[On a particular legal matter], Rabbi Zeira, [who lived in Babylonia], opposed the view of Rabbi Illa [who lived in Israel]. But after Rabbi Zeira came to Israel, he accepted Rabbi Illa's view. [When asked the reason for his change of heart], he said, "From this [experience] we learn: The air of the land of Israel makes one wise."
-Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 158b
The Florence Melton Adult Minischool, a project of the Hebrew University that has attracted thousands of adult learners around the world to a standardized series of evening courses in basic Judaism, has come to Israel. Called in Israel the Gandel Institute, the program is being piloted in a number of communities around the country in a Hebrew version adapted to the Israeli audience. Our foundation's staff has been involved in the project, both as curriculum writers and as teachers. This year I am teaching a weekly study group in Kfar Shammai, a veteran agricultural moshav near Safed. The course is based on an anthology of texts, ranging from biblical to modern, relating to different perspectives on the role of "place" in Judaism (from home to community to homeland to universe). The 15 students come from towns and communities around the area, and bring to the table amazingly diverse backgrounds and an enthusiasm that is sometimes hard to keep in check sufficiently to have an orderly discussion. The dark and winding drive is daunting, especially on a foggy winter night and yet, I find myself looking forward to the class each week I guess because of the warmth and energy of the group. And because the discussion is a case-study in the possibility of pluralism.
There is J., a farmer from a moshav settled by immigrants from Libya in the 50s. He is about 70, listens before he speaks, tells jokes that many of us don't get and, most remarkably, knows the Hebrew Bible by heart. Really by heart. We all read from our Bibles. He simply recites the text, a word ahead of us, without looking - and corrects our reading mistakes. He would probably be defined as Orthodox in observance, but is amazingly open to critical interpretations and interested in historical explanations.
And there is S., who lives in Or Ganuz, a kabbalistic Orthodox communal settlement. She is still reeling from my statement that I dont believe that we are living in messianic times she can't believe I don't see the signs. And she gets upset when the secular majority make heretical statements (like, "God doesn't come out looking so good in the Tower of Babel story "), accusing us of not understanding the inner meaning of the Torah. Yet somehow her insistence on the absolute truth she finds through her faith, as much as it gets under the skin of some of the secularists, is an important and valued voice in the discussion, and her quick pick-up on word plays in the text and her sense of humor are much appreciated.
Also at the table are A., who loves to play the role of the provocative non-believer, unsparing in her criticism of the tradition and of the traditional positive-spin interpretations of the foibles of our forefathers; R., from the vegetarian village of Amirim, who leans toward Jewish renewal spiritualism; a retired Orthodox elementary school principal; a couple of bright, very literate, very secular, teachers In other words, a lot of diversity, a lot of knowledge, a lot of strong opinions but also, a lot of curiosity and a lot of laughter. Sometimes I feel like all I have to do is say: "OK, today we're starting with the text on page 63." Then I just sit back and let the waves roll over me. A few weeks ago, the anthology included a poem by Naomi Shemer that has become a popular song. We all sang, with gusto, every verse.
Maybe S. is right maybe we are living in messianic times after all.