A classic story found in the book of Shmuel deals with the sin of King David. According to the simple interpretation of the text, David, peering at a nearby rooftop, sees a beautiful woman bathing. Despite the fact that she is married and her husband is in battle fighting for Israel, David invites her to his castle and has relations with her. The woman, whose name is Bat-Sheva, becomes pregnant. King David, in order to “cover up” his misdeed, recalls Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah from battle. David’s plan is to have Uriah renew his relationship with his wife and hopefully hide the fact that the baby that is growing inside Bat-Sheva’s womb actually belongs to King David.
However, when Uriah returns home, he refuses to see his wife, advancing the argument that how could he be with her when the soldiers of Israel are in battle? David, after endless prodding and Uriah’s constant refusal, sends him back to the front lines with a secret message to his general, Yoav. In this note he instructs Yoav to abandon Uriah in the heat of battle, leaving him on the front lines, alone, facing imminent death.
General Yoav follows David’s orders and Uriah is killed. When the news finally reaches King David, he immediately marries Bat-Sheva with the hope that the child that Bat-Sheva was carrying would be attributed to him. However, Natan the prophet rebukes David for his sin, and the child born to Bat-Sheva and King David dies after only a short time.
The Talmud in various places deals with this series of events. At times our sages justify King David’s behavior and posit that anyone who believes that King David sinned is wrong. Such a theory obviously goes against the simple meaning of the text. What then was the intention of our sages when making such statements?
Indeed, there are counter-statements claiming that David was punished numerous times for this act – by the raping of Tamar by Amnon, his son, and the rebellion of his son Avshalom and his openly defiling the concubines of King David.
However, the real issue here is whether our leaders can be wrong, or whether we always have an obligation to portray our sages as infallible, almost G-dly? As an extension of this question, if our gedolim express an opinion regarding science or medicine, must they always be right? While with issues of Jewish law we recognize the authority of our religious leaders, do we also extend this to the fields of science, astronomy, or medicine?
There was a great dispute in past years on the publication of the book The Making of a Godol. The argument was centered on the portrayal of a certain gadol when he was young and impetuous before he made his tremendous impact upon the Jewish world. In short, he was described in an unfavorable light. The book was recalled and the original was put into cherem (banned). A new copy was printed deleting the unfavorable depictions of this gadol.
A second book that caused controversy was Mysterious Creatures by Nosson Slifkin. In this book, the author delved into the scientific findings of modern science with relation to creatures that were described in the Talmud, and cited apparent contradictions with modern scientific thought. This text was also placed in cherem, ostensibly because our sages in the Talmud can never be wrong, even when dealing with questions of science or medicine.
In contrast, when I study the experiences of King David or the challenges of our gedolim when they were young, I gain more respect and admiration for them. To me, it is refreshing to learn that even our great leaders had trials in their lives, yet they were able to withstand their inclinations and become the great people that they ultimately became.
The Talmud is replete with stories of sages whose pasts were questionable. The great Rabbi Akiva was described as an unlearned person who had little respect for the Rabbis. The Talmud describes his inability to comprehend even the most elementary aspects of Judaism. Yet he aspired to become a most learned rabbi – a leader of the Jewish people. Joseph, the son of our forefather Jacob, is described in his youth unfavorably. The Talmud narrates to us how Joseph was consumed with his own good looks and appeared arrogant and conceited. Yet he too rose to great heights as viceroy of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish is described in the Talmud as a thief before he embraced Judaism to become the great personality that he was. Yiftach, who led our people during the time of the Judges, is described in less than favorable terms by our commentators. Yet he became a leader of our people. And the list goes on and on.
Perhaps this is what is so inspirational about our Torah: that even David who was the grandchild of Ruth – a Moabite woman whose ancestor Lot had an incestuous relationship with his daughter to beget the nation of Moab – grew to be the King of Israel. That he committed this hideous sin with Bat-Sheva, but he was able to recognize it and move on. That Akiva the shepherd, who came from such a lowly background, could grow to become the great Rabbi Akiva. That Joseph, the seemingly arrogant youth, could become the dynamic leader that he eventually was.
One does not lose respect for any of our Jewish leaders for quoting the views of science and medicine in their days if those are now proven wrong. Their expertise was never in the sciences but only in the field of Jewish law. Our leaders are not infallible.
In the past years, our rabbis issued a ban on smoking after recent research revealed that smoking can cause cancer and be a danger to one’s life. Does this enactment call in question the validity of the teachings of our previous sages, who permitted smoking in the various study halls? Should we continue to allow our students to smoke in the study halls in respect for the decisions of our sages of the past? Do we cast aside all research of modern science and proclaim that our sages were right?
There is one caveat to my view. I believe strongly that our children, especially at the very formative ages, should have their leaders portrayed as heroes. Perhaps this is the intent of our sages in rationalizing King David’s behavior. Children need heroes! And our leaders were great tzaddikim, righteous people. But as our children mature, the reality of the humanness of our leaders must be presented, and an appreciation gained for the challenges they faced and how they overcame these to become the great leaders of our people.
Living as Jews requires one to be honest and truthful, yet to maintain a profound respect and admiration for our leaders and our glorious past.