These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Leah's Shiur Clali

Posted on October 26, 2010 by Barer

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Here is my synopsis of Leah’s Shiur Clali from last week, with a few reflections of my own thrown in for good measure.

Trying not to get bogged down in the sources, there is a gemarah brought (Shabbat 31) that discusses metaphoric statements made by four separate rabbis on seemingly different topics that are all interpreted to be offering opinions on the same thing. All of the parables or drashot (interpretations) are discussing how to prioritize knowledge of Torah (which can be read as including all Jewish sources from the Torah onwards) and ‘fear of heaven’ i.e. piety or an awareness that god created the world and the moral and social consequents of such a realization. The first brings a verse that the rabbi interprets to mean that while the six sections of the mishna are extremely important, and confer “faith in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom, and knowledge” (Isaiah 33:6), faith in god trumps them all, and so learning – and the knowledge that comes with it – is useless without the proper relationship to god. However, in the discussion it came up that the wording is actually ambiguous, as the Hebrew word that is used to explain the value of the ‘fear of heaven’ can both mean ‘treasure’ in which case it does seem to trump knowledge, or it can mean ‘storehouse’ which leaves the value judgment much less clear. The second rabbi brings a parable advancing the same point, by saying that when one is Judged after one dies, she (that’s me, not the Talmud) is asked a series of questions about what kind of life she led, but at the end of the day if she did not have the proper ‘fear of heaven’ it was all for naught. Then the real metaphors begin, with the first one being: such a person is similar to someone asking their servant to store away the wheat (in Talmudic times) for the winter. The servant does this, but after asking the servant, the master learns that the servant didn’t add the preservative and tells the servant that it would have been better if the servant had done nothing. The discussion of which aspects of this parable referred to which showed that the point here is that ‘fear of heaven’ is a necessary preservative without which the ‘wheat’ of Torah knowledge will go bad – which is open to interpretation. Also noted during the class was that too much preservative would also spoil the wheat, so maybe too much piety would be as bad as none at all.

The third statement is another metaphor, which states that one who has knowledge but no ‘fear of heaven’ is like one who is given the keys to the inner courtyard of a castle but not the outer keys. This is also a very provocative image of the relationship between knowledge and ‘right action’ (in a religious sense) and which leads to the other. The final statement is ambiguous is a similar way to the first one. It states: ‘woe is to one who makes a gate for a courtyard, but has no courtyard.’ What is the gate, and what is the courtyard? Finally, it was interesting to me to note (something that you would never be able to pick up on without being surrounded by knowledgable teachers) that the two more ambiguous statements were from rabbis who lived in Israel during the Talmudic period, while the two clear(er) statements were from rabbis living in exile in Babylonia during the same period.

OK, now that the story is somewhat clear, I think the questions ought to at least be raised. Unfortunately, because of the length of the class, the ‘real’ discussion – from a philosophical perspective – did not get much time, and I doubt I will do better here, but hopefully it will spur further conversations. Is torah lishma, which means ‘Torah for its own sake’, or more generally, knowledge for its own sake, a good or positive thing? Is there some set of ‘ingredients’ that, when added to knowledge, will either improve the chances that the result is good or ensure said result? Does that list include religion in any form (i.e. appreciation of religions, observance of them, etc.). If not, what does that say about placing knowledge acquisition (i.e. advanced education) at the top of one’s priority list?

I think that it is helpful to keep in mind the statement “knowledge is power” in this discussion. By equating the two, the discussion becomes clearer, as I think it is much more commonly accepted that power, while able to be a ‘force for good’ can quite easily be a force for destruction as well. So too with knowledge. Shunning knowledge is also like shunning power; while one may do so to simply avoid the potential pitfalls, without either one is relatively more powerless to effect meaningful change in the world.

Beyond that rather pedestrian observation, I have to admit that much further thought is necessary before I can hope to say anything truly inspirational about the value of knowledge. I think that this is due to the fact that the culture that we live in is dominated by a fierce drive to acquire knowledge, an aspect of the culture that I have completely bought in to. It is hard to see how the ability for more people to access more information more rapidly than ever before due to technology is a bad thing, for instance – but this could quite easily be because I am too immersed in the culture to be able to see it from the outside.

P.S. I am happy to see the steady increase in the number of posts to the blog!