By Benay Lappe
According to the Talmud, even in the eyes of God there was no one like Rabbi Meir in his entire generation. But, if he was so extraordinary, the text goes on to ask, why was the halacha never set according to his opinion?
The answer in the text is that the other rabbis in the bet Midrash “couldn’t stand on his mind” – no one could figure out whether Rabbi Meir’s convincing arguments were actually his sincere views and might be correct, or whether he was just making the case for something unreasonable, but which he could convince anyone to think was reasonable!
Yet, in spite of the fact that Rabbi Meir seems to have been of no practical help to his colleagues who were interested in deciding concrete matters of religious practice, the story goes on to say that he “enlightened the eyes of the sages in the law.” The likely challenging process he put his colleagues through actually deepened their thinking and led them to insights of both enormous complexity and clarity. And made the law they came up with, better.
So how did Rabbi Meir get to be Rabbi Meir, I wondered? Another text elsewhere describes his path: “In the beginning, Rabbi Meir came to learn with Rabbi Akiva. Since Rabbi Meir ‘couldn’t stand on his mind,’ he then went to learn with Rabbi Yishmael and there he ‘gamar-ed his gemara’ – he “learned” his “learning.” It was only then that Rabbi Meir he went back to Rabbi Akiva and “savar-ed”’ his “svara’” – he brought his moral intuition to bear on the traditions he had learned.
When Rabbi Meir first arrived in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, he couldn’t understand what Rabbi Akiva was doing. Or perhaps he couldn’t tolerate the radicalness of Rabbi Akiva’s approach. So he went and learned with Rabbi Yishmael, who taught only the basics. He learned the set traditions, “just as his teacher had taught them to him, and just as his teacher’s teacher had taught them to his teacher.” Essentially, he memorized his mishnahs.
Then, Rabbi Meir was ready to go back to Rabbi Akiva and move beyond the traditions that he had learned, to dig into, as Rashi explains, what was beneath each law, what its essence was, and the reasons behind it. He learned to derive new meaning from the old, and to draw analogies from what he had, to what he needed to create. He learned to build bridges from what he knew the law was, to what he thought the law should be. He learned that he not only had permission, but a mandate to bring his life experience and moral intuition to bear on the questions of a new era in which the old answers just didn’t work any more. He developed his svara, his ability to use, as Rabbi David Weis-Halivni describes it, “reason informed by an inner, creative spirit.”
The story of Rabbi Meir’s educational journey is a model for what I think Jewish education must look like today. Rabbi Yishmael’s classroom would have been adequate for a time of stability, a time in which the old answers were still working, when the practices of the past were still compelling to our students and helping them make meaning in their lives. In times of calm, when the Jewish master story is working, it is enough to teach our students to “gamar their gemara” – to teach for literacy and to transmit norms.
But now – when the norms of our received tradition are no longer meaningful to many of our students – while we still must teach them to “gamar their gemara,” that’s no longer enough. Students must also “savar their svara” – they have to learn how the tradition works, not just what it says, and to challenge it – with awe and trepidation, but also with boldness and confidence – to make it better.
Students must be taught that not only are they permitted to engage with the tradition in this way, but that it is actually their responsibility. We have to teach our students that to reshape the tradition, even radically so, to the point of overturning it where necessary, is a deeply traditional Jewish act. We must teach them the rules of the game – to bring their moral intuition, now informed by deep Jewish learning, to bear on the tradition they now own, to make it better. We must trust them to be the chazal (sages) of the next Jewish future and make sure they see themselves that way.
The Covenant Classroom must not only be a place where we, as teachers, transmit the tradition as we received it, but where we gather the most “svara-dik” students we can find – especially those on the fringes who will bring their outsider insights with them – and teach them how to apply their svara to it, to make the tradition they’ll hand down to their children even better.
Rabbi Benay Lappe, Founder and Rosh Yeshiva, SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, is a 2016 Covenant Award Recipient.
This article originally appeared in Sight Line, the digital journal of the Covenant Foundation; it is reprinted with permission.