Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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