Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dedicated to the achievement of peace in our homeland

Chapter 6, Mishna 6, Introduction The 48 Ways

- Introduction"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquiredwith 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah isacquired with 48 ways...."This mishna lists the 48 skills or qualities needed to "acquire" theTorah.

This list is commonly referred to as the "48 Ways" and serves asthe basis for a popular audiocassette lecture series given by R. Noach Weinberg.

The tapes are replete with the wit, wisdom andprofundity of Judaism, and may be appreciated by Jews of all backgroundsand levels.
I did not quote the mishna in its entirety because of its great length.
Rather, we will quote and discuss a couple of qualities each week. Each quality is separate and distinct, and easily deserves a lecture of itsown. We will G-d willing spend a number of months on this mishna alone.
This week's lecture will serve primarily as an introduction to our series.

Our mishna considers

Torah superior to both kingship and priesthoodbecause of the greater number of qualities of the Torah scholar. Our mishna does not list the qualities of the other positions, as they are notour mishna's focus. Various such lists are found elsewhere in Jewish writings, though in far more obscure places. There is also a more general distinction between the qualities of theother individuals and those of the Torah scholar. The qualities of kingship are not particularly "religious" or ethical. Many stem from the respect and awe we must have for a king. For example, the commentators list such "qualities" as: he may not be put on trial or forced to testify (the common and often-resented policy of presidential immunity -- ideally, the king should not be the sort who has behavior which requires defending); no one (save another king) may marry his widow; none may siton his throne, see him in the bathhouse, etc. Some of his qualities relate to the public good and reflect the nature of his position rather than hisperson. Thus, the king may recruit citizens for public (or personal) service and may confiscate land for his own use (right of eminent domain). Some of his qualities are based on genealogical considerations: he must bea full-fledged Jew and not a slave, bastard or convert. Only a few a rereligious in nature -- to ensure that his position not corrupt him: He may not accumulate unnecessary riches, and he must carry a Torah scroll wherever he goes. Thus, for the most part, the defining qualities of a king are not merit-based. This is not to say that a king is not meritorious -- or that he wasnot selected from Israel's finest citizens. (Throughout Scriptures, kings, or at least dynasties, were appointed on Divine instruction.)

However, once appointed, the Torah's primary concern is that the king's honor -- as well as the honor of his country -- be upheld. Priesthood is not very different. The status is inherited and is their revocable right as well as obligation of anyone descended from Aaron the High Priest. The qualities listed are almost all physical or otherwise superficial. They relate to the clothes he must wear, how he must groom himself, whom he may marry, and the physical blemishes he must not have (to serve in the Temple). Here the Torah's concern is more that the Temple service be performed by individuals who are physically whole and presentable -- rather than that it be performed by the most pious or scholarly. This concept is in itself intriguing, being that Judaism otherwise does not place much stock on looks, strength or outward appearance (if the restof the world does). What difference does it make to G-d if a person istaller or more handsome? Are shorter people somehow less important in G-d's eyes? ("For thus says the high and lofty One, ... I dwell on high...yet am with the oppressed and lowly of spirit" (Isaiah 57:15).) Since when does Judaism rate people based on physical features?

Furthermore, the Talmud reflects the type of values we would expect from a religion of the spirit: "A bastard Torah scholar takes precedence over a High Priest ignoramus" (Mishna Horiyos 3:8). Yet, then again, a bastard, no matter how learned, cannot marry a full-fledged Jewess, whereas the High Priest may only marry a Jewish virgin of established lineage. So whyis it that priests, whether learned or not, are accorded this superior status at birth? Where is the room for this aristocracy or super classwithin the Jewish hierarchy? The answer is that priests are superior to other Jews in this one regard:their bodies are sacred. This is again an unusual concept in Judaism. Wethink of ourselves as a people of the spirit. But the Temple -- where the priests serve -- reflects a sacred and special haven in Jewish thought, a throwback to the Garden of Eden. It is a place in which we achieve*physical* closeness to G-d. G-d's Divine Presence, so to speak, dwells inthe Temple. (Of course in a sense, G-d is everywhere, but His Presenceis "concentrated" and more readily apparent in the Temple.) Thus, theTemple is a place of closeness reminiscent of man's sojourn in the Gardenof Eden. And it also resembles the ultimate closeness to G-d we will achieve at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead. There is a level of sanctity not even known to the souls of the World to Come. It is thecloseness to G-d we will achieve with the sacred but physical bodies wewill be granted at the time of the Resurrection. Anyway, without dwelling too heavily on such little known and poorly understood topics, priests too must be physically perfect -- and worthy ofbeing physically close to G-d in the Temple. Their service is a morephysical one. They offer G-d animal sacrifices on the altar, somehow creating a "sweet savor" unto the L-rd (Exodus 29:41). (Yet another discussion we won't get into just now.) Similarly, the Talmud tells usthat the priests eat their portion of the sacrifices, and their physical enjoyment effects atonement for the offerer (Pesachim 59b). The concept isnot fully understood to us, but to physically stand before G-d, one must be physically whole -- i.e., his spiritual sanctity must be reflected inthe physical realm as well. And such close and intimate Divine service brings pleasure to G-d -- and good will towards man -- in ways we accept more than we understand. Yet the Sages make it clear that this is only a part of the picture. Whenthey tell us that a bastard scholar is superior to a High Priest ignoramus, they are in essence telling us that the human body can neverstand on its own. An unlearned priest, with his "sacred" body, has nointrinsic value. If he possesses a wise and understanding soul as well, heis holy through and through. If his value is physical alone, it is worthless in the presence of a sensitive and refined soul housed in a broken or defiled body. This brings us to the 48 Ways of our mishna. Priests and kings areaccorded a special status in the Torah. They, by virtue of their birth orheritage, relate to G-d in their own unique way -- and Jewish law reflects this. But Torah study is different in kind. It is not a birthright or inheritance -- nor does it necessarily enhance the social standing of itsbearer. It is available to all and is entirely in the hands of each of us to acquire. It doesn't matter how ignorant -- or learned -- your father was. No one else can earn the crown of Torah for you, yet neither is it denied from anyone who is willing to commit to it. Not one of the 48 Ways relates to lineage, upbringing or personal history. Though the world hasnever been perfect, rabbinics and scholarship has essentially been a meritocracy. R. Akiva, great scholar of the Mishna, was unlearned until 40. Shemaya and Avtalyon (earlier, 1:10) were descended from converts.

Hillel (1:12-14) was dirt poor as a young man. And when we study this mishna with open and impartial eyes, we will see that there is nothing init that we cannot both understand and apply to our lives. As the Talmud (paraphrased) puts it: The crown of priesthood Aaron merited to take. The crown of kingship David merited to take. The crown of Torah is still inits place. Whoever wants to take it, let him come and take (Yoma 72b).