Rosh Hashanah I 5781: Gamliel, Yehoshua, and Radical Empathy

For me, one of the joys of Torah study is getting to know our sages. Through my learning, obscure names like Nittai, Hamnuna, and Abaye have become recognizable personalities and even friends. Today, I would like to introduce you to two these friends. They represent two ways of being. One was focused on a singular goal with the best of intentions and the other committed to inclusion and radical empathy. The two of them fought with each other their entire lives. I am hoping we can learn from them. Today, I pray that we can avoid repeating their struggles. While their story will take me a bit of time to tell, it is rich and reminds us of much needed lessons that are appropriate for our time.

Before I introduce them, I must set the scene. We can only imagine the emotional toll that the destruction of the Second Temple took on our people. The Beit HaMikdash, our Holy Temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth, and the setting of the rituals that maintained the relationship between God and the Jewish people, was destroyed. Now, our sages lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire who brought about this destruction. We know a lot today about the psychological toll passed on to future generations due the trauma of previous generations. The Rabbis of this time held that trauma.

One of the most important figures of this period was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. His life spanned the end of the Second Temple Period and the twenty or so years after the Destruction of the Second Temple. The Midrash recounts how Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai attempted to warn the people of Jerusalem to lay down their weapons in an effort to avoid the destruction of the Temple. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5) When the people refused, the Talmud tells the story of how Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai clandestinely escaped Jerusalem inside of a coffin so that he could attempt a negotiation with Vespasian, then a military commander who would become the Roman Emperor. Vespasian granted Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai three requests. Among them were that he and his disciples would be permitted to settle in Yavneh, a city in Israel’s Southern Coastal plain. 

I know this won’t come as a surprise, but there was quite a bit of infighting within the Jewish community at the time. Hundreds of thousands had been killed. The sages of Yavneh were among those trying to pick up the pieces. We learn “Rabu makhloket b’yisrael v’naasayt Torah k’shtei Torot.” There was so much arguing going on that the Torah was becoming like two Torahs. (BT Sanhedrin 88b) I do not think we could imagine a time when our people’s unity was in greater danger.

The first of my friends I would like you to meet today was the successor to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. His name was Rabban Gamliel the Second. Ten years after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Gamliel was appointed Nasi, or leader of the rabbinic community in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel’s genius was that he was laser focused on healing the divisions that, at that time, threatened to tear the Jewish community apart.

While his intentions may have been noble, Rabban Gamliel could not avoid leaving a fair amount of damage in his wake. In comes the second of my friends, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah was a disciple of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the architect of the rabbinic community in Yavneh I mentioned earlier. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yohanan gives Rabbi Yehoshua the best praise a Jewish boy can receive. Referring to Rabbi Yehoshua he says, “Happy is the woman that gave birth to him!” (Avot 2:8) In other words, he made his mother proud. While Rabbi Yehoshua was generally supportive of Rabban Gamliel’s efforts to bring unity, he also bore the brunt of some of Rabban Gamliel’s extreme tactics. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel had a disagreement about whether or not the New Moon had been witnessed. Before the introduction of a fixed calendar, our sages would take testimony from witnesses who would claim that they saw the New Moon. Rabban Gamliel knew that if the community could not agree upon the testimony of the New Moon, then the community would not be able to agree on when the holidays would fall. Rabbi Yehoshua did not agree with Rabban Gamliel’s calendar. To avoid the emergence of two calendars, Rabban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to appear before him on the day that it would be Yom Kippur on Rabbi Yehoshua’s calendar while holding his wallet and walking stick. As these items are forbidden to carry on Yom Kippur, Rabban Gamliel was asking Rabbi Yehoshua to make an example of himself. For the sake of unity, Rabbi Yehoshua submitted to this public embarrassment.

In another Talmudic story, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua disagree over whether or not the evening maariv service is obligatory or optional. A student approaches each rabbi separately and asks the same question. When the student hears Rabban Gamliel say that the evening service is obligatory, he replies, “But Rabbi Yehoshua said it was optional!” Sometime later in the House of Study, the student asked the question of all the sages gathered. Not wanting to make a scene, Rabbi Yehoshua swallows his pride and publicly agrees with Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel felt it important to make an example of Rabbi Yehoshua once again. Rabban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to admit his difference of opinion. Not only this, Rabban Gamliel asked Rabbi Yehoshua to stand up, which he did out of respect for the community leader. Then, Rabban Gamliel went on teaching without giving Yehoshua permission to sit. Rabbi Yehoshua stood until the end of the day’s lecture.

The sages were finally fed up. Rabban Gamliel had succeeded in uniting the people, but he did so by making himself a common enemy. The group decided it was time to depose Rabban Gamliel. They replaced him with Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who, aside from being young, had all of the qualifications to hold the office of the Nasi. Additionally, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah had a much more open and liberal approach to leadership and Jewish law. It was only after Rabban Gamliel was deposed that the community realized how much richness of argument was lost from the House of Study with Rabban Gamliel’s stricter approach. Our tradition teaches that between 400 and 700 benches had to be brought into the study hall to make room for the students who were previously kept out. It goes on to say that those gathered in the study hall that day arrived at practical solutions to all of the pending legal rulings that had been waiting to be resolved.

