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It’s Time to Leave the Beit Midrash, And Take to the Streets

She's taking a break from intellectual pursuits to seek social justice because sometimes action trumps learning

Most days, it feels like I have the best job in the world. I get to sit in the Beit Midrash, immersed in the richness of rabbinic text, and then teach those same texts to a group of brilliant and motivated students. Most days, I am filled with gratitude for the fact that I get to do what I love, stretching my brain to its limits and beyond. Most days, I could not imagine asking for anything more.

These days, however, are not most days. These days are the days when studying Torah alone feels deeply insufficient in the face of the grave injustices in the world. These days, the words of the Talmud swim in front of my eyes as three words echo in my head: “I can’t breathe.”

The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and too many others are heartbreaking on so many levels. They are heartbreaking on an individual level, for their families, friends and for the lost potential of what each one of those men could have brought to the world. They are heartbreaking on a societal level, highlighting the degree to which our myth of a post-racial society is really still a myth. They are heartbreaking because they remind those of us who are accorded immense privilege based on the accident of the color of our skin that that privilege comes at the expense of the oppression of others. And remaining silent is a sign of consent to the system that creates these deep and cruel inequalities. So to me, the answer is clear. It is time to leave the Beit Midrash, and take to the streets.

The rabbinic tradition understands that sometimes the needs of the physical world take precedence over the intellectual one; that is why Rava tells his students to stay away from the Beit Midrash during harvest season, to ensure that their physical needs will be met in the coming year. (Brachot 35b.) In fact, there is a halakhic principal that can help frame our understanding of when neglecting Torah study can be seen as an honor to that Torah—osek b’mitzvah, patur min hamitzvah—the one who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah. This notion is key to the exemption that one who is tending to the dead is exempt from saying kriyat shema, and also to the idea that one is allowed to leave the Beit Midrash to attend a funeral or a wedding. Today, the mitzvah we must uphold is our responsibility to cry out against injustice, and to honor the divine in every person, no matter the color of their skin. It is time to leave the Beit Midrash and take to the streets.

In the last few days and weeks and months, so much ink has been spilled over what happened in Ferguson, and New York, and Cleveland, and countless other places around the country. These words are deeply important. They serve to bear witnesses, to educate, to record history. Like the texts of our tradition, some of them will be rewritten and remembered, showing future generations where we were, and also hopefully where we are going. Judaism is a religion that knows and understands and affirms the power of words. These words are deeply important. They are also not enough. It is time to leave the Beit Midrash, and take to the streets.

Last night, I joined with hundreds of my fellow Jews to march in solidarity with the individuals and communities who have been abused, brutalized and murdered because their skin happens to be the “wrong” color. We were of all ages, religious affiliations and races. Holding signs citing the many texts of our tradition that demand justice, we cried out for those whose voices have been lost from the world. As we marched, we were joined by those who happened to be passing by, as cabs slowed and honked their horns in support. We bore witness as our friends, teachers and mentors sat shiva for those who died in the middle of Broadway, and watched them get arrested and taken away by the police. We did the holiest, and most important thing, we could have done in that moment. We left the Beit Midrash and took to the streets.

I have no illusions that the small actions we took last night will be nearly enough to create the dramatic, widespread change our country so needs. There is too much injustice that is too deep and too systematic to be washed away in a few days of protests. However, it is a step, no matter how tiny, towards a more just world, towards justice for Eric Garner, towards a world where we will refuse to oppress others with our own privilege.

The gemara in Kiddushin (40b) records the famous debate between R. Tarfon and R. Akiva about which is greater, study or action. In the end, the entire Beit Midrash comes together and decides, Talmud gadol, shehatalmud mevi l’yidei ma’aseh—study is greater, because study leads to action. Without the action, our Torah is lost. So for now, I am committing myself to leave the Beit Midrash, at least for a little while, and take to the streets. I hope I’ll see you there.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.