You Say You Want A Revolution
The March 31 entry provoked a dialog that is far from over. I will summarize it here, but the full posts remain available, too.
Reed Chopper wrote, “It's easy to write Gamliel II off as a tyranical jerk . . . The true picture imho is more complex. . . . He just wanted to hold it together. If he hadn't, we wouldn't be here discussing what a jerk he was. When he was deposed, and Eleazar b. Azariah was elected, Gamliel showed up at the study hall to hear R' Eleazar's lectures.”
Mike responded, “In my view, what really held it together and got us here was that they had a procedure to depose tyrannical jerks and substitute people who could evolve and grow with the times.”
To which Reed Chopper replied, “We're not talking about some guy who wants things to continue forever the way they have been and opposes changes and reforms. So ‘holding it together’ has a different meaning here, and the analogy is not apt.”
This is rich stuff. Yes, the rabbis were reinventing Judaism, so they certainly can’t be called “conservative” in that context, but these rabbis were also building a fence around the Torah at the same time that other groups (including the Jews who eventually became known as Christians) were building new gates to it. Gamliel may have showed up at the study hall to hear R’Elazar’s lectures, but he wasn’t about to go study with Saul of Tarsus! Students of Talmud should be encouraged to read the “competition” and discuss it with the same fierce energy that the rabbis debated among themselves. The problem with an insular reading is it leads to the phenomenon described by Daniel Boyarin re Zionism as an “attempt to reduce real threats to Jews and Jewishness by concretizing in the present what has been a utopian symbol for the future.” He goes on, “Diasporized identities seem threatened ones, and one of the responses to such threats is separatism, an attempt at a social structure that re-aggregates the disaggregated, re-integrates the non-integral, by closing off the borders, by indeed attempting to prevent mixing, whether biological or cultural.” His conclusion leaves one foot in the tradition and one foot poised over the abyss: “I do not, and could not, given my hermeneutic theories, argue that it is a wrong reading or that there is a right reading that can be countered to it. I do argue, however, that it is not the only reading.”
In that spirit, it is possible to value both the vision and insularity of Gamliel; to appreciate his fearless contribution to reinvent the purpose of the Torah and also to criticize his insistence that the reinvention be frozen in his moment. As Mike never tires of reminding me, many revolutionaries have been reactionary once they assumed power.