The Am Ha-aretz
To the Editor:
Allow me to make some comment on the exchange of views between Mr. Stanley M. Kessler and Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski (“Letters from Readers,” May) on the denunciation of the am ha-aretz in Pesachim 40. . . . In my opinion, this passage explains a good deal of the background of early Christianity in its relations to Judaism.
Judaism—contrary to other religions—has always held that a comprehensive study and knowledge of the Law by everybody is of paramount individual and national importance; this would account for the scorn, and even the hatred, of the learned aristocracy for the uneducated—feelings which, incidentally, were returned “with interest” by the latter. Christianity, at its inception, seems to have utilized the strained relations between “the Pharisees well versed in Scripture,” and the “poor in spirit,” rehabilitating the “poor in spirit” and improving their social standing.
Something similar—but with less drastic consequences—happened in the 18th century. The antagonism between Mitnagdim (who today in Israel actually call themselves “P’rushim”—i.e. Pharisees!) and Hasidim was based to a large extent on the Hasidic tendency to stress the emotional values in Judaism at the expense of the intellectual ones, and its attempt to give prestige to the simple and unlearned masses.
I venture to assume that the early Christian movement must be understood in part as a revolt of the am ha-aretz against the rabbinic aristocracy of learning, which never did enough to raise the am ha-aretz to a higher status. . . .