Insights in Pirkei Avot By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva.org
R. Elazar would say: Be diligent to study Torah. Know how to respond to the heretic. Know before whom you toil and your employer is faithful to pay you for your efforts. (Avot 2:14)
Rabbenu Yona wonders about the emphasis on reward in R. Elazar’s concluding statement. Does this sage disagree with Antignos who taught that we should not serve God in order to receive a reward (Avot 1:3)? Rabbenu Yona offers two explanations. Perhaps Antignos outlines the ideal while R. Elazar responds to our human limitations. We sometimes lose our idealism and only the thought of reward and punishment helps us fulfill the word of God. Alternatively, R. Elazar does not address motivation for mitzvot; he stresses a fundamental Jewish belief. Even the most idealistic and devout people need to affirm reward and punishment as part of their appreciation of the compassion and justice of God.
This second interpretation focuses on Jewish beliefs, a topic discussed earlier in the mishna in the context of replying to a heretic. What enables a successful response to such an opponent? Commentators debate the relationship between R. Elazar’s opening two statements. Meiri says that R. Elazar first instructs us to study Torah and then adds that confronting the heretic depends on philosophic training beyond traditional rabbinic sources. Rabbenu Yona reads R. Elazar as saying that we should diligently study Torah so that we can respond to the heretic with success. According to this reading, R. Elazar does not call for expanding the curriculum. Tosafot Yom Tov discusses variant girsaot impacting on this interpretive debate.
I suggest that the two interpretations compliment each other. Meiri correctly contends that a steady diet of rabbinic sources often leaves a person unequipped to deal with philosophical and historical challenges. Only a broader reading list exposes us to terminology, categories of thought, and types of arguments enabling our confronting a hostile questioner. Note the weakness of contemporary arguments against evolution coming from those who never opened up a modern book of science.
At the same time, Rabbenu Yona provides an important counterbalance. Responding to the heretic also depends upon a thorough grounding in traditional Jewish learning. Otherwise, how will a person know that what he is defending accurately represents traditional Judaism? No one can Intelligently discuss what Judaism believes about capital punishment without having studied Sanhedrin or analyze the Jewish view of divine providence without ever opening Iyov, Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer haIkkarim. An overemphasis on broader trains of thought can obscure the need for intensive Jewish studies which make authentic analysis of Jewish ideas possible.
At the end of the day, we would do well to keep both interpretations in mind. The genuine talmid chacham who also knows contemporary currents of thought in the broader culture is the person most equipped to deal with the intellectual challenges of the day.