In a recent essay, I wrote about the tragic ending of the relationship between Rabbi Yochanan and his star disciple and brother-in-law, Resh Lakish. That story is best read in tandem with a similar story that has a happier ending, the story of Rav’s star disciple, Rav Kahana (Bava Kamma 117).
Rav Kahana is sent from Babylonia by his teacher Rav as a type of penance for the former’s impetuousness. His teacher tells him that he must wait seven years before challenging the master of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Yochanan. However Rav Kahana’s silence there leads to his being demoted to the back of the classroom, such that – whether rightly or wrongly – he decides that the seven rows that he was placed back are instead of the seven years and mercilessly challenges Rabbi Yochanan. Because Rabbi Yochanan got the mistaken impression that Rav Kahana was mocking him, his stare kills him. But when the matter is clarified, he brings him back to life and shows his own humility by learning Torah from Rav Kahana before the latter returns to Babylonia.
Like in the story of Resh Lakish, Rav Kahana arrives at Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva as a student. And also like Resh Lakish, he soon challenges Rabbi Yochanan’s scholarly hegemony and is essentially executed for it. But unlike Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan understands that he himself acted too rashly and not only brings Rav Kahana back to life, but also becomes his disciple. If nothing else, this sets up the background to the later story of Resh Lakish. It shows us that while Rabbi Yochanan may well have been sensitive to the honor due him (kavod HaTorah), he was nevertheless willing to put it aside when it was a question of the enhancement of Torah knowledge.
But what about Rav Kahana and Rav? Meaning, why did Rav put Rav Kahana into such a situation in the first place? According to the plan, Rav Kahana would have muted his contribution to Torah for an entire seven years! I think the answer is that Torah is not only knowledge, but also wisdom. Rav Kahana had clearly gathered a great deal of knowledge, but he had still not acquired enough wisdom to properly integrate it. Rav’s hope was that the natural reserve that comes with being in a new place and new people would force Rav Kahana to mature before continuing his Torah career.
That Rav Kahana had lost all semblance of reserve with his own teacher (and so needed a change of venue) is made clear by another famous story in the Talmud (Berakhot 62a). In that story, Rav Kahana hides under Rav’s bed to hear how his teacher conducts himself during marital intimacy. Correct in his own defense that this too is Torah, Rav Kahana lacked the wisdom to understand that the study of Torah does not take precedence over everything.
It would seem that Rav’s exile of Rav Kahana did not work, at least according to the Bavli. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 2:8), however, there was another story of Rav Kahana’s impetuousness that actually did cause him to introspect and grow. It appears, however, that the Bavli omits that story because it wants to make a different point, which could have been lost had it supplied us with the “happy ending.” And that is what do we do with a scholar who lacks the wisdom that usually comes with maturity: The answer is twofold. Like Rav, we try to help him grow in his wisdom. We do that by teaching him and pushing him towards experiences that will help him understand nuance. But like Rabbi Yochanan, we must also honor and learn from the Torah he possesses.
It is true that we may not learn Torah from someone evil. But that is not the case with Rav Kahana; he is clearly very righteous and lets nothing stand before what he thinks the Torah wants from him. Instead, he is an example of the need we sometimes have for more than one teacher. The most outstanding Torah scholar may not be the greatest mentor and visa-versa. It is wonderful (and convenient) when we can find someone, who is “one-stop shopping.” Yet the story of Rav Kahana shows us that life is not always so tidy.
In a sense, it is not only Rav Kahana that this story is pushing to mature, but also the rest of us. It is not only a tip that we must honor and learn from the Rav Kahanas of the world. It is also a tip that this honor must be limited to where it fits, and not to where it does not. It is also a tip that when an outstanding Torah scholar has not fully matured (and this is not only a question of years), we will sometimes need to seek guidance from lesser Torah scholars who have.