exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In the first of our three inaugural articles, Adina Roth explores the concept of Machloket l’shem shamayim and looks at what our textual tradition might suggest about the possibility of deepening debate and conversation in the South African Jewish community.
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. And every argument that is not for the sake of heaven is not destined to endure. What is an example of argument for the sake of heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai. And not for the sake of heaven? Korach and his congregation (Avot, 5:17).
Machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is an invisible yardstick put forth to distinguish between arguments considered worthy, and those seen as unworthy. What place could the concept of machloket l’shem shamayim or – argumentation for the sake of heaven – have in the South African Jewish community? Can this concept help establish the boundaries as well as the possibilities for acceptable discourse and debate in our community?
While the right to freedom of speech, as enshrined in the South African Constitution, ensures that anyone can raise an argument in our community, the way in which arguments are received, explored and discussed within the community is influenced by communal culture and norms, social pressures and consensus; a host of factors far more complicated than the right to freedom of speech. No one wants to be ostracised for exercising their inalienable right to free speech. That said, intuitively we might understand that some arguments are edifying and do much to advance the ethics of a community or culture while others can be destructive. The boundaries of what is and what is not a worthy – or edifying – argument, however, can become subjective. When it comes to communal engagement around issues of contention, we are in the realm of sociology as much as law; subjective narrative or poetics as much as absolutes. The question becomes, is it possible to share the value of macholket l’shem shamayim across the community so that a space of constructive, rigorous and more forthright dialogue can be opened up?
As mentioned, to create a space where arguments cannot only be raised but received, we are in a more subjective realm, more akin to poetics than cut-and-dry legal discourse. And so, to explore the term ‘l’shem shamayim’, I would like to share a Talmudic tale where the Rabbis interpret the splitting of the sea. For the Rabbis, the splitting of the sea was a forerunner of Revelation at Mount Sinai itself and there is much textual extrapolation as to what happened at the Sea of Reeds. During this textual exegesis, the following argument takes place:
Rabbi Yochanan (a third-century Talmudic sage) was sitting and seeking to explain how the waters of the Red Sea became a wall for Israel. ''The waters[of the Red Sea] became a wall to their right and to their left.” Rabbi Yochanan darash, interpreted – like a lattice (with well-sealed walls). Serach, the daughter of Asher, said in response to Rabbi Yochanan, “I was there, and the walls were transparent and let light through, (another translation: transparent windows or shining windows [like glass]), ke’alin aputama. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11:13, translations sourced from Sefaria community translations).
In this text, Rabbi Yochanan is expounding Torah in the Bet Midrash, a place not traditionally welcoming to women. Somehow a woman, Serach the daughter of Asher, penetrates the walls of the Bet Midrash and offers an opinion on the very nature of another wall, the watery walls of the Yam Suf. And, Rabbi Yochanan listens. Mentioned by name only twice in the Pentateuch, Serach the daughter of Asher (one of the sons of Jacob) is one of the seventy Israelite souls mentioned at the end of Genesis who descends to Egypt. When a census is conducted in the book of Numbers once the Israelites have left Egypt, her name reappears. Because she appears in both enumerations, the Rabbis suggest that she was one of the only people to both descend to Egypt and to leave as part of the Israelite congregation that wanders through the desert. Moreover, because there is an extended time span between the descent to Egypt and the wanderings in the desert, it is understood that Serach’s life span defied mortal limits. Further textual exploration links her to the wise woman of Bet Ma’acah found in the Book of Samuel, and the last time we ‘see’ her textually is in the above text, a third century Bet Midrash where she is found arguing with Rabbi Yochanan. In fact, some suggest she never died while others suggest she died only after the second exile and is buried in Iran. In this way, Serach occupies a liminal space: she is both woman in time and place, and also an atemporal oracular spirit spanning temporal boundaries and space. She is unlike the typical Rabbi of the Talmud, yet she is able to enter the space and be heard. Sometimes, a person might come from a context that seems other. Her Jewish education may be atypical, or she might not conform neatly to the community’s understanding of their gender norms. She might have engaged with institutions that are deemed taboo by the mainstream Jewish community. Yet, like Serach, she arrives with her opinions and engages with the mainstream. In the Talmud, the Bet Midrash does not appear threatened by Serach’s presence. Her opinion is recorded and upheld. In our community, this has not always been the case. Those who challenge norms, defy expectations, or ‘ruffle feathers’ are not always welcomed. There is often a need to categorise; “which shul do you go to?” “Are you orthodox, reform or secular?” Denomination, financial means, religious observance, gender and political viewpoints often become the yardstick by which people are measured. At times, it seems as if it is not the content of what one says but rather who says it, that gives legitimacy to an argument and determines whether it is ‘l’shem shamayim’. Serach is an outsider in many ways. She comes from a different historical context, she is not a Rabbi and, indeed, she is not a man. She arrives uninvited. She enters a sacred space and she speaks. And what was so important that Serach felt it incumbent on her to enter the Bet Midrash and engage in a disagreement? The discussion is about the walls of the Sea of Reeds. Rabbi Yochanan argues that the walls of water were impenetrable. Practically one might understand his contention; with the force of the ocean bearing down on either side, Rabbi Yochanan’s image implies that God has us ‘covered’, so to speak, the waters cannot penetrate the walls. However, Serach’s response invites us to think about these walls metaphorically. Serach argues that the walls were like alin aputama, glass windows that let light shine in. Serach feels it is important to communicate that there was a permeability to the walls of water. The water may have stayed out. But light came in.