To Rabban Gamliel’s credit, he did not go into hiding. The Talmud tells us that, “Even Rabban Gamliel did not avoid the study hall for even one moment.” (Berachot 28a) It was not long before another disagreement arose between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah. However, this time, the sages in the room sided with Rabbi Yehoshua. This time, Rabban Gamliel agreed to go offer an apology to Rabbi Yehoshu. Rabban Gamliel did so by going to pay Rabbi Yehoshua a visit to his home.

There is one more important detail to note with regard to these two friends of mine. Rabban Gamliel met all of the criterion for leading the community. He was learned. As a descendant of King David he had good lineage. Lastly, he was wealthy. On the other hand, while Rabbi Yehoshua was learned, he was  poor. When Rabban Gamliel entered Rabbi Yehoshua’s home to apologize, he noticed that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua in wonderment, “From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith.” Until then he had no idea that Rabbi Yehoshua was forced to engage in such an arduous trade in order to make a living. Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Woe unto a generation that you are its leader as you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves.” Eventually, Rabbi Yehoshua reluctantly forgives Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel is restored to his position as leader of the community. However, he now has to share the role with Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who held the position in the interim.

We can learn much from the lives of these sages. For today, I want to focus on two particularly relevant lessons. First, keeping others from expressing their opinions, or even keeping our own opinions to ourselves, will not bring us unity. My heart breaks when I imagine the fear our rabbis expressed when they described that, during this period, there was so much arguing going on that the Torah was becoming like two Torahs. Consider what that means. Just a few moments ago, we lifted up our hands and pointed. “V’zot haTorah,” This is our story. It is so valuable to us that we have copied it by hand and placed in thousands of sacred places around the world so that every Jew can struggle and engage with it. We want Torah to be available to us so that we can use our Torah as an instruction manual for building the world around us out of love. Rabban Gamliel’s attempts to suppress the narrative of those on the other side were not successful in reducing conflict. Innocents suffered, important questions remained unanswered, and too many voices were absented from the process.

One day after replacing Rabban Gamliel, hundreds of voices were added to the conversation. In one day, many students and sages put their heads together and solved conundrums that had been hanging over the heads of the leadership for God knows how long. How did they do this? They did not circle their wagons. They did not remain in their echo chambers. Rather, they sat down on those few hundred additional benches that were added to the House of Study and discussed the issues at hand. They did so with radical empathy, listening, openness, and understanding. When we acknowledge that we can be right, but also listen to how someone else can think they are right, we have a much greater chance for unity. The past number of years have done much to stifle meaningful conversation. Our personal, emotional, religious, and political discourse plays out over the internet. It ebbs and flows with the news cycle. Over the past six months, we have been forced inside. The pandemic has left us starving for human interaction and our political climate is as charged as ever. I fear, that without an outlet, we will explode. I fear that we will do irreparable damage to the relationships that might actually have the power to heal us.

This brings me to my second important lesson for this morning. The story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua is an example of the dangers of not knowing one another. The pair was at odds for much of their adult lives. Imagine what could have been if these two great minds found themselves sitting down for a beer. (Don’t laugh, the Talmud references four different types of beer! It could have happened.) Imagine if they knew one another’s family. What if they had been to each other’s homes? What if they truly understood each other’s narratives, their struggles, and their deepest fears? As a privileged and wealthy descendant of a King, Rabban Gamliel could focus on a single goal without regard for how his actions effected Rabbi Yehoshua and others like him. That is not to say that Rabban Gamliel is evil, or his intentions weren’t noble. However, he could have been a stronger leader and a more compassionate human being had he been aware of his privilege and the way others perceived him.

By now, you have likely deduced the reasons why I need you to know this important narrative from our tradition. Today, I beg you, my friends, to make radical empathy a priority for 5781. We live in a world where it seems that recognizing another person’s humanity and a willingness to listen to their narrative is somehow dependent upon how they cast their vote. Our tradition debates whether or not its most important value is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “We were all descendants from one human being so that no one can claim superiority over another.” Yet, we have somehow been swept up in this mess of closed minds, closed hearts, and closed eyes. The more benches we have filled for these conversations, the more divergent our opinions, the more likely we are to leave understanding the potential solutions.

We find ourselves once again at a time of destruction, confusion, and trauma. Let us remember that brings with it opportunities for hope, dialogue, and creating ourselves anew. Among my most sincere prayers for 5781 is that we as a community can be a force for unity by practicing radical empathy. I pray that our Torah remain intact and hearts remain open. May that be the will of the Holy Blessed One, and our own. Wishing all of us a Shana Tovah u’Metukah. May we write and be written for only good in the year to come.

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