By Naama Shaked | 03/02/2011
The Conceptual Foundations Laid by the Elul Beit Midrash for Combined Schools in Israel
Barefoot reading has been a prominent feature of the Elul Beit Midrash ever since its inception. It was developed and consolidated there and, in various forms, has spread to batei midrash established after the founding of Elul.
In 1989, Elul was founded by a group of secular and religious Jews of both leftist and rightist persuasions who sought an innovative way of teaching Jewish studies within the context of an open, egalitarian encounter and in an atmosphere of joint responsibility toward Israeli society. The members of the group who joined forces at Elul brought with them different learning methods – from the academic world, from the yeshivot, from Midreshet Oranim and from studies in Hasidism and Kabbalah – and there was a need for creating learning methods that would be suited for, and would serve, all the members in the group. First and foremost, barefoot reading refers to the reading of canonical Jewish texts without the mediation of exegetical traditions. This kind of reading creates a joint platform that transcends the disagreements between the traditional readings, bodies of knowledge and various ideologies that encountered one another in Elul. For many people, study at the beit midrash was a profound, molding experience of personal, creative, intellectual dialogue with traditional Jewish sources, with their friends in the group and with themselves.
I asked some of the people who were members of that first group what barefoot reading was and what role it played in Elul's formative years.
Gera Tuvia: “People came here from such different worlds and with such different levels of knowledge that it was impossible to arrive at any self-understood set of assumptions. From this standpoint, Elul was a good source. There was a need for turning to the members in a manner that would make everyone feel comfortable. Furthermore, there was an insistence that there would be no authority, no social classes and no revered scholars. Emphasis was placed on guidance by colleagues, on learning in pairs (havrutot) and on an avoidance of lengthy introductions. A certain magic was born of necessity. People gave themselves the freedom to express their emotional responses to a text. The individual's direct contact with the text became an important element and this element bolstered the secular Jews' self-confidence: Your encounter with the text is not like learning a foreign language. You can approach the text and begin conversing with it; the text will teach you how to speak with it. You do not need a mediator. You can call this audacity, arrogance. Those who continued really learned, while those who did not continue were perhaps left with an illusion. For the religious Jews, this was an enormous, powerful liberation – the ability to rediscover texts that you think you are already familiar with, the ability to react in different ways, the ability not to love, the ability not to receive, etc.”
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Melila Hellner-Eshed: “I and many of my friends, both men and women, have come here from the academic world. There, if you were lucky, you had fabulous teachers; and, if you were not lucky, you had only a wilderness and boredom. At Elul, the isolation ended, the desk drawers were opened and we found ourselves in a big, invaded world where biblical verses, midreshai halakha, legends, modern Hebrew poetry, as well as plays and stories from The Zohar all coexisted. An experience of being connected with generations of discussants was created; there was now the opportunity to breathe them, become friends with them, hate them and to dare to see ourselves as a new link in the chain of this conversation. A new understanding was created – the understanding that there is no final body of knowledge here, but rather something that is infinite and constantly changing, something that we can study; at the same time, as we study, we create it and ourselves.”
What is the source of the concept “barefoot reading”?
Rotem Prager-Wagner: The ideologue who really stood out in this matter was Gera Tuvia …. One could even cautiously say that the source of the barefoot aspect of the study can be traced back to a relatively large group of kibbutzniks – both men and women – who were part of the founding group. Kibbutz culture saw itself as a sort of native culture from the standpoint of the desire to shed the conventions, values and perceptions of bourgeois society. It was as if they were saying, “We, the barefoot ones, will rebuild human society with a few tools, trees, ropes, Camping Books, volumes 1,2, and 3, and a simple knot.” Some of this has been expressed in the autobiography of poet Yehudit Kafri of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, All Summer We Walked Barefoot (in Hebrew). Broadly speaking, perceptions and expressions of what could be termed “barefoot culture” characterized the journal Shdemot and the study workshops that developed in the 1970s and 1980s at Seminar Efal and at Oranim, from which Ruth Calderon and Gera Tuvia came to Elul. Echoes of this concept can be heard in the words of a poem by Leah Goldberg, “And the bare sole of my foot will caress the alfalfa leaves” and it could be thought that barefoot reading was touching something real instead of being commentaries on commentaries.”
