Torah Scholar or Apparition?
Chapter 5, Mishna 9
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Seven things apply to an uncultured person (Heb., 'golem'), and seven to
a wise person. A wise person does not speak before one who is greater than
he in wisdom or years; he does not interrupt his fellow; he does not rush to
respond; he asks relevant questions; he answers accurately; he discusses
first things first and last things last; on what he did not hear, he says 'I
did not hear;' and he admits to the truth. The opposite [of these is true]
of the golem."
This mishna compares the qualities of a wise person to that of a "golem".
The Hebrew word golem literally means an unfinished object, such as a
utensil which has been shaped but not polished. (This term is more famous
for the artificial humans created via Kabbalistic means -- who too are
not-fully-functional creatures.) Thus, our mishna is comparing the qualities
of a "finished", mature scholar to one of less advanced scholarship.
It is clear that our mishna is not defining wisdom based upon natural
ability. Our mishna does not state that the wise person is the one smarter,
quicker or possessed of a better memory. For that matter, such comparisons
would not rate very high from a Jewish perspective. IQ levels are G-d-given
and not in our hands to control. In Judaism, wisdom and accomplishment are
not measured according to natural ability -- according to what we were
handed at birth. It is measured by how well we use what we were granted.
Our mishna is thus not comparing the brighter person to the one who is what
we'd call today "challenged". It is comparing two people of equal potential.
What makes one the scholar and the other the golem? To bolster our question,
we note that Maimonides describes the golem not as not some coarse, mindless
brute (as the classical Jewish golem conjures). It is -- as we defined -- a
functional utensil, lacking only in finishing touches. The "golem" too is
studying, accomplishing, and absorbing Torah knowledge. He too no doubt sees
the depth and beauty of the Torah -- Who studies and does not? -- and
realizes that Torah study is the surest path to knowledge of and closeness
to G-d. If so, what is lacking with him?
The answer is existence.
If *I'm* learning Torah because *I* want to get closer to G-d, then the root
of my desires -- as worthy as they are -- is self-centered. On the most
fundamental level, such a person is studying for his own sake -- in order to
get something out of it. As ennobling and enriching the study of Torah is,
the element of "self" -- and of ego -- is not removed from such a person.
The true scholar, however, is one who is not looking out for himself at all.
He studies because he wants G-d's will fulfilled. He wants G-d's Torah
understood and disseminated to mankind -- and he desires to do whatever part
of that lofty mission he is able . He thus becomes a "finished" utensil: By
removing the thick shell of "self", his very innards become molded by the
Torah and refined by its teachings. The Talmud writes that Torah is acquired
only by one who makes himself "as one who is not" (Sotah 21b). If Torah
study begins with G-d, it is selfless and true. And the results are not only
a greater scholar but a "shaped" individual -- into a Torah personality.
The distinctions listed in our mishna are now clear. If *I* want to be (and
be recognized as) a great scholar, I will be anxious to get my words in
edgewise. I may speak out of turn -- before someone greater than myself. I
may be more interested in making my own insights heard than discussing the
matter at hand. Thus, my questions will be less relevant and my answers less
organized and accurate. I will certainly be loath to admit my errors or lack
of expertise -- as such admissions would serve as painful reminders that
I've fallen short of my life goal. (We scholars sometimes have the bad
habit, when faced with a question we cannot answer, of half-way changing the
subject in order to cough up something intelligent to say. I've pulled that
one off in my younger years...) ;-) Finally, such a person will easily get
overly-enthusiastic about his studies. He will rush to respond, possibly
cutting off his fellow's words.
It should be stated that the "golem" of our mishna is far from the conceited
egotist we have depicted -- we could use a lot more such. It's perfectly
natural and acceptable to become emotionally involved in one's own life
works. We all want to do well in our endeavors, and we all crave
recognition. The Talmud writes similarly: One should learn Torah even not
for the sake of Heaven (for e.g. recognition), because from insincere
motives he will come to sincere ones (Pesachim 50b). Study whatever your
reason may be (unless it is positively destructive). But keep plugging away.
Eventually G-d's Torah will work its magic on you -- and you will
unwittingly become a true person of wisdom and character.
The true scholar, however, exists on an entirely different plane. He has
entirely annulled himself to G-d's Torah and G-d's will. His goal is to
understand G-d's word alone. It is true there are precious few such people
in a generation. But they should be sought wherever they may be found. They
possess a unique perspective on Torah and connection to truth.
It was said about my teacher R. Yaakov Weinberg of blessed memory, previous
rosh yeshiva (dean) of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, that he would often be
invited to address Jewish organizations, many of whose religious outlooks
differed greatly from his own. He rarely turned down such offers -- though
the results to say the least were often contentious. (I heard from someone
who attended one such gathering that his lecture basically degenerated into
a shouting match (and I doubt he did much of the shouting).) Friends and
family asked him, why should he, leading scholar of the generation, subject
himself to such shameful treatment? Why bother with such organizations?
There aren't enough Jews who do have the proper respect for him that he has
to expose himself to such?
He responded, simply and matter-of-factly -- almost putting the questioner
to shame: It was a chance to teach Torah to fellow Jews: why *wouldn't* he
go? His poor treatment, the insult to his pride -- as well as the raised
eyebrows in other Orthodox circles at his association with such
organizations -- none of these in any way entered his consciousness. His
life mission was to spread Torah. He came to speak for truth and G-d's
Torah. No other considerations -- personal or otherwise -- would in any way
infringe upon his goal.
That was the type of man, the few of the generation, who lived, spoke, and
breathed Torah. (It is a matter of personal pride to this writer to have had
the merit of a personal relationship with him.) Such people should be sought
out and their words followed. They speak truth -- impartial and
unadulterated, and they reflect a purity and holiness of Torah knowledge so
rarely seen yet so sorely needed today.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.