Commentary Magazine

Gentlemen and Scholars

In the name of equality, some would admit students to college and professional school by lottery. Though egalitarians of this kind are not numerous, neither are they merely eccentric. Their application of egalitarian doctrine to education may not be the only one possible, but it is a logical and consistent one. If it is unlikely to be put into effect, that is because not many even of them would like to drive across a bridge designed by an engineer who owed his credentials to a lottery.

For the action of privilege and unfair discrimination, egalitarianism of this sort is the opposite reaction: lotteries are indiscriminate. Of course, privilege and discrimination are not quite what they used to be, but we have learned that resentment and indignation tend to wax as their objects begin to wane. And on the whole, in the occidental tradition a scholar has been a gentleman—which is to say that real education has not been for the populace.

Both in origin and in self-understanding, the occidental tradition is largely the Greek tradition. The Loeb Classical Library's editor and translator of the Politics tells us that for Aristotle “kalokágathos, “fine gentleman, connotes social as well as moral distinction,” while bánausos, “artisan” or “tradesman,” connotes “cramped in body” and “vulgar in taste.” In the lexicons banausía is defined as “handicraft, the life and habits of a mechanic; hence vulgarity, bad taste.” Why trouble to educate the banausic?

I am going to contrast the Jewish tradition about education to the Greek, and I am going to suggest that the Jewish tradition is a democratic mean between Greek aristocracy—and it was Aristotle who taught that aristocracy can easily degenerate into oligarchy—and the contemporary egalitarian-populist reaction against it.

There are two dangers attendant upon an argument of the sort I wish to make. The first is rhetorical or forensic, the temptation to speak only about the good on your side and the bad on the other. The second is substantive: Can it be right to speak of the Greek and the Jewish tradition?

From defenders of the faith you can hear, usually around Hanukkah time, hurrahs for the Jews and boos for the Greeks. That is not my inclination. The Greek legacy is a great and precious possession of the human race. As for Aristotle, whom I take to be in some sense representative of the Greek tradition, have we any record of genius stronger or more copious than his? He can be cold and harsh—but that, I believe, is because he did not have the benefit of a Revelation. If he had had a Revelation, he could scarcely have been Aristotle.

The pro-Jewish hurrahing and anti-Greek booing are pretty well confined to Jewish defenders of the faith, and among them to the more simple-minded. In the general culture, and especially its higher reaches, the normal bias is pro-Greek and anti-Jewish. There, even Jews—or rather men and women of Jewish parentage—are apt to have that bias. Simone Weil may be a bad example, because of theological complications. Julien Benda is a better one.

I shall try to avoid hurrahs and boos.


Can it be proper to speak of the Jewish tradition and the Greek tradition? May we think of them as entities? It is well to raise such questions—provided they are not answers in disguise.

Jewish history is so old, so dispersed, so varied, so diversely influenced that any suggestion of a univocal Jewish tradition must surely be wrong. But it is easy to pass from this understanding to a kind of runaway nominalism. There is a man who teaches that Judaism is what Jews do, and consequently that there are as many different kinds of Judaism, equally valid, as there are Jews. He would say, I suppose, that if certain witches and wizards are Jews, then their faith and practice are Jewish. The Jewish tradition is complex and its boundaries are fuzzy; but it is not so invertebrate as to disallow our saying that Jewish witches and wizards are un-Jewish.

Similarly with the Greek tradition, even more complex. Oxbridge dons were not paid enough to support them and their dependents; nor were British army officers; nor were (or are?) Members of Parliament. They were gentlemen, and gentlemen had private incomes. The causes of English society's taste for private incomes are to be found in English history—for instance, the fright that Cromwell's army inspired in succeeding generations of the upper class. But part of English history is the influence of Aristotle and the rest of Greek culture on the scholars and gentlemen of England, and through them on English life.

For the Greek tradition a key word, embodying a key concept, is skholé, “leisure.” From skholé, in the Latin form schola, every Western language has received its word for “school” (and Yiddish its shul). No leisure, no schooling. Leisure is the opposite of business, or busy-ness. “Business, industry, occupation” is simply “absence of leisure,” askholía. Skholastikós means “leisured”; also “learned”; also “pedantic.”

  • . . . the master's skill is that of using slaves. . . . But this skill has nothing great or grand about it. . . . Therefore, for those who can afford not to be bothered, an agent assumes this responsibility, while they themselves are politicking or philosophizing [Politics 1255b].
  • . . . most people think . . . it impossible . . . for a poor man to govern well, since he has no leisure [lit., to govern well and have leisure, skholázein: 1273a].
  • . . . the best state will not make an artisan a citizen [1278a].
  • . . . as the adage has it, there is no leisure for slaves . . . [1334a].

Only gentlemen—and (for Aristotle) their superiors, the philosophers—have leisure. Artisans, and generally all those who have to earn a living, lack leisure. Legally freemen and citizens, they are in some measure like slaves, because whoever must be distracted from high and noble things by having to earn a living is not truly a free man. The education befitting one truly free is not for the artisan and the slave.


