Lessons from Yisro

Towards the beginning of this week’s parsha (Exodus 18:13-27), something rather interesting occurred. Yisro, who had just joined the Jewish nation, observed Moshe acting in a manner that the fromer found troubling. Moshe, as leader of the Jewish people, was personally adjudicating disputes from morning to night.

Yisro didn’t like this arrangement, thinking that it was too much work for his son-in-law. Instead, Yisro suggested, there should be various levels of leaders each of whom dealt with a relatively small group of constituents. Simple matters could be resolved on the lower levels, and only the toughest questions would be dealt with by Moshe.

Moshe followed the instructions.

I think there are two important lessons we can learn from this.

  1. People are fallible. Moshe was the greatest leader of the Jewish people and, as a prophet, was unrivaled by those who came before or after him. But he, like all human beings, was fallible. Daas Torah or no da’as torah (and you might want to argue that this incident is irrelevant to that question because it occurred before matan torah), all people do make mistakes.
  2. Sometimes you need an outsider to tell you what to do. There were 3 million people Jewish people among the Jews before Yisro came, but it was he who came up with a workable leadership structure. People often get accustomed to doing something in a certain way, which may or may not be the best way of doing it. An outsider has the benefit of being unfamiliar with precedent and is sometimes more inclined to judge procedures on their own merits. Sometimes the simple act of thinking through a problem – and not just repeating what was done yesterday – brings you most of the way to the solution.

R. Yerucham Gorelick and Talmud vs. Hashkafa

I stumbled across something rather interesting from a few years back. As reported by Marc Shapiro, Rav Yerucham Gorelick’s* son,  R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick, apparently denies that his father taught gemara at Yeshiva University. As quoted here, apparently the younger R. Gorelick wrote “מעולם לא לימד שם גמרא כלל” – he never taught Talmud there whatsoever. Instead, says R. Mordechai Leib, his father taught exclusively “hashkafa” at YU.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

It is well known to many (though probably not to the readership of the charedi publication in which his letter was published) that this is false. Despite his son’s denial, R. Gorelick did teach gemara at YU.

Why the falsehood, though?

As Shapiro notes, it is presumably because “the son is embarrassed that his father taught Talmud at YU.” What I’m not clear on is why teaching hashkafa at an inappropriate institution is less of a crime than teaching gemara there.

My kneejerk reaction was that R. Gorelick’s son’s claim was further tarnishing his father’s reputation. While Talmud study is certainly a religious act, it is also largely an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, hashkafa – essentially religious philosophy or thought – is (at least compared with Talmudic study) not considered an intellectual field of study. For a group which considers YU out of bounds, one would think that the teachers of religious philosophy wold be considered more villainous than the teachers of Talmud.

The younger R. Gorelick clearly disagreed with me and felt that he could save his father’s reputation by pretending he never taught gemara at YU.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU - Note the English "Jerome" and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU – Note the English “Jerome” and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

I’d rather not talk about R. Gorelick (either one), in particular, but to simply discuss the greater discomfiture at teaching Talmud than hashkafa at an illicit institution. I have a few thoughts:

  1. People might consider teaching Talmud to be a full-time job and teaching hashkafa to be part-time. 
  2. (Nobody thinks that Lubavitch shluchim endorse every idea of all the people with who they interact. They are doing kiruv. Were they teaching a daily gemara shiur, you might be more inclined to think that they associated with their students.) Teaching hashkafa could be considered similar to kiruv.
  3. As Shapiro mentions, R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick has some interesting views, including his feelings that “Talmud study is not for the masses, but only for the elite.” I suppose for someone who possesses both that view of Talmud study and a negative attitude to YU, teaching gemara at YU is a bad thing and teaching hashkafa at the same institution would be more tolerable.

I don’t know which side of the argument is stronger. As I said, my initial reaction was that it is more of a crime to teach hashkafa at an inappropriate institution, but I’m not so sure anymore.

*Interesting facts about R. Gorelick: He was born in 1911 in Slutsk. Two famous Jews who share this birth year with him were Jack Ruby and R. Gorelick’s longtime boss, YU President Samuel Belkin. Belkin was born in Svislach, about a two day, non-stop walk from Slutsk.