The Problem with Perfect Rabbis
Anyone familiar with Judaism knows that no one is free from critique. From Moshe downwards, it is not just the virtues of our greats that have warranted the Jewish people’s attention, but also their failures. A bit more surprising is that these two categories are less distinct than we might think. For as we shall soon see, even virtue can sometimes be considered a problem.
The Talmud devotes an unusually long biographical snippet to the life of Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Bava Metzia 83b-84b). At the end of that story, we learn that he was even greater than his contemporary and childhood colleague, the famed Rabbi Yehudah haNassi (Rebbe), author of the Mishnah.
R. Elazar’s greatness notwithstanding, the Gemara also discusses his colleagues’ ambivalence about him. A cursory reading may lead us to think that the ambivalence was due to his service as a type of police detective for the Roman authorities. But this itself requires explanation. Why would such a great rabbi take up such an occupation when the other sages felt it was wrong? Luckily for us, the Gemara presents this question to Rabbi Elazar, who answers by saying that he was simply clearing the thorns from the vineyard. Yet the Gemara does not accept this as a fully satisfactory answer.
Even more curious is that their imbalance was so great that there seems to have been a question whether they would give him a proper burial. Rashi suggests that the rabbis’ ambivalence was self-interested. Since he had turned in some of their relatives, they held a grudge. However if one looks at the rest of the story here, in Shabbat 33b and in Taanit 20b (which I discussed in an earlier essay), one sees that something else is at play:
In Shabbat, we read about his exit from the famous cave in which he had lived with his father, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Though the focus is on the father who is not easily reconciled to the mediocrity of other people, even a cursory reading of the story shows that his son was perhaps never fully reconciled. Hence we are told that the son would go about burning people with his glance, only to have his father heal them.
His inability to reconcile himself with human failing however was not limited to others. When he had a doubt that a certain laundryman he turned over to the Romans may have not deserved the death penalty, he could not rest easy until the correctness of his action could be fully confirmed. While this sentiment is certainly praiseworthy, the Talmud recounts a bizarre and possibly even questionable way to ascertain his righteousness. He amputated part of his belly to see if it would rot. Based on the understanding that someone’s corpse only rots if he had sinned, he put it out in the sun to see what would happen. While R. Elazar was pleased to see that it remained intact, the reader is left wondering why he is the only personality in the entire Talmud who chose to undergo such a procedure.
It is clear from these stories and others that R. Elazar not only strove for perfection, he largely attained it. And yet the stories of his perfection are uniquely unsettling. It would appear that the Talmud wants us to understand that so long as one is imperfect, he will see himself as part of the human spectrum – we are all trying to become better and, hence, all on the same road. But someone perfect is no longer on that road. He is no longer part of the human struggle and cannot completely identify with those who are. Moreover one’s natural attraction to beauty will turn inward (which also explains R. Elazar’s fascination with his own reflection in the river in Taanit).
It is for that reason that R. Elazar was not fully welcome in the beit midrash. His complete virtue and great knowledge were not always helpful for those of us who are not perfect. And that is precisely to whom the Torah is given – Moshe’s argument against the angels why man should receive the Torah and not the angels was that the Torah is meant to specifically help those who are not perfect.
The comparison the Gemara makes between him and R. Yehudah HaNassi drives this point home. As, while we are told about R. Yehudah being R. Elazar’s inferior in both good acts and study, we are told nothing about their respective legacies. And even the casual reader is aware of the great legacy that the former left the Jewish people with the Mishnah, whereas R. Elazar left us with precious little.
May we then always strive for perfection.