Kavod HaBriyot, or human dignity, is one of the most important and fundamental Jewish ideals. The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (24:7) describes that human dignity is of the highest importance because each time a person embarrasses his fellow, he also diminishes G-d himself, the creator of that human being. As the Torah teaches us in Bereishit (1:27), man is created B’Tzelem Elokim, in the image and likeness of G-d. So important this notion of protecting human dignity and paying the proper respect to other people, the Gemara in Tractat Berachot (19b) writes that one may violate any Rabbinic commandment in order to preserve dignity. So important is Kavod HaBrioyt that throughout Pirkei Avot, different Rabbis have emphasized unique aspects and teachings as it pertains to this notion of giving honor to your fellow. In Chapter 2 Mishna 15 Rabbi Eliezer described how “the honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own.” In the beginning of Chapter 4 Mishna 1, Ben Zoma asks “Who is wise? He who honors others.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this notion of treating others with the proper amount of respect, honor, and dignity can be found in Shemot (20:12) as one of the 10 Commandments—“Honor your father and mother.” Interestingly, later in Vayikra (19:3) the Torah adds to this commandment and teaches “Ish Imo ViAviv Tirau”; “You shall fear your mother and your father.” The Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin (31b) notes the difference between these two verses—the first verse focused on honor (Kavod) and the second verse focused on fear (Yirah)—and makes an important distinction between these categories. The Gemara explains that ‘Fear’ (Yirah) is defined as not contradicting a parent or sitting or standing in their designated place, whereas ‘Honor’ (Kavod) is defined as helping parents come in and out, clothing them, and feeding them. In other words the Gemara is teaching that Kavod, or ‘honor’ as it is classically translated is more closely related to dignity than anything else. A person must feed and take care of his or her parents’ needs such that the parent can retain their dignity. On the other hand, ‘Yirah’ or ‘Fear’ is better translated not as awe, but rather as ‘respect’ which corresponds to the Gemara’s actions of not interrupting or sitting in one’s parents’ seats. In other words one must both fear and have reverence for their parents as well as show them Kavod and respect.
This distinction and clarification of what is meant by the terms ‘Yirah’ and ‘Kavod’ helps shed light on Chapter 4 Misha 15 in Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua teaches that not only should the Kavod of your student be as dear to you as your own, but the Kavod towards your colleague should be as the Yirah of your Torah teacher. Similarly, the Yirah for one’s Torah teacher should be like the Yirah of Heaven. Interestingly, there is a very clear distinction between the first half and the second half of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua’s teaching. The first half of the Mishna focuses on the relationships that require Kavod, whereas the second half focuses on the relationships that require the different trait of Yirah. Rabbi Israel Lipschitz in his commentary to the Mishna, the Tiferet Yisrael, explains that:
“The Mishna teaches the attitude one must maintain toward an adversary in an argument over a Torah topic. While one has an obligation only to honor a student but need not yield to his opinion, he should be more flexible and accepting regarding the opinion of a colleague. Unless it is clear that his opinion is mistaken, one should never flippantly reject the position of his colleague, just as he certainly would never reject that of his teacher.” (adapted from the Artscroll Pirkei Avot Treasury p.258)
Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua is therefore helping to highlight this distinction between Yirah and Kavod while at the same time teaching how best to build meaningful and appropriate relationships with others.
It is interesting to note that the Yirah that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua describes that one must have for his or her Rabbi, their teacher, is in the same sphere as the Yirah one must have for G-d. In fact the Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia (33a) teaches that the honor that one must give their Rabbi (i.e. their primary instructor in Torah) is even greater than the honor due to one’s parents. Similarly, in the Gemara in Tractate Pesachim (22b) Rabbi Akiva taught that the verse in Devarim (6:13), “Et Hashem Elokecha Tira” ; “You shall fear Hashem your G-d, comes “LiRabot Talmidei Chachamim” ; “To include Torah scholars as well.” As Rashi there explains, a person should fear their Rabbi as they fear heaven. One of the best illustrations of this actually comes from a different piece of Gemara in Tractate Avoda Zara (46b) that describes the relationship between Rabbi Akiva and his teacher Rabbi Eliezer. In the course of a disagreement, Rabbi Akiva mocked his teacher Rabbi Eliezer as to whether certain secondary activities such as sharpening knives and preparing fuel were permitted on Shabbat in the Temple along with slaughtering animals. Rabbi Eliezer permitted it, whereas Rabbi Akiva did not. As a result of this disagreement, Rabbi Eliezer cursed his student, “Akiva you have refuted me by Shechita, and so by Shechita shall be your death.” While to many this may seem like an extreme overreaction (Rabbi Eliezer is placing a death sentence on the head of Rabbi Akiva!), in the eyes of traditional Jewish thought, in many ways this is appropriate. The reverence and respect due to one’s Rabbi and Torah teacher is a very serious topic.
