Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Does The Torah-Tribe Do?


As noted previously, the charedi community in Israel claims justification for its lifestyle from none other than Rambam. Rambam speaks about how the Tribe of Levi was devoted to spiritual pursuits and was supported by others, and adds that anyone can be like a Levite. Of course, as noted previously, Rambam did not mean that they can receive a halachic exemption from military duty, nor that they can receive funding from the community.

But let's put that aside for the moment, and discuss a different angle. What exactly did Rambam see such people - whether the tribe of Levi, or those emulating them - as actually doing?

Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf recently published a superb article in which he pointed out that according to Rambam, the tribe of Levi was not sitting and learning. Instead, they were teaching. As Rambam says:
Why did the tribe of Levi not acquire a share in the Land of Israel and in its spoils together with their brothers? Because this tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes, as it is written: “They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances and Israel Your Law” (Deut. 33,10).

In light of the immediately previous post, regarding the rationalist reasons for learning Torah, this is eminently understandable. Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society. But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that.

Accordingly, only teaching Torah provides benefit to society, such that the Levites are supported by the rest of Israel. Learning Torah is wonderful for individuals; but they are not providing any benefit or service to society. According to Rambam - and, frankly, most other Rishonim - this does not justify communal support.

35 comments:

  1. Just to set the record straight, the kollel system does not claim to follow the Rambam.
    Rambam explicitly says it is forbidden to accept financial benefit for Torah Study.
    Rather its the vast amount of authorities,starting from Tashbatz down to Rabbi Finestien, via the Taz and other multitudes of acharonim who have argued with rambam on this particular halacha paved the way for the kollel system to flourish
    There are many Rambams that are not halacha l'maaseh, this being one of them. Another one is in hilchos brochos, in hilchos chazaka and in hilchos shomrim.
    Why is this concept, that not every Rambam we follow l'halacha so hard for you to accept???


    ReplyDelete
  2. One problem typical of Temple-centered religions is that the clergy doesn't bother to do outreach to the laity. You see this over and over again in the historical documents whether they be from Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt. In the religions of these places, the priests (who "lived off the altars" and ate and dressed very well from the donations of the elite) figured that the people at large could just do their own thing and be damned if that be the case.

    This is what to expect from a temple-centered religion.

    Obviously, this is NOT what G-d expected from us even though we DID have a Temple.

    I have a suspicion that one of the prime reasons for the destruction of the First Temple (cited in our sources as avodah zorah, shfichas damim and gilui arayos-- all manifestations of irreligiosity) were due at least in part to those levites/priests who "regressed to the mean" and didn't want to bother with outreach anymore.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think you forgot one reason for Torah study, if I'm not mistaken: cultural continuity. Cultures naturally change a great deal over time. Torah study minimizes some of those changes. The Talmud seems to want us to study in detail. Ethical and moral instruction probably don't require that level of detail. But cultural continuity does.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I assume that my local kollel, which gives many classes to the community, must learn in order to teach well. The question is, how much time, percentage-wise, should be devoted to each?

    ReplyDelete
  5. See the Meshekh Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61.

    I translated it in a series of three blog posts on Aspaqlaria:
    1- Torah and Sefer Torah
    2- Learning and Teaching, part I
    3- Part II

    As Chazal say, Torah lishmah means learning in order to teach, and someone who learns Torah not lishmah might as well not have been born. The Meshekh Chokhmah explains why -- if one learns just to know, one could have stayed unborn and learned even better from the angels.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cant teach unless you spent tons of time learning

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society. But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that."
    Is it your understanding that these two points are mutually exclusive? If so, where does that understanding come from? (I do not remember this point being addressed by you, if it has, I would be happy to simply be referred to the article in which you have discussed it.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. lost my handle againMay 22, 2013 at 3:34 AM

    R Slifkin, what exactly do you do, as a profession or occupation, for the benefit of Klal Yisroel?

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society. But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that."

    I don't necessarily disagree with this but by saying this, you're really limiting the disciplines in learning that are of significant value, well beyond what's accepted by Chazal. Ancient Civil Law Procedure, machlokot over what the main usage of a 3rd century BCE agricultural tool was, ancient medicines, even the laws of Ketubut etc. - It becomes very hard to justify spending any time at all on these things.

    Again, I'm not disagreeing with you. I would even argue that the concept of spending so much time learning, irrespective of the practical benefits of that learning, was entirely an invention of Chazal. Probably the two main sources for the importance of learning as much as possible, ושיננתם לבניך... and והגית בו יומם ולילה, respectively refer to specific things told by Hashem to Bnei Yisrael through Moshe on a specific day and to learning to know how fulfil the Mitzvot. Read the psukim. Where does it say or hint at learning things that are of no obvious practical importance?

