Menashe Bleiweiss is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus, Class III. He is a rebbe in Derech, a division of Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, a licensed tour guide, and directs a tour guide training program at Machon Lander. He lives with his wife and eight children in Telzstone, near Jerusalem. Menashe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pluralists tend to feel alienated by the many hierarchies in Torah and Jewish law. They prefer to level the field to one that’s status-free, classless, and on an equalizing first-name basis.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (“Defining Deviancy Up,” American Scholar, Winter, 1993), noticed how the pluralist culture often forgives criminals if they come from poor socio-economic backgrounds – why blame them if society created their disadvantaged reality? Charles Krauthammer soon afterwards (“Defining Deviancy Down,” The New Republic, November 22, 1993) observed how the same culture routinely scrutinized leaders and role models to the point that “the normal must be found deviant.” With thugs elevated, and icons diminished, the mass of humanity is stranded somewhere in the middle, neither especially culpable nor all that exemplary.
In Greek mythology too, gods behave like flawed humans. Zeus has countless extramarital affairs. He and his son, Ares, kill millions. Athena turns Arachnia into a spider. Dionysius is a lush. If this is how the gods act, people can’t be expected to do much better. The Greeks, much like their ideological descendants, secular pluralists, provide a moral universe conveniently devoid of guilt.
In Torah, people strive to be like Hashem: He’s gracious, compassionate, holy; we should be too (Hilchos Deos 1:5). Those who succeed emerge on a higher level than those who don’t. Hierarchies are built into the system.
I struggled recently trying to transmit these ideas to assimilated Jewish audiences. One group resisted the idea that, in Heaven, Metatron the angel inscribes separate books for the righteous, for the mediocre, and for the wicked (Chagiga 15a). Another was appalled at how these hierarchies play out in the practical daily life of observant Jews, as children stand when their parents enter the room, students rise for their teachers, and the Cohen gets called to the Torah first.
A startling area of Jewish law reinforces these divisions. A Torah scholar and his wife (the Talmud assumes that only men are scholars, an assumption that requires a separate discussion) are entitled to preferential treatment (Gittin 59b, Moed Katan 28b), from who gets to speak first at a gathering, to who’s served the nicest portions at a meal, to who can get an immediate appointment at the specialist with an otherwise 2-year waiting list. If there’s a line in the grocery store, post office, or hair-stylist, the scholar or his wife can cut to the front, assuming everybody present keeps Jewish law. The act is not presumptuous since it enables the others present to perform a mitzvah. If they know others there will not react respectfully, they should not even mention their status. They can also at any time waive their right to receive honor (Kiddushin 32a).
The scholar in these cases is defined as one who understands most of the Talmud and its commentaries, and is able to discuss its contents intelligently and fluently (Rama, YD 243:2), which means the status is relatively uncommon. Certainly most who brandish the title, “rabbi,” today do not qualify according to these terms.
Relative wisdom and righteousness also impact status. If more than five dine together, they wash hands (“mayim achronim”) before the final blessing in ascending order of wisdom. Since after washing one doesn’t speak before the final blessing, the result is those who know the most can trade words of Torah for the longest period of time (Brachos 46b). Everyone present is apparently aware of his Torah worth compared with others and can be ranked accordingly.
The idea of hierarchy is not meant to promote elitism, although distortion is always possible. Hierarchies are meant to inspire. If people acknowledged as righteous and learned can achieve their position at the top, through diligence and rigorous self-refinement, maybe I can reach their level too.
Torah provides standards of right and wrong, and every individual has a distinct role to play in perfecting the world. Some objectively rise to the challenge more than others. That’s what I explained to the groups I met. It was a paradigm shift for most, but some were receptive.
I was schmoozing with Mrs. Bleiweiss the other day – actually we’ve been on a first-name basis for some time now. We’ve lived in religious communities for over twenty years, and have noticed something unexpected. You’d think that such a rigid hierarchical system would generate arrogance and exclusivity. We’ve found the opposite. Because the prerequisite for righteousness is genuine humility, the lower levels on the pyramid come to emulate people of modesty and warmth, whose goal is not to ‘rise in the ranks,’ but simply to keep mitzvos and give to others without thought of personal gain. Status is an afterthought, a natural result of ongoing growth, never consciously sought. If that’s true for the higher levels in the hierarchy, it clearly remains an achievable goal for anyone willing to invest in the process.