As representative of the Jewish tradition I take Avot (or Pirqe Avot), the “(Chapters of the) Fathers.” It is the most accessible part of rabbinical literature, because easiest in content and language. It is also that part of rabbinical literature which is most liturgical, since it is read in the synagogue. Consequently it is the most widely known. Among Sephardim, it seems to have been used to teach rabbis the conduct and outlook appropriate to their station. Among Ashkenazim, it was used to teach the folk respect for rabbis and rabbinical law.

Avot is the Rabbis systematic assertion of their claim to uninterrupted, legitimate succession to Moses, whose authority was directly from God. The Ten Commandments begin with an authorizing, legitimating clause: “I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Then, having been told Who commands, and by what right, we are given His commandments. Just so, a royal edict will begin: “We, Henry (James, Charles, William, George) . . . by the grace of God, King. . . .” (Kings, viceroys, and popes use the majestic plural. God contents Himself with the singular.)

Avot begins with the Rabbis telling us how they received the right to teach and judge:

Moses received Torah [sc., both written and oral] from Sinai, and gave it over [masar; masorah/ masoret =“tradition”; English “giving over”= Latin traditio] to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets. The Prophets gave it over to the men of the Great Assembly. . . . Simeon the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. . . . Antigonos of Sokho received from Simeon the Righteous. . . . Yose son of Joezer . . . and Yose son of Johanan. . . . Joshua son of Perahiah and Mittai the Arbelite. . . . Judah son of Tabbai and Simeon son of Shetah. . . . Shemaiah and Avtalion . . . Hillel and Shammai. . . .

Avot, then, is the Jewish tradition's explicit account of itself. It is also a polemic against the Aristotelian-Greek tradition.

If for Aristotle and the Greeks the necessary good is skholé, “leisure,” for Avot the necessary good is mela'khah, “work, occupation.” (From this has been derived Calvinist work as vocation or calling.) “Shemaiah says: Love mela'khah and hate rabbanut [office, as in Shakespeare's ‘insolence of office’]. . . .” The commentators adduce the parallel in Nedarim 49b: “Great is mela'khah, which honors those engaged in it; and hate lordship.” (Later, rabbanut came to mean “rabbinate.” Though most Jews nowadays are not especially zealous in obedience to rabbinical injunctions. they make an exception for the injunction of shunning rabbanut.) The commentators also recall the Rabbis' insistence that a father must teach his son a trade; cite the Ten Commandments, where we are told to rest on the Sabbath and work on the other days of the week; and refer to the example of God Himself, Who did His mela'khah of creation in six days and rested (had leisure?) on the seventh. (Aristotle says that happiness is an activity, but that the activity of God, who is happy and blessed by his nature, is skholé.)

Aristotle hints broadly (1324a) that the contemplative life is better, more philosophical, than communal-political and active life. Earlier on he was emphatic that man is a communal-political being and that anyone so self-sufficient that he does not need the polis is not a man but must be either a beast or a god (1253a). We may infer that Aristotle wants us to regard the philosopher, who alone is capable of the withdrawn and contemplative life, as godlike.

In Avot the word for “scholar” is hakham, “wise man, sage.” Among Jews the scholar occupied more or less the place occupied among Greeks by the philosopher. (Professor Henry Fischel of Indiana has written some remarkable things on Hillel as a Hellenistic sóphos, “sage,” and on related matters.) Aristotle implies that philosophers may and perhaps should withdraw from society. Hillel tells the scholarly and the simple alike not to withdraw from the community.

For Aristotle the contemplative life is superior to the active life; but Simeon the son of Rabban Gamaliel (and grandson of Hillel) says: “Not midrash”—inquiry, study, the Jewish counterpart of theoria—“is primary, but ma'aseh”—action, deed, corresponding to prâxis. Later in Avot, hokhmah—wisdom, learning, theory—is likened to a tree's leaves, and deeds to a tree's roots: it is not leaves that will keep a tree from being over-turned in a storm. A scholar's normal temptation is to elevate theory over practice. The Jewish scholars resisted it.

Above all, the Rabbis repudiated the Greek aristocratic-philosophical conviction that work, livelihood, is only a necessary evil, fortunately limited to the artisan and the slave. A later Rabban Gamaliel, the son of R. Judah the Prince, says: “It is best to combine study of Torah with a wordly occupation [derekh eretz] because exertion in the two together represses”—causes to be forgotten—“sin; whereas all [study of] Torah in the absence of work [mela'khah] . . . will cause sin.”

