To what degree are public servants genuinely servants?

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At the YU Chag HaSemikhah this past Sunday, Rabbi Yosef Bronstein’s dvar Torah on behalf of the new musmkahim cited a story I was familiar with in a very different version, and I’m happy to honor the new rabbis by sharing with you what I learned from him.  I note that I spent the same evening honoring Rabbi Avi Weiss and his family by attending the YCT/Maharat dinner, and the dvar Torah below will relate to that experience as well, and to the broader question of the nature of ideal rabbinic leadership.

To what degree are public servants genuinely servants?

In a variety of famous narratives in the Mishnah and Talmud, Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh is depicted as an authoritarian ruler who brooked no dissent, especially from his colleague Rabbi Yehoshua.  A story on Horayot 10a, however, seems to creates a very different impression.

This is like the time Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua traveled on a ship.

Rabban Gamliel had bread with him; Rabbi Yehoshua had flour with him.

When Rabban Gamliel’s bread ran out, he relied on Rabbi Yehoshua’s flour.

Rabban Gamliel said to him: How did you know that we would be so delayed, that you brought flour?

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: There is a star that rises every seventy years and misdirects the sailors, and I said: Perhaps it will rise and misdirect us.

Rabban Gamliel said to him: You have all this (knowledge), and yet you travel on a ship?!

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Rather than being astonished at me, be astonished at these two students I have on dry land, Rabbi El’azar Chasma and Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgeda, who know how to measure how many drops there are in the sea, and yet they have neither bread to eat nor clothing to wear!

Rabban Gamliel intended to place team at the head (of the academy?).

When he alit, he sent to them, but they did not come; he sent to them again, and they came.

He said to them: Do you imagine that I am giving you rulership?  I am giving you servitude,

as Scripture writes: “They said to him as follows: “If today you will bea servant to this nation . . .”

כי הא דר’ גמליאל ורבי יהושע הוו אזלי בספינתא.

בהדי דר’ גמליאל הוה פיתא; בהדי רבי יהושע הוה פיתא וסולתא.

שלים פיתיה דר’ גמליאל – סמך אסולתיה דרבי יהושע.

אמר ליה: מי הוה ידעת דהוה לן עכובא כולי האי, דאיתית סולתא?

אמר ליה: כוכב אחד לשבעים שנה עולה ומתעה את (הספינות) [הספנים], ואמרתי: שמא יעלה ויתעה [אותנו].

אמר ליה: כל כך בידך ואתה עולה בספינה?

א”ל: עד שאתה תמה עלי, תמה על שני תלמידים שיש לך ביבשה, רבי אלעזר חסמא ורבי יוחנן בן גודגדא, שיודעין לשער כמה טפות יש בים, ואין להם פת לאכול ולא בגד ללבוש!

נתן דעתו להושיבם בראש.

כשעלה, שלח להם, ולא באו; חזר ושלח, ובאו.

אמר להם: כמדומין אתם ששררה אני נותן לכם? עבדות אני נותן לכם,

שנאמר: (מלכים א’ יב) “וידברו אליו לאמר: אם היום תהיה עבד לעם הזה. . .”

The psychology of the final interchange is subtle and complex.  Rabbi Yehoshua’s students, though desperately poor, refuse to come the first time they are sent for, but not the second time – even though nothing changes in between.  Rabban Gamliel deduces that they are formally expressing modesty – they do not wish to appear eager to assume power.  He rebukes them for this, saying that their gesture is mistaken – public office is a burden, not a privilege, and there is no need to pretend that one is unworthy of it.   

The irony should be evident – by treating public office as servitude, he releases them from the obligation to demonstrate that they do not see themselves as superior. 

There is another, less evident irony.  The verse Rabban Gamliel cites is excerpted from the (rejected) advice the elders give Rechav’am sone of Shlomoh when he assumes the Jewish monarchy.  Here is the full verse

וידברו אליו לאמר

אם היום תהיה עבד לעם הזה

ועבדתם ועניתם ודברת אליהם דברים טובים

והיו לך עבדים כל הימים:

They said to him as follows:

If today you will bea servant to this nation

and serve them and respond them and speak positive words to them

then they will be servants to you for all time.

The advice the elders give is tactical – behave like a servant (at least at the outset, bow to public opinion) so that they willingly become your servants.  This seems to be exactly what Rabbi Yehoshua’s students are trying to do!

My very tentative thought is that Rabban Gamliel’s reaction is an extension of their gesture – saying that public office is servitude is also a necessary ritual performance of modesty, and his apparent reproof was actually endorsing and reinforcing the principle behind their behavior.  But underlying all the professed modesty is a clear belief that the community must in the end be led, not followed. 

Now here is the version of the story Rabbi Bronstein cited, from Sifrei Devarim 16:

“At that time, as follows” (Devarim 1:16) –

yesterday you were under your own authority, but now you are servants subordinated to the community.

A story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri and Rabbi El’azar Chasma

that Rabban Gamliel set them down (at the head) in the Yeshiva but the students paid no attention to them

Toward evening they went and sat among the students.

This was the nature of Rabban Gamliel.

When said “Ask!” upon entering , it was evident that no rebuke was coming

When he did not say “Ask!” upon entering it was evident that a rebuke was coming.

He entered and found Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri and Rabbi El’azar Chasma seating themselves among the students.

He said to them:  “Yochanan ben Nuri and El’azar Chasma! 

You have done wrong to the community by not seeking to assume rulership over them.

Yesterday you were under your own authority

From now on you are servants, subordinated to the community.”

“בעת ההיא לאמר” –  

לשעבר הייתם ברשות עצמכם; עכשיו הרי אתם עבדים משועבדים לצבור.

מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן נורי וברבי אלעזר חסמא

שהושיבם רבן גמליאל בישיבה ולא הרגישו בהם התלמידים

לעתותי ערב הלכו וישבו להם אצל התלמידים

וכך היתה מדתו של רבן גמליאל

כשהיה נכנס ואומר שאלו בידוע שאין שם קנתור

כשהיה נכנס ולא היה אומר שאלו בידוע שיש שם קנתור

נכנס ומצא את רבי יוחנן בן נורי ואת רבי אלעזר חסמא שישבו להם אצל התלמידים

אמר להם: יוחנן בן נורי ואלעזר חסמא!

הרעתם לצבורשאי אתם מבקשים לעשות שררה על הצבור

לשעבר הייתם ברשות עצמכם

מכאן ואילך הרי אתם עבדים משועבדים לצבור.

In this version Rabban Gamliel genuinely rebukes them, as their failure to assume authority was genuine rather than symbolic, and occurred after they had already been appointed.  The willingness to rule is the beginning of service.

Here is my best-for-now formulation of this semi-paradox.  Public office, or rabbinic office, involves subordinating personal ends to those of the community, while at the same time taking responsibility for means and exerting every effort to make sure that the community properly identifies its own best ends.

One can err in both directions.  One can, for example, mistake one’s own ends for those of the community – l’Torah c’est moi.  One can also mistakenly believe that the legal meaning of Torah is determined entirely by the majority vote of its lay constituency, to which scholars must humbly bow, or even by the majority vote of a particular self-organizing lay constituency.

In the end there are no easy formulae for effective religious leadership.  Each Torah scholar, and perhaps each Torah institution, must find their own balance between authority and servitude.  Perhaps the key is to never stop taking each aspect with great seriousness.








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