Sunday, December 12, 2010

Torah Jews

This is very similar to a vort I gave a few weeks ago at kiddush at Young Israel of West Rogers Park, Chicago, on the occasion of the yortzaits of my parents, Martin (Mordechai ben Dov Ber) and Dorothy (Devorah bat Yonah Moshe) Koplow. This post is dedicated to their memory.

My mother sort of vaguely believed in Gkd; my father had little more than disdain for any sort of religiosity. They were both very menshlich people--they treated others with courtesy and respect, they were kind, they were always fair in their dealings with other people.

If you go to enough Orthodox shuls and go to enough vorts, you're going to hear people say that a relative or friend is (or was) not frum, but is (or was) a menshlich person. Why do we say "but"? We've all heard this "but" statement so often that it shouldn't come as a surprise any more. And even without having heard this vort a hundred times, we all know that the world is full of Jews (not to mention others) who are not frum and who are exemplary menshes.

(We should note, by the way, that people in the other Jewish movements talk about us the same way. "I've got this uncle who's Orthodox, but he's a very decent guy.")

So why do we Orthos say "but"? Two reasons occur to me. The first is that we believe, rightly or wrongly, that our religion denies that it's possible for a Jew to be both menshlich and nonfrum. The second reason is a social one. We're afraid that if people hear us go around saying that someone is both nonfrum and menshlich, they might doubt our orthodox Orthodoxy; we say "but" as self-protection. If that's why we do it, it's possible we're not giving each other enough credit.

In chapter 3 of Avot, we have "Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah omer, im eyn torah eyn derekh eretz, im eyn derekh eretz eyn torah"--Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah says, if there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit, if there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah. Gkd forbid I should ever be so chutzpadik as to disagree with Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah, but I will say I don't know what he's talking about.

"Derekh eretz," by the way, has several possible meanings. One of the things it can mean is a job, and the compilers of the basic bilingual ArtScroll siddur translate it that way in this context: "If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah." Tempting as it is to make fun of ArtScroll--I sometimes indulge in it myself--that reading actually is plausible in this context. The mishnah continues: If there's no wisdom there's no awe, if there's no awe, there's no wisdom; no knowledge no discernment, no discernment no knowledge; and finally, if there's no flour there's no Torah, if there's no Torah there's no knowledge. So derekh eretz, Torah, and flour all go together. Which means derekh eretz and flour--meaning sustenance--go together. A job makes as much intuitive sense here as menshlichkeit.

Nevertheless, most commentators go with menshlichkeit here. Kehati summarizes the near-consensus very well. "If there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit": One who doesn't learn Torah and doesn't serve the students of the wise is not an ethical person and doesn't have good personal qualities, and he doesn't deal fairly with other people. "If there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah": The Torah of one who doesn't have good personal qualities and treat other people appropriately is a mess, and he defiles the Torah and makes it an object of contempt.

So let's go back to the first part of that. If a person is ethical and has good personal qualities and deals fairly with other people, it follows that he learns Torah and serves the students of the wise. Which leaves us where we started. As I said earlier, I don't know what Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah is talking about.

So what do we take home from this, given that we have no clue what this means (and Gkd forbid we should say he was mistaken)? Maybe the best thing is to acknowledge our cluelessness. Maybe all the movements should be less smug about who is a Torah Jew and less contemptuous about who isn't.


Morris said...

Well since there are plenty of mitzvos around ethical behavior, you could say that it immediately follows that someone without Torah doesn't have derech eretz, by definition.

Michael Koplow said...

Morris, that follows only if Torah is the **only** source of ethical behavior. I don't think orthodoxy (small "o") requires us to believe that.

By the way, I'm not ignoring your last comment on the post on vowels. It takes some thought, and I have to look up some of the words, so I don't want to reply glibly (for once in my life).

When you do start posting on your blog, please send me a notice about your grand opening.

Michael Koplow said...

Also, do you deny the existence of Jews who are ethical and have no interest in Torah? If not, how do you explain their existence?