Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when Рat a very early stage of my Jewish education РI was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entr̩e to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story – my first “Talmud lesson” – is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash – the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

The snow – and Hillel’s now frigid young body – obscured the skylight. “Avtalyon, my brother,” Shemaiah pointedly observed, “Every day this house is brightly lit, but today it is dark.” The scholars “lifted up their eyes… and ascended the roof” and retrieved the young man who was destined to become their most distinguished disciple, and the leading scholar of the Jewish people, warming him by the fire, properly taking life-saving measures (as Shemaiah and Avtalyon themselves commented) ordinarily deemed a desecration of the Sabbath.

It is no surprise that Hillel came to embody inclusivity, assuring even the poor a place in the Academy. (Shammai accepted only the elite and the wealthy.) It also is no surprise that Hillel came to embody a loving openness toward aspiring converts, receiving them with generous patience. In this he was unlike Shammai, a builder by profession, who famously took a yardstick and menaced a heathen who did not “measure up” to his expectations or vision of Jewish life.

I was reminded of this rabbinic narrative, so formative a lesson in my own religious life, when I recently learned that 20 aspiring Jewish scholars, young people from the Abayudaya community of Uganda, were denied visas by the State of Israel. The Abayudaya students were planning a period of study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Refused entry to the Jewish state, these remarkable, devoted students of Torah – future leaders of their own Jewish community – were, like Hillel, left out in the cold.

The Ugandan scholars are part of a community that has been living as Jews since 1919, some now for six generations. The community undertook formal conversion to Judaism in 2002, under the auspices of a bet din – a rabbinic court – comprised of Conservative rabbis. It was my great joy and privilege to serve on that bet din, which held three Americans and one Israeli. The conversion process was exacting and stringent in its standards: detailed questioning of candidates for conversion, eliciting testimony regarding their faith and halachic observance (the intensity of their faith in God was humbling; Sabbath and kashrut observance, and devotion to Jewish education and family life were universal); ritual drawing of blood (hatafat dam – all the males already were ritually circumcised), and immersion in a kosher mikvah (the presence of which spoke volumes about the longstanding religious fidelity of the community) or in the local river.

In a quirky aspect of Israeli law, an applicant need not be Jewish at all to obtain a visa to study in a degree-conferring Israeli college or university. Only Jews, however, are eligible for special visas used to study in non-degree programs, such as in yeshivot. Ugly, exclusivist religious politics in the state of Israel and in its rabbinic officialdom have impugned the validity of the conversions conducted in Uganda, supervised by my colleagues and me. If the conversions are invalid, the Abayudaya are not Jewish, the insidious argument goes. Ergo their leading and most accomplished students of Torah may not enter the Jewish state, at least not its academies of sacred learning. Let them, like Hillel, go back to chopping wood.

How much, indeed, these young Ugandan Jews have in common with Hillel Ha-Bavli – Hillel the Babylonian. They, too, are children of a dynamic diaspora with a proud history. They, too, defiantly persevere in leading lives of Jewish learning and piety, despite the burden of abject poverty. Abayudaya leader J. J. (Joab Jonadab) Keki – whom I cherish as a dear friend and admire as a true hero of Jewish religious life – recently observed that poverty (no longer isolation) is the greatest challenge facing the Abayudaya. When American Jews complain about the high cost of being Jewish, they generally point to synagogue dues, day school tuition, and Jewish summer camps and youth activities, in addition to all the other “necessities” for raising children and maintaining comfortable homes. Keki discusses the challenge of faithful observance of Shabbat or three consecutive days of holiday restrictions (as in this year’s festival calendar) when you must retrieve and carry water from distant communal pumps, to be boiled before human consumption, and when a community of struggling subsistence farmers lack the income to purchase or prepare food in advance.

Despite these challenges, Keki and his community continue to place the highest premium on Jewish learning and faith, observance and joyful celebration of Jewish life. “Take great care with the children of poor families,” the Talmud presciently counsels, “for from them will go forth Torah” (Nedarim 81A). There is no doubt that the 20 students denied the opportunity to study in yeshiva will learn and teach and bring honor to the Torah, and will fire the souls and the imaginations of fellow Jews – young and old – in the years ahead. As did Hillel.

The story of Hillel’s origins speaks to us all. The state of Israel is in so many ways a shining beacon of freedom and democracy – and of opportunities for Jewish learning, bringing light to Jews and our neighbors throughout the world and on a daily basis.

The exclusion of these 20 Abayudaya students – the political cold shoulder offered by Israeli officials in the name of religious exclusivity – is a shameful offense, unworthy of the Jewish state. To quote Hillel’s master: “My brother, every day this house is brightly lit, but today it is dark.” The exclusion of faithful Jews seeking to learn more Torah – seeking to grow in piety, to master our sacred literature, and to spread its wisdom and beauty – is worse than darkness. It is, in terms tellingly invoked by Shemaiah and Avtalyon, a desecration – this time, in the interests neither of Jewish survival nor of Jewish learning.

In our corner of the diaspora, winter is upon us, and Tevet is not far off. When Shemaiah and Avtalyon finally “lifted up their eyes,” it was almost too late. What a tragic and sinful loss the Jewish people would have suffered – how truly impoverished the Torah would have been – if those sages had not acted when they did. If they had not seen the light, if they had not ascended to a higher plane, if they had not, finally, admitted a poor diaspora Jew with Torah in his heart to the rarefied and sacred precincts of Jewish learning, which is the rightful inheritance of every Jew.

It is my fervent hope and it is my earnest prayer that the disappointed Ugandan youth also will be brought in from the cold, to be warmed by the fire of Jewish scholarship, as is their spiritual birthright. If the offense they have endured brings attention and just resolution to their admirable quest, then perhaps it, too, was snow fallen from heaven.

Economic conditions notwithstanding, take great care with the children of the Abayudaya. And make no mistake: From them will go forth Torah.