Rabbi Rachel Adler: What was the Sin of Sodom?
Impromptu music at OHALAH2013

Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?

We often talk about tradition as a source of learning, but what is a tradition? Where are its boundaries? Is tradition a book or a code? Is it static or fluid? Who gets to part of it? How do you talk your way in? Why would a learner want a tradition?

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler begins her morning keynote address by unpacking our conference theme, "Mikol melamdai hiskalti," from psalms 119, which we have been translating, "From all of my teachers I have learned." She notes that Robert Alter translates it, "I have understood more than all my teachers, for Your precepts became my theme." The JPS translates it "I have gained more insight than all my teachers, for Your decrees are my study." But the rabbis of the Talmud understand it to mean "From all my teachers I have acquired understanding."

She goes on to cite Ben Zoma in Avot ch. 4, who asks, who is wise? and answers, one who learns from all people; as it is said, mikol melamdai hiskalti. "No one cites the second half of the verse. I have a hunch that the rabbis would have understood it to mean 'because Your precepts are my conversation.' Not my study, or my meditation. For the rabbis, study is a social act, and only as a last resort a solitary one."

I love that: for the rabbis, study is a social act. Yes!

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler speaks to OHALAH.

She goes on to cite Ta'anit 7a, where Rabbi Chanina addresses specifically the web of participants that constitutes Talmudic tradition. "'Much have I learned from my teachers, and from my colleagues/ study partners still more, and from my students, most of all.' In this statement, R' Chanina inverts the presupposed hierarchy of Talmudic study. From the students one learns most. This is the very opposite of the way we tend to think of traditions, yet it is upon students that traditions rely." And she goes on:

When we talk about a tradition, we are talking about the speech acts and the other acts of a web of transmitters. Teachers to students, students to their students -- as long as the tradition is in good order. If a tradition is in good order, according to the philosopher Alester MacIntyre, a tradition is not a set of books or codes or a body of ancient prescriptions. A tradition is a conversation. Even a bit of a fight! He says, "Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict." He adds, "A living tradition, then, is a historically extended, socially embodied argument."

And an argument precisely in part about the goods that constitute the tradition! By goods we mean, e.g., what is the good life? (One of the questions around which Pirkei Avot is built.) Or: what is shalom, or tikkun olam? Even: what is kavvanah? What is law? And why should it be important to us?

Rabbi Adler unpacks what a living tradition is: "historically extended -- that is, it stretches over many generations. It's socially embodied -- there are real people living out the various positions that are taken. Think for a minute about the importance of makhloket, disagreement, as the engine that makes Talmudic discourse go." And she cites the story from Brakhot in which Rabban Gamaliel tries to suppress the minority opinions of R' Yehoshua ben Chanania, and there's a rebellion in the academy; they fire Rabban Gamaliel, and they only take him back when he's made peace with R' Yehoshua.

During the time that R' Gamaliel was not in charge, all sorts of good things start happening. More participants are invited into the academy. There's a new energy in the academy now that it's safe to disagree. When R' Gamaliel returns, he has to share power with R' Elazar, who headed the academy when R' Gamaliel was deposed. "This, it seems to me, is a story about a failed attempt to repress the arguments that keep traditions alive." She continues:

A tradition is fluid if it's alive. The conversation twists and turns, but all the participants share basic vocabulary and a sense of participating in shared narratives.

As MacIntyre says, I can only answer the question what am I to do if I can answer the prior question of what story or stories do I find myself a part. Commitments emerge out of stories and are re-fashioned in stories.

I do certain things because I see myself as the daughter of Avraham, Sarah, etc. I do other things because I view myself as the inheritor of conflicts voiced by Bruriah. I do yet other things because this is what Sadie Hellman would have expected of her granddaughter. I learned these larger narratives that include me, and hence make demands on me, in the conversational community that transmits and reshapes the tradition.

I am part of that community, and consequently I shape and am reshaped.

I'm putting that last line in boldface because I find it really powerful. Being in community means both shaping, and be shaped by, that community. It's a responsibility (to help shape) and it's an acceptance (of being shaped.)

Today, she acknowledges, "tradition is a problematic notion. First: people tend to see themselves as autonomous individuals rather than as members of communities. They resent obligations beyond the private sphere. And, as we learned last night, this is the Sodom mentality."

