Five Rabbis or why a Secular Humanist Jew is an Heir of Chazal (the sages)

By David Steiner

“What matters in life is not what happens to you
but what you remember and how you remember it.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, [the conservative ninny that was so self righteous he used black magic to prove his colleagues wrong;] Rabbi Yehoshua, [the bold chutzpan (person with gumption) who essentially rejected God’s control over interpreting Torah;] Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, [the baby-faced, rich-kid that, ironically, understood the value of hard work – “Where there is a want of bread, study of the Torah can not thrive.”] Rabbi Akiva, [the failed leader who mistakenly believed that Bar Kochva is the messiah – which resulted in a disastrous revolt and expulsion from Israel,] and Rabbi Tarphon, [the do gooder, who is lauded for saying, “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it;”] were reclining [at a seder] in B’nei Berak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: “Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!

Read with critical literacy, as they themselves read Torah, this passage can take on completely different meanings than, “Five rabbis discussed the exodus from Egypt all night until their students reminded them of the requirement to recite the morning Shema.” In other words, the pshat, the simple, literal meaning of a text is never adequate. We need to know who told this story. What was their motivation? Who was the intended audience? What about who they are made them choose the precise, yet limited, message that they recorded, and we received?

We also need to know ourselves. Why does it bother us that there were only men at the table the Bnei Barak? Why were they in Bnei Barak and not in an attic, hiding, in Lydda? Why do we care that only scholars were successful at preserving the stories that we received? Why do we struggle with the meaning of their texts, and why do we see great beauty in it?

Most importantly, when we read these texts, what kind of meaning do we create from them? Do we do it as a secret that only some can decode, or do we do it with a transparency that allows us to create a diverse community?

For me and others like me, one of the most remarkable things about this brief passage is that the five rabbis, of very distinct and contrary opinions, all sat throughout the night and discussed. It doesn’t matter what they discussed, as much as it matters that they did it. They didn’t have televised debates or criticise one another in their form of the press. They sat around a table and talked – despite their differences.

But even those things that we like to look at and celebrate have their faults. As much as I love the civility of their conversation, I hate that they didn’t include women or common folk. I also resent the direction much of the conversation.

When I open up the Torah text, I see a story of three kids of two Levites who had the audacity to procreate and continue their familial ways in the face of the horrible oppression that they were experiencing. Amram and Yocheved were optimists, and they raised great, though flawed, leaders. Moses was not a great orator and never fully escaped the zeal of his youth. Aaron was too much of a populist to oppose the people as they lost their faith in Moses’s leadership, and Miriam led the women in cheering the brutal death of their enemies on the other side of the Sea of Reeds, “Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea,” without any consideration of the widows and orphans left behind.

As I read the haggadah, especially the maggid, I am bothered by the rabbi’s almost complete elimination of the work of human hands, but this does not make me a Karite. I am a rabbinic Jew because the 5 rabbis who successfully left me their interpretation of scripture also left me a license to look into the text and derive my own meaning. The wanted their descendants to look at Torah and chew on the text. This is why the Shema includes the word shenantam, a verb derived from the word for teeth. I learned this lesson while writing my bar mitzvah speech ages ago. I included this from poet Eve Merriam.

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

For many of us, Torah is something we love to find meaning in and create meaning from. The rabbis, in there time, wanted to put a focus on God because that traditional system, with all its commands, promises and rewards, was crumbling in front of the people. They did it in private because they wanted to obfuscate. It gave them power and authority to explain the text. Maybe it was the right thing to do in their time.

Today, the world is quite different. The children of Israel do not live under occupation. We don’t have to hide in attics to discuss our texts. We have a country and we have our freedom abroad. Also we are much more diverse than ever before, not just ethnically, but politically and religiously. So as we turn, this Pesach, to the Order given to us by our ancestors, let’s take some lessons from them. Let’s use the license they gave us to constructively derive meaning from our text – for our time, let’s come together despite our differences and let’s use the time together around the table to talk to each other. These are the most important gifts of our freedom, and received properly they can help us be a better part of the comity of nations.

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a filmmaker, mediator and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.