“Traditionally Radical” Jewish Learning

by Rachel Cort

In past weeks, I’ve presented four interlocking competencies for Jewish professionals who seek to serve unengaged Millennials. I’ve argued that unengaged Millennials constitute a new market that is best served not by existing Jewish opportunities, but by innovations that disrupt the existing paradigms of Jewish life. Such disruptive innovations can be created using the design thinking process, which requires us to deeply understand the needs of unengaged Millennials and to work in collaborative teams with them to build ideas. Last week I wrote about investing in relationships with unengaged Millennials in order to create small communities and networks from which exciting and creative new modes of Jewish expression might organically arise.

The missing piece to all this, which I will write about today, is “traditionally radical” Jewish learning, a term coined by Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder and rosh yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, to describe her unique approach to Jewish text study. In Rabbi Lappe’s yeshiva, the “traditional” source material is always in the original Hebrew/Aramaic, from the Vilna Shas (the traditional printing of the Talmud). It is presented to learners without intermediary of an English translation (but with the aid of Talmudic dictionaries), and taught in such a way that even learners with only an alef-bet mastery of Hebrew can access the text for themselves. Learners comprehend the material through the practice of chevruta (paired learning) followed by shiur (class). The “radical” nature of this type of study, for Rabbi Lappe, “comes in shifting the primary focus from the subject matter being discussed on the page, to the dynamics of radical change both obvious in the text and those camouflaged just beneath the surface.” It is an approach which focuses on the recognition that many of the Rabbis who contributed to the Talmud were (here I will borrow from Yehuda Kurtzer’s words), “perhaps the most radical and transformative change-agents Jewish history has ever seen.”

For Rabbi Lappe, an additional critical element of traditionally radical text study is “the environment in which the text is learned, namely where there is a predominance of ‘outsiders’ among the learners, people who bring to the table a sensibility and life experience that allow them to pick up on the outsider perspective of the Rabbis and that allow them to continue, in turn, the radical critique on what the Rabbis themselves came up with.” Studying Talmud through a traditionally radical lens with Rabbi Lappe has had important applications for my thinking and my work.

First, such study demystifies and humanizes the Rabbis and scholars who produced this body of Jewish thought and philosophy, adding important nuance and context to complex rabbinic discussions which are sometimes presented as cut-and-dried rulings in legal codes. The discussions being had by the Rabbis were responding to and informed by specific concerns of the day, and are enriched by a method of study that acknowledges the context in which they are embedded. The way that many Jews and Jewish professionals encounter Talmud (highly mediated affairs in which translated snippets are presented without context and without revealing the inner dynamics of the discussion, usually to support the point of view of whomever is doing the presenting) is insufficient to shed light on the workings of the rabbinic mind, reveal the Rabbis’ systems of legal innovation, or to provide access to Judaism’s symbolic vocabulary.

Traditionally radical Talmud study exposes learners to the important methods through which the Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted fixed, sacred text to support new ideas and practices. That they incorporated new ideas and invented new practices, many of which run directly counter to the written Torah, is not a secret. The Rabbis were careful to assert the new in the framework and language of the old, so these innovations would be easy to overlook if it were in one’s interest to present Judaism as an inherently conservative system. However, as Rabbi Lappe shows, traditionally radical Talmud study makes clear that the Rabbis not only updated a fixed and sacred text to respond to the realities and new moral insights of their time, they also created a lasting system for Jewish innovation that I believe can inform the choices Jewish professionals make today. The genius of their system of innovation lies in its ability to draw on and generate a sense of continuity with the past, even as radical reinventions are occurring.

Through an understanding of the systems of Talmudic innovation, traditionally radical Talmud study allows the Jewish professional to place him- or herself within what Kurtzer calls the “mythic chain of tradition.” If traditionally radical Talmud study makes the Rabbis more like us, it also makes us more like the Rabbis. It transforms learners into what Rabbi Lappe calls “players” with the wherewithal to create Jewish experiences that reflect the deepest core values of Judaism and Jewish civilization, even when those choices conflict with today’s Jewish status quo. Jewish professionals who study Talmud in this way will gain firsthand knowledge of how the Rabbis of the Talmud reimagined Temple Judaism for a radically different time, skillfully wove innovations into the existing fabric of Jewish life, and creatively interpreted Torah verses (often with a wink, Rabbi Lappe has convinced me) to support new laws. It is my belief that such study will empower Jewish professionals (Rabbi Lappe would broaden this category to include all people who have a stake in the Jewish future) to emulate the Rabbis, who concentrated on answering the urgent needs of their present moment while constructing a sense of continuity or authenticity with previous traditions. The Rabbis used the “raw materials” of Torah and Temple Judaism to create an entirely new Judaism, a “product” that was so effective at meeting human needs that it remained the dominant and unquestioned form of Judaism until quite recently.

While I don’t believe that Jewish professionals need to study Talmud, or to have achieved a certain amount of Jewish learning, before they are “allowed” to innovate – in fact, I believe that participation in normative Judaisms is usually a strong indicator that a Jewish professional will not be an effective innovator – I do believe that traditionally radical Jewish learning (in my case, Talmud study) is a powerful way to produce the type of thinking that we need to build the Jewish future. This is because such study views Judaism in all its facets–text, history, philosophy, civilization and ritual – as potent raw materials that we can use to move forward as part of a “mythic chain of tradition.”

Traditionally radical Jewish learning isn’t really about acquiring a certain amount of Jewish knowledge, but rather about acquiring a new lens through which to view Jewish knowledge. Jewish professionals who have done traditionally radical Jewish learning of any kind will be better able to create experiences and rituals that operate within Kurtzer’s “symbolic vocabulary” of Judaism, even if those experiences look different from what we recognize as being firmly within normative Judaisms. These experiences may initially be seen by Jewish insiders as being Jewishly insubstantial, or perhaps not Jewish at all, and that’s actually fine. After all, these experiences aren’t meant for insiders, but rather for current non-participants in Jewish life. Rabbi Lappe points out that the Rabbis themselves were probably viewed by their peers as a fringe group advocating something far outside the bounds of what was normative. The model of disruptive innovation tells us that truly paradigm changing innovations are usually not initially attractive to current users. Over time, the experimental Jewish experiences that really work for Millennials (and for the generations that follow them) will evolve to become more sophisticated and Jewishly substantial. As we have seen through the examples of the Rabbis and through Jewish history writ large, the best of these experimental modalities of Jewish life will eventually come to be seen as firmly “inside” of Jewish tradition. The time to start inventing them is now.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.