Can we separate an artist from their art? A scholar from their scholarship? Can we appreciate a wonderful book written by a terrible person? These are some of the deeply painful questions we ask today, especially in the age of #MeToo and cancel culture, and the seemingly never-ending revelations of terrible, dangerous, predatory behavior by many esteemed artists, teachers and spiritual leaders.
In truth, these questions are perennial, and the rabbis struggled with the same dilemma. For them, the question was: Can we separate Torah from the rabbi who shares it? Take, for example, this story:
There was a certain Torah scholar who gained a bad reputation. Rav Yehuda said: What should be done? To excommunicate him is not an option — the sages need him. Not to excommunicate him is also not an option, as the name of Heaven would be desecrated.
The rabbis, it would seem, are in a bind. They would like to excommunicate this Torah scholar who has purportedly behaved badly, both to distance themselves from him and to protect God’s reputation. On the other hand, his Torah — his contribution to the discourse and tradition of halakhah — is recognized to be of vital importance. If they lose him, they lose that as well. Rabbi bar bar Hana offers a teaching from Rabbi Yohanan to help Rav Yehuda decide:
What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah at his mouth; for he is a messenger (malakh) of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7)? This verse teaches: If the teacher is similar to an angel (malakh) of the Lord, then seek Torah from his mouth, but if he is not, then do not seek Torah from his mouth.
Using a play on words — malakh means both angel and messenger — this teaching comes to explain the central dilemma of this discussion. Torah is not just about the words that are spoken by its teachers, but also about the way those messengers behave in their everyday lives.
Recall, also, that this scholar’s bad behavior was only rumored, and not proven. Despite the lack of proof, Rav Yehuda is ready to excommunicate him, presumably for the sake of preserving the reputation of Torah and its scholars. That can make us profoundly uncomfortable — the idea that a person is exiled from the community without proof of guilt.
But likely for Rav Yehuda the calculation is that the greater good — in this case Torah — is more important. He excommunicates the scholar.
Some time later, as Rav Yehuda is dying, a number of his fellow rabbis, including the one he excommunicated, come to visit him. In that moment, reflecting on his life, Rabbi Yehuda expresses no regret about his decision. In fact, he laughs. The excommunicated scholar responds:
Was it not enough that you excommunicated me, but now you even laugh at me?
Rav Yehuda said to him: I was not laughing at you; rather, I am happy as I go to that other world that I did not flatter even a great man like you.
It’s a startling image — that on his own death bed, Rav Yehuda laughs in the face of the man whose life he upended, perhaps even ruined. Given that he was initially unsure of what to do, Rabbi Yehuda’s laughter seems, in this moment, to be his confirmation, to himself, that he made the right decision.
This laughter, then, becomes the lesson: We cannot separate the scholar from their Torah. Rather, we should only learn Torah from those who live Torah, only seek to learn values and morals and communal behaviors from those who practice what they preach. The rabbis do not take excommunication lightly, and we know that any loss of Torah is, for them, a grave loss. Rav Yehuda, by example, reminds us that we must take seriously not only the teachings and words that are spoken, but the teacher as well; for the rabbis, we must do as we say.
Read all of Moed Katan 17 on Sefaria.