World of the Sages: Preservation and innovation

The tension between guarding sanctified traditions and innovating along uncharted routes is part of the fabric of contemporary Judaic discourse.

The tension between guarding sanctified traditions and innovating along uncharted routes is part of the fabric of contemporary Judaic discourse. Each avenue is concurrently attractive and hazardous. The preservation of time-honored traditions carries the danger of a fossilized world-view. Yet as we open the doors to change we run the risk of forsaking the path of our ancestors. This tension may be at the root of one of the most famous rabbinic compromises (B. Berachot 27b-28a). Rabban Gamliel (Eretz Yisrael, 1st-2nd centuries), the head of rabbinic Judaism in his day, conducted the academy with a strict elitism, allowing only the finest students to participate in the beit midrash (study hall) conversation. To enforce this restriction, a guard was posted at the doorway who prevented the entry of students whose outward behavior did not reflect their inner self. Rabbinic literature records three incidents where Rabban Gamliel sought to impose the authority of his office (M. Rosh Hashana 2:8-9; B. Bechorot 36a). This iron-fisted approach led to a disregard - and even trampling - of his esteemed rabbinic colleagues. Thus Rabban Gamliel's repeated mistreatment of the respected Rabbi Yehoshua irked those present, who resolved to depose their authoritarian leader. Alas, identifying an appropriate replacement was no simple task. Rabbi Yehoshua was immediately ruled out since appointing Rabban Gamliel's adversary would further hurt the ousted leader. Rabbi Akiva was the obvious choice to head the academy, but his candidacy was rejected in light of the concern that he would be unable to invoke ancestral merit should the unseated Rabban Gamliel - a descendant of the Davidic line - call upon divine intervention. Finally it was decided to appoint the wise Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, 10th in line from Ezra the Scribe and hence of priestly descent, and a sufficiently wealthy scholar to be able to travel to Rome on official business. Presented with this opportunity, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya tarried, returning home for deliberation before make a decision. His wife was not in favor of taking the position, ominously warning: "They will appoint you today and cast you out tomorrow!" In response to his wife's counsel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya countered: "Better to use precious glassware today, though it will shatter tomorrow." The only remaining obstacle to accepting the appointment was the scholar's youth. Divine intervention removed this barrier, as a miracle occurred and the beard of 18-year-old Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya turned white, giving him the appearance of a venerable 70-year-old sage. Taking office, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya unassumingly changed some beit midrash procedures. The doorman was removed and entry granted to all who wished to plumb the depths of the tradition. Everyone participated in the discussions: from great scholars to weavers from near the Dung Gate in Jerusalem (M. Eduyot 1:3), and even the overthrown Rabban Gamliel. Hundreds of benches were brought in to accommodate the increased enrollment. This inclusive atmosphere extended to halachic decisions of that day, as Yehuda the Ammonite was permitted to marry within the community. Despite his Ammonite origins, it was determined that contemporary Ammon did not parallel biblical Ammon, and hence the scriptural prohibition against accepting Ammonite converts did not apply. The creative ambiance left its mark, and that very day was celebrated as the beginning of the mishnaic enterprise, as ancient traditions were recounted and recorded. Seeing the excitement of the beit midrash under its new management, Rabban Gamliel began to question his own exclusionary style of leadership. In a dream, the deposed leader was assured - perhaps merely to comfort him - that he had not erred. In a heroic act of regret, Rabban Gamliel chose to approach his adversary, Rabbi Yehoshua, in a bid for reconciliation. Initially, Rabbi Yehoshua rejected the entreaties of his counterpart, acceding to the request only when Rabban Gamliel pleaded: "Forgive me for the sake of my father's house." Thus Rabban Gamliel invoked his role as the vestige of the Davidic line - one of three treasures salvaged from besieged Jerusalem on the eve of the great city's destruction (B. Gittin 56a-b). As such, Rabban Gamliel perceived his task as bearer of the sacred heritage. A new predicament arose: Who should now head the academy? The regal Rabban Gamliel remained the most fitting leader, certainly following his conciliation with Rabbi Yehoshua. But removing Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya without due cause would hardly be fair, as it would constitute a decrease in holiness for the scholar, a vector foreign to the tradition. At the root of this quandary there may have been a greater issue that transcended the individual scholars. Perhaps the real dilemma focused on the ideal leadership style and the ultimate aspirations of the beit midrash: Should we seek to preserve the tradition in its purest form, even at the cost of excluding certain voices from the discussion? Or should the doors to the beit midrash be thrown wide open with no opinion silenced, thus running the risk of adulteration for the possibility of innovation? An even-sharing arrangement was dismissed because of the need for an undisputed leader who would set the tone and convey direction and purpose. Furthermore, it is likely that the sages felt that preservation and innovation need not be granted equal time. Once a modification has been made, the safeguarded structure is irrevocably penetrated. True, our heritage should accommodate changes in our environs, yet such transformations need to be weighed carefully to prevent corruption or even tarnishing of our hallowed and hoary traditions. In this light, the solution is fascinating: Rabban Gamliel would serve as the head of the institution for three weeks out of every month, while the remaining week would fall under the purview of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. The balance between the worthy endeavors of safeguarding the sacred conventions and allowing room for altering the established order is precarious. We aspire to an unpetrified law, which is not so malleable that it has no backbone; we seek to guard our heritage from alien bodies, though we desire a tradition that is pliable enough to allow for change. To this day we continue to grapple with the challenge of identifying the illusive equilibrium between preservation and innovation. 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.