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The teaching of Ben Zoma.


You, my friend -- a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens -- are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul.(1)

IN THESE WORDS, SOCRATES DESCRIBES THE manner in which he would approach his fellow citizens in order to exhort them to the right of way of life.

In a similar vein, Plato, in The Republic, refers to "three classes of men -- lovers of wisdom, lovers of honour, lovers of gain,"(2) and extols life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom as the best; life dedicated to the quest of honour as second in worth; and the life of the money-maker as the last in value.(3)

Aristotle echoes and reiterates these sentiments, praising the contemplative activity (i.e., the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake) as the prime choice. Yet, he emphasizes that the three options are not mutually exclusive, for even the wise man requires "the necessaries of life," while politics and warfare, which express the quest of honour, are accorded "nobility and grandeur among practical activities."(4)

The purpose of this paper is not to discuss the position of the Greek philosophers in this matter, even though their stand may be relevant to our times, as we make our own choice as to the right focus in our individual lives. Our intent is to clarify the position, concerning or related to these three cardinal pursuits, of Ben Zoma, a tanna (Talmudic sage) of the second century C.E., as expressed in Pirke Avot (translated as "Chapters of Fathers," or "The Wisdom of the Fathers").(5) The sayings of Ben Zoma, formulated in the terse and pithy manner characteristic of Pirke Avot, are parallel or closely related to the above statements of Plato and Aristotle, though the conclusions need not be identical. It is this affinity which suggests relating the tanna's dicta to the opinions of the Greek philosophers, despite the different cultural spheres of Judaism and Hellenism, and the assertive, rather than dialectical, nature of the rabbinical maxims.

While the dicta of Ben Zoma are terse and seemingly simple, they hide profound reflection and, indeed, a philosophy of life. It is the aim of this paper to reconstruct and reveal this philosophy by means of a careful analysis of the maxims in the context of the tannaitic world.

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every man. For it is said, "From all my teachers, I got understanding |for thy precepts are my meditation~" (Psalm 119:99).

Who is a hero? He who subdues his |evil~ drive. For it is said, "He that is slow to anger is better than a hero; and he that ruleth his spirit |is better~ than a conqueror of a city" (Proverbs 16:32).

Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his portion. For it is said, "When thou eatest the labour of thy hands, happy shalt thou be and it shall be well with thee" (Psalm 128:2). Happy shalt thou be in this world, and it shall be well with thee in the world to come.

Who is an honourned man? He who honours |other~ people. For it is said, "For I will honour those that honour me, and those that despise me will be slighted" (I Samuel 2:30).(6)

It may be noted that the epigrams of Ben Zoma offer a kind of justification by adducing a Biblical quotation. This well known method of adding weight to an opinion, by linking it to the sacred and venerated text, was employed by later rabbinical sages, as well as by medieval philosophers, Jewish and Christian, such as Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas.

The Biblical quotation, as illustrated in the sayings of Ben Zoma, could be directly supportive of the tanna's opinion, or "stretched" in a variety of ways to suit his purpose. Thus, in the second dictum, concerning the hero, the Biblical verse is similar in spirit to Ben Zoma's own statement, which is not necessarily true in the other cases.

In the case of the wise man who learns from everybody, the supporting verse from the Psalms is somewhat equivocal. The Hebrew phrase translated into English, "From all my teachers I got understanding," could also be rendered as "I am wiser than all my teachers." It is the latter translation which is, in all likelihood, the correct one, if one reads the verse in the context of Psalm 119. The meaning of the whole verse would be: "As it is thy precepts, O God, that form the subject of my meditation, I am wiser than all my teachers." In all probability Ben Zoma understood the verse in this way, but took advantage of the ambiguity of the Hebrew phrasing to make use of the verse in support of his maxim.

In the instance of the dictum concerning the honoured man, we again face an adaptation of the quotation to Ben Zoma's need. The verse from I Samuel is attributed to God, who rebukes Eli for the transgressions of his sons, and says: "I (God) will honour those (men) that honour me." The use of this statement as a guide to inter-human relations is not self-evident, to say the least. However, taken out of context, the verse may read like a testimony to relations among human beings, to the effect that he who is honoured by his fellow beings, honours them in return -- which comes close to Ben Zoma's dictum.

