Muscular Judaism

In the Gemara Brachot we learn of a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) which seems to be based on Eikev, this week’s Torah portion (Berachot 35b). In this we find the second passage of the Sh’ma. There we read:

And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. ( Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

Rashbi says a person should learn Torah the entire day and somehow that person will find a way to support himself and his family. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and maintains that a person should combine Torah with derech eretz- the way of the world. In this context that means balancing learning and working to earn a living.

In another place in the Gemara we learn the story of when the Rashbi spoke out against the Roman government and their brazen devotion to their own physical needs (Shabbat 33 ). Out of fear of being killed by the Romans he and his son went to hide in the Bet Midrash, but they feared being caught so they escaped to a cave. There they lived on water and the fruit from a miraculous carob tree. By day they covered themselves in dirt and learned. When it came time to pray they would get out and put on their clothing. If you came in the middle of the day you would see two people learning submerged up to their heads. Or rather you would see the realization of the Rashbi’s ideal. He and his son had escaped to be living their disembodied existence learning Torah. In juxtaposition, Rabbi Yishmael claims that we need to balance our lives between our heads, hearts, and hands.

This disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rashbi seems still to be unresolved today. It is not just manifest in the division between the Haredi Kollel society and the rest of the Jewish community. This disagreement can be seen in the very nature of Rabbinic Judaism itself. How much of what we call authentic Jewish living is itself lived with our bodies? For most Jews today even prayer, which was the one thing that the Rashbi needed to put his clothing on for, has become a disembodied gender-less experience. The Zionist had a clear response to this disembodied rabbinic Jewish life, but moving to Israel is clearly not the answer of Jewish continuity for all Jews or even for all Israelis for that matter. So what would Rabbi Yishmael’s response be in the 21st Century?

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro North Carolina. There I had the pleasure of seeing Rabbis and Jewish educators training and playing with the campers. In these moments I saw Judaism take the field and become relevant in their lives. I have no doubt that this will have a long-term impact on the campers, but I am also curious to see if it has long-term impact on Judaism itself. Besides being a great sports camp serving the Reform Jewish community, 6 Points is emerging as a laboratory exploring the deeper meaning of muscular Judaism. In a profound way they are the students of Rabbi Yishmael.

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