Are We Ready To Meet God In New Places?

If they even apply, gay and lesbian Jews may not enroll as students of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Israel’s only program for training Masorti rabbis.

The Israeli Masorti movement is an offshoot of the North American Conservative Jewish movement. I am an American studying to become a Conservative rabbi, but I currently have the pleasure and privilege of  living in Jerusalem and studying at Schechter.

I am learning a lot at Schechter, and I immensely love and respect many of my teachers. Yet the Schechter Institute is not perfect. In about three years, three of Schechter’s deans have seen unexpectedly short terms; the school faces financial hardships; a sad tension exists for the students who oppose the policy of not admitting gay rabbinical students; and other problems–often less prominent than the aforementioned issues–pose many challenges for the school.

The Schechter administration is well aware of these problems and has assembled a Recommendations Committee to look into these issues. This Committee is doing–as far as I can tell–a very thorough, excellent job of reexamining the structure of the Institute and offering very serious, substantive recommendations for bettering the Institute.

I am not privy to any confidential information the Committee might know, but I had the opportunity last week to sit in on an open meeting of theirs and to share with them some thoughts about last week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim.

A major concern of mine and of many classmates of mine–in Israel and abroad–is Schechter’s policy of not ordaining gay and lesbian Jews. This policy might more directly hurt the Jewish Theological Seminary‘s gay and lesbian rabbinical students who are supposed to spend next year studying in Israel, but this is in fact a policy that affects everyone. For a long time, I didn’t believe that, and I figured I would share with the Committee a bit of my journey.

The following is an abridged translation and adaptation of the Devar Torah I delivered last week before the Recommendations Committee. The original Hebrew piece can be read at this link.

A Personal Story

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, American Conservative Judaism stood on the brink of a Halakhic revolution.

And I wasn’t ready.

Conservative rabbis were debating the place of gays and lesbians in the Jewish world: May they be ordained as rabbis? May commitment ceremonies be performed between them? And so forth.

In the Conservative Jewish day high school I attended, there were lessons dedicated to this very topic: Why would it be acceptable to transgress the words of the Rabbis? Why would it be acceptable to transgress the words of the Torah?

But I didn’t believe that there was a Halakhic way to transgress some problematic verses of Torah. I was convinced that, for as long as we deem the Torah sacred, there would never be a rabbi with the authority to overturn Leviticus 18:22.

Yet, I knew that nearly all young Conservative Jews and many Conservative rabbis wanted to broaden the opportunities available to gays and lesbians in the movement–even if they’d have to defy Jewish law in the process.

I was deeply frustrated and saddened. How could I identify as a Halakhic Conservative Jew and stand up to a decision that contradicts the Torah?

Into The Oven of Aknai

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point the Conservative Movement fell in love with the story about the oven of Aknai (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b).

In short, the story goes: Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua have an argument: Rabbi Eliezer says that this oven of Aknai (some sort of special oven) is pure. Rabbi Joshua says it’s not. But Rabbi Joshua’s got the Sages on his side.

So what does Rabbi Eliezer do? He calls upon God and nature to help out and work some miracles to prove that he’s right. Time and again, Rabbi Eliezer says, “If the oven is pure, then let [insert miracle] happen!”

First, Rabbi Eliezer calls upon a carob tree that uproots itself and jumps to a new spot to prove that Rabbi Eliezer’s right. But Rabbi Joshua says this doesn’t prove anything.

So, Rabbi Eliezer calls upon a stream water that begins to flow backwards to prove that he is right. But Rabbi Joshua says this doesn’t prove anything.

So, Rabbi Eliezer calls upon the walls of a beit midrash (“house of study”), and they begin to bend inward to prove that he is right. But Rabbi Joshua says this doesn’t prove anything.

Finally, a Divine voice–a bat kol–comes down from Heaven and declares that Rabbi Eliezer’s right. But Rabbi Joshua quotes Deuteronomy 30:12, “It is not in the Heavens.” By which he means, even this doesn’t prove anything.

The Talmudic narrator of our story offers support for Rabbi Joshua. Quoting our Torah portion, Mishpatim, “Bend in towards the majority” (Exodus 23:2).

Problems With the Story

I can understand why rabbis hesitated to believe Rabbi Eliezer’s first three miracles. To the rabbis, these might have looked less like miracles and more like pagan, heretical magic.

But when it comes to the bat kol, there’s no way of getting around that. If a bat kol is the voice of God, then you can’t say God was absent from the bat kol. You can’t argue that, when two people hear the same bat kol, only one of them got to hear God.

There’s also some issues with those quotes Rabbi Joshua uses.

“It is not in the Heavens” are words that intend to remind us that we can use our own resources in order to discover the intricacies of Jewish practice–that the inner workings of our laws are not hidden away in some secret place in Heaven.