The quotation related to the nature of the rich man does not seem to be directly related to this dictum, for the Biblical verse speaks of the satisfaction with the fruit of one's labour, while Ben Zoma speaks of one's happiness with one's share or portion. Here, the relationship between the maxim and the Biblical verse seems complementary, as we shall see further on.

As to the intended comparison between the three Greek pursuits and the four types of Ben Zoma, it should be noted that two of the latter -- the hero and the honoured man -- seem to correspond to the pursuit of honour in Plato's dialogues. Indeed, Plato specifically refers to both, social recognition and martial achievements, when he asserts that "honour or victory or courage" are the objectives of those who see the pursuit of honour as their purpose in life.(7)


"Who is wise? He who learns from every man." While this proposition may seem to express good common sense, as it is based on the assumption that grains of truth, however scanty, may be found everywhere, the assumption is not self-evident and, in a way, may contradict the basic stance of traditional Judaism and, incidentally, of Plato's philosophical position.

For the prevalent belief of the tannaim, which was crucial in forming the Jewish attitude for subsequent centuries, was that the Torah, the Divine teaching, ought to be the focus, perhaps even the exclusive domain, of study. Implicit in this belief is the view that the Torah is the source of wisdom, and those learned in the teaching of the Lord are the right guides for those who seek learning. Pirke Avot is replete with maxims to that effect. Let us quote a few.

"Rabbi Elazar says, Be diligent to study Torah."(8) "Rabbi Meir says, Reduce your involvement in business and make yourself busy with the Torah."(9) The Torah is extolled as the exclusive source of knowledge and wisdom by Ben Bag Bag, who says: "Turn it over and over, for everything is in it."(10) Consequently, the wise men or sages, who are learned in the Torah and its interpretation, are to be sought out by people. Thus, Yose ben Yoezer offers the advice: "Let your home be the house of assembly of the wise (the rabbinical scholars) and let yourself be covered by the dust of their feet (sit at their feet), and thirstily drink their words."(11) In a similar vein, Rabbi Eliezer offers the advice: "Warm yourself at the fire of the wise (the scholars)."(12)

This approach parallels Plato's insistence that wisdom and knowledge are attained by the philosophers. The truth resides in the world of ideas, and access to it requires the training and dedication of the philosopher. The Jewish approach substitutes the Torah, the word of God, for the world of ideas, and the rabbinical exegetical approach for the quest of the philosopher.

The rabbinical insistence that the study of the Torah ought to be pursued for its own sake and made "neither a crown to aggrandize oneself nor a spade to dig with,"(13) that is to say, that learning should not be used either for social distinction or as a means for personal gain, is in line with the Aristotelian glorification of intellectual activity pursued for its own sake.(14) The Aristotelian vita contemplativa, a life focussing on the search for philosophical wisdom, is virtually as sanctified by the Greek philosopher(15) as the life centering on the study of of the Torah is by the Jewish sages.

Both the Greek and the Judaic approaches, as outlined above, imply the elusive nature of wisdom and the effort involved in its pursuit, which make the wise a select group. Aristotle demands a dedication to intellectual activity, which is not likely to be every man's choice. Plato, in The Republic, specifically singles out the philosophers as a very select group of people who dedicate their whole life to their avocation. Indeed, as well known, he entrusts them with the rule of his ideal state, for it is they, and not the common people, who know what is true and what is right, and, thus, are qualified to guide and lead the society and the state. The exhortations of the Sages in Pirke Avot insist on the wisdom of the Torah and on the guidance to this wisdom provided the rabbis. The rabbinical approach to wisdom seems to exclude any alternate avenues, as much as does Plato's view. The road to truth is one, and those who pave it must be recognized and followed. There is authoritative wisdom, and there is no point in looking for enlightenment in other quarters.

Looked at from this perspective, the dictum of Ben Zoma strikes one as odd and eccentric, not to say, outright contradictory. For Ben Zoma's wise man is not one who explores the meaning of the Torah, or follows in the steps of the sages who dedicate their lives to the study of the Torah, but one "who learns from every man." This does not mean, however, that Ben Zoma belittled the Torah and its study and the tradition of learning pursued by the tannaim, of which he, himself, was one. It does mean that Ben Zoma saw importance also in the experience and reflection of ordinary people. The maxim does not contradict the traditional perception about the wisdom of the Torah; it only amplifies it by another source of knowledge derived from common people. Every human being is implicitly assumed to have some kind of wisdom, some true opinion, and the wise man is he who is ready to cull the truth from this wide pool of humanity.

