Maintaining Open Tents With Doors That Close:
The Enduring Dilemma of Keruv and Chomot

By Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel, RJE

It is extremely rare to ask about a Jewish community, and not hear that the community you are asking about is welcoming. While evidence of this is anecdotal, you would be hard pressed to find a synagogue in North America that doesn’t use this language to describe itself. And yet, the experience of newcomers walking through the doors of many of these synagogues might not feel welcomed.

The challenge is clear. In the past decade, there has been a great deal of focus on Jewish communities becoming welcoming, embracing diversity, and building relationships within the synagogue setting in order to not just welcome people, but to truly bring them in.

This idea of welcoming with depth can be articulated with the Hebrew word keruv. This is a term most frequently used in Orthodox circles, but it is an idea and an ideal which is equally relevant to liberal Jewish communities. The root of the Hebrew word is connected to closeness or proximity – this gerund form of this word can be best translated as bringing near. Yet, at the same time, Jewish communities also seek to create healthy boundaries. In order to maintain integrity, safety, and recognize the limitations set by reality, boundaries must be set.

We can visualize these boundaries as chomot, walls. In communities and institutions, we utilize our mission and values in order to determine how we set up these boundaries.

We must recognize that these values of keruv and chomot exist as an enduring dilemma. The tension exists between the desire to have an open tent and the need to have doors that close. Our institutions must be both actively and deeply welcoming (keruv) and maintain boundaries (chomot), in order to create positive and inclusive environments, while maintaining our integrity and recognizing our limitations. Organizational systems continually go through a process of censoring in and censoring out – determining how individuals and ideas are either part of that system or outside of that system. Often, this determination is not clear – and the conflicting values of welcoming and boundaries must be held in equilibrium.

This dilemma is not new. In fact, such a situation of finding this balance is found in the Talmud. In Berachot 28a, we read of an instance in which a change in leadership led to a shift in the balance between these values:

It was taught: On that day that they removed Rabban Gamliel from his position and appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in his place, there was also a fundamental change in the general approach of the study hall as they dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter. Instead of Rabban Gamliel’s selective approach that asserted that the students must be screened before accepting them into the study hall, the new approach asserted that anyone who seeks to study should be given opportunity to do so. As Rabban Gamliel would proclaim and say: Any student whose inside, his thoughts and feelings, are not like his outside, i.e., his conduct and his character traits are lacking, will not enter the study hall.

The Gemara relates: On that day several benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous students. Rabbi Yohanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this matter. One said: Four hundred benches were added to the study hall. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added to the study hall. When he saw the tremendous growth in the number of students, Rabban Gamliel was disheartened. He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Israel from engaging in Torah study. They showed him in his dream white jugs filled with ashes alluding to the fact that the additional students were worthless idlers. The Gemara comments: That is not the case, but that dream was shown to him to ease his mind so that he would not feel bad.

The pericope relates a story that is an apt example of our dilemma. While Rabban Gamliel had held strong boundaries, limiting the Beit Midrash to welcome only an elite group of students, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s new leadership brought a shift in the balance, so that welcoming became the primary value. This change led to a tremendous growth to the study hall, which caused Gamliel to worry that his practice of putting up walls had prevented the people from study. To comfort him, he is shown a vision that tells him that the new students were, in fact, not worthy. But, the Talmud relates, the dream was not an accurate vision, and was only there for comfort. This sugya demonstrates to us many aspects of finding the balance between welcoming and boundaries: different leaders offer different methods to manage this tension; individuals, when judged on superficial qualities, might be unfairly left out; when doors are opened and we let our guard down (in this case, literally), many more individuals have access to our teaching; former leadership will sometimes struggle with the decisions made by new leadership; the Powers That Be recognize this difficulty and can bring comfort to those who doubt themselves; and that even the greatest of educational leaders struggle with how to manage decisions which involve this tension. Indeed, Gamliel could have brought Torah to hundreds more students – but perhaps his teaching was more integrated by those students he taught. But, at the same time, perhaps Gamliel could have been more welcoming, and not judged students for how the appeared to be – or inspired some to find a better balance between their inner and outer selves. This text offers guidance to help us realize that this dilemma is not only enduring, but is also eternally challenging. And that the right answer might not be apparent, but different answers can lead to different forms of success.

Oftentimes, this dilemma is expressed in ways that are not so monumental. From B’nai Mitzvah families that request exceptions to the rules of participation, to figuring out how to raise security in a way that is not alienating, to members who do not live up to their financial commitments – synagogue leadership is filled with the need to balance the value of being welcoming and inclusive with the need to maintain integrity. This dilemma is also present when the needs of one group are in direct conflict with the needs of another – for instance, when a family with a young child leads to the noise of that child enjoying their time in synagogue, making an older congregant feel unwelcome because of that noise which disrupts their experience.

The tension between keruv and chomot is an enduring dilemma – it is both ancient and contemporary, and will continue in the future. We strive, each time we are met with this dilemma, to find the right balance – and hope that we have done so in the best way for that situation. And that if we could have done better, that we are met by dreams and visions that comfort us.

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE. She also serves as the current President of DERECH, the organization of Rabbis and Cantors in Delaware, and is on the board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. This article is taken from her Capstone project in partial fulfillment of a Masters in Religious Education through Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in the Executive Masters program. Contact her for a longer version of this piece and follow her on twitter and instagram at @rabbiisa.


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