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03.09.2019 17:19    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  shoftim  blau  

Vocational Psychology in Ancient Times

In this week's reading the Holy One, blessed be He, instructs Moses, "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes."  How were these magistrates and officials chosen?  Was it on the basis of their education and aptitude?  Or was it perhaps on the basis of their connections?  Were public tenders issued and applicants' assessments in those days?  Did people choose their vocation in ancient times?  Were youngsters asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  In the era of our patriarchs, would a Hebrew mother proudly announce to the woman in the neighboring tent, "My son will be a shepherd when he grows up"?  Below we shall examine how vocational choice and placement occurred in the ancient world, on the basis of findings from the Bible and the writings of the Sages.  But first we must clarify several relevant concepts.

Today it is the purview of vocational psychologists to counsel people in selecting a vocation and to assist employers in recruiting and staffing.  Psychology in general is a rather new field.  The first psychologist was the doctor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a Viennese Jew and father of the theory of psychoanalysis.[1] The branch of psychology dealing with vocational counseling, testing and job-placement is known as vocational psychology or counseling psychology.  It has two main areas:  placement and selection (for studies, the army, or work) and counseling (individual or organizational).  The field began to develop during the Second World War, to help match people to appropriate jobs and positions in the army.[2]

In our day, choosing a field of study or a career assumes no lesser importance in our lives than choosing a mate.  When one thinks of the matter, dozens of important considerations come to mind:  will I like what I'll be doing, will I succeed, how much natural talent do I have for the field, etc.?  The importance of these considerations varies from person to person, and of course is related to the person's nature, way in which he or she was educated, and other variables.

The considerations that arise in counseling an individual in choosing a vocation and in determining who is appropriate for a given job can be grouped into three main clusters:  personal inclinations (interests, attraction to a field, motivation, etc.), aptitudes (learning abilities, mental abilities, manual talents, administrative talents, etc.), and personality (interpersonal abilities, empathy, character traits such as patience, meticulousness, etc.).  When selecting people for a specific position, job requirements are drafted, detailing the cognitive criteria and personality qualifications needed to fill the job, and on the basis of these the candidates' suitability to the position is assessed.

Selection in the Bible

One of the first places in the Bible where vocational abilities are mentioned in detail is the selection of Bezalel son of Uri to build the Tabernacle:

See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri…I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of craft.  (Ex. 31:2-5)

The words skill, ability and knowledge, which also appear elsewhere in the Bible,[3] are explained by most commentators in similar fashion.  Rashi interprets skill as that which a person acquires from others and learns; ability, as that which a person understands by his own intelligence from what has been learned; and knowledge, as holy inspiration.[4]

Using the terminology of vocational psychology, one could offer another explanation.  Knowledge could subsume learning abilities and professional know-how, including technical know-how and manual skills.  For example, in the category of knowledge we might have engineering, which is generally associated with the left, analytic side of the brain.  Ability could refer to creativity, taste and aesthetics; for example, designing, or the intuitive and creative right hemisphere of the brain.  And skill could integrate both theories and include also such things as interpersonal and administrative aptitudes.

Now let us return to this week's reading.  How were the magistrates and officials chosen?  What were the job requirements for these positions?  The Torah does not deal with this, only the Talmud.[5] Maimonides, in Dinei Sanhedrin sums up and expands on the Talmud, detailing the abilities and character traits required of candidates for the Sanhedrin:

We appoint to a Sanhedrin…only men of wisdom and understanding, of unique distinction in their knowledge of the Torah and who possess a broad intellectual potential.  They should also have some knowledge concerning other intellectual disciplines, e.g., medicine, mathematics, the fixation of the calendar, astronomy, astrology…

Regarding the judges of lower courts, Maimonides says:

We are not strict in demanding that a judge for a court of three possess all these qualities.  He must, however possess seven attributes:  wisdom, humility, the fear of G-d, a loathing for money, a love of truth; he must be a person who is beloved by people at large, and must have a good reputation.[6]