This approach carries two important assumptions or implications. One is of a philosophical nature. It encourages learning based on induction, on the absorption of a wide experience, besides the deductive knowledge arrived at from the interpretation of the Torah. To be sure, the rabbinical tradition in the age of the tannaim and in subsequent centuries was never purely deductive, for the juridical decisions of the rabbis on various actual or theoretical legal issues were often at least partially based on individual judgment, which must have been affected by their experience, and by the facts before them. The rabbis often combined the deductive legal conclusion, derived from a Biblical injunction, with a personal judgment ab aequo et bono. Yet they, almost as a rule, tried to find legitimation in the Holy Scriptures for their legal opinion or adjudication in a specified case, and in this sense were committed to the perception of knowledge and wisdom as being a deductive process. Ben Zoma throws the gate open for the inductive pursuit of knowledge and wisdom through the experience of diverse humanity.

Another assumption is of a social nature. Learning from every man implies that all men partake of knowledge and wisdom. If the superior knowledge of the rabbis, or the Platonic philosophers, implies a degree of elitism, the approach of Ben Zoma leans to egalitarianism and may be regarded as an expression of a democratic disposition. To be sure, no rabbi would have excluded anyone willing and eager to study Torah from this pursuit, as Plato would have done in his ideal state in respect of those not qualified to become philosophers or not needed to fill their ranks. Yet, in practice, the realm of rabbinical wisdom was restricted to the few who had actually achieved the distinction of being learned and wise. Ben Zoma insists that there is wisdom -- some wisdom, at least -- in the many, irrespective of their scholarly qualifications.

Yet, this stance does not mean that Ben Zoma considered all men equal in their wisdom. For if the wise man is "he who learns from every man," this need not indicate that every man is wise. There are the many who have some truth to teach or some instructive experience, but it may be only the few who are capable of learning from the experience of humanity, from the insights of diverse individuals. Such learning may require discrimination and judgment which is not the capacity of everybody. The many may be an important source of wisdom, but it is up to the wise men to draw on this source, to sift that experience, and to absorb it into a coherent and authoritative whole.


"Who is a hero? He who subdues his |evil~ drive." This dictum presents some problems for the translator. The Hebrew word gibor is often translated as "mighty man." We have chosen "hero," to indicate that not only physical qualities, but, also, courage and determination, are factors in the make-up of a person who is denoted by this appellation. Another difficulty is the translation of yezer. It can be, and has been, conveyed in English by such words as "impulse," "passion," "inclination," "lust." What has to be borne in mind is the Judaic notion that man is driven by two opposite elemental forces, each of which is a primary energy, namely, the good drive and the evil one. These forces are more than a mere impulse or passion, for they seem to have a virtually exclusive sway over the individual, or, rather, strive with each other to dominate a person and to control his actions for good or for evil. "Drive" may convey this sense perhaps better than the other words. In the quoted statement, though the text merely refers to yezer, or drive, it is implicitly meant to indicate the evil drive. Hence, our insertion of "evil" in brackets.

Interestingly, the distinction between the evil and the good forces in the human soul and the concern about the dangers incurred from the evil propensity are clearly expressed by Plato. In Phaedrus, he presents the human soul as composed of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. One of the horses is noble and the other ignoble, one is good and the other is bad. One pulls the soul to nobility and goodness, and the other to depravity and evil.(16) A similar approach is presented in The Republic, where the evil impulses of man are likened to a wild beast, which ought to be controlled by reason in order to ensure the virtuous life. Without such control, man goes astray, and his personality is corrupted and perverted.(17)

While Ben Zoma, in his epigrammatic statement, does not elaborate on the nature of the evil drive, nor does he look for illustrations and similes to describe it, he essentially holds the same position as Plato: the evil drive in man ought to be controlled. While agreeing with the Greek philosopher in substance, the tanna conveys his opinion in a different manner: he does not address the issue of the right balance in the human soul; he does not consider the fundamental problem directly. Instead, he appends his conviction to a common notion about an admired type, the hero, and expresses his opinion through a definition of the type.