"Second, knowledge gained from past minds, even the minds of our own elders, is largely undervalued in this culture. People are constantly looking toward the future but cutting themselves off from the past." Those of us here in the OHALAH room, she acknowledges, have Reb Zalman "who embodies for you both the constancy & the fluidity possible in the tradition" -- but we recognize that this is a rarity.

"Third, people are discrediting their ancestral narratives, replacing Jewish memory with Jewish history. As Yerushalmi says in his book Zachor, these categories actually serve different purposes. Historography is objective and descriptive. Memory is passionately subjective and not descriptive but normative."

A bit later, Rabbi Adler articulates the notion that:

Memory molds us as members of specific communities. The Pesach seder, e.g., is a communal exercise in fostering Jewish memory. In the seder, we're made to internalize a searing communal identity. We take in the belief that all of us were slaves and all of us were liberated. We emerge from the seder with the norm that every time we see a stranger, outcast, exploited person, we should be feeling: I have to help, this could've been me.

Memory is about belonging to something larger than ourselves. Moses says, in Deut 29, "I made this covenant not with you alone, but those with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God, and with those who are not here this day." When we're part of a covenant, we're connected to the past and invested in the future.

This is difficult in our time, when trying to impart a covenantal identity is swimming against the tide.

I'm taking very seriously the radicality of your choices to align yourselves with a tradition, with Jewish tradition.

And then Rabbi Adler asks the question, "Is our tradition in good order, as MacIntyre would say?" She talks about the communal "arguments about the goods, virtues, values of Jewish tradition and how they are to be lived-out," and argues that "All those who care about how Jews constitute their Judaism have a place in the arguments of tradition." I find that so meaningful that I promptly tweet it in the OHALAH_clergy twitter stream:

She cites the "tumultuous argument about the Akhnai oven in Bava Metzia 59b" (a wonderful passage, rich and deep and full of implications -- read it in its simplest form here, or for a more detailed view, I love Greg Fishbone's illustrated version The Oven of Akhnai) and notes that since then, "it's been agreed that the adjudication of halakha, and hence the shaping of tradition that are its context, are matters for human beings to work out. Making a carob tree move 100 cubits, making a stream flow backwards, or making the walls of the beit midrash lean in are not acceptable proofs of a position! Even getting a bat kol [a celestial voice from heaven] to attest to his correctness is not convincing."

Once the Torah has been given, we rely upon our own resources, not miracles or charismatic messengers, to relieve the burden of interpretation and decisionmaking.

"One idea that the Akhnai oven reveals to us as faulty, that is still faulty in our own time, is the excessively exclusionary boundary-making for the tradition." She notes that that story ends with a series of stories about the consequences of R' Eliezer's hurt feelings. "God is attentive to hurt feelings. There is a lesson here about the treatment of those who hold minority opinions. When are we going to learn to live in a pluralistic tradition?"

As a case like Women of the Wall illustrates, there are still powerful attempts to be both exclusionary and violent in making or re-making the boundaries of the tradition. If the boundary is too stringent, there can be no argument, and the tradition begins to stultify. If boundary-making excludes, as inauthentic, most of the world's Jewish population, clearly something is very wrong.

(Emphasis mine.) Granted, a tradition needs some boundaries. Not everyone is an authentic participant. As Lionel Trilling once remarked, "Some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out." (That gets a big laugh in this room, probably unsurprisingly.)

The question of who gets to participate in a tradition, to be part of its cross-generational web, is still relevant to us today. And of course, that's a beautiful lead-in to a conversation about women in Judaism.

"The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow; scroll by Rabbinic Pastor Sandra Wortzel, part of her multifaceted artists' book about Jewish feminism, on display at the conference. (Here's an image of more of that book.)

Rabbi Adler continues:

In earlier generations, women were largely barred from participation, as were men from ignorant, impoverished families. And the women who did interact with Jewish tradition were marginal to the web.

I once wrote that "The crucial difference between Bruriah and the male sages is that no teacher claims her as a student, no student quotes her as a teacher, and Bruriah herself quotes texts but never names teachers." Consequently it was necessary to write about how one talks one's way into a tradition. And I have!

