Following the destruction of the central beit hamikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem, our people were forced into an exilic existence that lacked many familiar modes.
Gone was the central place of worship; the sacrifices were no more. Adjustments had to be made as we coped with this new reality. We sought alternate centers for communion with God to play the role of the beit hamikdash in our lives, and the beit knesset (synagogue) and beit midrash (hall of study) substituted as focal points.
With this background we can understand the talmudic preoccupation with delving into the significance of the beit knesset and beit midrash. In one talmudic passage we find a scholar turning to a colleague and respectfully beseeching: "Would the master tell us some of the excellent teachings that you said in the name of Rav Hisda with regard to the synagogue?" (B. Berachot 8a).
The colleague obliged, opening with the biblical verse: "God loves the gates of Zion (Tziyon) more than all the dwelling places of Jacob" (Psalms 87:2) and interpreting: "God loves the gates distinguished (me'tzuyanim) by Jewish law more than batei knesset and batei midrash."
The hierarchy offered in this passage is unexpected and startling. In the post-Temple reality of the sages, there is generally no place more sanctified or more lauded than the beit knesset and beit midrash. Entry into either of them was the nearest one could get to the residing place of the Holy Presence. It is therefore striking to find something more beloved than the familiar and celebrated synagogue and study hall.
A further more perplexing enigma also arises from this passage: We are familiar with the beit knesset and the beit midrash; what and where are the "gates distinguished by Jewish law?"
Given that these gates are the most favored location, it behooves us to seek and identify them. Once we detect these "gates distinguished by Jewish law," then perhaps we will be able to fathom the sages' veneration for them. Indeed, commentators throughout the ages have sought to illuminate the meaning of this moniker that does not appear in other contexts, in an attempt to understand the ranking of holy places presented in this passage.
Let us begin by focusing on the gates as opposed to the houses. In biblical terms, the gates were where the judges received cases, deliberated and arbitrated. Why at the gates? Would it not have been more appropriate to adjudicate in a sanctified structure such as a house of worship or house of study?
The gates were a public place that afforded access to all. By using this unrestricted area as a courthouse, the judicial system ensured that people had the opportunity to have their cases heard, without being intimidated by hallowed halls. Justice was not sought from afar. Justice was proffered in the marketplace, together with the everyday goods and services on offer, and together with the inevitable business disputes that would crop up.
Yet for the judge, exiting the synagogue or study hall would not have been a desired journey. For the Jewish scholar, one of the most spiritually fulfilling pursuits is exploring the intricacies of the word of God in the beit midrash itself. For the Jew steeped in prayer and meditation, the synagogue is a haven for communion with God. Leaving these sacred locations may be experienced as a descent from Divine space to the mundane market, where two people may be grasping tightly to a shred of material, each relentlessly claiming ownership.
The talmudic passage corrects such an attitude, instructing the judge that arbitrating between litigants is a more than worthwhile quest. Serving justice in the public eye for the masses is more beloved than being holed-up in ivory towers, meditating on the Divine through prayer or study. Thus the "gates distinguished by Jewish law" refers to the courthouses found in the markets, shouks and bazaars, where cases were decided on the basis of Jewish law.
A careful reading of the talmudic passage, however, reveals that the intended recipient of this lesson - the judge - is only alluded to by the use of the term "gates." The teaching is phrased in general terms, so that even those who do not sit in judgment can draw some nourishment from the timeless words of our sages.
Returning to the image of gates and houses: Gates have one face towards private property and the other towards the public domain, with a pathway connecting the two. It can be said that gates define the threshold between the personal and the communal realms.
Our sages may be suggesting that Jewish tradition flourishes when it straddles this threshold, thereby keeping one leg in each world. Indeed, Jewish law and genuine spiritual experiences may be personal encounters, yet they should be shared with the public sphere. Rather than remaining in the synagogue and study hall, the light and warmth generated while encountering our tradition in these sacred places should then radiate outward from the houses of worship and study to the gates facing the public. Jewish tradition would then be enriched, and as such lauded.
A gate, however, is a two-way opening; while the glow imbues the outside expanses, ideas from beyond the synagogue and study hall make their way into the melting pot of Jewish tradition, enhancing the flavor of the product. Thus the synagogue and study hall should not barricade its doors against conversing with the vicissitudes of life beyond the gates. Jewish tradition remains eternal when it retains its relevance.
In the words of Bilam, the dwelling places of Israel may indeed be fair (Numbers 24:5), but the sages are warning against this goodness remaining insular, within the tents of Jacob. The wealth of our heritage should not remain within the confines of the synagogue and study hall. Our tradition should come forth from Zion (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2) towards the gates that guard our hallowed spaces; there it will hover as it draws both from the source and from life beyond the gates, permeating both realms with Godliness.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.