Indeed, by defining the hero as one who subdues his evil drive, he expresses more than the Greek philosopher. For, in fact, he makes two statements. One, is that the hero, the mighty and illustrious warrior, the man who seeks public recognition and admiration, may not deserve such an elevated status. This stand is not explicitly articulated, but it may be inferred. For even if Ben Zoma is not outrightly disparaging towards the conventional hero, he has nothing positive to say about him. The other statement he makes, and makes explicitly, is that the control of one's evil impulses, of the evil force in man, is a heroic achievement, and is truly laudable. Thus, in a single statement, a moral judgment is passed on two different types or ideals.

It may be added that, by switching the notion of the hero from one type to another, Ben Zoma not only states a position in respect of these two diverse ideals, but also relates them to one another and, by comparing them, insinuates a social value system. "Look at the two types," he seems to point out. "One is admired by the public and covered with glory, but this says nothing about his inner life, about his soul, about his spiritual equilibrium. The other, while apparently indifferent to the admiration of the outer world, is in full control of his own life and action. He steers his life along the path of virtue. He is intrinsically good rather than obtaining his worth through the approval of the public and the admiration of the people, who often may value the wrong things."


"Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his portion." The statement runs contrary to the accepted opinion -- at any time and place -- that the rich man is one who has amassed an unusual amount of possessions. This common perception is based on the assumption that the richer a man is, the better for him. Thus, riches become a limitless objective. Ben Zoma, in his statement, questions these assumptions. Instead of the endless quest and pursuit, he suggests contentment with one's possessions. One could say that he transfers the focus of the quest for riches from the economic sphere to the domain of psychology. Riches ought to be measured not by the accountant but by the psychologist, not by the material possessions but by the mental satisfaction of the possessor.

This position seems to contain its own rationale and justification. By offering a psychological criterion for riches, it makes them relatively easy to obtain, whereas riches, which inherently know no bounds, are doomed never to be satisfactory. Thus, the dictum offers solace to man, while rejecting the restless pursuit which has no end and affords no peace. It praises the ideal of a man at peace with his material achievements, as against the restless Faustian striver in the economic sphere.

There may be, however, an additional meaning implied in the maxim. The use of the notion "happy with his portion," which could be also translated as "happy with his share, or lot," emphasizes the principle that a man should have no more than a portion, a part of the whole. He must not aspire to own all. This position has obvious social implications, for it assumes that other people ought to have their share, too. Thus, the statement, though ostensibly directed at the individual, does not forget the society at large. The ambition of the individual ought to be balanced against the needs and rights of his fellow beings. The limitless quest for riches is implicitly seen as an asocial stance and is replaced by a position which allows everyone -- at least, within a viable economy -- to become rich by being content with his own portion. The balanced mind of the individual who refrains from greed, and the social needs, co-exist harmoniously and complement each other.

The critical attitude to the inordinate quest of riches can be found also in Plato. Thus, when theoretically describing the formation of the state, or organized society, he sees in the quest for luxury, which is tantamount to the quest of riches beyond the natural needs of man, the root of all evil. The commitment "to the unlimited accumulation of wealth" is the cause of war, as well as "almost all the evils in States, private as well as public."(18) In a similar vein, when considering human predilection for wisdom, honour and gain, or money-making, the last is the lowest on the scale of values.(19) The same sentiment is echoed by Aristotle, when he refers to "the necessities of life" as required both by the man who practices social virtues and by one who is dedicated to contemplation. Basic material conditions have to be satisfied, but the important objectives in life are on other planes -- social involvement, and, above it, intellectual activity or contemplation.(20)

The Greek philosophical approach to riches is the outcome of a wider perception of man, which regards the material endeavour in the context of overall human values. Man is a social and a spiritual being, though bound by physical-material conditions. To stress the latter at the expense of the former, while fairly common, upsets the true order of priorities. The approach of Ben Zoma to riches has also to be understood in the context of a more comprehensive outlook, which becomes clear when the scriptural support, adduced to justify and explain his position and his interpretation of it, is analyzed.

The scriptural support reads: "When thou eatest the labour of thy hands, happy shalt thou be and it shall be well with thee" (Psalm 128:2). The implication of this verse is that it is not merely the man who is happy with his portion who is rich and, therefore, happy, but that the riches have to be derived from the labour of the hands of a man to facilitate his happiness. Such a stand seems to be implicitly critical and disparaging of riches or possessions not gained by one's own labour, besides limiting the amount of riches (which can hardly be excessive if they are merely the product of the labour of the hands of an individual). This virtually sounds like an exhortation to productive work and a disparagement of gain by more sophisticated, let alone speculative, means.

