Thursday, September 01, 2011

When the rabbis became doctors, someone said "This is stupid." part III

The prior "when the rabbis became doctors" posts concerned the "Rabbi Doctor" phenomenon which arose in the 19th century (actually, at that time it was really more like "Rabbi assuming the title Doctor" phenomenon). Someone is said to have said that "The Jewish people were healthier before the rabbis became doctors." Ironic. I don't know if anyone really said it, but they really say that people said it. Here are parts one and two.

In any case, here is an interesting document from 1839. This is part of a posthumously published article by Peter Beer (1758-1838) in the Algemeine Zeitung des Judentums. Peter Beer of Prague was a teacher, historian and eventually a proponent of Reform. Having living through times of great transition he was in a position to reflect on new trends. In this case, this aged man had noticed that "nowadays" every would-be rabbi simply has to pursue a doctorate in a university. I suppose you could say that this is ironic, since he was a proponent of modernity. Now that he was old - well, those young whippersnappers and their trends! You get my drift. Still, there is something to think about in his critique. First, here is the man and below is the excerpt:

He says that almost all of our young Preacher-candidates make great efforts to obtain a doctorate so that they can parade before the whole world not only as a philosopher, but a doctor of philosophy. He quotes Jeremiah 18:13, "Ask ye now among the nations, who hath heard such things?" - among the Catholic preachers, you will find no doctors if you looked among a thousand. Among the Protestants, also most do not aspire to the doctorate, since a doctorate is as relevant to their profession as it is to that of a rabbi or Jewish preacher. But only among Jews has this become fashionable. Our aspiring candidates is as ashamed to appear without a doctor's cap as he is without shoes and stockings.

What is going to be the fate of the title "Doctor?" It will go the way of the titles Morenu and Chaver which became so common because they were available for two or four Gulden for anyone who wanted it that they were worthless. In fact learned men were ashamed to use it, even to be called up to the Torah.

We had no Doctor Aristobulus, no Doctor Philo, no Doctor Maimonides, no Doctor Albo, no Doctor Candia, no Doctor Spinoza, no Doctor Mendelssohn, no Doctor Salomon Maimon, among the radiant stars whose greatness shone on the philosophical horizon of ancient times, and more recently. These great men were scholars, not doctors.

So what happens? After he completes his university studies, and before he takes office as a rabbi, he has to spend much time with urgent activities, more important than preparing himself for the difficult doctorate examinations. He has to know the Bible and its commentaries. As a preacher, he must familiarize himself with homiletics. Most importantly, as a Jewish theologian he has to know a few tractates of the Talmud, if not the whole thing, especially those which as a rabbi he will be asked to make decisions. E.g., Pesachim, Chulin, Niddah, and to some extent Yevamos and Gittin. This isn't knowledge that he would have acquired before his schooling, being too young. He also couldn't acquire it during his years of study, not having the spare time.


  1. I've enjoyed reading your posts for about a year. Sorry for posting off topic but could you suggest a good online resource to start Talmud study for a complete beginner with near native knowledge of Hebrew? You can respond here or to mishlevin (at) Thanks.

  2. have you seen the polemical anti-reform tract emek refa'im (ny, 1865). the title makes fun of the doctors (refa'im/rofe'im)

  3. mishlevin - there are plenty of resources, esp if you have eng and heb. what are you interested in learning?

  4. Zohar - I know how to find the texts. What I am looking for is a study guide with commentary (preferably non-indoctrinating) that would help me to get along in a systematic manner.

  5. Maimonides and Candia (Yashar Delmedigo) were doctors alright...

  6. Fred, your link for "two" is broken.

    Do modern Reform rabbis need to learn Niddah and Chullin enough to make decisions? Eich Naflu Gibborim.



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