"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways...."
This mishna lists the 48 skills or qualities needed to "acquire" the Torah. This list is commonly referred to as the "48 Ways" and serves as the basis for a popular lecture series given by R. Noach Weinberg OBM, the founder and past rosh yeshiva (dean) of Yeshiva Aish HaTorah (http://www.aish.com). The lectures are replete with the wit, wisdom and profundity of Judaism, and may be appreciated by Jews of all backgrounds and levels.(See http://www.aish.com/sp/48w/ for the written versions, http://www.aishaudio.com for the audio.)
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 its own. We will G-d willing spend a number of months on this mishna. This week's lecture will serve primarily as an introduction to our series.
Our mishna considers Torah superior to both kingship and priesthood because of the greater number of good qualities the Torah scholar must possess. Our mishna does not list the qualities of the other positions, as they are not our 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 the other 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 whose behavior requires scrutiny); no one (save another king) may marry his widow; none may sit on his throne, see him in the bathhouse, etc.
Likewise, some of the king's qualities relate more to the public interest and reflect the nature of his position rather than his person. 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 be a full-fledged Jew and not a slave, bastard or convert. Only a few are specifically religious in nature -- to ensure that his position not corrupt him, such as that he may not accumulate unnecessary riches, and he must carry a miniature 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 was not selected from Israel's finest citizens. (Throughout Scripture, 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 the irrevocable 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 they must wear, how they must groom themselves, whom they may marry, and the physical blemishes they must not have (to qualify 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 saintly 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 rest of the world does). What difference does it make to G-d if a person is taller 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 why is it that priests, whether learned or not, are accorded this superior status at birth? Where is the room for this aristocracy or super class within 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. We think 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 in the Temple. (Of course in a sense, G-d is everywhere, but His Presence is "concentrated" and more readily apparent in the Temple.) And we, in our physical bodies, literally stand before Him. And to do so, we must be whole and unblemished, in both spirit and form.
Thus, the Temple is a place of closeness reminiscent of man's sojourn in the Garden of Eden. It likewise resembles the ultimate closeness to G-d we will achieve at the time of the Resurrection. There is a level of sanctity not even known to the souls of the World to Come. It is the closeness to G-d we will achieve with the sacred but physical bodies we will be granted at the time of the Resurrection.
Anyway, without dwelling too heavily on such little known topics, priests too must be physically perfect -- and worthy of being physically close to G-d in the Temple. Their service is a more physical 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 right now.) Similarly, the Talmud tells us that the priests eat their portion of the sacrifices, and their physical enjoyment effects atonement for the offerer (Pesachim 59b).
The concept is not fully understood to us, but to physically stand before G-d, one must be physically whole -- i.e., his spiritual sanctity must be reflected in the 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. When they tell us that a bastard scholar is superior to a High Priest ignoramus, they are in essence telling us that the human body can never stand on its own. An unlearned priest, with his "sacred" body, has no intrinsic value. If he possesses a wise and understanding soul as well, he is 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. (Based in part on a lecture heard from R. Yochanan Zweig (http://www.talmudicu.edu; www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig ).)
This brings us to the 48 Ways of our mishna. Priests and kings are accorded a special status in the Torah. They, by virtue of their birth or heritage, 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 its bearer. 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 has never been perfect, rabbinics and scholarship have essentially been a meritocracy. R. Akiva, great scholar of the Mishna, was unlearned until 40. Shemaya and Avtalyon (mentioned in Pirkei Avos 1:10) were descended from converts. Hillel (1:12-14) was dirt poor as a young man. The Talmud in fact readily admits that Torah scholars are more likely to hail from poor families than the upper crust (Nedarim 81a).
And we too, when we study this mishna with open and impartial eyes, will see that there is nothing in it 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 in its place. Whoever wants to take it, let him come and take (Yoma 72b).