The rabbis of the Talmud were not convinced that Torah should only be taught within the walls of the Beit Midrash. There is a disagreement on this topic between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Hiyya recorded in the Talmud (Tractate Moed Katan 16a-16b). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi argued that Torah should not be taught in the open public marketplace, and explicitly forbade any teaching of Torah outside of a formal house of study. Rabbi Hiyya (one of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s students), by contrast, argued that Torah should be taught in public, in addition to inside the Beit Midrash.
Even though the rabbis argued back and forth, both providing scriptual support to prove their points, readers of this text are left with the question unresolved: do we follow Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who wanted to keep Torah in the private arena, or can we also follow Rabbi Hiyya, who wanted to go out to where the people were and make Torah available to all?
This disagreement repeats itself over countless generations and our Jewish communities are faced with the same question today. Should “Torah” (i.e. Jewish life) occur only in the private, safe walls of our synagogues, or should it be brought into the public arena, in the form of innovative communities without walls, creating avenues where, as Proverbs 1:20 teaches, “Wisdom cries aloud in the streets?”
I believe that the answer is both – Torah must exist both within our traditional synagogues and institutions, and also in spaces beyond conventional walls. I have come to this realization through my involvement in a millennial outreach program piloted by USCJ over the last year in San Francisco. This new initiative, called The Hub-SF, provides meaningful and spiritual Jewish opportunities and experiences for young adults through Shabbat and holiday gatherings, connections to Jewish opportunities, and personal one-on-one relationship building- all in an attempt to reimagine Jewish life for those who grew up in Conservative Judaism or are now just being exposed to it.
As the rabbinical student working on this project, I’ve spent the past year building relationships with over 100 young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area. After many Shabbat dinners, holiday events, personal conversations, and learning experiences, I’ve found that the elusive “millennials” who are the subject of so many papers and articles are searching for meaning and spiritual direction. Maybe they seek the Judaism that they are comfortable and familiar with- whether it’s from their days at camp or youth group, or attending Hillel in college. Maybe they seek a Judaism that has yet to exist.
What we as the “community” need to do is leave the walls of our Beit Midrash, go out into the marketplace, hear them, and build with them. To bring Torah out to the public and get to know the individuals and cultivate relationships with them- listen to their own stories. In this way, we follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Hiyya by bringing Torah out of our conventional structures and into spaces where deeply committed Jews are living and searching.
Yet this project also follows the legacy of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, recognizing and honoring the power and necessity of traditional synagogues and structures. There are many wonderful organizations that have been journeying out beyond the synagogue walls for some time now.
What makes The Hub-SF unique is that we have found that this work is not meant to be done in isolation. We cannot only go out into the marketplace. For millennial engagement initiatives to be successful, there must be an eventual goal to connect people, when they are ready, with established communities that are also doing great and holy work.
In this respect too, we are following in the legacy of our Talmudic rabbis. While Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Hiyya disagree about Torah’s place in the marketplace, they both are grounded in the assumption that Torah certainly exists in the Beit Midrash. So too with us; we must approach our work with the appreciation and realization that our synagogues are the strongholds and anchor an authentic and dynamic Judaism such that it is possible to radiate and extend outward. While we may need to venture outside to meet those in the marketplace, we are always leaving from, and eventually coming back to, our core institutions.
Perhaps this, then, is why the debate in the Talmud is left unresolved. Surely our foundational text realizes that these two models – these two settings for Torah – exist best not in competition with one another, but in deep relationship and coexistence, such that they can touch and engage people at all stages of life with the gems and wisdom of Torah.
This is our work- may we have the strength to do it together.