Curious about the initial reluctance among Haredi authorities to shut down the yeshivot in response to the coronavirus, I went to take another look at the Hilkhot Talmud Torah in the Mishneh Torah. My thoughts about the Haredi response were and remain two. The first concerns the importance of talmud Torah as a supreme and overriding value in those communities. The second is the notion that the value of talmud Torah is social-structural, not strictly “spiritual” as such.
Hilkhot Talmud Torah suggest something of a piece. They lack the charm of the paean to Torah and to Torah study in the midrashic sources, or that spiritual sublimation in Talmud and Kabbalah. One could chalk that up to the fact that this is a halakhic document, that it lacks that warm glow. But more to the point is the rationalism brought to the text, and that this rationalism draws attention to social function. Not God and not even Torah, what matters unambiguously to Maimonides in this Hilkhot Talmud Torah is first and foremost the social authority and privilege of the sages. No kidding around and almost nothing soft about it, there is a rough and nasty feel to the laws of Torah study.
Chapter 1 is largely about fathers and sons. It outlines the obligation of talmud Torah, namely who is and is not obligated to study Torah themselves and to teach their sons, establishing designated times, etc. While women are not obligated (1:1), they do receive reward for Torah study, but not as much as men do, because men are obligated, and women are not. But Maimonides does not want fathers to teach their daughters Torah because they will turn it into something idle, etc, etc. (1:13).
Chapter 2 concerns children and teachers. The reference here is to the melamed. There is some concern about unmarried melamdim and the mothers of students. Of special note. Children should never be interrupted from their studies, not even for the sake of building the Temple (2:2). We see here the supreme value placed on talmud Torah, and will see it again in the next chapter.
Chapter 3 is very important. It establishes the authority of Torah as one crown next to the crowns of kingship and priesthood, while placing alongside the authority of Torah the authority of the sages. Of interest is the relation between the Torah study and his business interests. Of special note is the notion that none of the mitzvot are equal to the mitzvah of talmud Torah, that its study is equal to all the mitzvot on the talmudic rationale that study being prior to and the condition of deeds (3:3).
Chapter 4 concerns the moral deot of teachers and students, and teacher-student etiquette. The reference here now shifts to the rav or master.
Chapter 5 highlights the importance of honoring the rav, respecting their authority; a student should never contest a rav. Attention is paid to worthy and unworthy students and to the social hierarchies of the academy.
Chapter 6 upholds the privileged social status, not of the rav, but of the sage or Torah sage (chacham or talmid chacham), including proper deference. When to sit, when to stand, etc. Among many things, Torah sages are exempt from contributing to taxes and to public work projects (6:10). Of particular note. The entirety of the last four halachot of this chapter concern the great sin (avon) of disgracing or hating sages. Included are the rules for placing under the ban of ostracism (nidui) those who do so. Maintaining the social and moral order, the last halakha of this chapter lists twenty-four cases that would submit a person to a ban in relation to the disrespect of Torah sages and in general (6:11-14).
Chapter 7 opens with the touchy subject of the conditions under which and how a sage or other communal functionaries might be banned (7:1) before continuing to discuss bans and the lifting of bans in general. Starting in the last halkhot of the previous chapter, talmud Torah has completely dropped out from view as a subject matter.
Without naming it as such, chapter 7 and the tractate as a whole brings the student back to the middle way. It is not a good thing for a Torah sage to get accustomed to banning people, and to that effect, he should not be in the habit of listening to the words of common people. The pious of previous generations would pardon insult and take pride in pleasant deeds, and never issue bans to secure their own honor. Note that this is not a legal norm, but a pious one that is worthy of being followed. But there is a definite condition. If the insult is in private, then okay. In response to public insult, the Torah sage is forbidden to forgo his honor because of the disrespect to Torah. This is the final word of the tractate. In such a case and until the offender requests pardon, the Torah sage should seek vengeance, acting in the matter like a snake (7:13).