Talking one's way in involves learning the vocabulary of current participants, and stories of those who were there before one arrived. A person talking her way in has to tell shared narratives in a way that's illuminating but unfamiliar. This has been the task of feminist criticism.

Then one has to introduce new stories that the participants did not know. And show how these stories have an impact on already fraught topics. Say: the question of whether a wife is property or covenant partner. And it's an oxymoron for her to be both.

Rabbi Adler makes the case that at this point, women have talked their way in to most of the conversations about the tradition. "In Israel, a feminist orthodox group named Kolech has sued a Hareidi talk radio station that would not allow women to speak. This development is literal but also symbolic. It says that there is no corner of the tradition where women can be silenced with impunity."

Then she moves into talking about the importance of stodies in Jewish tradition. "We try not only to learn from everyone, as ben Zoma says, but we try to give-over what we learned b'shem omro [in the name of the one who taught it]. And often that means telling a story about the person who taught us. I am worried about the disappearance of storytelling. I'm worried about the atrophy of storytelling. We repeat old stories but are we telling new stories?"

All of you are making history and preserving it. But stories are not just for archives. Stories need to be told and retold so they can shape us. I worry about the number of Jews who don't have any stories about their own parents and grandparents, much less some other person who taught them something. How do we hand on evidence of how we were shaped as Jews if we transmit no stories?

A story-valuing tradition is one in which listening and telling are both important. One in which individuals and their distinctive psychologies invite interpretation. Because stories have contexts, and contexts change in our understanding of the right and good, the meanings of stories are inherently unstable.

She cites the story of Rabbi Akiva's wife Rachel, "which has always made me feel like an Indian at a cowboy movie." (That gets a rueful laugh from many of us.) "For many generations, Rachel's annihilation of self was inculcated into women as a feminine virtue, but feminists found in it a critique of the tradition which begot it. The instability of meaning in stories makes for a powerful tool to stimulate people to think. The emotional charge in stories stimulates people to care. One of our biggest challenges is to get Jews to care about their tradition."

She closes by asking: why would a learner would want a tradition? And she offers two answers.

First: a tradition is multivocal, and in that way, is a kind of model of reality that's especially appropriate for Jews. It says that reality is complex and multifaceted like its Creator. It says, as Whitman says in Song of Myself, "I am large; I contain multitudes." I contain multitudes as a learner of the tradition because I take into myself the many teachers and learners who preceded me, and the many teachers and learners around me.

Second: it's less lonely in a tradition. I experience God as El Nistater, as Isaiah 45:15 says. Truly You are a God who hides Yourself. For me, God is very elusive. And at times when God is hidden, when I pray, He/She is more accessible when my hevrutot and I tackle a demanding piece of Gemara. Together we are both enriched and comforted and sustained. Perhaps this is what the rabbis mean in the first perek of Brakhot when they say the Shekhinah is with a group studying.

She reminds us that the root of Shekhinah is shin/chaf/nun, to dwell, related to the word neighbor. Rilke has a poem called The Neighboring God, or simply, the Thereness of God. "God's Thereness is accessible to me through the texts and the arguments about what are the goods of Judaism, how to lift them out and pass them on, and the cameraderie of the people who invest themselves lovingly in this conversation."

She leaves us with a quote from someone she's been studying lately -- Rav Soloveitchik. This is what he says: (Find this in his two-volume biography of Rav Soloveitchik by Aaron Rakefet Rothkoff.)

When I sit down to learn, the giants of the mesora [tradition] are with me. Our relationship is personal. The Rambam sits to my right, Rabbenu Tam to my left, Rashi sits at the head and explains, the Rambam decides the halakha and the Ravad objects. All of them are with me in my small room, sitting around the table. They look at me with fondness. Learning Torah is not just a didactic, formal, technical experience whose purpose is creation and exchange of ideas. Learning Torah is the intense experience of uniting many generations together, the joining of spirit to spirit, and the connecting of soul to soul.

And then we move into conversation -- not so much Q-and-A as a real back-and-forth between Rabbi Adler and those who are in the room and who have responses, questions, and ideas. The ensuing conversation is terrific, though I don't take notes; I just take it in, and enjoy it, and remain grateful to be here this morning listening to this incredibly smart woman, whose work has been so formative for me, as she shares her wisdom with my rabbinic community.