Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Knowledge Does Not Equal Piety

One of the common fallacies that most frum Jews believe in is that intense learning and deep knowledge of Torah are equivalent to piety.  One looks at many great Jewish leaders whose personal behaviour might have been less than exemplary in some fashion but concludes that they must have been pious because they are so learned.  This is some notion that has to be disabused.
For one thing, learning in and of itself is not a final value.  The purpose of learning is twofold.  First there is the need to know how to practically behave within the parameters of halacha.  The second is to develop a relationship with God.  We are told by the Torah that we must be kadosh because God Himself is kadosh.  Chazal tell us that the best way to engage in imitatio dei is to copy those things we call His middos.  He clothes the poor so we do.  He visits the sick so we do but the best way to come to any understanding of who He is, as if that were possible, is to learn His Torah.  Ultimately God is the most positive moral force in existence and therefore it is our duty to emulate Him and become positive moral forces ourselves.  The learning is to help us get there. Learning without progression in that direction would therefore seem to have far less value.
As a result, it should be obvious that there is no necessary connection between learning and piety.  The former is necessary for the latter to be developed in its fullness but the latter does not necessarily appear even after copious amounts of the former if the learning is not done to that end.
For another thing, consider that the word "pious" is quite malleable.  One example I like to recall appears in Solomon Grayzel's A History of the Jews in which he comments that for many centuries a Pope's piety was measured by how much he persecute the Jews of Chrisendom.
Take, for example, the Satmar Rebbe.  Here was a man who was undoubtedly a genius and one of the defining halachic authorities of his generation.  He was obsessed with reaching a level of perfection in his performance of mitzvos.  His attention to even the most minute details in a given situation is legendary.
He also abandoned all his followers in Hungary, running away to safety while leaving them to die with empty words of encouragement about how their learning and tefillos would protect them.  He saved his neck by using Zionist help and spent the rest of his life condemning those Zionists while building up a philosophy in which God never helps us but only sends us punishment which means that anything good that happens is a trick of the Satan, not a sign of His mercy.  His followers today openly side with enemies that seek to wipe out our State and even when signs of division will result in damage to the Jewish nation they continue to protest to show they're separate from us kofrim.
He was learned but was he really pious?  And if you say he was pious, what exactly is your definition?  Does he boil down to "Well he learned a lot and he was medakdek about all the mitzvos"?  Does the phrase "And he was a genuinely nice and loving guy to everyone" fit in there somewhere?
Learning must be done for a simple reason: to become a better person.  Not a more medakdek person, not a more obsessively precise about minutiae person, but to become a better, more decent and loving person.  All the learning in the world that does not lead to that end would seem to mean little since it failed to accomplished what it was meant to.


Adam Zur said...

The basic idea is that there is supposed to be a strong correlation between learning Torah and basic morality. This correlation became questionable to me. While one is a kid with rich parents on a birth right tour, of course all the stops are pulled out to cater to their every wish. So as people new to the cult, it is hard to see anything wrong. And in the Lithuanian yeshiva world, in fact, the basic standards and norms of conduct are highly based on the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch. However a strong tie between basic moral values and the path of learning Torah is highly questionable.

So a connection between learning Talmud and some minimum standards seems clear. But a connection between learning Torah and high standards is faulty.

Maya Resnikoff said...

I've heard it argued, quite convincingly, that for hasidic rebbeim who escaped Europe during the Holocaust, it was a better move for them to do so rather than stay and die, because knowing that they were alive inspired their followers to struggle to stay alive. Apparently, not only were they keeping particular spiritual paths open, I'm told that followers of rebbes who escaped survived better than hasidim of rebbes who died in the camps. There's something about having something to hold on to...

frum single female said...

I suppose that people think that if you are learned you will have internalized what one has learned. Apparently its not always the case.

SJ said...

By the way I've seen idiot modern orthodox defend satmar (either lie for them or the MOs were just really stupid) when people associated satmar with antizionism.

I'm not kidding you.

SJ said...

>> Learning must be done for a simple reason: to become a better person. Not a more medakdek person, not a more obsessively precise about minutiae person, but to become a better, more decent and loving person. All the learning in the world that does not lead to that end would seem to mean little since it failed to accomplished what it was meant to

Orthodoxy wouldn't have so many detractors if more people held this view.

Adam Zur said...

the problem it seems to me that it filters down from an essential flaw in frum ethics. This flaw was corrected by Maimonides and saadia geon but their approach is not the frum approach. the frum approach is Divine command approach. This is a variation on subjective ethics: some things are moral, but whether a thing is moral depends not just on that thing's intrinsic nature but on the question of did God forbid or command it, as well. For example Redness is not objective if whether a thing is red 'for some observer' (if that makes sense) depends on the nature of the observer and not just on the nature of the object.

I hold this is wrong. In my opinion Morality is objective and the purpose of the Torah is to reveal the morality that is objective. But nothing acquires moral traits because the Torah command sit or not.

Of course this is not Maimonides. To him things acquire moral traits because of intrinsic properties and because God commands them. This is at least how understand Maimonides.

YS said...

While it's true that learning Torah is no guarantee of piety, I'd argue that a more unfortunate and destructive fallacy is that learning Torah creates wise leaders with broad perspective

SJ said...

>> YS said...
While it's true that learning Torah is no guarantee of piety, I'd argue that a more unfortunate and destructive fallacy is that learning Torah creates wise leaders with broad perspective

hear hear

Anonymous said...

