The Uncountable Queer Contradictions of Rabban Gamliel: A Roundtable Discussion

by Elaina Marshalek, SVARA Fellow

A volume of Talmud sits open on a table. A learner can be seen sitting next to it. There is a rainbow alef-bet tool placed across the pages.
Many thanks to Ren Finkel (our one and only Mishnah Collective Coordinator) for their visioning, support, and incredible hot takes which helped frame this discussion. Special thanks to Alyx Bernstein, SVARA’s Communications and Development intern, for sharing her endless wisdom around Talmudic history.

There’s nothing quite like Mishnah Collective. This daily drop-in learning space at SVARA is an opportunity for folks from all backgrounds to unpack Mishnah Berachot — a text that SVARA Faculty Rabbi Bronwen Mullin has described as “a wild landscape of the personal, interpersonal, political, and spiritual that becomes what we call ‘prayer’”. No previous experience with Hebrew is required to participate, and folks are encouraged to explore each and every delicious detail of the text each time we meet. As we move through Berachot, a particularly complex character has come into focus: a Talmudic ancestor known as Rabban Gamliel.

Who is he? And why, after so many centuries, does his Talmudic legacy leave us on the edge of our seats in the bet midrash? To better understand, we decided to dedicate this week’s Hot Off the Shtender to gaining a deeper understanding of this enigmatic and illustrious Talmudic figure. And what better way to unpack a tricky text than to convene a roundtable of queer Talmud nerds? How else could we untangle the many juicy knots we encounter while sifting through the life, learnings, and halakhically-defiant wisdom of Rabban Gamliel?

This week, our very own Mishnah Collective teacher and Director of Programs Elaina Marshalek gathered with longtime SVARA-nik Rabbi Alex Weissman to dig in. Alex is the Director of Mekhinah and Cultural and Spiritual Life at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he also teaches Mishnah Berachot. Both Elaina and Alex have written about the many contradictions of Rabban Gamliel, and they were eager to dive into a conversation about how to make sense of it all.

Elaina: Okay, just for the record I’m SO excited to have this conversation. For those who don’t yet know this enigmatic, divisive, and deeply complex queer Talmud ancestor, Rabban Gamliel was a first-generation member of the Rabbis in the Tannaitic period, way back in 70 CE (who is not to be confused with his grandfather, Rabban Gamliel, who lived prior to the destruction of the Temple). He was the second leader (nasi) of the rabbinic court in Yavneh, as well as a representative of the rabbinic community to the Roman imperial government. Alex, what else should folks know before we dive in?

Alex: Mostly just that Rabban Gamliel is an unusual and fascinating figure. The way he relates to the tradition is profoundly different from his contemporaries, but he is still firmly situated within the canon. The combination of those traits make him worth deeper exploration. 

E: Totally. So what do you think makes Rabban Gamliel so different?

A:  For starters, he tells us he is different. It’s explicit in the text. He is continuously self-disclosing and self-describing himself as different. And the part that gets pretty meta is when he conveys that, because of his difference, he relates to Jewish law differently, which I don’t think was a common framework for thinking about law in the rabbinic period. So I think, in that way, his relationship to “different” is also different.

E: Yes! I love that. For context, in Mishnah Berachot, there is a sequence of three cases where Rabban Gamliel behaves in a way that is markedly different from what we expect, because our expectations are informed by his own teachings. He deviates from the things he himself has taught! It’s a puzzling place to find oneself, and it leaves his students (and us, the present-day readers) with a lot of questions. In an ideal world, we’d have the time and space to talk about this forever, but for the sake of clarity, the sequence unfolds as follows:

  1. Rabban Gamliel teaches that a groom is exempt from saying the Shema on his wedding night; Rabban Gamliel is then heard reciting the Shema on his wedding night, and claims it’s because he refuses to be separated from God for even a moment.
  2. Rabban Gamliel teaches that a groom must mourn his wife’s death, which involves the halakhic precedent of not bathing right after her death; Rabban Gamliel then bathes on the first night after his wife dies, because he claims he is istonis/delicate.
  3. Rabban Gamliel teaches that one does not mourn or sit shiva after the death of an aveid (servant/slave); Rabban Gamliel then sits shiva after the death of his aveid, Tavi, because ‘Tavi was so pious’.

