Thursday, June 5, 2014

Introducing a new section: In the Bet Midrash


One of the great traditions in Judaism is the study and discussion of our writings and history. Often these discussion takes place in a setting called a "Bet Midrash," which translates as "house of learning/explanation/discussion." If one were to go into a Bet Midrash one would likely see many people sitting at tables with books open in front of them, engaged in excited debate, discussion and even argument and regardless of the time or place their conversations would likely be sprinkled with Hebrew ranging from Biblical to Rabbinic to modern, Aramaic, Old French and others as they explore the foundational ideas of Judaism.

This particular mode of learning is known as studying in "Chevrutah" and it involves going through a text with a partner and trying to tease out the meanings, the subtleties and the connections to ideas both ancient and contemporary that the text contains. One of the brilliant things about this mode of learning is that the people in the Bet Midrash, from beginners to great scholars, are not just reading the words and ideas of great thinkers, but they are engaging with ideas in the very same way - the Talmud itself is a rich tapestry not just of wisdom, but of argument and debate, surrounded literally and figuratively by the commentary of other great thinkers.

For me, engaging with texts this way has been the best way to learn about the traditions, history and philosophy of the Jewish people. One of the best things about this mode of learning is that it also encourages the student to think about how the ideas and wisdom embodied in texts hundreds or even thousands of years old, apply to life today.  So in this spirit I am adding a new section to my 36 Voices blog called "In the Bet Midrash" where I will explore, argue with and attempt to apply the ideas expressed in Jewish texts, from ancient to modern, to problems and situations in the world today.

Much like my occasional series “Words and the World,” meditations on literature and civil society, “In the Bet Midrash” will serve as an occasional series on Jewish texts and ideas. I hope that readers will check back from time to time to read the latest installments in this series and of course I welcome your reactions, questions and comments in the comment section below.

Honi and the Carob Tree: Thoughts on Different Modes of Communal Leadership

June 6, 2014

For people who like to engage the study of Jewish text, the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is perhaps the Super Bowl of learning - on the first night of Shavuot all around the world in Jewish communities large and small, gather together for a marathon session of all night learning. Often different members of a community will take turns teaching on a particular topic they have prepared, creating space for everyone in the room to share their reactions and ideas. Shavuot also happens to be one of my favorite holidays, and this year I was honored to be invited to take part in the Tikkun (all night learning session) at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire.

For my part of the evening I decided to look at texts that each have a connection to ideas about "Community."  The first thing we looked at was a section of the story about Honi the Circle drawer, a somewhat mysterious figure who shows up in the Babylonian Talmud and is perhaps best remembered for being able to bring rain during droughts by drawing a circle, standing inside it and praying to Gd in a particularly earnest and powerful way. But there is more to Honi than just his, ability to make it rain - he also stands at the center of an important lesson about community and inter-generational connections. While many people might have some familiarity with Honi, I would guess that fewer people know about the interaction that Honi has later in the narrative, with a man he encounters on the road who is planting a Carob tree.

In this part of the story Honi stops and marvels at the man's decision to plant a Carob tree - a tree, which he notes, that will not provide fruit for another 70 years, long after the man planting it has died. Honi seems baffled by this act, but the man explains that when he was born he himself found Carob trees planted by earlier generations that provided him with  sustenance, and now he is doing the same for future generations. Honi then falls asleep and wakes up some 70 years later to see a boy standing in front of him, he asks who planted the tree and the boy tells him that his grandfather did.

On the surface this would seem to be a simple narrative with Honi as a kind of foil or everyman, who exists within the confines of the story so that the Talmud can remind us that just as we those who have come before us were kind and selfless enough to provide for us, we too have an obligation to provide something for future generations. And as a simple tale of Tzeakkah (charity) and Chesed (kindness) this is useful, but there is also much more going on here below the surface.

During the discussion at Temple Beth Abraham I was lucky enough to learn with a group of people who spanned the generations and brought with them a range of life experiences from different Jewish communities. One idea that was raised which I have been thinking about now for a couple of days, is the notion that perhaps Honi, by virtue of his unique way of connecting to the Almighty - drawing a circle and effectively creating his own sacred space – is also placing a barrier between himself and the community that he serves. Unlike the man planting the Carob tree, whose contribution does not have limit ( as someone in the room pointed out, each Carob tree will drop thousands of seeds, which in turn can create thousands of trees and perpetuate the cycle without end), what Honi does is much more finite, controlled and bounded. He is someone who can draw his own boundaries, and whose assistance to the community, while vital, is also circumscribed (pun intended) and limited to the time and place in which he chooses to beseech the divine. 

This doesn't negate Honi's contribution - the people still needed and were grateful for, the rain - but it does draw a sharp distinction between how Honi and the planter see the communities of which they are a part.

For me, this text points to two different attitudes toward community and two different ways of serving a community. In the case of Honi we see a man who has particular talents that address a specific need, but he has become so focused on this unique ability, that he fails to see the limits of his ability – more than that, he fails to see how more than one way of serving the community or giving back, is even possible.  In this sense, the story of Honi becomes a cautionary tale for leaders, reminding them that however important their own contributions may be, that they need to see beyond what they can accomplish on their own. The man planting the tree also has own perspective, but it is a much wider one – he knows that someone who came before him planted Carob trees so that he would have food, and so he feels a duty to do the same for future generations. He has no way of knowing exactly who planted the trees that he uses, and no way to know who may come along after he has died and benefit from the trees he is planting today. Both Honi and the man planting the tree represent the importance of fulfilling the needs of communities in different, and complementary ways. Honi is the right person at the right time – as RabbiHyim Shafner writes in his essay The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer:

What each of us contributes to the universe is not just the sum of what we have to offer but a unique structure only we can bring to a certain time, place and state of the world. We are not just the substance of our knowledge, emotion and personality, but a specific form, woven into a certain historical time, generation and zeitgeist.

Without Honi to bring rain to the land in winter, people in his generation might have died of thirst and starvation, without the planter looking ahead (and behind) there would be no one to continue the legacy and provide for future generations. This is true not only to Carob trees and rain, but to all of the resources that a Jewish community needs. Perhaps our sages are trying to remind us that a successful community, one which continues from one generation to the next, is made up of a mix of people, some who have the right answer for the moment and others who are cognizant of their place in the chain of memory, culture and community, those who look to both the past and the future.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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