Torah Always Matters

This was not an easy blogging week. The issue of women’s ordination brought some sharp divisions within the community into focus, including fundamentally different conceptions of halachic process and authority. Surprisingly, the most jarring phrase I saw was embedded in a generally friendly comment. It will give me an opportunity for catharsis, to present my credo. My hope is that it will be cathartic as well for many of our readers – the ones who remember the atmosphere of the bais medrash – rather than constitute a misappropriation of the bully pulpit.

I bemoaned the fact that in some places, being a rabbi is not even associated with being a talmid chacham. I in no way implied that rabbis could or should get along without training in other areas, like counseling and management. The Chasam Sofer, a century and a half ago, introduced professional rabbinics into the curriculum of Pressburg, with a Friday morning class in speaking skills. Today’s complex shul requires that the rav optimally possess many more skills. Mastering them, however, should not mean dropping what always was the most important skill of a leader: mastery of and depth in Torah learning. (You can speak about the agility, the speed, the grace, the teamwork of a promising athlete. But if he can’t swing a bat, he is not material for the MLB draft.) All the other qualities are increasingly important for a rav. But if he can’t learn, he is no rav. He may do wonderful things as a community counselor, mentor, or father-figure. Perhaps, as in England, he ought to be called “minister,” rather than rabbi. Something that links him with all his professional predecessors is missing.

A commenter wrote of his own experience in “small town Orthodox shul where 99% of the members were not Torah observant.” Depth in Torah, he wrote, would be irrelevant in such a community. “There is no point in having a talmid chacham in such a place. His skills and knowledge will simply be wasted there.” This very innocent and perfectly reasonable claim was my wake-up call.

I could not disagree more.

To be sure, our commenter is correct when he says that a presentation to such people “about the difference in approaches to tzaraas between the Rambam and the Ramban” will be ineffective. But his skills and knowledge will not be wasted there. To the contrary, they will enhance everything that he does.

I have never regretted a moment spent in the beis medrash. I have often looked back at something I said or did, and realized that I would have done a whole lot better if I were more adept in learning.

Learning gives you depth. Learning gives you humility. Learning contributes to your kedusha. It makes you quicker and wiser. It makes you a conduit of Hashem’s knowledge.

Learning means that when you must make decisions – even completely secular ones – you bring some Torah insight to the table.

Learning means that when the tough halachic questions come up – and they do, even in a congregation of non-observant members – you will make fewer critical mistakes.

I have seen rabbis build up their communities, and serve their congregants with devotion that is reciprocated by the love of their flock. Some of them have been quite ignorant; they nonetheless enjoyed some significant success. I have also seen different rabbis who possessed the same qualities but were also tamidei chachamim, and there success is of a different order of magnitude.

I think in that regard of many people, but I think first and foremost of one of my mentors, Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l, and the ability he had to influence so many different kinds of people precisely because of his learning.

I see it in people with whom I sometimes have to take issue. I enjoy speaking with Rabbi Norman Lamm, despite our differences, because his significant kesher to Torah study makes him smarter, deeper, and more insightful than his colleagues without that kesher.

One of several reasons for the ascendancy of the right is that spiritual climbers who attended Orthodox shuls with “book review” rabbis tired of the pablum, and sought out teachers who could offer meaningful and challenging Torah content. They found them in people who had spent more years in the beis medrash, and these often came from the right.

I’m not making this up. All of this is part of the plain sense of the Braisa of Avos:

Whoever engages in Torah study for its own sake merits many things…he loves [Hashem’s] creatures…he gladdens [His] creatures. [The Torah] garbs him in humility and reverence of G-d. It makes him fit to be righteous, devout, fair and faithful…From him people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and strength…It gives him kingship and dominion and analytical judgment. The secrets of the Torah are revealed to him…He becomes modest, patient and forgiving.

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10 comments to Torah Always Matters

  • L. Oberstein

    I think we are on the cusp of a new world as far as Jewish life is concerned. The orthodox enclaves are thriving because they are full of believing, educated and committed young people raising large families.We have big problems but we are growing. The rest of the Jewish community is getting older, fewer young families are active and affilitated. Vast swatches of the Jewish youth are not that interested or involved, the hope is that some of them will meet a kiruv professional or a caring non professional and be saved for our people before it is too late .Women rabbis is a big issue to us, not to most Jews who are very far removed from any observance.

    I had a long talk with a leading Reform layperson the other day. She told me that their Reform Day School is doing “so so”, their membership is stable for the first time in years and that their leadership is aging. in short, there is a danger that while we are growing in our self imposed ghettos, the rest of American Jewry is shrinking and losing any semblance of tradition. Yes, our rabbis are more learned than ever and that is good. I am worried about the other 90% falling off the cliff.

  • S.

    I think the point is not that being a talmid chochom doesn’t matter in the rabbinate, but that it doesn’t matter where the title is concerned. In recognition of the fact that not all rabbis are talmidei chachomim, new nuanced ways of applying the basic title come into fashion, to exclude certain kinds of practicing rabbis. They’re never “Rav” or “Horav” or the various other shades meant to make distinctions. But so long as they toe the line, no one ever challenges their right to be called “rabbi.”

  • gjosephs

    “Learning gives you depth. Learning gives you humility. Learning contributes to your kedusha. It makes you quicker and wiser. It makes you a conduit of Hashem’s knowledge.”