Ben Zoma's interpretation of the verse from Psalms adds another dimension to his maxim, by placing it in the context of a wider religious outlook. In a characteristic Midrashic commentary, he attributes different intent and meaning to the poetical duplication of the verse. While the statements "happy shalt thou be" and "it shall be well with thee" are intended by the Psalmist as no more than the repetition of the same idea, Ben Zoma uses them to convey two different, though complementary, propositions. "Happy shalt thou be" is addressed to life in this world, comments the tanna, while "it shall be well with thee" conveys the promise of wellbeing in the world to come.

By relating the maxim of moderation in the quest for riches to the award of happiness in the world to come, Ben Zoma elevates the dictum to a new high level. It is no more only psychological advice with social implications; it becomes a maxim involving an absolute dimension, for it is related not merely to terrestrial affairs of a transient nature, at least as far as the virtuous individual is concerned. It touches the continuing, endless, immortal condition of the said individual, it verges on the absolute. The person who is happy with what he has, and does not devote his life to a never-ending quest for riches, is not only a happier person; he is also a better person as judged by an absolute scale of values.

Implicit in the promise of wellbeing in the world to come, for those who are happy with their lot and live by their own toil, is the notion that the quest for excessive riches distracts one from following the path which leads to eternity. This path, to judge by other rabbinical statements, is one of commitment to the study of the Torah, which leads to right and just conduct, the righteous life. Thus, Hillel, the venerated sage of an earlier age, says: "He who acquired the words of the Torah, acquired life of the world to come."(21) Significantly, the traditional reading of Pirke Avot -- one chapter each Sabbath during the spring and summer months -- opens with a statement, prefixed to each of the six chapters: "Everyone of Israel has a portion in the world to come, for it is said, 'And thy people are all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever...'" (Isaiah 60:21). "Inherit the land for ever," in the rabbinical interpretation, means: "will live eternally in the world to come." Assuming that Ben Zoma is in accord with this fundamental philosophy, it can be inferred that he relegates the material life and quest to what Aristotle called "the necessities of life," while regarding the life of study, piety and righteousness, a life leading to eternity, as the desirable focus of Jewish existence.

The insistence on restraining the quest for material possessions, and the implicit warning against an exclusive commitment to an acquisitive life, has been echoed in European folklore, which tells stories about men who sold their souls for riches, or who succumbed to their own greed. The deviation from the right way or sensible self-restraint is often linked to the seductive influence of the devil. These folk tales have served as themes for some masterly literary compositions, such as the story of Lev Tolstoy, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"(22) or of Rudyard Kipling, "The King's Ankus."(23)


"Who is an honoured man? He who honours |other~ people." On the face of it, this is just a statement of a psychological or a sociological fact. He who respects other people is respected by them. Be nice to people, and people will be nice to you. Respect is enhanced by social reciprocity.

Yet, there is more to the statement than a mere common sense observation. It can also be understood as an indirect criticism of those who look for public admiration and honour in an active way, regarding public esteem as a worthwhile aim of personal endeavour. The seekers of honour who are mentioned by Plato and Aristotle come to mind. As already mentioned, neither philosopher disparaged such quest of honour, though both regarded it as inferior to the quest of wisdom or contemplative activity.(24) Ben Zoma, on the other hand, by ignoring the choice of a life dedicated to the pursuit of honour and public recognition, and suggesting, instead, respect for fellow human beings as a source of honour, seems deliberately to exclude the quest of public esteem from his list of desirable endeavours.

This, somewhat speculative, conclusion can be strengthened by relating Ben Zoma's statement to another dictum in Pirke Avot, attributed to Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar: "Envy, lust and |pursuit of~ honour take man out of the world."(25) Here, besides lust, envy and the quest of honour are cited as vices, or, one is tempted to say, deadly sins. The exact nature of the consequences of these qualities is not quite clear, for "take man out of the world" can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It may mean the isolation and estrangement of the culprit, or his exclusion from the world of decent people, or his ultimate personal downfall, or even demise. Whatever the nature of the plight, Rabbi Elazar is not primarily concerned about the dire consequences for the lustful, the envious, and the ambitious, but with the undesirable and the immoral nature of these propensities. The good man ought not to cater to his lust and ambition, nor be envious of his fellow beings.

