Portals to Jewish Life: The Snowy Chimney & The Open Door
A Tale of Two Batei Midrash
By Maya Bernstein
Once upon a time, in a cold land, far away, there lived a poor man who earned but a “trepik” a day. He kept half of his earnings for himself and his family, and the other half he gave to the guard at the House of Study, the Beit Midrash. One day, the poor man earned nothing at all. The guard wouldn’t let him in, and so he climbed on the roof and listened in on the teachings through the chimney. It grew darker, colder, and soon snow began to fall. The next morning, the great scholars in the Beit Midrash wondered why the light wasn’t shining into the study-house, and they discovered the poor man, with three cubits of snow upon him. (Yoma 35b)
That was Hillel, and that’s how much he wanted to learn Torah.
Many years later, Hillel’s descendent, Rabban Gamliel, was deposed from his position as Head of the Beit Midrash for humiliating another Rabbi, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was appointed in his place. And on that fateful day, the guard was removed from his post as doorkeeper, and the doors of the Beit Midrash were thrown open, for all to enter. Many benches were added to the study hall – one rabbi claimed that four hundred benches were added, and another that seven hundred benches were added … And, not only that, but when an Ammonite who wanted to convert, and wanted to join the learning, the Rabbis agreed that, despite the law stated in Deuteronomy 23 that “an Ammonite and Moabite may not enter the congregation of God,” the Ammonite could enter the congregation. (Brachot 28a)
Two portals to Jewish life – one narrow, exclusive, closed, and guarded, cold and dark. The other, welcoming, accepting, expansive, and inclusive, warm and light. But this isn’t a black and white story. Hillel is a hero, as much as Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is. Our challenge is to build in the grey.
We have struggled with this spectrum throughout our history. If we are too closed, too discerning, we risk becoming like Rabban Gamliel, and harming those in our community, freezing them out. We all know the benefits of a warm, welcoming environment, open to all. But there is also something enticing about the challenge involved in penetrating the locked fortress. We should not lose the labor and even sacrifice involved in the deep striving to grow and learn in this tradition. There’s a sheen to the impenetrable that is not only attractive, but that has innate value.
Perhaps one way of reconciling this tension is to recognize that Jewish life should be easily accessible, but it shouldn’t be easy. It should be welcoming to all, and all should be welcome to be challenged to grow and strive. Fling open the doors, and, once the crowd has poured inside, send them up to the roof, and throw some snowballs at them.
I believe that our approach to the work we do as Jewish professionals, whether we are funders or practitioners, Executive Directors or teachers, should be within the broad theoretical context of the challenge of designing a new Beit Midrash for the Jewish people and the world. This should be an entity whose doors are flung ajar, warmth and welcome pouring out, spilling over into the streets. It must have walls that can expand to fit as many benches as we need, benches open to everyone, specifically those who have felt left out in the past. Yet also – it should have many chimneys, beckoning all to climb, and strive, and labor and sacrifice. And more – it must have tunnels and ropes and slides and swings, with dance rooms and music rooms and art studios and gyms, with stair-cases and ramps and trap doors and secret passageways, obstacle courses and rooms to rest. As we do our work we should pause, and test our programs, our visions, our structures. Are they genuinely open, meeting the needs of the people we strive to serve? Are they challenging those people to be better versions of themselves, to grow and learn and give?
And, perhaps, most difficult of all, we must build our Batei Midrash only to knock them down, so we may keep re-building, re-designing the portals to keep them healthy as we as a people continue to grow.
We shall live to see the day, I trust … when no man shall build his house for posterity. Why should he? He might just as reasonably order a durable suit of clothes, – leather, or gutta percha, or whatever else lasts longest, – so that his great- grandchildren should have the benefit of them, and cut precisely the same figure in the world that he himself does. If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices – our capitols, state-houses, court-houses, city-halls, and churches – ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin, once in twenty years, or there-abouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize. (The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne).
Maya Bernstein is an Associate at UpStart Bay Area.