The Role of the Elite

What does it mean to be an “elite?” Recently, the term has come to be much derided by people on both ends of the political spectrum. For those on the right, it conjures up snobs, people who have college educations, who look down on the rural parts of our country as backwards, who turn up their noses at manual labor and don’t value long ties to a particular region or town. On the left, it dredges up the idea of corruption and the uber-wealthy, who are out only for their own gain.

Without spending too much time on trying to break down what merit there is to either of these positions, it’s worth asking what an “elite” actually is. The word itself means someone or a part of a group with superior qualities or abilities. Although it might seem that a democratic society should shun the idea that there is such a thing, we ought to be careful not to simply throw out the idea. The Jewish idea of an elite isn’t one of wealth to be flaunted or that the educated should scorn the less so, but it does establish that those who devote themselves to deep study are to be consulted. The goal of wealth isn’t power or conspicuous consumption, but to become a caretaker for those with less.

In either case, what binds the elite – whether an elite of money or of knowledge – is the obligation to temper it with humility and care for others. The commandment of “pe’ah,” leaving the corners of the field for the poor to take, is intended to instruct us that “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1) In other words, not only is it the case that giving to others doesn’t make you anything special, but that failing to do so is a kind of theft, both from God, to Whom your wealth actually belongs, and from the poor, for whom each of us is a caretaker.

Judaism does not claim that money is evil. To the contrary it is a good, which is to be used for good.

Nor does Judaism respect the ignorant. Our tradition emphasizes that each of us has an obligation to seek knowledge and only hear and speak truth – stay far from a falsehood (Exodus 23:7), it tells us, and an ignoramus cannot be pious (Pirke Avot 2:5).

Our society has come to a place where we have little respect for those with great knowledge, and denigrate the wealthy merely for their wealth. It is wrong to do so, but so is living a life focused on acquisition and ignoring one’s obligation to use one’s money to improve the lives of others. We should not only respect the educated, but seek to become so ourselves. But similarly, those who have the gift of knowledge should not act with arrogance.

As Pirke Avot reminds us, “If you have learned much, do not take credit for yourself—it is for this that you have been formed.” (Pirke Avot 2:8) Your knowledge, your power, your wealth: none of it is to your personal credit, and thus you have an obligation to use it for others.  Arrogance about your education is a form of falsehood, much as withholding material assistance to others is a form of theft.

The divisions that our country are suffering from will not be mended until we are able to learn these lessons.

Ben Zoma says:  Who is wise? The one who learns from every person;  Who is brave?  The one who masters himself;  Who is rich? The one who is appreciates what he has; And who is honored?  The one who honors others.  (Pirke Avot 4:1)

 

 

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