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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Yehoshua Friedman
5 years 4 months ago

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.

5 years 4 months ago

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.]

michoel halberstam
5 years 5 months ago

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.

5 years 5 months ago

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.

5 years 5 months ago

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.]