At the time of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, authorship of the tradition was in the hands of the learned elite.
All of that changed after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E.
Escaping from Jerusalem, many rabbis settled in Yavneh, a garrison town in the southern central plain south of Jaffa. They faced a daunting challenge: to keep Judaism alive without the national focal point of the Jewish people. There was no longer a Temple where they could come on their thrice-yearly pilgrimages and offer sacrifices to God. Judaism would die out, they realized, unless they could create a new model of Jewish worship and a new way to transmit the Jewish story.
Unsure of how to proceed in this unfamiliar world, the rabbis chose as their new spiritual leader Rabban Gamliel, a senior statesman whose family was among the descendants of King David. Even though his style of leadership was authoritarian, harsh, and not always fair (Brakhot 27–28), he was nonetheless perceived as one who could hold things together at this time of crisis.
It didn’t take long, however, before Rabban Gamliel’s leadership was challenged. A younger generation of Jewish leaders believed that the new reality demanded a radically new solution. To make Judaism meaningful once again, they needed an open-minded and open-hearted practice, one in which every Jew could connect—open source.
Time and time again, Rabbi Yehoshua, a young rabbi of modest means and no family connections, challenged the old master on points of law. And, unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful dialogue with a rabbi he viewed as an upstart, Rabban Gamliel inadvertently allowed discord to take root in the academy.
Finally, the rabbis decided to depose Rabban Gamliel, but rather than elevate Rabbi Yehoshua to head the academy, which likely would have led to a schism, they elected the young and charismatic Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. On that day, the Talmud states, the academy gates were opened, the doorkeepers were discharged of their duties, and anyone who wanted to enter and learn was welcomed.
The response was tremendous. Rows and rows of benches had to be added to the house of learning—some say as many as 700—to seat the many people clamoring to learn. Most extraordinary, the Talmud says, Rabban Gamliel was not forced into retirement. Instead, he was invited to address the academy regularly. As his power waned, his popularity and influence soared. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to receive his teachings.
Years later, the successors of the Yavneh rabbis compiled a book of their maxims. Entitled Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), it is an instruction manual to Jewish life, traditionally studied on Shabbat afternoon. In its liturgical form it is prefaced with a quote from the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1): “Kol Yisrael yesh lahem chelek be-olam haba—All Israel has a place in the world to come.” In a commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808—1888) explains the intention of this preface: to invite all Jews, no matter how much they know or where they come from, to apply themselves to the task of Jewish learning and living.
Thanks to the founding generation of Yavneh and its disciples, we have the Mishnah, Talmud, and countless works of midrash—the magnificent crowdsourcing that is Rabbinic Judaism. And, in keeping with the spirit of Yavneh, the rabbis make Judaism accessible to all, in a democratic way. Moreover, every talmudic debate is written in the present tense, which allows each student who opens the text to engage in dialogue with the sages, as if s/he were their contemporaries. We, too, are invited to join the ongoing fray.
By building the ideal of debate into the hardware of our tradition, the rabbis ensured that the tradition would thrive. In Judaism, the goal of a good argument is not to convince the opponent that your view is correct. It is not even necessarily to agree. Rather, it is to conduct the debate in such a way that it reveals the truth of both perspectives. As Pirkei Avot (5:17) points out, to argue about the meaning of Torah le-shem Shamayim—"for the sake of Heaven"—is a righteous act, a mitzvah. There is no merit in having the final word.
The democratic and innovative rabbinic traditions that originated at Yavneh continued for many centuries. But, by the 17th century, because of the harsh conditions of exile, authorship of the tradition was confined largely to the talmid hakham—the professional Jewish scholar—in the hallowed halls of the Eastern-European yeshiva. Once again, Jewish learning was outsourced to the learned few.
This state of affairs came to a tragic end in the Holocaust, in which more than 90% of all rabbis and approximately 80% of all yeshiva students were murdered, and the great European centers of Jewish learning and culture were obliterated.
Since then, and still today, our people have needed to find a way to restore the open, participative learning of the Yavneh model, placing the oral tradition in the mouths and hearts of the people.
How do we create a Yavneh 2.0 in which our tradition is accessible to all?
Now we have a great way—the Internet. Jewish learning websites such as reformjudaism.org, myjewishlearning.com, and on1foot.org offer an array of rich choices to suit different kinds of learners and those at different stages of their Jewish journey.
A challenge yet to be met fully is to facilitate the experiential, interactive element of traditional Jewish learning. Typically, learning was conducted through personal encounters between teacher and student, or between students in face-to-face pairs (chavruta)—preferably loudly. As Pirkei Avot teaches, “Wherever two people learn words of Torah together, the Shekhinah is present” (3:2). Jewish spiritual growth is about plugging into the tradition and connecting to each other. For technology-powered Jewish learning, this is our challenge.
The rabbis at Yavneh realized that to preserve the tradition they needed to open the doors of the academy and accord respect to everyone who joined the unruly Jewish Twitterverse with integrity. We can do no less today. Judaism will survive and flourish only if all Jews feel that their voice is heard, that their arguments are part of the conversation.
Daniel Reisel is a Jewish educator based in London.