Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Learning League

There's a gemara that says it is the duty of every Jew (by which it means men, of course) to learn Torah. It runs through excuses that people might offer after death to the Heavenly Court, and counters them with examples of people who overcame those problems.

To the poor person who says he had no time to learn because he had to support his family, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Hillel, who spent half of the small coin he earned each day to enter the Beis Medrash, and supported his family on the other half.

To the rich man who says he had no time to learn because he had to look after his business, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Rabbi Elazar, who had a thousand ships but never saw them because he was busy learning.

To the person who says he was too wrapped up in the pleasures the world has to offer, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Yosef, who was tempted daily by Potiphar's wife and didn't succumb.

Let's leave aside the unfortunate implications of these stories: that Hillel let his children go hungry so that he could go learn, that no hard work is necessary to be successful, and that all people have similar experiences of temptation.

My first thought when I came across the above today was that this was silly. These weren't real people. They were legendary and mythical figures. Maybe a real person had been the seed of the story, but these versions of them weren't real. This gemara was little different than  saying that anyone can be a crime fighting vigilante hero.

To the person who says that childhood trauma prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Bruce Wayne, who fights crime as Batman even though he lost his parents at a young age.

To the person who says that a fear of hurting people prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Clark Kent, who fights crime as Superman even though he has to constantly take care that his super strength doesn't destroy everything around him.

To the person who says that he is too young to fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Peter Parker, who started fighting crime as Spiderman while still in high school.

And then I realized that there's no going back. Even if I were convinced tomorrow that God is real and Judaism is the way He wants us to live, I would still see the figures the gemara cites as legends and myths. Once your perspective changes, and you see these stories for what they are, you can't unsee it. They might be inspiring, in the same way some people might find Superman inspiring, but they're not real.


  1. Nice post, but I think you can precisely do that. You *can* use mythical (or nowadays fictional) characters for inspiration. Many do. So it's not really a question, more of an observation. The point is not that we all have identical experiences. Nor even what happens after we die (wen it's too late to do anything about it anyway). Rather examples of people one can take inspiration from under certain circumstances. For that purpose the historicity of the hero hardly matters.

    Just to be clear, I am not necessarily concurring with your assumption that all the people or stories mentioned are ahistorical (and certainly not implying that the Gemorah didn't take these to be historical). I'm merely pointing out that their historicity is hardly essential to the point the Gemorais making.

    1. The gemara is not looking to these characters for inspiration. At least, that's not how I took it. It seems more, "If this guy could do it under these extreme circumstances, than so can you. You weren't as poor as Hillel, or as rich as R' Elazar, so you have no excuse." It's accusatory, not inspirational.

    2. And even if they were historical, the accusation is still unfair. If someone accuses me of not fulfilling my potential, seeing as whatsisname won a noble prize at a much younger age, and in much harder conditions than me, and I still haven't even been nominated, we would consider it a ridiculous accusation.

      Similarly, we all have different abilities, and to say that x isn't an excuse not to learn, seeing as y had exactly the same challenges, but still managed to learn, is no accusation at all. I'm different to him, he could do it, I couldn't.

    3. "At least that's not how i took it"

      Sounds like a straw man to me.

      And to Yavoy. Again this is your interpretation. But if you see it as examples of who you can take inspiration from then it makes perfect sense. A bit like telling kids in the US that George Washington couldn't tell a lie or similar. This is aggadeta so of course the language is hyperbolic. You are reading it with such a narrow interpretation and then bashing it. Again a straw man.

    4. Not a straw man when you consider the ubiquitous assurance that each person will be judged according to his abilities and circumstances, not according to what others have done. Having gone to a Bais Yaakov, where gemara is taught in snippets only and half the time"maamarei chazal" are taught with no source given, I can't say where that's from. But it directly contradicts this Gemara quoted in the post.