And “Bend in towards the majority” is in fact written in our Torah reading this week, but Rabbi Joshua left out a key phrase: “Do not.” The gist of the verse is in fact: “Do not bend in towards the majority!” (Just think how different our religion would be if we omitted the word “not” when recalling  some other commandments: “Murder!” “Steal!” “Commit adultery!” etc.)

Why Do I Pick On The Oven?

This Rabbinic tale has irritated me for most of my life. In the Conservative Jewish day high school I attended–if I am correct–a different teacher taught this story each year in order to facilitate a conversation about the Rabbis’ right to change around the law. Yet I  never sided with Rabbi Joshua and the Sages. After all, God was on Rabbi Eliezer’s side!

As the Talmud continues with our story, Elijah the Prophet appears. He is asked what God did during the course of the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. Elijah says that God smiled and said, “Nitzehuni, My children! Nitzehuni, My children!”

For most of my life, my teachers translated God’s word “Nitzehuni” as “You have defeated Me,” meaning: “You win! I lose!” or “You’re right; I’m wrong!” But I think this is wrong.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker says that the Hebrew root of this word, nuntzadihet, means “to attack.” Tucker notes that this word-root appeared earlier in the story. When Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua were arguing in the beit midrash and the walls bent inwards in support of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls. “If students of the Sages attack (menatzehim) each other here in debating the Jewish way of life, what good are you now?” What right do the walls have to take sides in the arguments that reside within them!? Upon hearing Rabbi Joshua’s words, the walls stand up straight again–bending to nobody’s will.

For Tucker, “Nitzehuni” is about attacking and injuring God. Just as the students attacked and wounded each other in debating Jewish values, our Sages attacked and wounded those miracles of nature as well as that Divine bat kol that descended from Heaven just to meet God’s children.

Some greeting, eh?

But this is the story that was used time and again to prove rabbinic authority: even when that authority hurts God and defies the word of the Lord–and even when our story, just a little later, tells us how that same rabbinic authority leads both to the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer and to Rabbi Eliezer’s subsequent (and fulfilled!) prayer that Rabban Gamliel, seated at the head of the Rabbinic court, be killed.

From this perspective, this sort of rabbinic authority does not bespeak God’s voice, and this kind of rabbinic authority is a danger–both to God and to itself.

The Godless Rabbis Vs. The Losers

In the face of a crummy moral like this one, I could never find evidence that there was a Godly legal process for changing the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Conservative Movement. Yet, much to my chagrin, you could say that Rabbi Joshua and the Sages attacked and defeated God, and that was the rabbinic legal process.

But why would I care for the rabbinic process if it denied God’s voice?

I knew that those who sought change for the status of gay and lesbian Jews in the Conservative Movement would win in the end. So, would I–along with all of the other text-loving Conservative Jews–lose?

Entry & Revelation

At the end of the summer of 2007, gay and lesbian students entered the doors of JTS’ Cantorial and Rabbinical Schools. I met them (just as I met the other new students), and I was pleased to discover how wonderful they were. Many of them were serious about Jewish practice, like I was. Many of them were serious about their love for sacred texts, like I was. And many of them were serious about prayer, about Shabbat, about kosher food, and about the whole shebang, like I was.

After some time, I began to be haunted by a strange yet pivotal suspicion: knowing these great Conservative leaders in training–who just happened to be gay or lesbian–I didn’t know if I could believe that God actually prohibited any elements of gay or lesbian life.

Maybe those words in Leviticus were just written by people who didn’t understand God’s miracles and couldn’t understand people who stood outside the norm. Perhaps these words were written by people who couldn’t tell the difference between God’s will and their own.

While I believe that the origin of the Torah is God, as long ago as high school I had already believed that the Torah was written by humans. (In ancient manuscripts and older Torah scrolls, there are just too many examples of little changes–and big changes–for me to believe that God could have intended for these differences to arise.)

I don’t recall entirely when, but when I was an undergraduate, I heard Dr. Benjamin Sommer speak about his personal theology. He argued that the Torah is a human attempt at translating a real encounter with a God who revealed mitzvot as a way for humans to express their faithfulness to God. Yet, Sommer argued that those texts that condone war and other values that fly in the face of the greater peaceful message of Torah could not have come directly from God; these must have come from ancient xenophobic people.

Over time, I came to agree with Sommer. There are words in the Torah that could not come from the God in whom I believe.

Often, it is hard to tell what could come from God and what couldn’t. But sometimes you can hear a bat kol screaming in your ear, “Nitzehuni, My children! You have attacked Me, My children! You have destroyed Me, My children!”

A Complicated Pain

Within God’s pain lie the complexities of humanity’s relationship with Torah.

To bend in towards the majority, or not to bend in towards the majority? That is the question. Initially, those walls of the beit midrash did bend in. They don’t bend in towards the majority though. They bend in towards a minority: just one rabbi. But when the walls hear the rabbis’ response, the walls stand up straight and no longer bend in towards anyone–even the rabbinic majority.

