The Value of Specialization
Even great people can only be really good at a finite number of things. What, in Torah terms, does that change?
It’s important to know what you don’t know. And it’s also important to respect the limits in the knowledge of the smart people you consult.
I wrote about this some months back in my “Civil Infrastructure and a Torah State” article. That’s where I pointed out how Shlomo Hamelech - the wisest of all men - relied on the foreign-trained engineer Chiram for technical leadership on his greatest building projects. Despite his great wisdom, Shlomo knew that this job called for a specialist.
Since publishing that article I’ve come across some additional historical examples.
In a number of passages in the Talmud (including Sanhedrin 38b, Sanhedrin 67b, and Chagiga 14a) Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaria criticized homiletic statements of Rabbi Akiva. In each of those cases, the criticism is very specific:
עקיבא מה לך אצל הגדה כלך אצל נגעים ואהלות
“Akiva! What business do you have with homiletics. Go (back) to (the complex halachic areas of) negaim and ohalos”
Regardless of whether Rabbi Akiva accepted the rebukes (in these particular cases, the gemara doesn’t say), Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaria clearly felt that Rabbi Akiva should focus exclusively within his scope of expertise.
Moshe and Yisro
As the Torah (Shemos 18:14) relates, Yisro offered significant recommendations for restructuring our judicial system. But, as Rabbi S.R. Hirsch observed (Shemos 18:24), Moshe, on his own, was apparently incapable of recognizing the problem and generating its solution. Without outside expertise, things might have remained hopelessly inefficient indefinitely.
In response to a question about a homiletic passage, Rav Shach is widely reported to have replied:
“A man knows himself. I never once had familiarity with these matters. Because from my youth I was constantly engaged with the yeshiva curriculum and I never had the time to focus my thoughts in these weightiest matters.”
Of course that’s not to say that there aren’t genuine polymaths among us. There are certainly Torah scholars whose understanding of the way the modern world works is remarkable - and valuable. But it does mean that no human being is expert in everything.
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