The standard interpretation of this dictum is that if a scholar does not learn a trade he will go hungry, and may therefore become a thief or robber. No doubt that is what Rabban Gamaliel son of R. Judah the Prince meant, but I think he also meant, in conscious opposition to Greco-Roman ideas, that work was desirable even for the prosperous, because—as the Calvinists were to be fond of saying—the Devil finds work for idle hands. I suspect that the aristocratic outlook was so foreign to the later commentators, and the need and virtue of earning a living by work so self-evident, that they did not realize Rabban Gamaliel was deliberately contradicting a self-evident truth of his civilization—that work was low and vulgar, and at best necessitous. It is for this reason, I think, that the Gaon of Vilna could refer Rabban Gamaliel's learning-with-occupation to something quite different, in a book of Scripture the Gaon did not know was Hellenistic: “Wisdom [hokhmah] is good with an inheritance . . .” (Ecclesiastes 7:11). An occupation is askholía, an inherited estate permits skholé . (Pindar says, in his second Pythian ode: “Best is to be rich, together with the good fortune of wisdom alotted.”1)

But it is Hillel who most sharply and polemically teaches a philosophy of education contrary to the Aristotelian-Greek one. Hillel adds to his prohibition of withdrawal from the community another, which is usually translated more or less as follows: “Do not say, ‘When I have leisure [likheshe'eppaneh] I will study.’ What if you have no leisure?” In this translation Hillel is thinking about individuals. I suggest that he may also be thinking about classes: “You artisan or craftsman, do not say to yourself, ‘If I ever become a member of the leisure class, I will then seek the appropriate liberal Jewish education.’ Study now. Skholé is for the few. Will you allow yourself to be condemned to ignorance and vulgarity, like Aristotle's artisan, seeing that your lot will probably always be askholía?

R. Yose the priest, one of the five famous disciples of Rabban Johanan son of Zakkai, says: “. . . train yourself to learn Torah, because it is not yours as a patrimony”—unlike an estate, which you inherit and which makes leisure possible. Merit and effort count, not birth.


One reads this, and one's eyes glaze with boredom. Could anything be more conventional and dull? In fact, it states a revolutionary ideology. It is the program and the self-justification of a newly dominant class, the scholars, who have ousted a previously dominant class, the priests. R. Yose is himself both priest and scholar. His priesthood he has received by inheritance—a kohen is the son of a kohen, back to the beginning—but his scholarship he has acquired by exertion. The scholar-priest says that scholarship by exertion is and should be more important than priesthood by inheritance. That the ideologists and beneficiaries of this revolution denied that it was a revolution, even to themselves, should not surprise us. Until modern times, revolutions were defended as reformations, or restorations. So, on R. Yose the priest's “Torah . . . is not yours as a patrimony,” a very old commentary soothingly concludes that this must be God's will, since He chose as Moses' successor not (by the principle of birth and inheritance) Moses' son but (by the principle of individual merit) Joshua; and only two centuries ago the Gaon of Vilna recalled the same precedent. The Rabbis knew Scripture. They knew Deuteronomy 33:10, for example: “They [the Levitical priests] shall teach Jacob Thine ordinances, and Israel Thy law [instruction= torah]. . . .” Nor was this teaching prerogative of the priests something that had long since fallen into desuetude. Malachi, the last of the Prophets, was even more fervent about priestly authority (2:7): “For the priest's lips shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek torah from his mouth; for he is the messenger [angel?—mal'akh] of the LORD of hosts.”

For the Rabbis, Scripture was the will of God. Yet they stripped the priest of the judicial and teaching functions Scripture had given him, taking those functions for themselves and leaving him only with cultic ones. They did as the French Revolution was to do, narrowing the importance of birth and broadening the importance of effort and achievement. The Jews' religion and society, once so priestly, were thenceforth to be lay. The Rabbis would have accomplished that revolution even if the Temple—source of the priests' power and honor—had been left standing.

The last, sixth chapter, not part of Avot proper originally but of a piece with the rest, agrees with R. Yose. It tells us how to reach the goal: “Such is the way [toward the learning] of Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water sparingly, sleep on the ground, live a life of privation; and labor at the Torah.” Heed neither the supercilious aristocrats and oligarchs, with their birth and their effortless superiority, who would bar the way to the unprivileged; nor those so consumed by hatred of privilege that they would deny even the distinction of effort.


I have spoken of theory and practice, and of the Jewish tradition's elevation of practice over theory. But the Jewish tradition, and notably Avot, is itself a kind of theory. Has the Jewish tradition-theory also been the Jewish practice? Not entirely, maybe not mostly. In most of Jewish society, most of the time, the scholar was not an artisan. Mostly the scholar earned his living more easily than the artisan, and decisively outranked him. Tailor, shoemaker, carpenter, smith enjoyed no great esteem. Shemaiah's “love work” was an excellent principle, to pay lip service to. On the fatal identification of Jews with money-lending in the Middle Ages and almost to our time, Cecil Roth wrote that some Jews were willing victims, not resisting Christendom's assigning them to that pariah specialization. A moneylender had more time for study than an artisan. Asked what he liked about his job, a baseball umpire once said, “You can't beat the hours.” Isaac of York could have said that.

So Jewish tradition-theory has not been identical with practice. But it has affected practice. It has kept practice from being worse. And it keeps insisting that work and merit are superior to birth and privilege, and to the equality of the lottery.


1 I am indebted to Martha Himmelfarb for this reference.

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