Thursday, August 19, 2010

That's not how we did it in Yavneh

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," is one way to translate the first verse of Genesis, and to my mind preferable to "At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth.… God said let there be light" which is how Rashi reads it. I say this not on textual grounds, but for mussar reasons. I like the idea of God first creating heaven and earth rather than beginning with a boring, old dichotomy. Light or dark, right or wrong, true or false - as if all the universe contains might be boiled down to one or the other. 
Beginnings are hard. Its human nature to soften them with rituals, or with things we've brought with us from before . We come into the world naked, but that's about it; afterwards there are no fresh starts. We go to new schools with old friends, or favorite sweaters. We take our old furniture, and our old families into our new homes. The past comes with us everywhere we venture. To leave it behind is to invite stress, and disorientation.

Along with the new year, Rosh Hashana is a celebration of our personal history. The liturgy with its well-remembered songs and the meals with their traditional foods are all cues that reminds of our parents, our childhood, our innocence. And it is these memories that are the source of the holiday's great, irreplaceable pleasures.This is why the first holiday away from home can be such a stressful challenge. We want what we remember, because only what we remember holds meaning. If any of the details are wrong - details that according to all theologists are insignificant - we feel that the holiday is wrong. Their absence makes the holiday into something foreign.

This is a natural, altogether human way of thinking, of course, and one that, taken to extremes, can  create sectarianism. Fifteen years ago, my neighborhood had one shul where Jews of many different descents and traditions happily coexisted. Today my neighborhood has five shuls, and diversity under one roof is hard to find. Each group wanted only what they knew, and couldn't quite swallow the suspicion that the other ways were wrong. Rather than stay together and create something new, and possibly better, the community split apart in pursuit of something quite impossible: a perfect representation of the past.

The more Jews change the more they stay the same. The story of my shul was told for perhaps the first time by the authors of the Talmud Bavli, on  BT Rosh Hashana 32A: 
When the Sanhedrin went to Usha, R. Yochanan b. Beruka was the chazan [on Rosh Hashana] in front [of the Nasi] Shimon b. Gamliel and he followed the liturgy of R. Yochanan b. Nuri.

R. Shimon b. Gamliel said to him "That's not how we did it in Yavneh."

On the second day, R. Chanina b. R. Yosi Hagelili was the chazan and he followed the liturgy of R. Akiva

R. Shimon b. Gamliel said to him "That's how we did it in Yavneh."
Much of this is familiar. Twenty-first century Orthodox Jews will recognize the fetishistic view of customs, and the holiday sense of longing for the old home, in this case Yavneh. What's different - strikingly different,even astoundingly different - is the behavior of R. Shimon b. Gamliel.

In our day, I can't imagine a  Rabbi allowing a competing liturgy to be used in his shul. In our day, angry faces are made at the gabbai, and at least one old man starts yelling "Neee! Neee!" the moment R. Yochanan departs from the house style.

Contrast this with the behavior of R. Shimon. "That's not how we did it in Yavneh." There is so much nobility, so much maturity, so much dignity, in his simple response, in words I imagine he uttered quietly and with something of a shrug. 

"We're all Jews,"  he might have continued. "with more in common then the small differences that distinguish us. Let R. Yochanan do it his way. It's not the end of the world. And who knows? I might enjoy it, or learn something new from his approach. His way isn't wrong; my way isn't right. They're just different, and diversity is a source of strength not weakness."

Think of how much stronger the House of Israel would be if the Jews of different descents and different traditions and different, but legitimate, imperatives, could greet each other with R. Shimon's words and, in keeping with R. Shimon's behavior, continue to pray together. Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way to pay proper homage to our past, to our personal Yavnahs, without allowing the homage to become something larger, something that obstructs unity? Can't we find a way to free ourselves from the tyrannous thought that everything is either right or wrong, dark or light, when most things are neither?  Can't we begin again, together?

This post is part of Jewels of Elul, which celebrates the Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days of the month of Elul to growth and discovery in preparation for the coming high holy days. This year the program is benefiting Beit T'shuvah, a residential addiction treatment center in Los Angeles. You can subscribe on Jewels of Elul to receive inspirational reflections from public figures each day of the month. You don’t have to be on the blog tour to write a blog post on “The Art of Beginning... Again”. We invite everyone to post this month (August 11th - September 8th) with Jewels of Elul to grow and learn.”

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