"Denomination, financial means, religious observance, gender and political viewpoints often become the yardstick by which people are measured".
If Keriat Yam Suf is considered akin to revelation, the nature of the walls becomes even more important. Rabbi Yochanan suggests the walls between inside and outside are firm and bounded, nothing can enter. And Serach the daughter of Asher disagrees; light shines through. What is this wall that both does and does not admit outside forces? Is the wall a separation between God and humanity? Between forces external to Judaism and the core of religion and practice? Between the periphery and the mainstream? Rabbi Yochanan who sits in the bounded world of the Yeshiva, perhaps feels that nothing from the outside is necessary or desired; study and the law is a harmonic and self-enclosed world. Serach the daughter of Asher argues that there needs to be a flow between the walls of the Yeshiva and the outside world. And indeed, she imagines the substance that comes from outside as light, a force for good. And, Serach’s argument is performative as well as theoretical: she literally enters from outside and then argues that such permeability is a good thing, indeed, that it is revelatory. When it comes to defining what constitutes an argument for the sake of heaven, it feels as if we are arguing for the very possibility of what God wants: what is an argument that would be edifying of God, or that God would approve of? But, who has purview of such knowledge? Who can claim to know, really, what God wants? Some might argue l’shem shamayim is that which cleaves as strictly as possible to tradition without admitting any hint of modernity. Others might say that just as Judaism has always allowed new ideas in and been enriched by them, there are values from the modern world which are worth bringing into dialogue with our Judaism. For Rabbi Yochanan perhaps, there is no such permeability. For Serach, a more transparent wall allows light – and revelation – to enter. Feminism is one such area which is often regarded with suspicion by some within our community. I have heard the term derided many times as an outside force that can only corrupt and enervate ‘authentic’ Judaism. The relationship between tradition and feminism often pivots around the question of l’shem shamayim. What, it is often asked, is the motivation for women wanting, for example, to read from the Torah? I am often asked, “are you doing this because of feminism?” Anecdotally, a woman approached a group of Rabbis because she wished to say Kaddish. She engaged with them for half an hour after which they said to her, “we can see that your motivations are sincere, we can see you aren’t doing this because of feminism”. Feminism, along with other -isms of modernity are perceived to be as dangerous as Korach, relegated to the underground of Jewish history. They are regarded as contentions brought to the interface of Judaism, for the wrong reasons, not for heaven’s sake. Serach presents her argument not because she is learned, nor because she is a Rabbi. Her reason for disagreeing with Rabbi Yochanan is the inviolable power of her own experience, "I was there". In this way, Serach brings something new to the rabbinic table, the valuing of her presence, her own personal experience, her subjectivity. In her interchange with Rabbi Yochanan, her ability to say, “I saw this”, is enough. It transcends textual skills and it transcends rabbinic status. Are many of the women coming forward today not like Serach? They come uninvited and they speak from their own personal experience; their experiences of longing for spiritual embodiment. They enter a space which has heretofore been controlled by patriarchy and they hear the words, “these walls are impervious”. Instead of shying away from the text, in the spirit of Serach, they enter the text and the wonder of Torah and Midrash and they ask “let the light shine through”.
"In South Africa it often feels that we are beholden to monologues".
L’shem shamayim is an image that speaks of the infinite, an image that invites us to leap towards the heavens and consider the expanse of the universe. Defining it remains as subjective as interpreting the walls of water that escorted the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Some might argue that the definition is inflexible and that l’shem shamayim is constituted through impermeable walls, arguments within a system whose rules are pre-determined. Others might argue that l’shem shamayim can be any argument that advances the dignity of living beings, that speaks to the infinite possibilities of the universe, and that seeks to admit to our world and our communities the expanse of heavenly light. In South Africa it often feels that we are beholden to monologues. Those who might take a view like Rabbi Yochanan engage only with themselves, and on the other side, people like Serach talk only to each other. My aim is not to argue that Serach’s interpretation should be privileged over that of Rabbi Yochanan’s. Even though scholars argue that Serach is given the last word and it seems as if her interpretation is upheld as more correct, the Talmud records a dynamic tension between impermeability and permeability. Both views are ‘l’shem shamayim’. Without both opinions, there can be no machloket l’shem shamayim, only a one sided conversation with oneself. Isn’t it time, for the sake of our community’s health to seek machloket l’shem shamayim, to cultivate an interaction between Rabbi Yochanan and Serach the outsider, the daughter of Asher?
Adina Roth is a Johannesburg based Jewish educator and clinical psychologist. She runs B’tocham Education, a bar and bat mitzvah programme, and she teaches Bible and Judaism to adults using traditional sources, literary theory and psychoanalysis. Adina is also a Melton educator and is currently the Limmud SA National Chair.