Jona van der Schelde

The Israeli art of arguing: what I learned in a beit midrash beginner’s program

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Last year, when I was living in Israel, I decided to enroll in the beit midrash of my university, not really knowing what to expect. I just knew I wanted to get more closely acquainted with Jewish religious texts. I could only get so far by reading what I could find on my own. There were surely many things I overlooked, concepts I couldn’t get my head around, ideas that seemed outdated or irrelevant at first glance. 

Since the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, getting closer to the texts is an endeavor to be taken on in study groups, which is what is done in a beit midrash. In small groups, Jewish texts have been parsed for thousands of years, with the goal of coming up with, defending and debunking multiple interpretations per paragraph, per line, sometimes per word, the ancient texts being thus converted into eternally living things. That’s not really what I imagined I’d be doing. I wasn’t gonna be in a dusty library with a low ceiling and I don’t wear a black coat nor glasses, but I also didn’t have a clear image of what it was gonna look like. I signed up for the reshit-program, for those students interested in the sources but with close to no knowledge of them. I had a Zoom-conversation with the rabbi in the summer as a sort of screening. He had a long white beard, a soft disposition and an air of wisdom. I told him my Hebrew wasn’t top notch but he warmly ensured me I’d be fine. After that, I didn’t really think about the program anymore until it started about three months later. 

In the days leading up to the orientation day, I started to get a lil tense. I was nervous about my non-nativeness, linguistically as well as otherwise. All my life, Jewish religious spaces had been kinda stress-inducing for me. I grew up always considering myself Jewish, though halachically I am not, as my mom isn’t Jewish, so many would disagree with that assessment of my own identity and many have, indeed, been sure to tell me so.

My Jewishness growing up was strictly cultural and secular; it was in the stories that my parents told us about their sojourns in Israel, my family’s tragic history in the Holocaust, the particular Jewish traits that my dad and his friends shared – cultural motifs that came to be ingrained in my own identity, too, as I also started to travel to Israel, learn about the history and make Jewish friends with whom I shared a special bond due to some seemingly particular shared idiosyncrasies.

But yeah, I never had a bar mitzvah, I didn’t know the first thing about prayer, keeping kosher or any of the central tenets of the religion. They didn’t seem significant to my Jewishness as my father’s ancestors had already been secular for generations and they weren’t any less Jewish for it. My complete cluelessness of religion slowly transformed into a significant ignorance into a keen curiosity as I became a member of the Jewish student association in the Netherlands, made religious friends and ultimately ended up in Israel, captivated by the sanctity and serenity of shabbat and attracted by fragments of religious life I encountered there.

The classes at the beit midrash turned out to be some of the most uniquely Israeli scenes I’ve experienced in my 2 years in the country, along with that one kabbalat shabbat on a sort of new wave half-Buddhist half-messianic yishuv and watching the Israeli national football team play during Rosh Hashana at the home of a wonderfully chaotic Yemenite family. In the beit midrash, I was the only foreigner. You could tell by my puzzlement every time someone made an in-group army reference or when four people interrupted the rabbi at the same time. This was exactly the beauty of the classes – the free-flowing spirit as well as the constant mixing of the sacred and the profane in the discussions. Mostly, I sat and observed, in awe of the impressive pace with which the conversation meandered from controversial nook (the benefits of circumcision for sexual pleasure, say) to profound cranny (Judaism’s rejection of both materialism and asceticism) and back through a swamp of lowly ánd lofty subjects.   

The particular class I’m thinking of was on Maimonides, probably the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher. It was unlike any experience I’ve had in a school setting; I took out my notebook like I was conditioned to do, nobody else did. There was no PowerPoint or homework. Every week, we’d read and talk about something the Rambam wrote regarding ethics or the nature of our soul or the tension between science and religion, but not before the rabbi had opened the class by telling us about something that happened to him that particular week or posing a question that seemed a complete non sequitur. Then what followed would be a heated, unrestrained discussion that usually lasted well over half of the class. It was a sight to behold. It reminded me of evenings at my family table, where dinner was often accompanied by fiery but friendly arguing, semantic sparring and even emotional disagreements, which would sometimes intimidate guests we had over. 

But even still, I definitely couldn’t hang with these Israeli fellas (here at the beit midrash, they were all guys, but Israeli women are no exception). First off, I didn’t have the language sufficiently mastered to be quick enough to come between any of them and share my thoughts. Even if I did, though, I doubt I would have been able to add anything of substance and with the same temperament. It was a mixed crowd in terms of religious observance, cultural background as well as what each student majored in (philosophy, biology, neuroscience, mathematics, to name a few), but nearly all of them were eloquent, direct and charming. 

The responsibility for rabbis to protect their community’s health and advocate for vaccination was debated, the Rambam’s notion of the higher intellect led to an entire lesson on the left vs. right brain dichotomy; if I wasn’t too stupefied by all these new Hebrew terms coming at me at breakneck speed, I was a sponge soaking up all these exciting insights. Voices were raised routinely but always a smile lingered underneath the explosive disagreements, and the ‘opponent’ in the debate was always achi – my brother. When tensions threatened to flare up too much, the rabbi was there to restore order and sanity with a sharp but fair veto, sort of like a reasonableness clause maybe. 

In the months following the last elections, I remember the discussions revolved around the separation between church and state and the division of power in a democracy. The class itself was decidedly democratic, in a sense that, despite the turbulent nature of the discourse, everybody got to say their piece and everybody was taken seriously, save perhaps for the quiet Dutch kid in the back who concentrated with all his might just to keep up with the rhythm of the rhetoric. 

We spoke also about the story of Jacob when the weeks of those parashot came around. Famously, the name Israel was ascribed to him after a dream in which he wrestled with God (the literal meaning of Israel), and in this lies already the Jewish destiny of forever questioning, wrestling with words, even with God, let alone amongst ourselves. Then came the tale of his twelve sons, and why did the Jewish people derive their name from Judah rather than his brother Joseph, the more obvious mensch? One student posed that Joseph did the correct thing all his life but Judah went through a process of making mistakes and growing from those to ultimately become a righteous man, through that process earning a hard-fought wisdom – a more desirable, more human trait to aspire to and be inspired by than pure, unchanging moral correctness. I liked that argument a lot. 

By now, the course has ended and I’ve been back in the Netherlands for about half a year. I can’t say I learned a hell of a lot about the Rambam or that I really understand the implications of Ha-Kuzari (which was the subject of another class). I didn’t necessarily get very acquainted with Jewish religious texts (though I’ll certainly keep at it), but I did get right up close and personal with the Jewish spirit of debate that reins so freely in Israel – blunt but loving, razor-sharp but respectful. At least that’s how it was in the beit midrash. 

As little as I know about religious matters, I can’t pretend to know a whole lot more about the political divide that is tearing Israel apart at the moment. I just know that there is fierce disagreement and protest (a necessary, loud but non-violent one) and I know where I stand of course, but again I’m not exactly qualified to participate. I just hope that this divide will not become an irreparable rift, that the sense of brother- and sisterhood will prevail. Even if your brother has made wrong choices or performed immoral acts, he may still redeem himself and come out wiser on the other end.  

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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