Monday, August 29, 2011

Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma and the Out of Town Rabbi

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

The story from the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot is familiar: Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma, a sage from the 2nd century CE, is travelling. A man greets him, and he returns the greeting. The man asks where he's from; R' Yosi ben Kisma replies that he is from a place of great scholars. The man offers him a great deal of money to come live in his town, and R' Yosi ben Kisma replies that no matter how much wealth he would receive, he would not live anywhere but in a "place of Torah," for wealth is only of value in this world, but Torah remains with us.

The classic question: Does this mean that rabbis should not go live in small towns? What of outreach, and bringing Torah to those who are not fortunate enough to live in a place of many teachers? Was I wrong for going to live in Allentown all those years? Who should teach in schools in some communities, and who should lead their shuls?

I've heard this discussed a great deal over the years, and it seems to me that there are three basic approaches to explain this mishnah:

1. R' Yosi ben Kisma only meant to promote Torah over money
Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma does not actually decline to live in his interlocutor's community; he only preaches on the value of Torah over money, a lesson which is consistent with the themes of Pirkei Avot. "I may well go with you," Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma says, "But not on the basis of the money you offer. I will go only if it is a place of Torah."
This then resolves the conflict of the small-town Rabbi - he may go to a place which is focussed on being/becoming a place of Torah.

2. This case was unique
In this school of thought, R' Yosi ben Kisma indeed declined, but it was not because he rejected outreach. Rather, it was because he discerned some impropriety in the man's request for him to come live there. Perhaps it was that the man only wanted him to live there, but did not ask him to teach Torah. Or perhaps it was that the man thought money could buy Torah. And so R' Yosi ben Kisma decided that in this particular case, it would be inappropriate to move to the town to engage in outreach. Rabbis who are recruited on proper grounds, by good people, certainly should go to small towns.

3. R' Yosi ben Kisma was arguing against [solo] Outreach
Either because he did not believe in the value of Outreach in general (an argument I first heard this Shabbos, and one that requires some thought), or because he was concerned about his own deterioration if left on his own, R' Yosi ben Kisma felt that the price he would pay in going to this man's town to teach Torah was not justifiable. Similarly, rabbis should not go to smaller communities if they will lack colleagues with equal Torah training.

This last approach is particularly important to me. Certainly, you can learn a lot of Torah on your own, and you grow a great deal from teaching Torah. Further, today we have the blessing of email communication, which makes long-distance interaction easier. Nonetheless, living in a place where you lack peers who challenge you and force you to your limits is dangerous, because it does stunt your growth on several levels, including:
• Your own learning is not pushed;
• Your creativity in Torah is not stimulated; and
• Your focus and time allocation are framed by local needs [chesed, shiurim, psak, officiating, counseling, administration] without the input of the world of scholarship.

To me, this means that rabbis in smaller Jewish communities need to find a way to import peers, or to test and sharpen and emphasize their learning with colleagues from afar. There must be a challenge that regularly takes them out of their normal environs, giving them a new goal to pursue and a new horizon to attract their vision. With this stimulation, the Rabbi will benefit, and so will the community.


  1. Going in, is there some objective way to distinguish small Galut communities with a positive future (til the Geulah!) from those petering out? Or does the effort have to be made before any answer can be found? I see an enormous magnetic force pulling young Jews from small outlying communities into large central ones. Objectively, is this force something to overcome or something to promote?

  2. My rabbi gave another explanation, in the name of his father (also a rabbi), namely that the man said "I will give you" all this money. A rabbi should not end up (literally or metaphorically) in the pay of a single individual.

    I confess I was not entirely convinced that that is the meaning of the story, but it is an interesting idea to consider.

  3. Bob-
    All good questions, for which I have more than one (diametrically opposite) answer...

    Definitely interesting. I'd include that in Category 2, that R' Yosi ben Kisma turned down the offer because of circumstances unique to this particular instance.

  4. A community lacking in scholars/teachers is doomed to remain so, unless someone is willing to be the first. This puts me in mind of the attitude of many employers today, who in these times of rampant unemployment aren't willing to consider hiring anyone who doesn't currently have a job. If everyone thought that way, it would become an unbreakable vicious cycle. You're right that one in such a position should continue to seek challenges, and be on guard against getting too comfortable as the big fish in the small pond, but unless whole communities are to be simply written off, someone's got to go there!

  5. Rav Yitchack Elchonon Spector, who had been Rabbi in Novardok before taking up the post in the much larger community of Kovno, once mentioned that he thought that if he had stayed in Novardok he too might have written the Aruch HaShulchan (written by his successor in Novardok) but the pressures of the rabbinate in a large city was too much for him to devote that much time to learning. Of course, he might not have written all the shu"t that he did either, but that is a different story.

    Of course, I realize that the millieu was quite different and the observation is of limited direct relevance, but it does offer a different perspective.

  6. bratschegirl-
    Yes - unless two go at once, which may well be tenable. After all, communities tend to have both synagogue or school - and if they don't have a school, how will there be Jews for the synagogue?

    Mike S-
    Fascinating quote! Although my experience was that small-town required as much or more work than big-city...

  7. I wonder if it's a coincidence that it's R. Yosmi of Kisma, which is cognate with kosem, magician, given the contrast with the story of Bil'am where he didn't chase after the gold and silver.

  8. Melech-
    Interesting, certainly, but I'm not sure I'd do anything with it.