From Wall Street to Rabbinical School
Daniel Perla is a former stock analyst and money manager currently studying in the beit midrash program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He is President of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In preparation for last week’s fast day in commemoration of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz (the 17th of Tamuz), I re-read the Talmudic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin, Chapter 5). A certain man sends his servant to invite Kamtza, the man’s close friend, to a banquet. The servant mistakenly invites Bar Kamtza, the man’s enemy. The man, seeing his enemy (Bar Kamtza) eating and drinking in his home, asks him to leave. Bar Kamtza, hoping to avoid being humiliated in front of many guests, including a number of rabbis, asks to stay. He even offers to pay for his meal. The host refuses. Bar Kamtza ultimately offers to pay for the entire cost of the banquet but is again rebuffed. In the end, the host grabs him with his hand and ejects him from the banquet. The narrative notes that the rabbis fail to rebuke the host. Bar Kamtza, intent on revenge, goes to the local government head and sets in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a siege on Jerusalem.
The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is generally taught as a lesson on the perils of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). The host of the party is held culpable for Bar Kamtza’s action. But what about the complacency of the rabbis in the story? They witnessed the humiliation that was taking place but failed to take any action. In a sense, the story can be read as much as an indictment of their complacency and inaction as much as a commentary on sinat chinam.
Five years ago I found myself in a state of professional complacency and inaction. One evening, as I was reading my young son a bedtime story, he posed the following question to me. “Abba, can people change jobs”? I had been asking myself the same question for years and his question jarred me. I felt a lump in my throat as I answered him. “Yes, Benjamin,” I said. “People can switch jobs but it gets harder and harder as you get older.”
This conversation set in motion a soul-searching process which resulted in my decision last summer to leave my job as a stock analyst (and an 18-year career on Wall Street) to attend Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Open Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. The decision was, in part, spurred by the Wexner program, which underscored for me the fact that my passion for the Jewish community couldn’t be fulfilled only through lay involvement. I began to see the rabbinate as a path to greater personal fulfillment and a chance to really impact peoples’ lives. Or, as Rabbi Weiss articulated it, even as a rabbi in my forties I would still have 25 years to change the world.
Almost as soon as I shared with family and friends my decision to start rabbinical school, the comparisons to Rabbi Akiba and his wife began. After all, Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began his studies and I was 44. Akiba’s wife supported him through twelve years of learning and suffered tremendous financial burdens. My wife would be supporting me and our four young children by agreeing to continue to work as a full-time OB/GYN.
I’ve learned many things through my rabbinic studies this past year. Studying Gemara from 9 am to 1:15 pm each day is far more intense than reviewing balance sheets and income statements. The yeshiva doesn’t provide me with an office or a secretary and I miss both terribly! But for those who think that learning is divorced from the happenings of the “real world,” consider this anecdote. The stock market meltdown which began last September was driven by uncertainty in how to value a large number of illiquid securities. That September, I was studying a section of the Talmud (Makot, Chapter 1) which discusses reciprocal punishment for witnesses who give false testimony. If a witness testifies falsely that a man has divorced his wife without paying her according to the terms of her ketubah (her marriage contract), the lying witness might reasonably be expected to pay the full value of the ketubah. But the gemara explains that because the wife might die (before the husband dies or divorces her) the present value of the ketubah is worth significantly less than its ultimate face value. The gemara appears to have understood the notion of present value better than that September’s stock market did.
I have to admit that I’m still not exactly sure what my professional goals are. A pulpit rabbi? A position within a Jewish non-profit? Returning to Wall Street? I’m not sure. But the past year has been both productive and liberating and I’m looking forward to a second year of studies. The sense of complacency is gone and I’ve demonstrated to both my son and myself that people can change the direction of their lives.
By now, the Akiba jokes have mostly subsided, Still, I can’t quite escape his pale. As the Bar Kamtza story moves forward and Jerusalem is under siege, the Gemara relates the following story. There were three rich men who possessed enough food to feed the Jews in Jerusalem for 21 years and offered their resources. The gemara notes that one of them was named Ben Kalba Savua. Who was Kalba Savua? None other than Rabbi Akiba’s father-in-law!