The Bare Torah: Sotah 21

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In our last post we discussed the view of Rabbi Eliezer that one who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her tiflut, frivolity. To support this assertion the Gemara quotes the proof text "I wisdom, I dwell with arma" (Mishlei 8:12). Since Ben Azzai disagrees obligating a father to teach his daughter Torah the Gemara wants to know how he interprets the verse from Mishlei. Rather than interpreting the verse as referring to those who misuse the Torah he understands it to be referring to the methodology by which we must learn Torah in the first place. He follows the interpretation of Rav Yossi son of Rav Chanina who taught; "words of Torah only remain with him who renders himself arum on their behalf; as it is said: 'I wisdom I dwell with arma" (Sotah 21b).

To begin to understand this cryptic teaching we must properly define arma. Its first usage in the Torah is in the context of nakedness. "And they [Adam and Chava] were both arumim, and were not ashamed" (Breisheet 2:25). Generally when one seeks the meaning of a word one looks to the first time it is used in the Torah as it is that first usage which defines the term. Yet fascinatingly in the very next verse the word appears again and clearly does not mean nakedness. "And the snake was arum from all the animals of the field" (Breisheet 3:1). The Targum followed by many other classic commentaries translates the word as chachim, clever or smart. We have - at least according to the Targum and Rashi - the same usage of the word when Yitzchak tells Eisav "your brother came bmirmah and he took your blessing" (Breisheet 27:35). Many others translate mirmah both by Yaakov and the snake as deceit or cunning[1]. Clearly the Torah wants us to understand arum in more than one fashion and this is how we should understand Rav Yossi's teaching.

Let us begin with Rashi. Becoming a Torah scholar requires total dedication. One must, Rashi explains, become arum, naked from all other pursuits and with single-minded focus devote oneself to Torah study. Such dedication is true of almost any endeavor in which one wants to truly excel, be it Olympic athlete, chess master, piano virtuoso or investment bank partner. We must strip away all that interferes with our overarching goal and literally meditate on Torah "day and night".

Nakedness implies much more. It means being exposed for exactly who we are -warts and all. Clothes were introduced to the world only after man sinned in the Garden of Eden. Man was now embarrassed and needed clothes to cover up the disconnect that sin caused between the physical and spiritual worlds. Torah must clothe us, distancing us from sin and inspiring us to a life of holiness.

Moreover a Torah scholar must bring the physical and spiritual worlds together. Studying the word of G-d may be a most spiritual activity but these teaching must be applied in the physical world, even, perhaps especially, to the mundane of life. The Gemara praises King David for rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty to answer the most physical and intimate of questions (Brachot 4a). Jewish law deals to a very large extent with the day to day of life.

But there is another form of nakedness that we must recognize if we are to become Torah scholars. We must approach the study of Torah naked of pre-conceived notions. We must be open to new, varying, and especially contradictory ways of looking at the same text. Without such an approach chidush, insight and innovation is not possible. Psychologists note that humans are subject to a confirmation bias where we interpret that which we see based on our pre-existing beliefs ignoring alternate possibilities. Such bias makes greatness in learning impossible. Students of Rabbi Soloveitchik can confirm that the Rav, when teaching a topic he had taught before, would often reach very different conclusions. Part of his unique greatness was how he would approach a text as if he had never learned it before. That is not easy to do especially when one might have learned that very same text twenty-five times previously.

Nakedness refers not only to our physical beings but to our moral and intellectual as well. To grow in learning we must be willing to admit our shortcomings - both intellectual and moral - and seek help from others. And here we come to the second aspect of arma, wisdom, needed for growth in Torah.

'Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone" (Avot 4:1). Everyone needs a colleague and mentor to discuss, debate and dissect ideas. But we also can learn much from lay people, from non-experts. This is not always easy to admit as egos tend to get in the way. In many professional circles (and I hope rabbis and teachers see themselves as professionals) those who seek advice and ideas from the laity are looked down upon. All too often experts reinforce each other's views ignoring, at everyone's' peril, an outsider's perspective. After all what can they teach us? Torah is not so. "Rav Nachman the son of Yitzchak said: Why are the words of the Torah likened to a tree, as it is said, 'It is a tree of life to them that grasp it' (Mishlei 3:18)? This is to teach you just as a small tree may set on fire a bigger tree so too it is with scholars, the younger sharpen the minds of the older". Or as Rabbi Chaninah taught: "I have learnt much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my disciples more than from them all" (Taanit 7a).

And that brings us to the third explanation of arum, cunning or deceit. As Rashi in an alternate explanation notes it often takes "cunning so that his Torah be sustained to gather for himself and learn from everyone." When one studies with a particular teacher or in a institution they often do not take kindly when one seeks out other, different approaches to Torah. But in order to grow in Torah one needs exposure to different ideas and perspectives. One may, if need be, have to gain such knowledge clandestinely. Rav Soloveitchik often noted how fortunate he was that the melamed his father hired, a Lubavitch chasid clandestinely taught him chassidut as opposed to what he was hired to teach. (When such was discovered he was fired.)

To grow in learning we must even engage in learning that is "deceitful". "Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: We do not give a seat on the Sanhedrin unless he is able to prove the purity of a reptile from Biblical texts" (Sanhedrin 17a). And the Talmud informs us that Rav Meir in whose generation "there was none like him" could declare the pure impure and the impure pure" (Eiruvin13a). To do such is pure deceit going against the clear dictates of the Torah. it is the Torah that declares the reptile impure. But if one wants to become the greatest of the generation then one must be able to argue a position in total opposition to one's own.

Torah greatness requires one to be arum. To recognize our deficiencies to have the wisdom to seek out solutions with all methods at our disposal.

[1] Interestingly every English translation I checked (over a very wide ideological spectrum) translated arum by the snake as cunning (or similar) and with the exception of Artscroll translated it similarly in regard to Yaakov.