When, in chapter 23, the Torah says that an Ammonite may not ever become part of the Jewish people, it doesn’t seem to leave much room for interpretation. So when an Ammonite, surprisingly named Yehuda, and surprisingly noted as a convert (Who converted him? Who gave him that name?), comes into the Beit Midrash (Mishna Yadayim 4:4) and asks “Can I be part of the congregation?” you’d expect it would be an open and closed case. Emphasis on the ‘closed’.
For Rabban Gamliel, it is. The answer is no, and the proof-text is the unequivocal verse in chapter 23. And if Yehuda the Ammonite convert had asked his question a day earlier, that would have been the last word. But his timing wasn’t a coincidence. The day he entered was the very same day that the sages had staged a coup against Rabban Gamliel, the exilarch, rejecting his strict, centralized, authoritarian rule that quashed all dissent. On that day, the Talmud recounts, the guard that Rabban Gamliel had posted at the gates of the Beit Midrash to make sure that only the best and purest-intentioned students had access to the halls of halachic power was fired. This allowed entry to hundreds of new students who previously didn’t make the cut, and among them, Yehuda, the Ammonite convert.
On this day, Rabban Gamliel is allowed to voice his opposition, but has lost his power to enforce it. Rabbi Yehoshua boldly declares that the Torah’s prohibition to accept the Ammonite nation no longer holds, because the national identities the Torah refers to no longer exist. The majority agrees with him, and Yehuda is immediately accepted.
Rabban Gamliel’s intentions had been pure, and perhaps for a time, even necessary. In the turbulent period following the destruction of the Temple, he believed that a closed door policy, and strict enforcement of centralized authority were necessary for Judaism to survive. It took his public embarrassment of another sage one too many times for the other rabbis not only to depose Rabban Gamliel, but to reverse his entire approach. The best way to face the challenges of the day was not to circle the wagons, and define clear, strong boundaries of who is allowed in. Just the opposite. The gates of the Beit Midrash, and the gates of Jewish peoplehood, were opened wide to include as many voices as possible, even those whose intentions and agendas had been suspect.
The result? A tremendous growth in Torah study, and the resolution of questions that had stood for years.
Rabban Gamliel’s approach lives today, and time after time, it involves the embarrassment and denigration of serious talmidei chachamim. The intentions are pure, but the timing is dead wrong. In a world of access to infinite knowledge and infinite choice, the only viable path is to open the gates, and enjoy the great benefits of all the voices we let in.
This blog follows the daily study of Tanach with the wonderful, challenging 929 project. You can find fascinating Hebrew content on their website, 929.org.il. This is my small contribution for the English speaking audience.