These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

A Spoonful of Sugya Helps the Medicine Go Down

Posted on December 3, 2009 by Pious Antic

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The rumors were swirling even before the day of Rav Landes’ shiur k’lali last week.  Tuesday morning he would be addressing the Pardes community about kavod shel Beit Midrash (respect for the Beit Midrash) and what this means in terms of behavior.

Although presumably no one knew in advance exactly what our Rosh Yeshiva was going to say, most of us seemed to have already made up our minds about how we were going to feel about it.  There were those who spoke about the upcoming speech in a sardonic tone, apparently regarding it as a mildly annoying but unavoidable formality.  Others spoke with preemptive indignation, seeing the address itself as a public scolding, insulting to the dignity of the Pardes student body, and in the prospect of a policy on appropriate behavior in the Beit Midrash yet further proof that Pardes is not the  liberal, pluralistic utopia they had hoped to find here.   Yet others, annoyed by occasional frivolity, use of Skype and inappropriate dress in the Beit Midrash, while of course imagining their own behavior to be beyond reproach, looked forward to hearing Rav Landes give their errant peers a long-overdue talking to.

Pardes being Pardes, and Rav Landes being Rav Landes, when we gathered in the Beit Midrash at the much anticipated hour, we were met with not a harrangue, but with chevruta study.  Together, we looked at texts from the Talmud and medieval commentators that discussed the holiness and the honor (kedusha and kavod) of Batei Midrash, as well as relevant laws about how one should behave in them.

After leading a brief discussion on the source texts, Rav Landes came to the moment we’d all been either looking forward to or dreading, handing out copies of the official Pardes policy on Beit Midrash etiquette, which he then explicated to us.

Not surprisingly, one’s reaction to the shiur seems to be dictated by one’s attitudes going in.  Some have taken the policy to heart.  For myself, I felt particularly keenly Rav Landes’ assertion that by distracting  our chevrutas or others in the Beit Midrash with conversation unrelated to our studies, we are actually robbing them of their study.  By contrast, another friend was indignant that using one’s laptop to read the news would not be considered appropriate in the Beit Midrash, asserting that without an awareness of what’s going on in the world, Torah study is meaningless (someone more pious than yours truly might have retorted that in fact the reverse is true – that without Torah, the newspapers and their headlines are meaningless).   And then there were those who remain blithely ignore the policy, continuing to use their laptops for non-Torah related purposes, continuing to take up entire tables for a single chevruta, and continuing to check their messages in the Beit Midrash (if not quite so openly as before).

There was one topic on which I’ve noticed some consensus among the various camps.  Several students I’ve spoken with were surprised that the policy, which covered everything from footwear to eating to laptop use, did not address the issue of what clothing is appropriate in the Beit Midrash.  Given that there are guidelines on so many other aspects of showing respect for the Beit Midrash, it is suprising that this topic alone would be neglected.

Could it be that Pardes as an institution is reluctant to institute official policy in this area out of  a belief that the way one dresses to study says more about one’s personal identity as a Jew than it does about giving honor to the Beit Midrash, and that it would therefore be inappopriate for this explicitly pluralistic institution to attempt to restrict how students express themselves in that arena?

I’m not convinced that this is true, but it’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with for the rather curiuous ommission in the policy.