The first teaching of Pirkei Avot, the classic Jewish text on ethics, ends with the injunction:
וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה
Build a fence around the Torah.
For most commentators, the message of this line is clear: rather than simply following the words of the Torah, it is important to create additional precautions that prevent accidental errors. On Shabbat, rather than simply not using certain tools, it is best not to touch them at all. On Pesah, if there’s any doubt about whether something could be considered hametz, better to avoid it altogether. This method of building a fence around the Torah has become a core principle of rabbinic Judaism, as we affirm that the laws of the Torah are sacrosanct and must be protected.
That’s why the commentary on this injunction found in Avot de Rabbi Natan, one of the earliest midrashic works on Pirkei Avot, is so striking. Rather than support the line, the midrash uses a foundational text to excoriate the practice: It retells the story of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden when Eve eats from the forbidden fruit. In this retelling, had Adam not “built a fence around Torah” by lying to his wife Eve about the details of the Tree of Knowledge (he told her not to touch it, though God had only told him not to eat of it), she would never have been tricked by the snake into committing her grave error. Ironically, Adam’s attempt to distance Eve from sin was the very cause of her downfall. As it turns out, fences—though they may serve an important function—are not so great after all.
To be clear, Judaism is a religion of structure and discipline, and protecting this rigidity provides necessary stability for many. But Judaism is also a religion of openness and exploration. Looking back on my two years as a fellow at BJ, one of the aspects of this community that I most appreciate is its openness. We are committed to halakha—to walking on the paths of Torah—but it is an expansive halakha that we live and breathe, not one that hems us in. One of the stories I hear most often from members is how they found BJ: They were disconnected from Jewish community, alienated from religion as a whole, when someone convinced them to go to Friday night services. Hearing the music and seeing the sincerity of the prayer here, they wept through Kabbalat Shabbat. Judaism suddenly opened up to them. They haven’t left since.
For many of these people, fences around Torah had obscured the beauty of Torah itself. BJ, on the other hand, is a community that does not focus on building fences around the Torah—instead, BJ builds doorways into Torah.
I am grateful for the doorways that BJ has opened for me: into a deeper and more meaningful prayer life; into a loving, intergenerational community; into a Judaism that places intellectual and spiritual development at the center. As a fellow, I had the opportunity to learn from some of the wisest teachers in the world: not only my role models Rabbis Roly, Felicia, Erin, Shuli, and Dini, as well as Hazzan Ari, but also fellow staff members who acted as thought partners at every step of my journey and taught me how to develop and deliver excellent Jewish programming. Above all, I learned from the community members, generous volunteers who guided me through leading morning minyan, listened attentively to my teachings and brought new ideas to the fore, supported me as I moved into the new life phase of marriage, read my divrei Torah and pushed me to make my writing more concise and powerful, and always reached out with kind words in person and by email. To all of you I say: thank you. Thank you for helping me to develop into the rabbi I hope to become.
As many of you know, I have one more year of rabbinical school at JTS and, God willing, at least part of that learning will be in person in New York. I look forward to the day when it is safe for BJ to open its big doors again, building new pathways for all people to experience the beauty and joy of Torah. On that day, I will be the first in line, ready to share a l’chaim and a hug with my many teachers. Until then, l’hitraot.