A: My students have started to refer to these as a Netflix mini-series.

E: Oh my gosh, yes. There is so much to be curious about here. What do we make of these differences? How do we hold such contradictions from someone who held a role of power and importance? Why does it feel like Rabban Gamliel is more committed to Tavi than to his wife? What do we make of the power dynamics and systems of oppression present in having a servant/slave in the first place? Some people venture to wonder if Rabban Gamliel is queer, which we’ll dig into a little bit more. And Alex, I’ve shared your article with so many folks as a beautiful articulation of this idea! All of this is to say that Rabban Gamliel is definitely different, and his differences have serious implications. 

A: Thanks for sharing that, and for framing these three cases.

E: One of the reasons I am so fascinated by Rabban Gamliel is because, in addition to being so different, he is often characterized as a person who wanted things to be unified in a pretty extreme way. He wanted the fixed prayer system. He wanted everyone to be telling time in the same way so we’d perform rituals at the same times in the diaspora. These are really important tools for our tradition, and I get why unity would have been important here. That being said, he pushed unity to an unprecedented level; he said “your outsides need to match your insides,” and if they don’t, you won’t be allowed in.

A: Yes, absolutely.

E: I had really strong feelings about this guy when I first encountered him. As I was reading, I would say to myself, “Here’s this guy that I hate. I hate this guy!” It gets more complex as we learn more about him, and I have found ways to ground myself in more empathy, but I feel protective over the learners who encounter him and have to deal with the implications of his language. He just sort of comes across as a bully.

A: Yeah, and I’m interested in that idea of consistency you mentioned, because I think there is a lot of consistency in what we perceive to be Rabban Gamliel’s queerness. He exhibits some behavior that, through a contemporary lens, just reads as queer. And not in the tokenized and stereotypical ways that might come to mind, but rather in his own psychological and pathological frameworks.

E: Can you say a little more about that?

A: If we are reading him as a potentially queer figure, we can see that it’s painful for him to make sense of his difference in this very ordered context. There is contemporary data that suggests that most queer men, whether or not they’ve experienced “capital T” trauma, have symptoms of trauma just from living in a homophobic society. Which is to say that the heterosexual homophobia queer men absorb can be likened to a traumatic experience. And based on what we know about trauma, the explosiveness we see in Rabban Gamliel could easily be attributed to that framework. In simpler terms, his anger seems queer.

E: Wow. Absolutely. That framework is precisely what has allowed me to feel more empathetic for this guy, even while I hold a lot of anger about how he makes exceptions for himself. We can be really mad that he was characterized as a leader within the bet midrash that didn’t allow people who had different opinions than him.

A: Yeah, and it feels kind of great to recover a queer ancestor who isn’t a hero. Just because we’re reading him as queer doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or great. 

E: Right, and knowing that he is the “nasi”, or the head of the rabbinic court, brings even more complexity to the process of realizing he’s making big mistakes given how much power he has.

A: Yes, it certainly gets messy because of the power that he holds. 

E: Something we’re currently unpacking in Mishnah Collective is the power dynamic that exists between him and his students. We know that during this period of time, students looked to their teachers as the authority on different aspects of rabbinic law. There were real implications for not just what teachers said, but what teachers did. In Mishnah 5 we read:

אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו לֹא לִמַּדְתָּנוּ רַבֵּנוּ שֶׁחָתָן פָּטוּר מִקְּרִיאַת שְׁמַע בַּלַּיְלָה הָרִאשׁוֹן. 

His students said to him [Rabban Gamliel], “Haven’t you taught us, our Rabbi, that a groom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night [of marriage]?”

This is just one of many moments when he deviates from his own ruling, leaving his students puzzled. When Rabban Gamliel’s students learn that he didn’t recite the Shema on the first night of marriage, they don’t say, “hey! you’re doing the wrong thing.” Instead, they say, “hey, just to clarify, why aren’t you doing the thing that you taught us to do.” It’s almost as if there is a desperation to know, “how am I supposed to understand your opinion of what is right if I don’t see you enacting that rightness?”