The Torah is a tree of life for those who hold onto it (Proverbs 3:18), but it is impossible to hold onto a vanishing hurban (“destruction”). Living in an age after the hurban of the Temple, Rabbi Eliezer sees a tree of the same root as the hurban. Until it had become a hurban (coming from the Hebrew root-letters hetreshvet, meaning “destruction”), the Temple once embodied the tree of Torah. The first miracle Rabbi Eliezer sees is a moving tree of the haruv (“carob”) sort. On the surface, it might just be a carob tree. But on the inside, the tree of the haruv sort is a tree that embodies the hurban: the destruction of the Torah’s old religion.

Rabbi Eliezer says that the hurban knows how to uproot itself and relocate itself anew, and the haruv tree jumps around to prove that Rabbi Eliezer is right. But the rabbis don’t believe that we can jump back into a religion where God is accessible in a post-hurban age. To the rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer saw no miracle. It was just a magic trick.

Perhaps then through the nourishing waters of Torah Rabbi Eliezer could prove that, in the new Rabbinic era, the tides could reverse and new streams could develop. But the rabbis don’t see how anything but the old dead ways of Torah could flow.

So, towards which direction does one bend in a complicated new era? The majority? The minority? Rabbi Eliezer? Rabbi Joshua? The Rabbis? The beit midrash is a place of many inclinations.

The ideal option for finding the voice of a living God in a religion undergoing its rebirth is: listen to God’s voice. But when the bat kol comes down, every single Rabbi rejects it–except for Rabbi Eliezer.

Ready For a Revolution?

Like the Rabbis in Rabbi Eliezer’s time, I–in 2006–was not ready for a Halakhic revolution. I wasn’t ready to see God’s face and to recognize God’s image in a spiritual territory with which our Sages were entirely unfamiliar: the souls of my gay and lesbian friends.

Just as Rabbi Eliezer could recognize the extraordinary better than anyone else in his time, my gay and lesbian friends understood that nature often holds in store the opposite of what is “expected.” And sometimes that opposite is incredible.

Sometimes we have to admit to ourselves when our beliefs were false: that if we had bent towards one direction, we can always bend in a new direction, and we can always straighten up ourselves anew.

Sometimes the foundations of our beliefs appear uprooted and destroyed like the Temple, and it can seem impossible to imagine a flexible religion in the midst of tragedy. But Rabbi Eliezer knew that the haruv tree–the destroyed Torah–can still move in an era of Jewish renewal.

Twice a day we say “Listen, Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4), but Rabbi Joshua did not listen when the bat kol spoke, and Rabbi Eliezer was the only one willing to listen.

The Individual In The Bigger Picture

As far as I can tell, the story of the oven of Aknai does not prove rabbinic authority so much as it is a story that praises the individualism of the seeker who sees modern miracles, the lonely person of faith, and the believer who recognizes the sanctity in the “abnormal” we once could not explain.

The story asks us: When was the ancient Tree destroyed? Can we drink waters that flow in a new direction? Towards which direction, can we incline our hearts? And will we listen to God’s voice when it speaks to us?

Will we be ready to be a blessing and not to use religion as a means for desecrating God?

Final Thoughts On The Sweetest Laws

Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, one of the early leaders and founders of the Hasidic Movement, comments on the words “Do not curse God” (Exodus 22:27) from our Torah reading:

Here the Torah is teaching us the way in which to walk so that we may save ourselves from the laws coming to overburden us. That is to say: we must sweeten the laws so that they may fit in with God’s character of mercy. (God forbid that we might cause upset and thereby curse the laws!) We must do nothing other than sweeten the laws. This is what is meant by “Do not curse God”–“Do not curse the laws!”

When Exodus 22:19 says “One sacrificing to gods other than the Lord your God is placed aside…” “placed aside” means “sanctified.” The explanation of this matter is: we must bring them in to the sanctity of God alone and turn them towards mercy regardless.

We must ask ourselves: Are we ready to say we are ready to welcome in those who appear to be “desecrating” or “cursing” laws? And is our perspective of “wrong” and “right” simply a misconception? Are our laws real laws? Are we dealing with miracles, or just magic? Are we ready to sweeten the bitter laws? Are we ready to listen to the Divine voice that will lead us towards peace? Are we Rabbi Eliezer? Are we Rabbi Joshua? Do we have inclinations, and will we bend?

The answer is very close, and it is found within our hearts.

It is not in the Heavens.

About the Author
Jonah Rank is a musician, writer and co-founder of Jewish Eyes On The Arts. Jonah received a B.A. in Music at Columbia University and a B.A. in Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the latter, Jonah is now enrolled as a rabbinical student. He is the secretary of the new Conservative prayer book Siddur Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly: New York, NY--expected circa 2016).
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