Noam Yehuda

Moments ago Abby and I named our newborn son Noam Yehuda. The name Noam appears in Tanach only once as a proper name of a person - as recorded in Divrei HaYamim, Noam was a son of Kalev ben Yefuneh. Aside from his father כלב and his brothers, Iru (עירו) and Eilah (אלה), we know nothing about this person Noam himself.

As a name, though not of a person, Noam also appears in one other place, in a deeply enigmatic vision of the prophet Zecharya. The navi is instructed to shepherd "צאן ההריגה", sheep of the slaughter, a reference to the Jewish people. To do this, the Navi Zecharya takes two staffs:

ואקח לי שני מקלות
לאחד קראתי נועם ולאחד קראתי חובלים
וארעה את הצאן

I took two staffs, one I called Noam, the other Chovlim, and I shepherded the flock. The meaning of the name Chovlim is unclear, and many explanations are suggested, but the name Noam appears to indicate gentle, peaceful, or something similar. [Zecharya then mentions that he dismisses three shepherds, a clear allusion to our ongoing troubles in finding a suitable babysitter.]

[A simple explanation of this allegory, as elaborated by the Radak and the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, is a reference to various modes in which HKBH guides the Jewish people. Noam indicates a gentle or peaceful mode, when Bnei Yisroel keep the Torah and follow Hashem's commandments, and Chovlim, indicates the harsher reality that ensues when Bnei Yisroel do not. The prophet implicitly asks the people of Israel to choose between them.]

The Talmud in Sanhedrin offers the following [alternative] interpretation:

א"ר אושעיא מאי דכתיב (זכריה יא) ואקח לי שני מקלות לאחד קראתי נועם ולאחד קראתי חובלים נועם אלו ת"ח שבארץ ישראל שמנעימין זה לזה בהלכה חובלים אלו ת"ח שבבבל שמחבלים זה לזה בהלכה

Rabbi Oshaya taught - and I took two staffs, one I called Noam and the other I called Chovlim - Noam refers to Talmidei Chachamim who are מנעימין, gentle, to each other in halacha, and Chovlim refers to Talmidei Chachamim who are מחבלים each other, destroy, each other in halacha.

Simply put, R' Oshaya considers two distinct cultures of Torah - he seems to praise the scholars residing in Eretz Yisrael, who treat one another with graciousness and respect, and appears to lament those in Bavel who treat one another with a certain caustic aggressiveness. While this distinction might be consistent with the realities of Babylonian and Israeli talmidei chachamim, you might still be wondering the following. If R' Oshaya was claiming that talmidei chachamim of Eretz Yisroel are indeed so polite, and if R' Oshaya himself was indeed a talmid chacham who resided in Eretz Yisroel, why would R' Oshaya spend his time berating the scholars of Bavel? That doesn't sound so polite! On a more serious note - anyone who has spent time studying the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds can probably agree that the discourse of the Bavli is significantly more mature and developed than that in the Yerushalmi. The questions of the Bavli tend to be more sophisticated, and the back and forth more nuanced. Was it reasonable then for R' Oshaya to have been criticizing the success of the culture of Torah of Bavel?

In this light we might suggest a different interpretation - the scholars of Israel are indeed, in some sense, more polite, while those of Bavel might appear more aggressive or brash. But perhaps R' Oshaya is, in fact, not berating either group, but highlighting the strengths of two types of Talmidei Chachamim, or of two cultures of Torah learning. The talmidei chachamim of Eretz Yisroel are certainly polite, they are ne'imim, a quality we generally encourage. But perhaps they are a bit *too* timid, or *too* gentle - perhaps they do not express their disagreement enough. Only in the context of genuine respect for others do we hear someone say, no, I disagree, or, I think that what you are saying is wrong, and, on rare occasions, what you are saying is stupid or utter nonsense - כי ניים ושכיב רב אמר להאי שמעתתא, כמדומה אני שאין לו מוח בקדקדו, or לא נהג המחבר מנהג חכמים are phrases we find in the talmud and in the writings of its students.

There is certainly room for pleasantness in Torah, and of course in good measure it is an absolute necessity, but polite gentility by itself should never be confused for genuine respect; wholesale approval should never be accepted as a substitute for true engagement with the Torah of others.

A number of years ago, at a celebration in honor of R' Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a's 70th birthday, I heard R' Amital z"l explain the difference between a rebbi and a rebbe. A rebbe, he explained, has chassidim, whereas a rebbi has talmidim. A chassid says - everything my rebbe said is true; a talmid, however, says, nothing my rebbi said is true. R' Lichtenstein, continued R' Amital, was zocheh to have many talmidim. True respect for a teacher is never demonstrated by meekly swallowing everything they say, and, likewise, genuine respect for a colleague never involves wholesale blind approval of their work. The talmidei chachamim of Bavel were surely polite, but they also had sufficient respect for one another to criticize their work, to be מחבל זה את זה. It was the intensity of their engagement with each other's ideas that led them to be occasionally brash with one another, and also to develop the tremendous Torah which they did, and which was not seen in the same measure in the Yerushalmi.

