Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Shabbat 114 The Status of a Scholar

For all of the serious and problematic limitations to the Rabbinic intellectual enterprise, from its restriction to men and its pious limitations on range of acceptable questions and answers to its ahistorical view of the past, it should be noted that the emphasis on learning, scholarship and wisdom is an improvement over previous forms of Jewish governance. Kings are kings and Priests are priests because of their birth or their skill at power machinations and not because of any redeeming qualities or useful skills they possess. Scholars, at least, must learn and study and can potentially (like Rabbi Akiva) rise from any family background to lead communities.

Because of this, the status of a scholar is an important consideration for the Talmud (also, the people writing and reading the Talmud were “scholars” and it was in their own self-interest!). The very phrase for “scholar”, talmid khakham, literally means “wise student,” showing the connection between learning and teaching. This same connection is highlighted by several teachings in today’s daf: the scholar is the one who can answer a question of halakha from any place; the scholar who only knows one masekhta [tractate] may lead his own city, but one who knows the whole field of learning may serve b’resh metivta – as the head of an academy. In other words, the most learned are those who serve as teachers, and they also lead communities.

An interesting question in Jewish history, and in the Talmud as well, is how much status to give rabbis – for example, should a community provide the Rabbi a living, or should they also have a profession? Almost all rabbis in Talmudic times had professions, but there were also cases envisioned by Rabbi Yokhanan – one who puts aside his own interests in favor of khafatsei shamayim [the interests of heaven] should be supported by the community, but only his basic needs. Today, of course, where being a Rabbi is a trained and generally adequately-compensated profession, such minimal support would be difficult to sell.

But Rabbis today would also understand the sentiment behind Rabbi Yokhanan’s saying that it is a disgrace for a scholar to go out with patches on his shoes. In other words, you can tell the values of a community by how it treats what it claims to value most. If one person says they love all Jews but constantly complains that they don’t follow what that person believes is the only way to be Jewish, how sincere is that original claim? If the scholar is the leader of the community, then treat them well.

Rabbi Adam Chalom