Wrestling With the Angel (Devil?) of Tradition
A while back, I wrote a post about how to teach gemara to a crowd of non-Orthodox but seriously committed Jews. One of the points I tried to make is that such a crowd should engage with the gemara on its own terms. Rather than just cherry-pick sugyot and subjects that they agree with, students should be exposed to the whole panoply of subjects, even if they find it strange or even offensive.
What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, there are the many superstitious statements and actions, the outdated science and medical procedures. Then we have the statements and halachot that are disparaging of women* and non-Jews. This is the stuff most of us avoid and with good reason.
After this, we get into all kinds of other rules that seem outdated or unnecessary. Depending on how “liberal” you are, all or even most of the different rules and concepts may seem foreign to you. Indeed, anything that does not conform to a purely humanistic liberal worldview may seem worth avoiding.
I think this is wrong – not just for liberals but also for Orthodox Jews. All of us grapple with problematic issues that come up in tradition, be they moral or scientific. The study of gemara should be a place to air out these problems, not to bury them or avoid them. Better to grapple with the angel like Yaakov than flee and be drowned like Yonah.
I can only speak for myself, but in the fourteen odd years I’ve spent commenting on forums and blogs, I have learned from everyone and every opinion. Even when I vehemently disagreed with a position or belief, engaging it merely helped me shape and strengthen my own. I believe that students of gemara can do the same by dealing with whatever part of it they find problematic.
Gemara study is a wonderful opportunity to discuss, debate and engage every aspect of Jewish tradition, law and belief. It can be a formative experience, in which the student fights, rejects, embraces and molds himself into an entirely new creation, enmeshed in the Jewish experience while all the time refusing to surrender to it entirely.
Rather than silence students who find strange things in the gemara, teachers and Rabbis should encourage just as vigorous discussion of these matters as they would of hezkat habatim and HaIsha Nikneit. Thus, gemara study goes from being of practical value (learning halacha) and spiritual value (Talmud torah) to being of existential value (self-identity and belief).
Disagree? Let me know in the comments.
*I’m actually considering writing a sort of “semi-defense” of some of the more famous of these statements…