Before explaining why we indeed named our child Noam - and not Chovlim - allow me to explain the origin of the name Yehuda. Noam Yehuda's second name was given in honor of two leaders of revolutionary institutions of Torah learning in the last two centuries: my mother's great grandfather, Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the last R"Y of Volozhin, and R' Yehuda Amital, the late R"Y of Yeshivat Har Etzion.

In Kidmas Ha'Emek, an introduction to his peirush on the Sh'iltose of Rav Achai Gaon, the Netziv paints a beautifully romantic, if not also compelling, portrait of two themes, two integral motifs, in the development of Torah throughout history. There is a part of the mesorah, both in learning and in practice, that involves transmission of that which is clear and known. Parts of Torah are clear to all - halachose that are studied and transmitted exactly as taught. This is certainly the more conservative, in both the literal and metaphoric senses, part of Torah. It is the Torah that we study when we open a Mishna Berurah, it is the Torah we study when we learn a gemara with peirush Rashi and a Maharsha, or the Torah we hear in a typical shiur about hilchose Tisha b'av or Tu b'av.

But there is also a second part of Torah, that which the Netziv calls Eish, or fire. Here is where talmudic scholars gather and debate, where they fight over the minutia of the minutia of sugyose and shitose. A question or issue arises that has not been considered before, and Torah scholars are forced to engage it, and they uncover fresh ground, new ideas, and eventually - through tremendous efforts - new Torah. After the dust settles, the Torah which these scholars, these mechadshim, have unearthed, eventually becomes part of the Mesorah, and that is then given over to others to pass down. This is the Torah you can watch happen when you open a gemara and read the shakla vtarya, this is the Torah you can find being born when reading the back and forth between the Ktzose and Nesivose, or a Reb Chaim, or in the halls of a yeshiva or beis medresh today.

One of the most beautiful images for me in this essay of the Netziv is his description of the respective roles taken by Shevet Yehuda and Shevet Levi in the building and service of the mishkan, as an example for their more general roles in Torah. Bezalel, a decendant of Yehuda, is credited with building the Aron, a symbol of Torah. After building it though, in the words of the Netziv, ואחר שכבר עשה הוא נסתלק מעבודת הארון ומסרו ללוים המה ינשאוהו. After he completed the work, he left it in the hands of the Leviim to carry it and service it throughout their travels. Regarding Torah itself, the Netziv suggests: שבט יהודה המה מחוקקים ושבט לוי באים אחרי הכרעתם ומורים למעשה הבא לפניהם.

Shevet Yehuda is then the archetype builder of Torah and the creative power in developing it, and so it is fitting that both the Netziv and R' Amital bore the name Yehuda. The Netziv helped lead Volozhin for almost 40 years, building it into a transformative power that inspired the establishment of countless more yeshivas like it. Try to imagine what the world of Torah learning would look like today had he not succeeded. Now, fast-forward 100 years, but now we live in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and now world Jewry has begun returning to the land of Israel. R' Amital brought a certain grandiose vision to what had been a last-century institution. I think I remember Rabbi Moshe Taragin describing R' Amital's feelings about the beis medrash that was to be built. Look around and almost every beis medrash built is like any other, roughly a rectangular box with shtenders and seforim. A rectangular box. But today we have the wealth to hire architects to design beautiful buildings that are inspiring and aesthetically pleasing. And he insisted that much thought be invested in the building of the structure of the yeshiva, that it be beautiful and inspiring, which it certainly is. It is certainly not the traditional rectangular box.

Yehuda, then, represents an ambitious leadership in Torah learning and Torah building. It is this same ambition, perhaps, initially seen in the unique behavior of Kalev ben Yefuneh, the father of the biblical Noam, and also a descendent of Yehuda, in the aftermath of return of the meraglim, in his standing up alone to the other meraglim and to the Jewish people. The same creative vision that warranted Yehuda being sent down by Yaakov to build batei midrashim in Mitzrayim. This is the power of Yehuda in all its might. It is the חובלים aspect of Talmud Torah. And so, unmitigated, unmoderated, this creativity could risk becoming חובלים, brash and caustic, and hurtful, and thus requires a balance of Noam, of gentleness and graciousness. In Rav Amital I saw a brilliant man moderated by a self-awareness and genuine humility.

Together, we pray that Noam Yehuda be blessed with the good nature of the talmidei chachamim of Eretz Yisroel, שמנעימין זה לזה, that he be kind and caring and gentle, even while he also be blessed with keen vision, ambition, inspiration, creativity, and confidence of Yehuda. May Noam Yehuda be exactly that for us, for his extended family, and for Klal Yisroel.