We see that Maimonides mentions the three categories used today in vocational selection and placement:  inclinations—that they possess "unique distinction in their knowledge of the Torah" (i.e., that their main interest be in Torah and Halakhah).  Aptitude—that they "possess a broad intellectual potential" and "have some knowledge concerning other intellectual disciplines."  And of course, personality—that they have humility, the fear of G-d, a love of truth, be beloved by the people at large, etc.  Interestingly Maimonides does not suggest detailed job requirements for officials (i.e., enforcement officers), as he did for magistrates.  Rather, he views enforcement officers as those "equipped with a billet and a lash who stand before the judges and patrol the market places and the streets to inspect the stores and to regulate the prices and the measures.  They inflict corporal punishment on all offenders.  Their deeds are controlled entirely by the judges."[7]

The vocation accorded the greatest detail and most extensive place in the Bible is that of the priests in the Temple.  An entire book, Leviticus, is devoted to describing their function.  Priests, as we know, do not choose their vocation, rather are born into it.  But is every son of a Levite fit for the priesthood?  The requirements for the job of priest can be examined briefly in terms of the three main considerations in choosing a vocation:  inclinations—an interest in the spiritual and in religion, but also an inclination towards "technical" manual labor and towards working with people; aptitudes—operational aptitude, "good" hands, and precision; personality—the priest should be able to communicate with all levels in the population, be an authoritative figure but also capable of providing service.

What of the son of a Levite who is unsuited to the work of a priest?  Is that what happened to Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, "who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord" (Lev. 16:1)?  Did their tragic error lie in the way they acted "professionally"?  Or was it a mistake in judgment?  Or perhaps their error had to do with values and faith?

The Sages and biblical exegetes present a wide variety of explanations.  Perhaps the multiplicity of interpretations hints at the Sages' discomfort in explaining the seeming lack of proportion between the error committed by Aaron's sons and the severity of the punishment meted out to them.  This discrepancy apparently led commentators to offer numerous explanations, so that the quantity (of errors) would justify the severe punishment.

This was well put by Abarbanel:  after summarizing the five things Aaron's sons did wrong according to the Sages,[8] he raises doubts about these explanations and presents explanations of his own.  Perhaps the statement by Abarbanel that best represents his view is:  "This shows that their death was not for their sins, but was the anguish of love."[9]

Selection in the Bible on the basis of personality

Throughout the Bible we find numerous references to selection processes; here we present but two of them.  The book of Judges tells of Gideon's military gibush[10] in which, at the Lord's instructions, he selected choice warriors from among thousands of candidates for the war against Midian:  "So he took the troops down to the water.  Then the Lord said to Gideon, 'Set apart those who lap up the water with their tongues like dogs from all those who get down on their knees to drink'" (Judges 7:5).

This is explained by Metzudat David:  the lappers were selected and the kneelers rejected, since those who kneeled were accustomed to kneeling down in pagan worship, but not so those who lapped.[11]

A more complex selection procedure, also including training, was done by the emissaries of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.  He instructed selecting from his entire realm, which included the kingdom of Judea:

Youths without blemish, handsome, proficient in all wisdom, knowledgeable and intelligent, and capable of serving in the royal palace—and teach them the writings and the language of the Chaldeans…Among them were the Judahites Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  (Daniel 1:4-6)

This reflects a lengthy and complex process of placement and training (perhaps what might be dubbed Nebuchadnezzar's Talpiyot program[12]).

One cannot write about matters of work and earning a livelihood without mentioning Maimonides' position on this matter.  His unequivocal opinion regarding the need to work and against supporting oneself by Torah study is well known.  But he goes even further, in Matnot Aniyim providing a qualitative ranking of the commandment to give charity and asserting something that in our day is more relevant and amazing than ever:

There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other.  The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms].[13]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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