A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is this notion that lay at the heart of one of the most important disputes of the Talmud (though many are aware of only one side of the dispute) and whose application was one of the most important developments and debates of 20th century Jewish life.

As we discussed in our last post there is a Mishnaic dispute as to whether the effect of the sotah water - discolouration, bulging eyes, bloated body, and death - can be delayed due to other wonderful merits the adulterous woman might have. This debate is of seemingly little relevance as the ordeal of the sotah is no longer practiced - and it is unlikely it was ever practiced much even during Temple times. Yet relevant it is.

“From here Ben Azzai[1] said a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah for if she drinks [and nothing happens] she should know her merits are suspending punishment” (Sotah 20a). The Torah is clear that an adulterous woman upon drinking the sotah waters will immediately be punished and her death will be imminent. Yet such is most unlikely to happen. One who understands the Torah literally - a terrible misunderstanding of Torah - will come to believe that the Torah should not be taken seriously. Ben Azzai thus argues that we must educate our children (and adults) so that they will understand the Torah is a complex, nuanced book and must not be read literally.

Rabbi Eliezer looking at the exact same situation comes to the completely opposite conclusion. By teaching our daughters Torah they will realize the dire warnings of adultery may be avoided - at least temporarily - and it may lead to disastrous results. The Torah is very powerful and like all things powerful can be used for positive or (and sometimes and) negative purposes. The risk of adultery is just too great and in this situation at least ignorance is bliss.

Of course such a fear of misusing Torah is equally applicable to men. However men unlike woman were obligated in the studying of the theoretical aspects of Torah (Kiddushin 29b)[2]. Thus Rabbi Eliezer’s advisory[3] against women studying Torah was not to be applied to the practical study of Torah - something that can, especially in our age, keep one busy for a lifetime. Moreover - and this is generally not known or acknowledged - there are many Talmudic passages where our sages strongly advise that they not be made public to the masses of men.

Yet the Gemara finds Rabbi Eliezers’ admonition “whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut[4]” too strong. How is it possible that learning Torah is to be equated with tiflut? The Gemara answers that teaching Torah is not teaching tiflut rather it’s keilu, akin, to teaching tiflut (Sotah 21b). While to us this may seem like a distinction without a difference for our Talmudic sages keilu, had great resonance. “Whoever embarrasses one in public is keilu, like he killed him”(Bava Metzia 58b). It may be true that when one is publically embarrassed one may at that moment prefer death but unlike death, embarrassment is not permanent. Most of us have been publically embarrassed at one time or another but I assume we are happy to be alive.

Torah is not tiflut but if used improperly can lead to it. The Talmud cites the verse “I [Torah] am wisdom, I dwell with cunning” (Mishlei 8:12) as a basis for Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching. Torah offers much wisdom but one can twist that wisdom for all kinds of nefarious purposes. All too often people, men and women, though many more men, well versed in Torah are far from wise and may engage in horribly immoral and unethical acts. And sadly it is the improper study of Torah that can help that immorality along.

To cite one, perhaps controversial, example. Standard yeshiva curriculums focus on the laws of monetary dealings and damages. Almost by definition the typical case involves at least one person who is lying, cheating or acting in a underhanded (even if legal) matter. We study the potential arguments that may be advanced by these cheats and how to recognize them. Unless the ethical ideal is stressed over and over again can we be surprised that some of this negativity is picked up and put into practice? No wonder Maimonides rules that one is forbidden to teach Torah to anyone - male or female - whose deep religiosity may be in question (Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1). Rabbi Eliezer’s contemporary Rabban Gamliel even had guards at the gate preventing those whose “internal [piety] was not like their outside [appearance]” from entering the Beit Midrash (Brachot 28a).

There is little doubt that today Torah study is mandatory for all - perhaps especially for those whose internal religiosity does not match their external appearance. Yet our Sages were well aware that not all knowledge should be shared. Some knowledge can be dangerous[5]. What is most important to know is that the primary goal of all knowledge must be to make us better people.

[1] Ironically Ben Azzai never had any children.

[2] It is for this same reason that we greatly frown upon women donning tefillin. Wearing tefillin requires a clean body and a focused mind something most difficult for any length of time. Our sages thus declared that women should not wear tefillin despite the fact that technically speaking there is no prohibition to do so. While these same fears apply to men the sages could not - even if they may have wanted to - suggest men not wear tefillin as the Torah obligates men to do so. However our sages did greatly frown upon men who wore tefillin all day and instructed that we limit our wearing tefillin to a minimum. As prayer also requires a clean body and focused mind our rabbis suggested we wear tefllin only during davening, hoping that the dual obligation of prayer and tefillin will keep us clean and focused.

[3] It is clear both from the Talmud and especially from the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13) that Rabbi Eliezer was not issuing a prohibition - but a strong recommendation. As we all know much has changed and woman’s Torah study is not only not frowned upon it is absolutely mandatory today. How far ranging that obligation extends is a matter of dispute but in the worldview of Rabbi Soloveitchik and in the world which I inhabit men and women are to be given equal access to all aspects of Torah.

[4] The word tiflut is not easily translatable. In the English translations I checked we have ‘obscenity, physical intimacy, immorality, idle things, wantonness and frivolity’. Linguistically it is likely related to the word tafel, secondary, of lesser importance.

[5] Today this often plays out in the field of medicine. Is it beneficial to know that one has a genetic condition for which we do not yet have any effective treatment?