Chodesh l'Shana Overview/Review
Posted by Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer at Thursday, August 16, 2012

In this week's parasha (15:14) we find the mitzvah of ha'anaka to a freed eved ivri. This mitza has served over the centuries as the basis for the minhag to grant severance pay to terminated workers. The word basis is very important to understand, as the basis for a minhag does not necessarily yield the parameters of the minhag that ultimately evolves from its basis. The minhag, once established, takes on a life of its own, is its own independent organism, and develops and evolves on its own.

The case of severance pay is a classic case in point. There is no point in attempting to correlate the parameters of this minhag with the parameters of the mitzvah of ha'anaka.

But there is very much a point in attempting to ascertain the parameters of the minhag of severance pay in and of themselves.

Particularly in our day and age, when the issue of severance pay is often a major issue in the worlds of chinuch, rabbonus and other klei kodesh positions - often culminating in Dinei Torah, which in and of themselves are often adjudicated by unscrupulous zavla courts.

The publication of the sefer - kettan ha'kamus ach rav ha'eichus - "Chodesh L'Shana" is a very positive development.

The author is Rabbi Naftali Zvi Frankel. His address and phone number are in the book, and he has email access as well. As he has not explicitly permitted me to publicize his email address, you can write to me and I will forward your comments to him.

It records the written opinions of many of the greatest yoshveial m'din in North America, Eretz Yisroel and Europe that the normative operative minhag is that formulated by the מרא דארעא of North America, Rav Moshe zt"l, of severance pay of a month of salary per year of employment.

I have a negi'a of family affinity, but I like best the way in which my uncle, R' Dovid Schochet shilta, an אב"ד in Toronto expresses the minhag:

1. Klei kodesh is defined as a role that only a Jew can fill - viz., a Mashgi'ach, a Mechanech, a Shamash in a shul, etc. For all these positions, severance pay is chodesh l'shana.

2. For any position that a non-Jew can also fill, the severance pay is in accordance with the general minhag ha'medinah of "shavu'a l'shana" - viz., a week of salary per year of employment. [He explains that it has to be this way, since otherwise no Jewish employer would hire a Jew for a position for which he could hire a non-Jew.]

3. The severance is only due if the employer terminates the employee, and vice versa.

4. The severance is only due if the position is still extant. [He does not mean that by eliminating a position the employer exempts himself from chodesh l'shana. So long as there is still demand or a necessity for the position, its "official" elimination does not exempt the employer from his obligation.]

5. An institution that has shut down and is no longer functioning is exempt from the obligation.

6. During the first two years in a position, a Mechanech is in a probationary status, and has no right to severance. However, if he continues in the position beyond the first two years, in the event of his eventual termination, the first two years are included in the calculation of chodesh l'shana.

[He continues on to give some practical advice on arrangements.]

To conclude, there are nevertheless mosdos and administrators who assert that they are not subject to the minhag of chodesh l'shana. Moreover, I have recently heard that some mosdos are now writing into their contracts that they do not abide by the minhag of chodesh l'shana. When I hear of such happening, I am often led to wonder whether these ostensible leaders are actually מאמינים שיש דין ויש דיין.

Anonymous said...

Both in this post and the previous Your concept of what learning is about and its role in Judaism ignores the the classic Litvishe opinion. I'm not suggesting that you agree with it but at least you should be aware of it. I would refer you to Shar Daled in the Nephesh Hachaim . I will agree that the Satmar probably was not an adherent.

Adam Zur said...

I agree with the previous comment. The fact is in the litvak world you can see a connection between learning normative morality. This in itself proves the theses of the nefesh hachaim.

Devorah said...

Wow. No really, wow. So now we are judging people who survived the Holocaust while "leaving others to die".

No, you're right. Every single person who survived and ran away, leaving fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, cousins and uncles, etc, to die during WWII is justly entitled to our wrath. You know, because we've proven ourselves to do exactly the opposite. We've marched right up to those concentration camps and begged them to allow us in instead of someone else.

Or did we?

Whether or not I agree with Chasidus, are you so insecure with your own faith and your own derech in life that the only way you can feel better about it is to rant against someone who survived the Holocaust?

And last I checked, Modern Orthodox are plenty angry at "zionists" these days, only they call it the Israeli Government, and they just use different platforms to criticize it, despite all the good zionism and Israel has done for their relatives. So aren't we all guilty of not being hakaras hatov?

Seriously. It's erev Rosh Hashanah. Pick a stance worth having. This one is just shameful.

jrs said...

Uh, Devorah. Before you go off on a self-righteous rant about not 'judging people who survived the Holocaust': no one was talking about just any layman who survived.

This was about a mega-community leader with many 1000's of followers, who rigidly clung to his stance against the Zionist state, basically preaching that staying in Godforsaken Europe with its abysmal record vis-a-vis the Jews, with all the rumblings of worse to come, with WWII around the corner---was still preferable to living in a Jewish state run by secular Zionists.

And then he allowed himself to be rescued, rather than staying with all those whose potential escape he had ruled out.

Maybe we shouldn't judge the Satmar Rebbe---I've no doubt he suffered great anguish on his own---and I can certainly believe he thought he was doing the right thing, that at that point the pitiful remnants who made it to America would need his leadership, etc. Maybe he was even correct on that point--he certainly helped rebuild Jewry in the US.

But we are are not required, by halacha or conscience, to applaud or whitewash every collossal error in judgement by gedolim. The attitude that rabbis are infallible has led to quite a few shameful chapters in our recent history.