Educating Rabbis to Be Traditional Radicals … Once Again

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January 1, 2003
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by Benay Lappe

Rabbinic recognition of the full and equal Jew-ish personhood of gays and lesbians is a matter of nothing less than pikuach nefesh. But the nefesh at stake is not only that of gays and lesbians – it is the nefesh of Judaism itself.

What does this have to do with rabbinic education? Everything.

In one somewhat puzzling talmudic text (TB Sanhedrin 17a), we learn that the ability to use the Torah to declare a sheretz [a creepy crawly explicitly defined as impure by the Torah (Lev 11: 29)] to be pure was one of the skills a rabbi had to have to serve on the Sanhedrin. Another text (TB Eruvin 13b) brags of a student at Yavneh who could find 150 ways to declare a biblically impure sheretz pure! Now, clearly the concern was not the dignity of poor, maligned reptiles. So what was the point of training rabbinic students with such analytic acumen and audacity that they could find a way to declare clean that which the

Torah deemed unclean – something that was clearly “impossible”?

It was so that when an overly formalistic application of a Torah verse yielded an intolerably harsh or oppressive result for a class of people – in which suffering was in fact caused by the laws of the Torah rather than alleviated by them – our rabbis would have not only the skill but also the courage to utilize the tradition in radical yet authentically Jewish ways to relieve that suffering, even if it initially appeared “impossible” to do so. The ultimate goal, we should remember, was not simply that the suffering at hand be eliminated, but that our tradition would continue to fulfill its mission: to enable Jews to become fully human, human beings, and to help us create a world where all barriers to the fulfillment of each person’s humanity are removed.

The academies of the talmudic era were not just rabbinical schools. They were think tanks where the many dilemmas of living in an era of enormous change were resolved with the most radical and courageous of new methodologies. The deans of our founding rabbinic institutions knew that there were “captives” to be freed – freed from the bondage of the laws of the Torah itself – and they were moved to do something about it. They understood that, if Judaism were to remain a believable and effective path to wholeness and a repaired world, then their mandate was to address these injustices and to use the Torah, in its broadest sense, to do so.

Our tradition’s early vision of rabbinic education was to train rabbis (a) first and foremost, to have the sensitivity to recognize who our tradition’s captives were, (b) to master the principles and mechanisms of the Jewish legal process, and (c) to have the courage to utilize them. I am convinced that they intended their record of this process – the Talmud – to be not so much a compendium of laws to follow as a blueprint for how to change those laws in authentically Jewish ways when necessary. It is a sixty-three-volume charge to future generations of rabbis to be observant enough to know when such times had come, compassionate enough to be moved by them, and courageous enough to utilize the radical talmudic methods bequeathed to them. We need to return to that vision of rabbinic education, to rabbinical schools that see themselves as modern Jewish think tanks – certainly so that we produce humane and courageous rabbis, but, more important, so that Judaism remains a humane and courageous tradition.

How rabbis respond to their generation’s captives determines the health of our nefesh as a people. Today, to the disgrace of our tradition, gay and lesbian Jews have been rendered captives by rabbis who either lack their ancestors’ courage to be legal activists or who fail to realize the enormous pain they perpetuate with their inaction. We risk our nefesh as a people when we pretend that the only way to do the right thing is to step outside of a Jewish legal framework. And we risk our nefesh as a people when we diminish Jewish law – and God – by hiding behind an impoverished caricature of both, claiming that “Our hands are tied,” or “It’s God’s will,” allowing injustice and human suffering to continue.

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Rabbi Benay Lappe is Resident Rabbinic Scholar at Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Highland Park, Illinois, and an Associate at CLAL- the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She teaches "Judaism, The Owner's Manual: A Crash Course in Jewish Law for Traditional Radicals" at synagogues and schools around the country.

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