There wasn't much compassion when it came to bread. It was 2006, and I attended a fellowship of rabbinical students across denominations that met every week over dinner. Our purpose was to cultivate compassionate Jewish leadership.
For three months, we argued over the proper conduct of grace after meals (birkat hamazon). Was there a minyan (quorum under Jewish law)? With seven men and eight women did we have a quorum? Jewish law, or halakha, only counts men; the liberal Jewish denominations do away with gender distinctions.
Even if we had ten men and seven women, a quorum by any standards, who then would lead the zimmun, the invitation to the grace after meals—always a man (the requirement according to Orthodox Judaism), or sometimes a man, sometimes a woman? These questions dominated our conversations, until one week the group leader, a female Conservative rabbi, took away the bread.
Perhaps we require a different paradigm for Jewish inclusiveness. For a generation we have relied on shared ritual. But ritual runs directly into contentious issues such as gender separation, and leads to the stark contrast of the highest or lowest common denominator. The result is to uproot ritual—the articulation of faith as expressed differently by each denomination—from its foundations, and force a compromise with which no one is comfortable.
Rabbinical sources provide us with a better way to foster an inclusive Jewish community. The Mishnah (the first written compendium of rabbinical law) states in Tractate Avot (3.6) that when ten people are gathered to study Torah, the Divine presence dwells amongst them. In other words, there is holiness and authenticity in their endeavor. The Mishnah adds that this applies to groups of five, three, two, and even one person alone with the text.
This Mishnah is remarkable in two ways. First, it tells us that even a single person studying Torah is never truly alone. The moment a person engages the texts of Jewish tradition they enter into conversation with all who did so throughout the generations.
Secondly, the Mishnah does not specify what sort of people evoke Divine immanence. Ten learned people? Ten unlearned people? Ten men or ten women? The Mishnah is intentionally broad in its formulation. This teaches us that study of shared texts provides a higher order of inclusivity than shared ritual. And this suggests that shared study should be the foundation for strengthening Jewish community across denominations.
Torah study, properly speaking, does not oblige us to arrive at a single opinion or a definitive resolution. Tradition as embodied in the Talmud preserved many contending arguments to impress upon us the value of sacred argument, of considering all approaches to the text. In the words of the Sages we are called upon to find the space in our minds for both those who read a text to permit and those who read it to prohibit. Torah study requires of us to make our heart contain many rooms, that is, to value disparate approaches simultaneously (Tosefta, Sotah 7:12).
Each denomination makes exclusive claims on ritual observance, but no one denomination holds exclusive rights to the corpus of Jewish tradition. Indeed, the rabbis of antiquity even understood the revelation at Sinai to be one of a multiplicity of understandings and interpretations (Pesikta de’Rav Kahana 12).
Only at great cost will we neglect the need for a new paradigm of shared Jewish community building. Rates of disaffection are climbing in the American Jewish community, and it does no good to compound the fracture. The Jewish community requires a culture of respectful discourse that both values and makes room for the denominational space of private devotion, while maintaining a shared global space of collective activity.
Placing ritual at the center of that global space hinders group cohesion. It is through shared Torah study that we can craft a solid and viable foundation for an inclusive Jewish community.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Earth is the Lord’s, “In this hour we, the living, are the people of Israel. The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets and continued by their descendants are now entrusted to us. We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages.” And it is an opportunity that we must not forfeit.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Orthodox rabbi of Harvard Hillel, Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University, and the Co-Director of the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Harvard. His latest book is Covenantal Promise and Destiny: Wisdom for Life. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife Sharon.