In a famous Talmudic scene from Bava Metzia (59a–b), the Oven of Achnai, the great sages of the rabbinic period are split in debate. Speaking for the minority position is Rabbi Eliezer, who is so certain of his point that he is capable of invoking the natural world as his witnesses and he even receives a divine pronouncement validating him. Speaking for the majority is Rabbi Joshua who, in a moment of ultimate chutzpah, stands up and responds to the heavenly voice with “The Torah is not in Heaven!” You gave it to us God. Now we get to decide how it works. And God’s response is laughter and this statement “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.”
This year I’ve been working at the Miami University of Ohio Hillel. My primary goal has been to aid in the lay leadership development of the three women who have been elected as the religious and cultural vice presidents of the Hillel. We’ve made an incredible amount of progress this year. At the beginning they turned to me at every instance, asking my permission as they designed their Shabbat tefillah. “Can we use this melody? Is this version of the prayer ok? Can we skip this or shorten that?”
My response has been “It’s your tefilla, you don’t need my permission. Just explain to me why you are making the choices here and there. Are you using that melody because it’s moving or because it’s familiar? Are you including this reading because it has meaning for the time and place or because it’s in the book? Are you skipping this psalm because you object to its content or because you want to make it to dinner faster?” And I’ve tried, with mixed success, to make it clear that we don’t need to agree with their answers as long as they have answers. To quote a friend and colleague “intentionality is huge.” Slowly, as the students have become more comfortable and more practiced they have stopped asking for the permission they never needed in the first place.
This week my students really pushed the bar above and beyond. Over the course of this last year I’ve tried several times to organize some learning- text study related to Challah for Hunger, a source sheet drawn from an event on campus, or a brief glance at the Parshat haShavua. Most of the students haven’t shown any interest. The few who were at a program when text study was added seemed confused by it. It seemed to me that the culture of the campus was such that social justice alone was going to be more successful than attempts to inject traditional Jewish learning.
And then an email arrived from one of the vice presidents.
“The Rabbinical Students need to come down more often and teach some extra classes on Jewish subjects.” My jaw dropped. How the heck was I supposed to make time this semester for extra visits? When was I supposed to design an extra bit of curriculum? Who was going to come to these? What about my own classes? And then I smiled. I had tried my best to bring my version of Jewish learning to this group… but they had told me “Nope! You don’t get to decide when and how we’re going to learn! We do!”
God laughs when the rabbis win the argument. How can we do any less when our students do the same?
Sam Kaye is a rising fifth year rabbinical student. In 2016–2017 he served as TJF Fellow at Miami University Hillel.