    Given some recent scandals, this is patently untrue. At least in some cases.

    [YA – Of course. In many casess. For it to work, a person has to both learn lishmah, and possess midos that make him a worthy repository of the Torah he learns. The Vilna Gaon goes even further, as cited in Even Shelemah. He says that Torah can make you a more evil person! Torah, he says, is like rain falling on a field. It will sprout whatever is in the ground. If good seed is there, the rain will bring forth a yield of useful produce. If bad stuff is the soil, the rain will nurture a rich yield of thorns and thistles.]

  • aj

    a really nice post. Not to denigrate your previous postings (naturally, sometimes I agree with you, and sometimes not), but I think your recent posts have been wonderful

  • lacosta

    i was troubled by a recent commenter at the Forward.com, on a ‘sisterhood blog ‘ commentary by r harry maryles’ cousin. this commentor basically said , given the tidal wave of shmutz that the O and especially haredi communities have weathered in the last decade, the O resurgence will have reached its peak , as a price must be paid for the shock and reality it represents. i wondder if rYA has a speculation on this….

    [YA – You want me to speculate about speculation? No, I don’t believe a word of it. The haredi resurgence is testimony, first and foremost, to the staying power of serious commitment to limud Torah and to halachic detail. Those are not going to go away. They will keep growing, within the limits of economic constraints. There may be attrition, and even a decline in birth rate, if the haredi community cannot better address the problems that beset it (unless HKBH engineers His own bailout package, as He so often does!). However, I would not expect to see many dropouts flock to the far left of Orthodoxy. People who’ve been inside the real (albeit imperfect, and sometimes majorly flawed) thing will have a hard time listening to a rav with very superficial Torah skills. We’ve had time to observe similar options. Dropouts over the last decade generally leave practice altogether, rather than move over to the local Conservative temple.]

  • Ori

    YA: YA – Of course. In many casess. For it to work, a person has to both learn lishmah, and possess midos that make him a worthy repository of the Torah he learns.

    Ori: Do you have enough Talmidei Chachamim of this type to serve as Rabbis for all the Orthodox congregations in the US?

    [YA – My guess is, yes. However, many of them either don’t want to be rabbis, or don’t have the other desiderata of a successful pulpit rabbi. I do believe that there are enough for the Orthodox congregations that are astute enough to want such leaders.

    Perhaps more importantly, I firmly believe that if we scale back our expectations of what a rav should be in terms of his learning, then some institutions will produce graduates of poorer and poorer quality. YU produced some of the most important rabbanim in America in the 30′-50’s. They also produced many who were quite ignorant in Torah. Today, YU produces some of the most striking examples of genuine bnei Torah who also have the skills needed to lead communities. At least part of the change has to do with many shuls developing more sophisticated tastes for quality Torah instruction – something that we are not going to see coming from the left.]

  • kr

    Nice post. To the extent that you are right about Torah study, however, you inadvertently hightlight the problem Orthodox Judaism has with women. So long as ‘no Rabbi can be considered truly worthy unless he is a talmid chochom,’ and so long as Orthodoxy does not invest much importance in women’s learning, there is a problem.

  • michoel halberstam

    As an interesting aside, It is well known that the Chasam Sofer published 2 teshuvos regarding whether Rabbonus should go by inheritance (Yerusha) to the children of the former Rav.. In siman 12 he clearly states his view that as distinct from Kingship or Kehuna, the rabbonus should not pass by inheritance. In teshuva 13, he seems to have backtracked from that position. There is much discussion of this. A review of the teshuvos themselves, however, suggest that he is distinguishing between those rabbonim whose primary function is to decide halaha,, and those who are as much community managers as rabbonim. If you choose to disapprove my choice of words, or if you disagre that’s ok. But I find it interesting that even is those days there were rabbonim who spent much time on community service and less on Halacha. However, even then a rav was supposed to know something.

  • uriel

    In your previous article, you implied that no one should be able to become a rabbi unless they “immerse themselves in learning for years, spending almost all of their waking hours learning,” as men but not women have the opportunity to do. However, it is not necessary for men to do this to become rabbis. You can study a bit here and there in your spare time with the Shema Yisrael online program and end up getting semicha through the Rabbanut.

    [YA – I implied no such thing. What I very explicitly said is that men have the option of preparing the proper way, which is through years of thorough immersion. Many don’t. The option is there, however. If a community takes a half-baked product as their rabbi, that is their prerogative, but it doesn’t institutionalize mediocrity. Women do not have the option of years of thorough immersion. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not know what immersion in learning is. For the community to accept women rabbis – besides all other halachic and metahalachic issues that people have raised – would be making a statement that we have given up on the notion of a rov being a properly equipped talmid chacham.]

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    Thank you for an inspiring and eloquent praise of Torah as it applies to communal life. Beyond the use of such a praise in a self-congradulatory fashion on the right, I believe that the true implication of the ideal of rav as talmid chacham and Torah as the fountain of community leadership applies to all communities on every level. When you see US MO communities in places like Teaneck having more sophistication in desire for learning, as well as the direction of the more serious national-religious communities in Israel, that is also true. To stretch it a little, JTS with Prof. Shaul Lieberman was quite different from JTS without him. Not that I give any hechsher to JTS or see Lieberman’s move there as anything more than a dire need for parnassa. But the bottom line is that any addition of Torah can make a difference anywhere.