ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Torah and State (Chapter 6)


Elul 4, 5772 * August 22, 2012


Torah and State

Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah's sake alone, merits many things.... From him, people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and power.... The Torah grants him kingship, dominion, and jurisprudence....

-Ethic of the Fathers, 6:1

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Much debate and polemic have been expended on the issue of ``the separation of powers'': how much power can "safely" be vested in a single individual or institution? In particular, much has been said, written and litigated on the relationship between religion and state. Should religious authorities be allowed to govern or judge, or, for that matter, be allowed any venue of political influence at all?

To the Jew who regards the Torah as G-d's blueprint for creation, Torah is the ultimate authority in all areas of life. Yet should the role of Torah scholar be coupled with that of political ruler? Should those qualified to teach the Torah and interpret its laws also be the ones to formulate traffic regulations, levy taxes, punish criminals and manage the economy?

Decline of the Generations, and a look to the Future

The first chapter of the Ethics summarizes the "chain of tradition," the succession of leaders in whose hands lay the supreme authority for interpreting Torah and transmitting it to the next generation:

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua [transmitted it] to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.... Shimon the Just was the surviving member of the Great assembly.... Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Just.... Yose the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah and Yose the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem received the tradition from them.... Joshua the son of Prachia and Nitai of Arbel received the tradition from them...."

An examination of the roles of these Torah leaders reveals a progressive fragmentation of authority. Moses, aside from his role as teacher of Torah, was also king, general, judge and provider to the Jewish people: he reigned over them (Deuteronomy 33:5), led them in battle (Deuteronomy 3), mediated their petty disputes (Exodus 18), and provided them with food, water and shelter during their 40-year sojourn in the Sinai desert (Exodus 15-16, Numbers 11:11-13 and 20:11 ). Joshua, who was the next link in the chain of Torah's transmission, was likewise both teacher and king, both spiritual master and military commander-in-chief. The same was true of the "Judges" who governed Israel following Joshua, and of King David.

But, in later generations, we find a division of roles to be the norm: the prophet as the leading moral authority and the king as manager of the nation's material affairs. Furthermore, following the era of the Great Assembly (4th century B.C.E.) we find a "separation of powers" existing within the Torah leadership itself: each generation had a pair of spiritual authorities - the Nassi and the Av Bet-Din.

Which is the Torah's ideal? The entire history of humanity is a prelude to the era of Moshiach, the result of close to six millennia of man's developing and bringing to light the inherent goodness and perfection of his world. The world of Moshiach is a world free of hate, jealousy and suffering, a world suffused with wisdom, a world in harmony with itself and its Creator. And what model of leadership does the Torah envision for this perfect world? Moshiach, the world leader who will herald and preside over this climatic era, is described as both teacher and king, a paragon of spiritual and material leadership in one.

So the example of Moses represents the Torah's concept of the perfect leader. For Moses embodied the ultimate criterion for leadership: an utter self-effacement and a complete absence of self-interest. As the Torah attests: "And the man, Moses, was the most humble man on the face of the earth." In such a man, absolute authority only ensures the optimum integration and harmony between all areas of communal life. For it is not power that corrupts, but the ego of the powerful. Only in lesser generations, whose leaders' selflessness is not on the level exemplified by Moses, is it necessary for authority to be fragmented and shared.

But the halving of life into ``spiritual'' and ``material'' spheres, its compartmentalization into ``moral'' and ``political'' domains, is an artificial one. Life, in its entirety, is a single endeavor: the development of the perfect world that G-d envisioned at creation and outlined in the Torah. The many ``areas'' of life are but the many facets to its singular essence.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: ``And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.''
(Sanhedrin, 11:1)

Chapter Six

1. The sages expounded in the language of the Mishnah (blessed is He who chose them and their learning):
Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah's sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of G-d, lover of humanity, rejoicer of G-d, rejoicer of humanity. The Torah enclothes him with humility and awe; makes him fit to be righteous, a chassid, correct and faithful; distances him from sin and brings him close to merit. From him, people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and power, as is stated, ``Mine are counsel and wisdom, I am understanding, mine is power.'' The Torah grants him sovereignty, dominion, and jurisprudence. The Torah's secrets are revealed to him, and he becomes as an ever-increasing wellspring and as an unceasing river. He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults. The Torah uplifts him and makes him greater than all creations.

2. Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: ``Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.'' For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated ``A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.'' And it says: ``And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d's writing, engraved on the tablets'' ; read not ``engraved'' (charut) but ``liberty'' (chairut)---for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, ``And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.''

