Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Psalm 125: Judging Scholars Favorably

In these times of confusion, when our leaders on all fronts - national, religious and otherwise - have let us down in many ways, we must realise that it is our right and duty to criticise their actions if we see that they are false. However, we must also be careful how we do this, and to make sure that we do so in accordance with Halacha.

Psalm 125: Judging Scholars Favorably


This brief "song of ascents" speaks of God's special protection of His people. Like the ring of mountains protecting Jerusalem, God guards and watches over us. The chapter concludes with a short prayer:
"May God benefit those who are good and upright in their hearts. But those who turn to their crooked ways - God will lead them away, together with the doers of iniquity. May there be peace upon Israel." [Ps. 125:4-5]


Making Others Crooked

The above translation is not completely faithful to the original Hebrew. The word ha-matim ('those who turn') is in the Hif'il (causative) tense. This verb form indicates that the evil are turning others to their crooked ways. Who are their victims? Clearly, those mentioned in the previous verse - "those who are good and upright in their hearts."

According to the Talmud, they do not so much mislead the righteous as ascribe to them their own unscrupulous traits.

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: whoever makes derogatory remarks about Torah scholars after their death will be cast into Gehinnom. Even at a time when 'there is peace upon Israel,' 'God will lead them away with the doers of iniquity.'" [Brachot 19a]

Belittling others is wrong, and belittling Torah scholars is worse. But does it warrant such a harsh verdict?

Respecting Scholars

The Torah's command, "Judge your neighbor fairly" [Lev. 19:15], is not only for those who work officially as judges. We are all judges; we are constantly passing judgment on other people. It is an important ethical principle that we should look for the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt [Avot 1:6].

Judging favorably is especially important with regard to Torah scholars. The Sages wrote that one who ridicules his rabbis will find it difficult to repent. What makes this particular offense so hard to correct? Maimonides gave a very simple and practical reason: if one does not respect his rabbis and teachers, from whom will he be able to learn? [Hilchot Teshuva 4:2] Such a person is left without any ethical moorings. He has no role models to respect and emulate, no moral teachings that he truly identifies with. As the Talmud cautions, he is doomed to share the lot of 'doers of iniquity.'

Respecting their Teachings

Interestingly, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explained the verse as referring to one who denigrates scholars posthumously. This reading of the verse apparently stems from the similarity between the words ha-matim ('those who turn') and mitatan ('their death bier').

The emphasis on honoring scholars even after their passing indicates that we should respect not only the scholars themselves, but also that which carries on after their death - their sayings and teachings. This idea is already mentioned by Maimonides in his Guide to Perplexed [3:14]: the trait of giving the benefit of the doubt also applies to the writings of the sages. Even that which appears to be illogical or inaccurate, deeper examination will uncover profound and inspiring ideas. With this attitude of intellectual humility, the holy words of these truly wise men will illuminate our lives.

The psalm concludes with a short prayer, "May there be peace upon Israel." The inclusion of this phrase becomes clearer in light of the Talmudic exegesis on the verse. There are difficult periods for the Jewish people - times when corruption and immorality are rampant, times when the destructive influences of materialism and hedonism take their toll. And there are times of peace - times when the spiritual level of the people is strong. But an individual who has grown accustomed to belittling Torah scholars and their teachings will always be subject to moral decay. Even when there is peace in Israel, even when the people enjoy an elevated moral state, his lot will be with the crooked and the incorrigible.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I pp. 94-95]

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