How to Move Mountains: Questions for North American Jewry

by Elana Stein Hain

Challenging assumed norms: how should it be done and how should it be received? These are among the questions of the hour for our North American Jewish communities, and they have a whole host of applications – generational divides, changes in the communal structures of Jewish life, relationships to the State of Israel, etc., etc., etc. One portrait in rabbinic literature offers an instructive paradigm, a paradigm which is deeply related to the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

I’m afraid that the image of Sinai commonly invoked for Shavuot – people standing unified around a mountain with clear leadership at the helm – is not the portrait I mean. This image works neither descriptively nor prescriptively for today’s American Jewish landscape: its presentation is univocal and expressly hierarchical.

Rabbi Akiva, however, offers a different approach. This is only appropriate for a man portrayed as having hosted Moses as a pupil (Babylonian Talmud Menachot 29b). He was a celebrated exemplar of mature acceptance of Torah even as he became the tragic hero of the period between Passover and Shavuot due to his students’ disrespect for one another. Many are familiar with his humble origins, and especially his interest in rocks and water; as he formulated it – just as water erodes away at rocks over time, powerful words of Torah may be able to penetrate one’s heart of flesh; that simple realization was a eureka moment that sent a 40-year-old Akiva with no Jewish intellectual background on a mission to learn his Jewish ABCs (Avot de-Rabbi Natan chapter 6). But we may be less familiar with another parable about rocks and water used to describe Rabbi Akiva. It begins with an account of his foray into Jewish legal study:

  • Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. He said to them, “My masters, teach me the sense of law.” When they taught him one law, he went and sat alone and asked himself, “Why was this alef written? Why was this bet written? Why was this [or that] said?” He returned and asked them, and they were reduced to silence. (ibid.)

Rabbi Akiva, it seems, was the type of student that good teachers crave (and fear?) – the student who takes the material seriously enough to ask fundamental and sometimes challenging questions about it, questions that perhaps the teacher her/himself has not yet considered. And now on to the rocks and the water:

  • Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar says: I will offer a parable. To what is this similar? To a stonecutter who was quarrying in the mountains. Once, he took his shovel in hand, sat on the mountain and began breaking off small pebbles. Passersby asked him, “What are you doing?” He answered, “I am uprooting the mountain and moving it to the Jordan River.” They responded, “You cannot possibly uproot the whole mountain!” He continued to quarry until he reached a large boulder. He got under it, moved it and uprooted it to the Jordan, saying to it, “This is not where you belong; this is where you belong.” This is what Rabbi Akiva did to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Tarfon said to him, “Akiva, Scripture says about you, ‘He binds streams so that they do not trickle, and that which is hidden he brings to light (Job 28:11).’” Things that were hidden from others, Rabbi Akiva would bring out into the light. (ibid.)

Rabbi Akiva’s approach was quite modern, maybe even post-modern. Rather than passively observing the mountain as others would have done, he chose to move it, to re-shape it much as the drops of water reshaped the original rock that he had seen at the outset of his own personal journey. But he does not do so with hand-wringing or revolution; he is unlike, for example, the wicked child typecast in our annual reading of the Haggadah. He evinces reflectiveness and respect, and in so doing he is able to reveal to others what they do not even yet know to be out of place. And he is effective both because he does so deliberately and painstakingly, and because he continues to bring his questions to his masters rather than writing them (the questions or the masters!) off. He does not give up; he stumped them – he literally held them up with his words. Concurrently, though the emphasis of the passage is not on Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua per se, it is clear that they do not dismiss Akiva’s questions but have the confidence to hear them and even to admit when they have no sufficient response. And at the end of the passage, a colleague, Rabbi Tarfon, lauds Rabbi Akiva for the contribution that his questions ultimately offer.

Returning from stone and water to our own present day, this passage prompts us: How do we make change? Is our first move to try to populate the skyline with our own new mountains? To blast away those mountains which have lost their appeal? Moreover, how do we receive change? Do our instincts lead us to cry foul, to call out others as mere undermining influences? Or do we give them a fair hearing and even where relevant to admit to gaps in our own approach?

Of course, this model is not one size fits all. Sometimes the mountain and the river are simply too far apart to meet; likewise, sometimes the questions are indeed powerful, but so are the answers. In such cases, all parties are probably better off when this is acknowledged. Moreover, even where useful, this metaphor will be, and should be, understood and applied differently by different groups, communities, in different scenarios, as we all have varying sensibilities about flexibility, norms, and continuity. But the very relevant challenge posed here is that mutual respect is required for this approach to even get off the ground: the questioner must be willing to address questions to the establishment, trusting that there is wisdom there; and those questioned must indeed display the wisdom to hear such challenges without defensive posturing.

While this may not always yield a solution, it is a powerful paradigm. It can move mountains.

Dr. Elana Stein Hain is Director of Leadership Education, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.