about their own cultural background.

Most of my undergraduate students do not necessarily have a prior relationship with rabbinic texts; in some cases not even a prior relationship with contemporary Judaism. My current role, therefore, is almost diametrically opposed to my former role of training rabbinic students. My current students do not identify these texts as Torah, as holy texts, and in most cases not as their Torah. They are not coming with preconceptions of what holy texts look like, preconceptions that would need to be disabused in order to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their own tradition. Rather, these students need first to be drawn to the subject; they need first to care enough to be bothered by texts within their tradition that give voice to problematic ways of viewing the world.

I do not regard the difference between seminary and university as primarily one between teaching from inside or outside the tradition; or as one between subjective and objective perspective. Rather, the difference lies in the attitude of the students and their relationships to the texts. Sometimes, it may be a difference between general intellectual curiosity and Jewish identity formation. Some students want to be taught why they should care about those texts in the first place, or at least enough to devote part of their undergraduate education to these obscure voices from the past. Seminary students, on the other hand, are already committed to Jewish tradition as a whole and are in the process of becoming leading transmitters of it. Rabbinic texts are then already viewed as authoritative and canonical voices of the past.

I cannot, however, entice students with a pre-packaged version of rabbinic culture that conforms to their ideas of morality and justice. Let me illustrate this with a well-known midrash. My students had learned about the seven Noahide commandments and the concept of the righteous gentiles, which potentially allows gentiles qua gentiles to be justified in the eyes of the rabbis’ God. I pushed them to compare this model with the way other religions look at those who are not (or are not yet) members of their respective communities. We then turned to midrashic commentaries to texturize the picture:

The nations of the world were asked to receive the Torah, in order not to give them an excuse for saying: “Had we been asked we might have accepted it.” They were asked, but they did not accept it, as it is said: “The Lord came from Sinai and rose up from Seir unto them” (Dtn 31:2), that is He revealed Himself to the children of Esau, the wicked, and said to them: “Will you receive the Torah?” They said: “What is written therein?” He said, “You shall not murder.” They said: “That is the inheritance which our father left to us, as it is said, ‘By your sword you shall live” (Gen 27:40). Then He revealed Himself to the children of Ammon and of Moab and said to them: “Will you receive the Torah?” They said: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not commit adultery.” They said: “We all spring from one adulterer, as it is said: ‘And the daughters of Lot became with child by their father” (Gen 19:36). How can we receive the Torah?” Then He revealed Himself to the children of Ishmael, and said: “Will you receive the Torah?” They said: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not steal!” They said: “Our father was given this blessing: ‘He will be a wild ass among men, his hand will be against every man’ (Gen 16:12); how can we receive the Torah?” But when He came to Israel, they all said with one accord, “All that the Lord has said, we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex 24:7). Again, if the children of Noah could not observe the seven commandments which they were commanded, how much less could they have accepted and fulfilled all the commandments of the Torah? [Mekhilta, Bahodesh, Yitro 5]

I present this midrash as one voice among other midrashic voices and ask my students to consider how the rabbis equated the children of Esau with Romans and the Ishmaelites with Arabs. They study the parallel, significantly more self-critical midrash where Israel is ultimately forced by God to finally accept the Torah by having the mountain suspended over their collective heads [bA.Z.2b]. The students learn about the multivocality of midrashic tradition and the dialectic argumentation of the Talmud. I try to caution these students against reading any one midrashic or rabbinic voice as the representative Jewish voice, lest they argue: “Judaism says…”

What could possibly motivate the rabbis to tell this midrash? Why would they categorize a whole nation via its respective biblical ancestor collectively and essentially as either murderers, products of incest, or as robbers? These rabbis, I tell my students, are teaching in the context of the Roman Empire, speaking as a disempowered minority that regards its Roman overlords as murderers, perhaps because of their experience of Roman power in the Roman-Jewish wars.

The class then turns to the last of God’s vain attempts to offer the Torah to others, the Ishmaelites, medieval Muslims, contemporary Arabs. We address the potential political afterlife of texts when power constellations change and different political conflicts emerge. Raising questions about the complexity between religious texts and social structure, students ask questions about our midrashic tradition that is so multivocal, cacophonous, and diverse.

In the end, my hope is for the students to develop an honest relationship with rabbinic culture. I offer the paradigm within which I work – a relationship of lovers. I love this rich and diverse tradition and its ways of making sense of the world. That love insists upon knowing the other in its complexity. I do not leave my innermost beliefs and values outside when I enter the virtual beit ha-midrash of rabbinic literature. The relationship is one of mutuality. It is this relationship that I hope to help my students develop.

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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Her recently published book, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, is a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Jewish scholarship. She has contributed essays to several anthologies, including: Women and Water: Menstruation and Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rachel Wasserfall, and Love, Sex and Gender in the World Religions.

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