Seen in this light, the statement that those are honoured who honour others appears as a criticism of those who seek prominence by putting themselves forward, who are primarily concerned with their own success, as ambitious people often are. Rather than thinking of one's own position in society, one should show respect to one's fellow citizens or fellow men, that is to say, express one's concern for the standing of others.

Perhaps implicit in this stance is the assumption that a society of competing seekers of honour promotes envy and friction among them, elements of discord and conflict. By contrast, a society in which each man respects other men promotes social harmony and peace. A man honouring others is honoured in return. Thus, if all honour each other, all are honoured, which is an ideal state for a community. Not so is the case of self-seekers. To be given distinction and unusual respect results in separating the recipient of such honour from others. This kind of honour must remain the privilege of the few, and cannot be subsumed under the rule of a universal principle applying to all men.

The rabbinical stance clearly expresses a strong concern for social morality. Ben Zoma's dictum, while in one sense expressing a factual statement, a common sense reflection on social relations -- the honoured man is he who honours other people -- in another way makes an ethical statement. This point can be further substantiated by the interpretation of the maxim itself. For the Hebrew word, mekhubad, can be translated as "honoured" as well as "honourable." Thus, the maxim could read: "Who is an honourable man? He who honours |other~ people." A man who honours other people is honourable, he deserves to be honoured. He does not merely choose an expedient way for attaining honour for himself by respecting his fellow men. He takes the right path, and, thereby, deserves moral approval. He ought to be honoured.

The sayings of Ben Zoma, not unlike those of some of the other tannaim, while terse and seemingly simple, are open to interpretation and discussion. The elusive meaning of mekhubad, signifying both honoured and honourable -- actually, respected and worthy of respect -- is a case in point. The questionable meaning of hero, the elusive satisfaction of riches, the complex nature of wisdom, are all open to reflection and discussion. While Ben Zoma has his point of view, the formulation of his philosophy offers a stimulus to a dialogue and controversy. Whether or not this is intended by him and by some other sages, the argument resulting from the peculiar formulation of the maxim accords with the argumentative character and method of the tannaim and their subsequent Talmudic followers. Engaged in legal interpretation and adjudication, the discussion, argument, and disputation were the very nature of their intellectual activity. Though their philosophical dicta seem to belong to a different category of thinking, these dicta express the thoughts of the same scholars, who, consciously or unwittingly, were disposed, or even eager, to provoke discussion and intellectual argument. For, besides being scholars, they were teachers, and, thus, as much aware of the pedagogical value of the dialogue as Socrates and Plato had been.

Ben Zoma could have conveyed his position by simply stating that wisdom has to be sought not only in books but also culled from ordinary people; that it is paramount to control one's evil impulse; that it is desirable to acquiesce in one's modest but adequate possessions, rather than pursue inordinate riches; that one ought to respect one's fellow beings. Instead, the tanna chose to append his value judgments to a series of controversial definitions of widely admired types and pursuits: wise, heroic, wealthy, and honored (or honorable). This method may well have served a pedagogical purpose. By offering his startling definitions, which contradict the common notions, Ben Zoma intrigues and provokes the scholars and the disciples, and compels the attention of his and future generations to reflect on the issues close to his heart. One may accept these controversial positions or reject them, but, once they are conveyed in his provocative definitions, his point of view and the issue itself cannot be ignored.

This system is reminiscent of the famed Socratic approach of stimulating people to think by asking them to define some basic, seemingly simple, concepts, and then, by questioning such definitions, compelling people to reflect on the issue and not merely to repeat current opinions. The definition is the pedagogical fulcrum in both cases. Yet, there is a difference between the Greek philosopher and the tanna, for the latter did not elaborate intricate dialogues, master-pieces of intellectual analysis (at least, we have no record of such), but simply stated his definition. Thus, the method of Ben Zoma seems diametrically opposed to that of Socrates: it provides the answer rather than demanding, provoking or stimulating it. Yet, it seems to us that this difference is of secondary importance. It is tactical rather than strategic. For Ben Zoma, by making his definition controversial, still propounded a stand which would encourage and provoke discussion and argument -- starting with the sage's definition and going backward to its justification, or, possibly, its rejection.

