In tractate Chagigah of the Babylonian Talmud (15b), our sages are faced with a problem. It appears the great Rabbi Meir, to whom all the anonymous statements in the mishnah are attributed, had continued to learn from his teacher and friend Elisha ben Abuya, after Elisha had turned away from Judaism.
Elisha is the Talmud’s archetypal apostate- some would call him a heretic- and so the idea that Rabbi Meir learnt from him is challenging.
The rabbis feared exposure to certain ideas, and were left to explain how Meir could have done this and come away ‘unscathed’.
Their conclusion is Meir was able to distinguish words of Torah and the essence of God’s word from their packaging. He could learn without compromising something fundamental about his own values.
Leaving the language of heresy aside, I wonder what the rabbis would have thought of Limmud Conference.
Limmud challenges people to learn from each other and it does not make a value judgment about what is right- it is for each of us to make decisions based on how we see the world.
Hearing this text taught twice at conference reminded me just how radical a Jewish proposition this is, particularly because it takes place in our community, where denominationalism still dominates.
My experience as a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College has been enriched by the chance to learn from teachers of all Jewish backgrounds – Orthodox rabbis, secular scholars, and non-Jews.
Our identities form part of our conversations and learning, but that difference is not a threat.
We can learn each other’s Torah without becoming the same as each other- and if anything the discussions we can have as a result of that are deeper.
In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”
Limmud provides us with a chance to really take that to heart and consider ways to continue to hear each other’s Torah when we return to our daily lives.
Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College