The Talmud records a set of ‘Yavne legends’ – a group of stories about the founding of the academy in Yavne that marks the beginning of what we now call ‘rabbinic Judaism’. Whether or not these stories are historically true is irrelevant – they’ve been recorded as paradigms – ideals which shape Jewish thought.
One central text is Berachot 28a. This is a tale of two leadership styles; the previous head of the academy is Rabban Gamliel who is described as harsh and austere, and who places strict limitations on which students he lets in. When a new head, Rabbi Elazar, is appointed there is a sudden change of policy. Elazar removes the door guard, opening the gates to all those who want to study. Hundreds enter.
At this point the text makes an extraordinary statement. It says that on this day not a single law lay unresolved. Given that over half the Talmud is spent debating laws this represents a radical utopian statement. The implications are obvious – let everyone come and study and you will gain a level of knowledge and understanding that is impossible when you restrict access to a select few.
But the Talmud goes further in its polemic against exclusion. An Ammonite attempts to enter the Bet Midrash (he tries to enter the ‘kahal’ which some interpret as marrying with Israelites but in context it is clear that he wishes to join the community of scholars). At this, Rabban Gamliel (still hanging around) quotes a verse from Torah, that the Ammonite shall not enter the assembly of God. R. Yehoushua (we can put him in the lenient camp) offers a counter-quote, this time from Isiah (10.13) that says that the borders of nations have been removed, and it is no longer clear who belongs where (the 1 st century CE begins to sound rather like the 21 st…). After further quoting this argument holds and the Ammonite is admitted.
In case the contemporary ramifications of this text are unclear let us elaborate. For far too long the serious study of the torah, particularly the Talmud has only been undertaken by ultra-orthodox Jews. Partly because the secular/non orthodox looked down on it and partly because the haredim wanted to keep it as theirs, talmudic study has become an elite pursuit-and its interpretation massively conservative. In recent decades, with the growth of ‘new jews’/post demoninationalism/radical jewish culture, things are starting to change. Perhaps, in the age of post-modernism Talmudic thought with its multiple voices, unfinished debates and constant questioning seems strangely appropriate. Whatever the reason-the entry of Jewish feminists, queer theorists, anarchists, socialists and secularists into the virtual bet midrash is essential in building the palace of torah. We can’t, however, stop there. This tractate specifically refers to a non-Jew entering the assembly. Just as human rights cannot be restricted to those within our own group/country/worldview we cannot close the gates of Torah to anyone. The contributions of other peoples would vastly increase our understanding and add unimaginable insights. The Talmud talks of the 70 faces of Torah. Given that in Judaism the number 70 represents all the nations of the world, it may be that this radical step is precisely what the tradition demands.