A: Totally, I think that’s really helpful context. The average reader might pass over this  as inconsequential, but a deeper read reveals some important details. In that very same Mishnah, we learn that a groom is exempt from saying the Shema on the first night of marriage because they might be nervous about having sex for the first time and consummating the marriage. So what do we make of the fact that Rabban Gamliel says the Shema? Do we know whether or not sex occurs? No. But because he himself taught his students that a groom is exempt from saying the Shema to focus on other tasks, we’re led to feel curious about why he chooses to stray from his own guidance in this particular moment.

E: Right, yes. And another text outside of this mishnah that serves as an intertext to this is that in the Tosefta for Berachot, it says that Rabbe Elizer said when Rabban Gamliel and his beit din (Rabbinic Court) were in Yavneh, they were involved in the needs of the community, and they did NOT interrupt their work to recite the Shema or Amidah in order to not lose concentration from their hearts. And what we learn from this is that Rabban Gamliel doesn’t always prioritize saying the Shema! There are moments when he chooses not to, which leads us to believe that the first night of his marriage was not necessarily what it appeared to be.

A: Yes, that’s so helpful. I really like that read.

E: Okay, so how about this second case, with the death of his wife.

A: So we fast forward, and we don’t know how much time has passed, but Rabban Gamliel’s unnamed wife has died. It is customary when one is in mourning to not bathe for the first week, when one is in shiva. And what happens? Rabban Gamliel bathes. When his students confront him and say, “you’re not supposed to do this,” he says, “I am not like the rest of all people. I am istanis.” In and of itself, the use of this word is interesting because it’s a Greek word. There are other places in Berachot where the Rabbis talk about how Jewish men are not suspected of sleeping with one another, and that’s a thing we assume only of non-Jews. 

E: Oh, wow!

A: It seems that in using a Greek word, Rabban Gamliel already positions himself outside of the system to which he belongs. Once again, we see another moment of his difference. And what does this word mean? Delicate. He’s describing himself as delicate! So to me, the Greekness, and the delicateness, and the distancing of himself from the law, all of these things in turn distance himself from his wife. 

E: Yes, totally. 

A: And then, if that weren’t enough, his servant dies, and we see a deepening of this distance from his wife because he approaches mourning his servant much differently.

E: Right! When his servant/slave Tavi dies, Rabban Gamliel receives condolences as part of a mourning ritual. Rabban Gamliel’s students ask him once again why he diverged from something he’d taught them. Rabban Gamliel asserts he did so because Tavi was “so pious.” Once again, he’s making exceptions for himself which contradict his teachings. He’s also leaving us with this sense that he felt a softness about Tavi that he’s brushing aside.

It’s also important to name that the practice of owning indentured servants/slaves is unjust and oppressive, and encountering this text can be painful and challenging to different people based on their experiences and identities.

As head of the Rabbinic Court, why did Rabban Gamliel feel empowered to make such different choices than the ones he taught? Did he just like making exceptions for himself? Was his relationship with Tavi much deeper than it appeared to be (i.e. was it a queer relationship)?

A: And I think something so interesting about how SVARA approaches Talmud is that it’s not about finding the “queer,” as in, the “homosexual” in the text. It’s about recognizing the queerness that is inherent in the tradition itself, and deepening the possibilities of what could be happening in any of these contradictions we see with Rabban Gamliel. It’s about realizing that Rabban Gamliel was perhaps, at his core, a champion of Option 3.

E: I totally agree, I love that Alex. I also think that in a queer-normative space, like Mishnah Collective, where we’re reading this text, we’re using a queer-normative lens. We’re not concerned with the singular question of whether or not Rabban Gamliel is queer, but instead we welcome an understanding that queerness is everywhere. And when we use that understanding to move slowly through each word, we can access a complexity that might not otherwise be available. It feels like a really rich way to approach this text. It opens up so much more than a flat depiction of Rabban Gamliel, and, Alex, you have contributed so much to deepening that depiction. There’s so much more to say, but let’s close for now and leave folks with two things: a deep curiosity about Rabban Gamliel, and an open invitation to join us in Mishnah Collective to keep unpacking all of this juiciness!

Each session we work our way through a portion of this mishnah, piece by piece, in the SVARA method. No prior Hebrew experience or learning is necessary to participate! We meet Monday through Friday from 1:30-2PM ET | 12:30-1PM CT | 10:30-11AM PT. Register here!


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