Ostensibly, Ben Zoma presents us with four maxims, each to be considered separately and independently. He does not put forward a coherent philosophy, relating his notions of the wise man, the hero, the rich man, and the honoured one, to each other, as the Greek philosophers do when discussing the various ideals of life -- the pursuit of wisdom, of honour, and of money. We do not know whether Ben Zoma preferred wisdom to self-control, and either of the two to moderation in material concerns, or the consideration for the dignity of one's fellow citizens. There is no indication here of a scale of preference, or of the interdependence of the virtuous pursuits. Yet, it would be mistaken to conclude that the four dicta are not linked by an underlying philosophy. In fact, the examination of the statements and their scriptural support points to a clear and consistent outlook. The maxims, though each standing on its own merits, complement each other and form an intelligible and solid foundation for a way of life. What, then, is the philosophy of Ben Zoma, which can be deduced from his dicta and their justification?

A cardinal assumption of the tanna is that one's way of life has to be determined not only from the perspective of one's transient earthly existence -- though this must not be ignored -- but also sub specie aeternitatis. An individual's life is judged not merely by relative standards, but on an absolute scale. One's actions in this world are relevant for the world to come. This elevation of the significance of one's conduct, from the limitations of man's temporal existence to the range of the absolute, is reminiscent of the Socratic assertion about the pursuit of the right way irrespective and in defiance of the limitations of man's individual life span:

O men of Athens, ...either acquit me or not; but whatever you do, understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.(26)

The absolute value of moral pursuit transcends the vicissitudes of temporal existence. Ben Zoma and various other tannaim express a similar sentiment by extending the significance of the right conduct to its relevance in the world to come. For though, on the face of it, the world to come is an extension of existence which facilitates rewarding the just, it also provides the timeless support for the ethical imperatives and the Divine framework for human conduct. Man, in his limited earthly existence, is thus exhorted to see himself in a much wider perspective: his own deeds and way of life become linked to the system of an absolute and eternal Divine order.

In the wide framework of this order, man is exhorted to follow a life of self-control and self-restraint. The right way for man is not to give free vent to all of his impulses and desires. There are evil propensities in him, and it is his duty to subdue and control them. Lust, or inordinate pursuit of riches, or passionate quest of public honour, are all dangerous and destructive. The good man is he who controls these propensities, and chooses a life of moderation. This, broadly speaking, parallels the approach of Plato and Aristotle, who advocate moderation and inner harmony and the supremacy of reason in the life of the individual.

Yet, Ben Zoma is not concerned merely with the individual. For man is a member of the community; he is, as Aristotle put it, zoon politikon, a social or political creature. This does not mean that man ought to compete with his fellow human beings for riches, or for honour, or any other privilege. On the contrary, being a member of a community commands consideration for other people. Do not look for your honour, but show respect to others. Do not look for inordinate riches, but be happy with your portion, so that others may enjoy theirs. Even in your quest for wisdom, which does not deprive or diminish such quest by other people, consider the insights of others. For though the community sets demands on the individual, it also reciprocates by offering benefits to him. He may get wiser by learning from other people, and he will be honoured by those he honours.

The consequence of these guidelines is a society which is saved from inner frictions. Individuals who control their evil drives, and who show consideration and respect to each other, form a community which is at peace with itself. In this sense, the good society is as much sought by Ben Zoma and other tannaim, as the ideal state was pursued by Plato. Yet, there is a profound difference between the Greek philosopher's model and the Jewish scholars' objective. Plato's republic is built on rigid class divisions, and social hierarchy. Everybody must know his place in society, and obediently acquiesce in his designated position. The community, as envisaged by sages like Ben Zoma, essentially looks forward to a society of equals, in which everybody may be happy with his portion, in which everybody will be honoured, in which all have a part in wisdom, as well as a portion in the world to come. There may be actual differences in individual capabilities and accomplishments, but these should not obliterate the basic concern for every human being or the recognition of every man's importance and dignity. Unlike in the Platonic state, where each person fulfills a function in the body politic according to his class, and is accorded rights, or deprived of them, to fit the whole, Ben Zoma's philosophy clearly implies that everybody ought to have access to wisdom and knowledge, that everybody can and ought to be a "hero," that everybody can be truly rich (in his sense), and ought to be honoured.