3. One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect. For so we find with David, king of Israel, who did not learn anything from Achitofel except for two things alone, yet he called him his ``master,'' his ``guide'' and his ``intimate,'' as is stated, ``And you are a man of my worth, my guide and intimate friend.'' Surely we can infer a fortiori: if David, king of Israel, who learned nothing from Achitofel except for two things alone, nevertheless referred to him as his master, guide and intimate, it certainly goes without saying that one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter, is obligated to revere him. And there is no reverence but Torah, as is stated ``The sages shall inherit honor'' ``and the integral shall inherit good'' ; and there is no good but Torah, as is stated, ``I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it.''

4. Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah. If so you do, ``fortunate are you, and good is to you'' : fortunate are you in this world, and it is good to you in the World To Come.

5. Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.

6. Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, awe, fear, humility, joy, purity, serving the sages, companionship with one's contemporaries, debating with one's students, tranquility, study of the scriptures, study of the Mishnah, minimizing engagement in business, minimizing socialization, minimizing pleasure, minimizing sleep, minimizing talk, minimizing gaiety, slowness to anger, good heartedness, faith in the sages, acceptance of suffering, knowing one's place, satisfaction with one's lot, qualifying one's words, not taking credit for oneself, likableness, love of G-d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, fleeing from honor, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, participating in the burden of one's fellow, judging him to the side of merit, correcting him, bringing him to a peaceful resolution [of his disputes], deliberation in study, asking and answering, listening and illuminating, learning in order to teach, learning in order to observe, wising one's teacher, exactness in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world, as is stated, ``And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.''

7. Great is Torah, for it gives life to its observers in this world, and in the World To Come. As is stated: ``For they are life to he who finds them, and a healing to all his flesh.'' And it says: ``It shall be health to your navel, and marrow to your bones.'' And it says: ``She is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her, and happy are those who support her.'' And it says: ``For they shall be a garland of grace for your head, and necklaces about your neck.'' And it says: ``She shall give to your head a garland of grace, a crown of glory she shall grant you.'' And it says: ``With me, your days shall be increased, and years of life shall be added to you.'' And it says: ``Long days in her right hand; in her left, wealth and honor.'' And it says: ``For long days, years of life and peace, they shall add to you.''

8. Rabbi Shimon the son of Judah would say in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai: Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, sageness, old age and children are becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world. As is stated: ``Old age is a crown of beauty, to be found in the ways of righteousness.'' And it says: ``The beauty of youths is their strength, and the glory of sages is their age.'' And it says: ``The crown of sages are their grandchildren, and the beauty of children their fathers.'' And it says: ``And the moon shall be abashed and the sun shamed, for the L-rd of hosts has reigned in Zion, and before his elders is glory.''
Rabbi Shimon the son of Menasia would say: these seven qualities enumerated by the sages for the righteous were all realized in Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] and his sons.

9. Said Rabbi Yossei the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. Said he to me: ``Rabbi, where are you from?'' Said I to him: ``From a great city of sages and scholars, am I.'' Said he to me: ``Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls.'' Said I to him: ``If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah. Indeed, so is written in the book of psalms by David the king of Israel: `I prefer the Torah of Your mouth over thousands in gold and silver.' Furthermore, when a person passes from this world neither silver, nor gold, nor precious stones, nor pearls accompany him, only Torah and good deeds, as is stated, `When you go it will direct you, when you lie down it will watch over you, and when you awaken it shall be your speech.' `When you go it will direct you'---in this world; `when you lie down it will watch over you'---in the grave; `and when you awaken it shall be our speech'---in the World To Come. Also it says: `Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold, so says the L-rd of Hosts.' ''

10. G-d acquired five acquisitions in his world. These are: one acquisition is the Torah, one acquisition are the heavens and the earth, one acquisition is Abraham, one acquisition is the people of Israel, and one acquisition is the Holy Temple. The Torah, as it is written, ``G-d acquired me as the beginning of His way, before His works of yore.'' The heavens and the earth, as it is written, ``So says G-d: The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool; what house, then, can you build for Me, and where is My place of rest?'' ; and it says, ``How many are your works, O G-d, You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with Your acquisitions.'' Abraham, as it is written, ``And he blessed him, and said: Blessed be Abram to G-d Most High, acquirer of heavens and earth.'' Israel, as it is written, ``Till Your nation, O G-d, shall pass, till this nation You have acquired shall pass'' ; and it says ``To the holy who are upon earth, the noble ones, in whom is all My delight.'' The Holy Temple, as it is written, ``The base for Your dwelling that you, G-d, have achieved; the Sanctuary, O L-rd, that Your hands have established'' ; and it says ``And He brought them to His holy domain, this mount His right hand has acquired.''

11. Everything that G-d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory. As is stated: ``All that is called by My name and for My glory, I created it, formed it, also I made it.'' And it says: ``G-d shall reign forever and ever.''

Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, ``G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.''
(Makot, 3:16)


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