“… the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God”
When I arrived at Elul a few years later, barefoot reading was a part of the local culture, part of the Beit Midrash. I was one of those “religious Jews” whose powerful experience of revelation is described by Gera. The opportunity to meet the familiar sources and to reveal with wonder and amazement how, through reading them together with individuals whose minds have been completely opened, there was a feeling that “… the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). To read Hebrew poetry with the love and with the awe of the sublime that is experienced when reading the Torah. To read the Mishnah the same way one reads poetry. The opportunity to come face to face with the words without partitions and let them enter the soul, filter down into the blood, awaken and arouse. This living contact with the words becomes a powerful motive to want to know more and to learn more and more.
This technique of learning does not allow one to remain in a passive situation. It arouses one to engage in active, involved reading: When there are no teachers and no exegetists, if we want to become familiar with the text, we must use the powers of thinking, of imagination, of emotion and our five senses, as well as those of our friends. In this manner, a fresh experience of study is created together with a profound internalization, which many of us did not experience in the school system; from the ethical standpoint, this is ongoing training in the acceptance of the different possibilities of reading the text. It might be that this is the reason why the technique of barefoot reading has spread to many batei midrash in combined schools in Israel.
Is there really such a thing as barefoot reading?
Rotem Prager-Wagner: “It is, of course a problematic concept. There is really no such thing as barefoot reading. Unlike the real possibility of walking barefoot, it is impossible to walk barefoot through culture. To a large extent, metaphorical barefoot walking is a denial of the many assumptions that we bring to every act of reading. In light of all the possibilities that this method has created at Elul and is still creating in batei midrash founded after Elul, it must have been, in my opinion, an ad hoc concept enabling some kind of imaginary and highly vital beginning within Israeli culture; however, by the same measure, it is vital to overcome it and to move toward more conscious and more binding exegetical work.”
Thus, one must beware of the illusion of “walking barefoot.” In the study session we find that the personal charge, which is so multi-variegated – various life experiences, both those which have shaped our live and those which are momentary – illuminates biblical passages; issues in the Talmud; passages in Jewish philosophy, literature and poetry and reveals elements that we could not have seen without this light. There is a great deal of trust here in human life, in the Torah, in their single root. We come with all our questions, our periods of confusion, the pictures of our daily lives, and, much to our surprise, we find the Torah responding. It asks us simple or incisive questions. We must therefore not be tempted to engage in an overly light reading, nor to remain with the free associations and impressionistic reactions we project onto the text. We must learn how to look at it carefully as we experience a certain tension and we must be demanding when we read it. Gera Tuvia taught me how to use this method, which combines seriousness and commitment, when reading the Bible.
Gera Tuvia: “Ostensibly, the Bible seems to be everywhere … and it is studied. It is cited. Nonetheless, there is the feeling that it is not present … The voices of its exegetists and preachers are heard everywhere; however, only on rare occasions, do we hear, between the lines of their commentaries and sermons, the Bible's own voice. Then everything acquires a certain heaviness. The air become clear. Reality is filled with possibility…. The Bible is a very private book. Very relevant to what is happening in our world. It always turns to you at this time in your life … in order to really hear it, you must have the courage to be unique, to answer it as you are at this present moment while paying close attention to the multitude of capillaries of this ‘now'…. Exegetists, preachers, scholars and teachers stand between us and the Bible. For the most part, they add, illuminate and clarify. However, their conversation with the Bible frequently overshadows and blurs our conversation with the Bible…. Perhaps we need them only because we are afraid to stand face to face with the Bible. Perhaps it would be preferable to muster our courage and to conduct a private conversation with the Bible itself, in all its nakedness.”
A community that is not monolithic
The barefootedness regarding the text we learn together in pairs enables us to shed our defenses and our attire. Listening carefully, asking questions, being prepared for discoveries and surprises, the common aspiration to reveal and to be surprised – all these things create contact of a different kind among the learners. This tremendous opportunity to meet people who are so different from me and to create such a feeling of closeness with them changed my life. I became a part of Elul's open, involved community of religious and secular Jews, and Jews with a range of beliefs between those two polarities. I can no longer feel any sense of belonging to a community that is monolithic.
Naama Shaked is the coordinator of the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro