Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart Halpern
Aristocracy in Jewish Society*
The quality and the character of a society can usually be measured by the kind of people it chooses to honor. A nation’s heroes are normally a good index of its mores. You can know a people by observing whether it esteems bull fighters or poets, cloak-and-dagger operatives or philosophers, politicians or musicians, men of wealth and success or spiritual personalities.
With this in mind, it is instructive to inquire what kind of society Judaism envisions for us and how successful we Jews have been, in practice, in conforming to this normative society and the ideals laid down for it by our faith.
At the end of the last portion, Bemidbar, we read the commandment to take the census and assign duties to the family of Kehat, of the tribe of Levi (4:2). This morning’s sidra, Naso, continues with the commandments of the census and assigns the duties to the family of Gershon.Now, it has been asked: Why is Kehat given precedence over Gershon, especially since Gershon is the firstborn? The Rabbis of the Midrash (Numbers Rabba 6:1) put it this way:
Although Gershon was the firstborn, and we find in every place that Scripture grants honor to the firstborn (kavod labekhor), due to Kehat being the one assigned to carry the ark, which contained the Torah, he was given precedence over Gershon.
We learn, therefore, that kevod haTorah is greater than kavod labekhor – that scholarship in Jewish life ranks over primogeniture.
Jewish law clearly lays down the priorities of respect and honor granted to different categories of people, and this order represents the ideal hierarchy of Jewish society. In it, primacy is given to the sage, the wise man, the scholar. Unlike Plato, the Rabbis did not place at the apex of society the Jewish version of the “philosopher-king.” They did not identify the man of intellect with the man of political authority and civic sovereignty. Rather, they gave the highest esteem to the ĥakham, the Jewish equivalent of a philosopher, and second to him was the melekh, the king.
We are taught in the Tosefta (Horayot 2:8) that the order of priority is: sage, king, high priest, prophet. These four are the heroes of Jewish society.
Consider the prophet. The reverence for him is clearly established in our tradition. Indeed, as part of the blessings over the haftara, we bless God who “chooses the Torah and Moses His servant and Israel His nation and His prophets of truth and righteousness.” Yet, the prophet remains subordinate to the other three. Why is this so? Because prophecy is a response to negative conditions. Prophecy is not, as with soothsayers or magicians in other cults, a matter of forecasting or predicting the future, but primarily its task is to reproach and reprove and rebuke the people and summon them back to God and to Torah. The prediction of future consequences is but one aspect of the prophet’s task of toĥakha, of rebuke. Hence, the whole office of
the prophet is called into being only when the people reveal profound inadequacies and failures and backslidings. That is why the Rabbis said (Nedarim 22b) that if the Israelites had not sinned, they would have had no need for any books besides the Five Books of Moses and the book of Joshua.
The next in order are king and high priest. Notice that the king comes before the high priest. Why is this so? Because Judaism does not assert a sharp dichotomy between the religious and the secular, as other faiths do. We do not believe that we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. All is God’s realm, and the king has his role to play in it. Political leadership has a “religious” function too, namely, that of establishing social peace and harmony and justice. Indeed, the priest has, as his main task, the ordering of the relationship between man and God, bein adam laMakom, whereas the king is charged with establishing proper relationships bein adam leĥaveiro. It is for this reason that the king takes precedence over the high priest.
But at the very pinnacle of the ideal Jewish hierarchy comes the sage, the ĥakham.
The Rabbis (Avot 4:13) told us of three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship. And in Avot DeRabbi Natan (1:41) we learn that one can never buy the crown of priesthood. Similarly, one can never buy the crown of royalty (although the effort has been made and it has been done – but illegitimately). Actually, both the high priesthood and kingship go from father to son. But when it comes to the crown of Torah, one not only cannot buy it, he need not pay a penny for it. It is available to whoever desires it. All one must do to seize the crown of Torah is to spend his whole life in it, to experience sleepless nights, to suffer for it, to give up all the pleasures of the world that stand in the way of acquiring greatness and wisdom of the Torah. No wonder that an illegitimate child who is a scholar precedes a high priest who is an ignoramus (Mishna Horayot 3:8)!
Of course, not all ĥokhma is creative and constructive. The Jewish tradition knows of a ĥakham lehara, or evil genius (see, for example, Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis, 25). True wisdom remains that which is based upon piety: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” (Psalms 111:10).
Not only do I refer to piety in the conventional sense, but also to any intelligence applied to the improvement of man’s life in the face of God. Thus Jeremiah told us (9:22-23):
Let not the wise man (ĥakham) glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord.
True wisdom is the imitation of God, and God’s personality is one which seeks the establishment of love and justice and righteousness in the world. Hence, any human being who uses his mind and heart and intellect and will in order to realize and implement these great qualities is a wise man. Judaism hence approves of the ĥokhma of the scientist who improves life as an act of ĥessed; the intelligence of the philanthropist and the wisdom of the jurist and the businessman or any citizen whose goal is mercy, justice, and righteousness. But, above all others is the ĥakham, the wise individual who is learned in the ways of Torah, who exposes himself to the direct message of the will of God.
Have we Jews succeeded? The answer is a fluctuating one. Generally, I believe that the answer is more positive than negative. For instance, European Jewry, especially pre-Emancipation Jewry, and the part that remained in the shtetl of Eastern Europe, as well as central Europe in some cases, was one which came close to realizing this social hierarchy of Judaism. The greatest dream of parents was not that their children become doctors or lawyers or engineers or very wealthy people, but that they become talmidei ĥakhamim. Jewish children were put to sleep in their cradles with the lullaby “Toyreh is the best seĥoyreh,” “Torah is the best reward.”
Israel today, with all its problems and its military needs, still reverences learning. Of the four presidents of Israel, the first incumbent, Chaim Weitzman, alav hashalom, and the present president, Prof. Katzir, are both men of science. The other two, Dr. Ben Zvi, alav hashalom, and that great Jew, Zalman Shazar, achieved renown in Jewish scholarship.
In the United States, we were not so fortunate. It used to be that any national Jewish organization – even Orthodoxy, or perhaps especially Orthodoxy – felt that no convention meeting could be complete without a guest speaker who was preferably wealthy, non-Jewish, and either a politician or a humorist. Organizations vie with each other in getting “name” people in the hope that by honoring them some of the honor would reflect back on themselves. But the people they chose to honor were certainly not those who could fit the prescription of the ideal Jewish structure.
Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging away from that kind of self-abnegation and unworthy attitude. A younger generation is more sophisticated, more accepting of its Jewishness, more understanding, and less sycophantic. They understand that true Judaism calls for the ĥakham to have the highest rank in the Jewish world.
At Sinai we were told that we were going to be and must be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), a people who emphasized priesthood and prophecy. Yet our special pride above all else was told to us by Moses before he died:
For this is your wisdom (ĥakhmatkhem) and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: “Surely this great nation is a wise (ĥakham) and understanding people. (Deuteronomy 4:6)
*June 9, 1973. This sermon is largely based on the ideas of the late Prof. Feivel Meltzer.