INSIGHT

5767 - #16

KAVOD HARAV

T.B. Kiddushin 32a presents a disagreement on whether a rav, a Torah teacher or Torah scholar, can relinquish or waive the honour due to Torah knowledge. The essential question of this disagreement would seem to be whether this Torah knowledge is deemed to be this person’s possession, i.e. part of the person, or not. If one’s Torah knowledge is part of a person, one would be deemed to have some dominion over it and thus can waive the honour that is due. If it is not deemed to be part of the person but rather the Torah knowledge that one possesses is deemed to be part of the abstract concept of impersonal Torah, one would not have the right to waive the honour due to this knowledge. The reason for this is straightforward. In honouring such a person, one is not deemed to be honouring this person but rather the Torah or, phrased differently, the office of the Torah scholar. In stating that a rav cannot waive this honour, one is stating that one’s Torah knowledge is distinct from the person. In stating that one can waive this honour, one is stating that Torah knowledge is irrevocably integrated in the very being of a person and that one cannot separate the Torah and the person. The result is that the person is due this honour because of the Torah knowledge that permeates within; yet the result is that, since one as a person should have some control over the dynamics of personal relating, a rav, to some extent,1 must also maintain the right to waive this honour. Thus, because we believe that Torah knowledge affects our very being and the very person of the Torah scholar is different because of Torah knowledge, the Torah scholar can relinquish this honour.

            In defending the position that a Torah teacher can relinquish this honour, the gemara quotes, as proof, Shemot 13:21 which states that when, upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish nation traveled in the desert, God went before them. This act of Hashem is deemed to reflect Him relinquishing His honour, implying, as such, that, similarly, a rav can relinquish his honour.2 Torah Temima, Shemot 13: 21, note 76 presents, what he defines as a slight problem, in regard to this comparison. Why do we say that this teaches us that a Torah teacher can relinquish his honour? God is also the King of kings: would this not teach us that a king, also, is allowed to relinquish his honour, which, in fact, is not the case?3 Basically, the Torah Temima’s question is: why is God compared, in this case, to the Torah teacher? In fact, God’s actions in this case actually seem more comparable to a king.

Commentators actually do make this comparison. Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, for example, compares God’s actions to a king who leads his two sons, by torch, to show them the way.4 Torah Shelaima, Shemot 13:21, notes 289-291 presents one possible way of sidestepping the question by referring to the many commentators that understand this verse as applying to an angel rather than God Himself. The gemara can thus be understood as comparing the honour due an angel, a servant of the King, to the honour due a Torah teacher.5 The Torah Shelaima also presents the idea that the gemara knew it could only apply this idea to the honour due a Torah teacher and not that due a king for a king’s honour cannot be waived. Since the verse is teaching us that God can waive His honour, it must be referring to the honour due as Teacher of Torah. Still, how does a concept of God as Torah Teacher connect to the verse?

Torah Temima answers his question by simply referring to the inverted case. T.B. Pesachim 108a states that the awe for one’s teacher should be like the awe one has for Heaven.6 In the generic sense, the honour due our designated Torah teacher (which applies, to some extent, as a model for how we should relate to all Torah scholars), is compared to the honour due Heaven. As such, whenever we refer to the honour or awe due God, it is, in essence, of a similar nature to the honour and awe we have for the Torah scholar. This verse refers to the honour due God; basically, if stated generically, this is to be compared in the human realm to the honour due Torah teachers and scholars. This is why the gemara applies this idea to kavod harav, the honour due the Torah teacher. Perhaps, though, this also should indicate to us the nature of our basic relationship with God. God went, halach, before us; He is Our Teacher.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Notes

(1)  I have added the words “to some extent” for, while the psak halacha is that a rav can relinquish this honour (see, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 242:32), as evidenced by the further discussion in this very gemara, the decision to do so must consider the effect on the respect for Torah. Thus, even when a rav is mochel, relinquishes this honour, some level of honour may still be appropriate. On a personal note, it is always sad to read critiques of Torah scholars who are portrayed as haughty because they demanded honour. While one can waive one’s honour due to Torah, in determining the appropriateness of such a decision, a rav must consider whether the importance of Torah knowledge and its effect on a person is thereby, through this relinquishing of respect, not imparted to an individual. Who we respect describes what we value. To assume that a Torah scholar who demands respect is simply haughty reflects a lack of recognition of the importance of Torah knowledge and its affect on a person. To honour a Torah scholar is to declare that one recognizes the distinction of Torah knowledge. For many Torah scholars, it is one of the burdens of their position that they must, in various circumstances, demand respect even though they personally have no interest or desire for it, because thereby they are teaching respect for Torah knowledge. It is only doubly painful to then hear people critique such a decision as a result of haughtiness.
(2) 
We may wonder why God going before them in the desert reflects God relinquishing his honour. I did not see a commentator that directly dealt with this question. In fact, it could be argued that God was simply acting as Leader in going before them. One possible solution may be that the verse is actually indicating that God was serving the nation by directing them through the cloud and lighting the way through the pillar of fire. To do so, to serve the nation, would imply that He was relinquishing His honour.
(3) 
See, T.B. Kiddushin 32b.
(4) When asked why he is doing this rather than assigning a servant to carry the torch, the king replies that he wishes to show the world how cherished his children are to him. Similarly, God, wished to show how special Israel is to Him.
(5) 
An ensuing debate would thus be whether the honour due to a servant or officer of a king has some connection to the person or whether this honour is totally connected to the king
(6) Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:1 quotes this statement in support of his contention that there is no greater honour (in the human realm) than the honour due one’s Torah teacher.

(c) Nishma, 2007.


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2006 NISHMA