Judaic injunctions have occasionally been described as rules of expediency rather than of morality. To address this accusation to the maxims of Ben Zoma, it could be said that he justifies moderation in riches by the consequent wellbeing in this and the coming world, that he exhorts each person to honour others in order to be honoured. It could even be argued that Ben Zoma implicitly suggests that it is beneficial for the wise to be so, and that the self-controlled person benefits from the strength of his character, though this may be a moot point. Be this as it may, even when the benefits to the agent resulting from his behavior are explicitly stated, this need not degrade the maxims to a non-ethical level.

It is true that rabbinical precepts, as well as Biblical injunctions, often relate the behavior of the individual, or the people, to his or its subsequent fortunes: right behavior is rewarded, while sin and evil-doing are punished. This, however, does not mean, nor is it intended to mean, that the justification of right conduct is in the salutary consequences for the agent involved. The reward is mentioned, when it is, to provide an incentive, just as the punishment for evil-doing is pointed out to assure a deterrent. Yet, the right behaviour, whether in honouring one's father and mother (Exodus 20:12), or, in the case of Ben Zoma, in controlling one's greed and ambition, is right in itself. The Bible and the tannaim realized that many human beings may not have enough moral strength to abide by right for its own sake and, so, they resorted to the promise of reward and the threat of punishment to assure as wide a compliance as possible with the commandments or instruction offered.

This linkage is not alien to the Greek philosophers who, by and large, argue that the good man is also the truly happy man, or, as Aristotle put it, that "happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue."(27) Though the argument for the connection between the right and the expedient in Greek philosophy may follow its own distinctive path, and excludes the theological element so common in Judaic ethics, the trend to link virtue with happiness, the good deed with reward, the moral with the beneficial, is characteristic of both civilizations. The Greek philosophers may see virtuous behavior as leading to personal happiness, while the Jewish Sages see the good action rewarded in the coming world if not always in this one. Neither isolates and separates the moral deed and behavior from the beneficial consequences to the doer and agent.

MORDECAI ROSHWALD is Emeritus' Professor, University of Minnesota.

1. Plato, Apology, 29 (Jowett's translation).

2. The following quotations are from The Republic, Book IX, 581.

3. Ibid., 582-583.

4. See Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, vii, 1177a-1177b (Translation by J.A.K. Thomson).

5. Pirke Avot, being a tractate of the Mishnah, can be found in its Fourth Order, Nezikin. It is also printed in full in every traditional Jewish prayer-book. Of English translations, let us mention one in paperback, which includes a selection of traditional commentaries. It is by Judah Goldin, published under the title The Living Talmud (Mentor Books, New American Library, 1957).

6. The quotation is from Pirke Avot, Chapter 4:1. The translation from the Hebrew text is by the present writer. The Biblical quotations used in the passage from the Mishnah follow the King James version, but they are occasionally modified to bring them closer to the letter and spirit of the Hebrew text.

7. The Republic, Book IX, 582.

8. Pirke Avot, 2:19.

9. Ibid., 4:12.

10. Ibid., 5:25.

11. Ibid., 1:4.

12. Ibid., 2:15.

13. Ibid., 4:7.

14. See Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, vii, 1177a-1177b.

15. Note the following: "So if the intellect is divine compared with man, the life of the intellect must be divine compared with the life of a human being" (Ibid., 1177b). And further: ... "|W~e do all that we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us" (Ibid.).

16. See Phaedrus, 246 and 253-256.

17. The Republic, Book IX, 571-574. Cf. also the following: "Is not the noble that which subjects the beast to the man, or rather to the god in man; and the ignoble that which subjects the man to the beast?" (Ibid., 589.)

18. The Republic, Book II, 372-373.

19. The Republic, Book IX, 583.

20. Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, vii, 1178a.

21. Pirke Avot, 2:8.

22. Included in Lev Tolstoy, Russian Stories and Legends (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967).

23. Included in Rudyard Kipling, The Second Jungle Book, 1895.

24. See The Republic, Book IX, 583 and Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, vii, 1177b.

25. Pirke Avot, 4:25.

26. Plato, Apology, 30.

27. Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, vii, 1177a.
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Author:Roshwald, Mordecai
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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