Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Passionate Midrash

by Daniel Landes

My tikkun practice is the care and feeding of, and participation in, an ever-changing yet eternal organism -- the Pardes Beit Midrash. This noisy study hall for a diverse crowd of intense, wisecracking, basically brilliant Torah students is a threefold tikkun: it's a traditional form that transforms students, allowing the secular to access the Tradition; the Reform to become literate; the Conservative, passionate; and the Neo-Hasidic to gain textual traction; and it drives the Orthodox sane. Yes, we drive them sane. Second, the Pardes Beit Midrash is transformational in that its participants quickly shed this silly, slimy lizard skin of denominationalism, being too busy learning to fill the time proclaiming. Finally, it transforms the classic Beit Midrash, saving it from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.

At its center are text and method. Text is Torah, especially the hard stuff: commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, and Codes -- untranslated and uncensored. The method is straight-on attack in chavrutah (learning in pairs), utilizing classic and new-fangled approaches. Two to three students sweat the small stuff in the context of others doing the same, until peshat, the illusive "plain" meaning, is nailed. Easier said. Given the multilayered dynamics, a text within a text with infinite regress/progress, a variety of moral issues which are taken seriously, and the chavrutah relations, the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it. Interesting things happen. One makes the argument presented in the text, offering a logical explanation. Soon white-hot heat is generated as the resistant chavrutah turns from pleasing partner into implacable foe, as he or she breaks the argument -- it's wrong; nonsensical! Then, suddenly, mid-fight you discover that your chavrutah is actually correct; indeed, as you explain: more right than they know! And you prove it triumphantly! Inevitably the startled partner silently rethinks, turns around and rejects his own line of argument and argues ferociously for your first line of reasoning. The Great Switcheroo has been effected. Sides swap, positions permeate each other, and students and teachers switch roles. The discussion moves magically from peshat to meaning. And this volatile meaning -- subject to dialectical ascents to the heights and perilous drops into the abyss -- is hard-won and enlightening. It's a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern) delivered from unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos or from a clever "I had a thought" derived really not at all from any verse or source as ironically delivered in a Shabbat minyan. No, it's hard-won, and I see it happen around me, every day. And then, once again, as a witness I believe that it's not a slogan: this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah, is possible and actually present.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Rosh HaYeshiva of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He wrote on Halakhic Tikkun in Tikkun magazine's inaugural issue.

Source Citation: Landes, Daniel. 2011. Passionate Midrash. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

tags: Judaism  
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