    But to argue this kind of thing seems to be beyond the pale.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Learning Torah is wonderful for individuals; but they are not providing any benefit or service to society.

    אמר רב יוסף כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהני לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו (סנהדרין צט:ב

    ReplyDelete
  11. Tzaphnas PaneachMay 22, 2013 at 6:11 AM

    You can't teach well if you don't know.

    Were they all teachers, and were the all born as such?

    ReplyDelete
  12. "Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society." No it does not. There are blogs dedicated to showing that this is false.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @Reader

    ""Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society."

    No it does not. There are blogs dedicated to showing that this is false. "

    There are also blogs dedicated to showing that 9/11 was an inside job and that the lunar landings were filmed in a studio in Burbank.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't get Yirmiyahu's quote--doesn't the Gemara say there that someone who expresses such a sentiment is either an epikoros or a מגלה פנים בתורה? Not rather exemplary behavior.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Learning Torah is immensely important because it teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society. But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that."

    Further on Gavriel's point... Do you have reason to assert these are actually two different things? Even in the Rambam's metaphysics, having more Da'as connects one to higher intellects, and thereby gains more hashgachah peratis (Personal Divine Providence).

    Second, as noted by others, in practice all these advances require actually using the Torah learned for the purpose for which it was given. As R' Yehoshua ben Levi is quoted repeatedly in the gemara, Torah can be a cure or a poison, depending on whether one prepares themselves to use it wisely. Or as the Vilna Gaon put it, the Torah is compared to water - it helps plants grow. But if you don't weed your field first, all the Torah you learn will do is nourish those weeds. (I wrote an essay on this topic as well, available here as a PDF, or in "Daas Torah: Child and Domestice Abuse, vol I by R/Dr Daniel Eidensohn.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that."

    direct contradiction to the gemara below

    סוטה כא א
    והתניא את זו דרש רבי מנחם בר יוסי (משלי ו, כג) כי נר מצוה ותורה אור תלה הכתוב את המצוה בנר ואת התורה באור את המצוה בנר לומר לך מה נר אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה אף מצוה אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה ואת התורה באור לומר לך מה אור מגין לעולם אף תורה מגינה לעולם

    ReplyDelete
  17. Moshe: You miss the point. Here the Haredim claim to be basing themselves on the Rambam. R. Slifkin's point, following that of R. Woolf, is that they are reading the Rambam incorrectly.

    Where did R. Slifkin ever argue that the Haredim are obliged to follow the Rambam's views?

    Lawrence Kaplan

    ReplyDelete
  18. How ironic that on a blogsite that prides itself on showing how Chazal were mistaken, on that very same site the wisdom of the sages shine out like the sun in the middle of the day...
    Chazal say greater than the hatred of the non jew to the jew, is the hatred of the ........ to the talmidei chachamim.
    The intensity of your emotion towards bnei torah, judging by the frequency of your blogs on the topic, one would have thought the charedim are involved in immorality on Yom Kippur!
    Chill out R Natan, the charedi fellows biggest transgression is with the permission of their wives they sit and study Hashems Torah!

    ReplyDelete
  19. The community supported kollel where I live does pay back in this fashion - the kollelniks are available as study partners, and some of them also give weekly shiurim before Shabbat mincha and the like.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Dave quote Sotah 21a, suggesting that it directly contradicts the post's words, "But it does not provide any mystical spiritual force-fields or anything like that."

    The truth is, though, all the gemara says is "מה אור מגין לעולם אף תורה מגינה לעולם". It doesn't say this is a "force-field or anything like that". Torah's protection is compared to that of light. But the protection itself could be simple sekhar va'onesh -- the changes within one's soul brought on by Torah study earn him / cause a more protected life. (If the tool of Torah is used for what Hashem intended it to be; see my earlier comment.)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Lawrence.
    Firstly can i say that the previous comment from Moshe was not from myself (the first commentator on this post)
    After reading R Natans piece i admit you are right, no where does he say we must follow the Rambams views.
    Perhaps you could clarify something for me, if the kollel community do not need to follow Rambam and they can base themselves on others who allow the taking of money for torah study,would it not follow that the kollel systems only crime is not following the normal practise of Judaism.
    But then one could argue (like some blogger did a fortnight back) that many of us are guilty in the same crime - diverting from the norm of our religion for our own ideals and the example he cited was, Rabbi Slifkin, an ashkenazi, would also be going against the norms of ashkenazi tradition by eating locusts.
    So where does draw the line?