The Rambam, Maimonides, in his Mishna Torah in Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 5 discusses some of the different laws that pertain to the issue of relating to Rabbis and scholars. In fact, the Rambam codifies in Halacha 6 that when it comes to one’s Rabbi it is forbidden to sit in their place, contradict their words, or even to stand before them without first asking permission. So strict are the laws in how one should interact with their Rabbi, the Rambam goes on to teach that when “one departs from his teacher, one should not turn his back to him, but rather one should walk backwards while facing them.” It is clear from the Rambam’s description that the reverence and respect due to one’s Rabbi is directly related to the reverence and respect due to the Torah and G-d. Through teaching, a Rabbi helps their student get closer to G-d and the Torah, and must be therefore treated with that same dignity.
As an interesting side note, there is a custom in many communities and circles to refer to one’s Rabbi in the third person. The question as to whether or not this is a Halachik imperative or a custom of respect is fascinating. The Rambam in Halacha 5 (ibid) writes:
“It is forbidden for a student to refer to his teacher by name, even outside his presence. He should not mention his name in his presence, even when referring to others with the same name as his teacher – as he does with the name of his father. Rather, he should refer to them with different names, even after their death… [A student] should not greet his teacher or respond to the latter’s greeting, as is customary when two friends exchange greetings. Rather, he should bow before him and say with awe and reverence: “Peace be upon you, my master.” If his teacher greeted him, he should respond: “Peace be upon you, my teacher and master.”
It seems based on this teaching of the Rambam, that there is a strong custom to in fact address one’s Rabbi in a more respectful way. That being said, it seems clear from the Rambam that referring to one’s Rabbi in the third person is not a law persay, but rather a custom—a perhaps very important and strong custom to help create the appropriate Rabbi-student relationship
The natural question that emerges from this discussion is whether or not all Rabbis must receive this important showing of reverence and respect. In specific, unfortunately as has been the case in different communities, what is the protocol in terms of relating and showing Kavod and Yirah to a Rabbi that has been disgraced amid some form of scandal. Without going into specific details, sadly there have been many Rabbis that have found their names in the newspaper (both local and national) for their gross misconduct. Must one show respect to such a Rabbi?
Perhaps once again there is a distinction to be made between the concepts of Kavod and Yirah. The Yirah, the reverence, that one must afford their Rabbi is correlated to their Rabbi serving in the capacity of teacher bringing people closer to the Torah and G-d. When a Rabbi ‘sins’ then perhaps they no longer can serve as the conduit and role model for Torah that they had previously. However, as was mentioned previously, Kavod refers specifically to basic human dignity. Even a sinner, or for that matter an enemy, is due this minimal honor within Judaism. In fact later on in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot in Mishna 23 we learn from Shmuel HaKatan that “Binfol Oyvecha Al Tismach” ; “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy.” Further, throughout the Talmud basic human dignity is taught as a value afforded even to those that have committed the most serious of sins involving the death penalty. Even the worst type of person, or in this case a Rabbi that has sinned, is afforded this basic level of Kavod and human dignity.
That being said the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, in Yoreh Deah (246:8) adds one important caveat to this discussion. The Jewish community should shun a Rabbi that retains his evil ways even though the community may need his talents. In other words, until the Rabbi repents and shows remorse for his actions, the community may and should ignore such a person. Whether such a person can be returned to their position of power or frankly whether one may or may not learn Torah from such a person (both new and old) is beyond the scope of this discussion. In specific it requires a careful examination of a number of cases brought down in Halachik and Rabbinic literature including the cases of both a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest and a Nasi, a political Jewish leader, who sins.
The Meiri, the 13th century Talmudist, in his commentary to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot (19b) describes human dignity, Kavod HaBriyot as one of the most endearing and beloved qualities in all of Judaism. Despite how a person may feel towards someone else, despite the actions of a sinner, basic human dignity is afforded to all of G-d’s creations. Mishna 15 in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot highlights that in each of our relationships—be it with those that we teach, those that we study from, or even those that are merely our colleagues, the proper amount of reverence and respect is due. May we each work hard to achieve these goals and relationships.