    ReplyDelete
  22. ...the charedi fellows biggest transgression is with the permission of their wives they sit and study Hashems Torah!

    No, Moissh, their biggest transgressions, are typically utilizing money meant for the truely indigent through false statements on financial aid applications, and avoidance of honest labor. As for their wives, do you honestly believe most would willingly live lives of grating poverty, work, and be a full time home maker, if they weren't forced to by social pressures within their society?

    ReplyDelete
  23. Tzaphnas PaneachMay 23, 2013 at 5:54 PM

    Why is following opinions brought in The Mishna Berurah/Biur Halacha not normative judaism?

    ReplyDelete
  24. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Thank you very much again for a very informative post. I have struggled for a long time with the "why learn torah - what is the purpose of learning torah". Although I would certainly like to appreciate your answer that teaches theology, improves character, and perfects society, I find this difficult. There are so many parshiot in the torah taht do not seem to fit this model - the mishkan, korbanot, a large number of mitzvot, parah adumah etc. There are so many sugyot that also do not seem to fit this model - tumah, tahara etc. Is there no part of learning torah which is simply a gzerat hakatuv in that we don't understand why learning it would be better than learning something more practical (a mussar sefer, a medical textbook) which would seem to be more approprriate for perfecting ones character and society.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Moish,ok so RNS also goes against the norms of ashkenazi tradition by eating locusts but why does that make him unable to critisize others?
    Granted, he is guilty in the same crime he preaches others on, but do you always make sure your house is in order before rebuking others?

    ReplyDelete
  26. I am talking from experience of being in kollel way too long and I can testify that lack of money helped destroyed my marriage and some of my kids

    ReplyDelete
  27. But who elected the hareidi community as the new tribe of Levi? By what authority have they self selected to remove themselves virtually as a whole from their responsibilities as citizens of isreal? Exactly who gave them permission as a whole to sit and learn but not work, serve in the military or otherwise contribute?
    Learning torah indeed serves to perfect society, but only if you are part of society to begin with.

    Ari Fisher, Albany NY

    ReplyDelete
  28. a blogsite that prides itself on showing how Chazal were mistaken

    Not so. It prides itself on showing that a believing Jew can accept science because even though Chazal

    • on occasion had erroneous views of natural phenomena
    • their erroneous views do not diminish the authority of most of their statements, even where those statements are founded on their erroneous views of natural phenomena

    This is is contrast to the Chareidi approach which is to contest the physical reality of natural phenomena in order to protect their understanding of bitachon and emuna from being compromised by that reality.

    ReplyDelete
  29. white shirt locustMay 26, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    What an awful comparison. Eating locusts is something permitted by the Torah, all RNS was doing was ignoring rabbinic prohobition and a milennia long custom.
    Working for a living is a different kettle of fish
    Moish, if you dont like our site why not go over to crosscurrents, more your style i think

    ReplyDelete

  30. There is no rabbinic prohibition against eating locusts! Nor is there any Ashkenazi custom not to eat them!

    Being in kollel, on the other hand, goes against the values and rulings of many of Chazal and the Rishonim.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Question: As an Ashkenazi, I have no family or community mesorah about how to identify a kosher locust.
    If I were to acquire the knowledge by being taught by someone who does have the mesorah, would it be a purely academic exercise, or would I then be halachically permitted to consume such locusts as I could now identify as permissible and to pass on the knowledge to my family and community?

    ReplyDelete
  32. Please see my post on locusts. I try to keep the comment threads on-topic.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Avi,

    Please see R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's "Nineteen Letters" and "Horeb."

    In the 10th Letter of the "Nineteen Letters," R. Hirsch explicitly develops the idea that limmud Torah, and kiyum hamitzvos are means to an end, the end being the refinement of our moral character, thereby teaching us how to better emulate God. In Horeb, in which R. Hirsch deals with the taamei hamitzvos in accordance with his broader theory of the mitzvos being a tool for our moral education, R. Hirsch explains how the mitzvos you mentioned fit into this rubric - which moral lessons they impart, and how they succeed in teaching them to those whose limmud is properly focused on being aware of these lessons.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Teaching is not the only function modern societies see fit to subsidize. Plenty is granted to students and post-grads at various levels, by various means.

    ReplyDelete
  35. To RAM...in the world at large systems are in place to try to limit grants in any specific field of study to those most capable. Not so, in the kollel world.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.