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Thought for the Day: סמיכה and Ph.D. -- Compared and Contrasted

There is a well known (and worn) discussion about which is more painful: passing a kidney stone or giving birth.  The question was unresolved for as long as I can remember, because it was generally men who had passed kidney stones and none of them (even the most liberal) had ever given birth.  Then I met a female/lady/woman/human of child-bearing ability (good grief, this atmosphere of political correctness has gotten a wee bit out of hand; don't you think?) physician who has both given birth and passed a kidney stone.  She affirms that giving birth is more painful.  There you have it.

I don't really know why such questions are interesting, but people do have some sort of morbid interest in comparing the stress/pain/grief of different struggles.  If you are not one of those people, you may want to stop reading now.

Yeah... that's what I thought; we all have a bit of morbid interest.  So... here goes.

I will try to distinguish between "hard/challenging for me" and "objectively hard/challenging".  That is, some people (I am one of them), have a knack for following and constructing logical lines of reasoning.  I don't consider that bragging any more than if I tell you I have brown eyes or that I am 6'1" tall or that I have less hair than I did 30 years ago.  There just facts; I can neither take credit for them nor do I feel any shame in them.  Facts is facts.

On the other hand, there is a certain pride to finishing a hard job.  Getting a Ph.D. in physics is -- by any reasonable measure -- a lot of work.  My grandfather was a college professor.  When asked what would be on the exam (every teacher's favorite question), he would reply, "Everything you have learned since first grade."  They would balk, and he would smile; then answer, "Well, you'll have to write your name, for example, which is a skill you acquired in first grade."  In that sense, both the Ph.D. and סמיכה were dependent on everything I had learned up till that point.  That being said, the students (and the reader, presumably), are more interested in knowing how much that they have studied with the intention for this exam will be required.

In that spirit, I can tell you that the time spent preparing and learning for my Ph.D. was something like 16 years.  I really worked in earnest toward a Ph.D. in physics since my senior year in high school when I first took physics.  By the same token, the time spent learning and preparing for סמיכה was more like 35 years.  You may balk at the comparison.  After all, I was a full time student, whereas I was only learning about Judaism in my spare time.  Yes and no.  While I was a full time student, I certainly did not put several hours a day into just studying physics for those 16 years.  On the other hand, while I only learned about Judaism and Jewish law in my spare time, I did dedicate several hours a day of what would have otherwise been spare/wasted time.  I think the collated and integrated total time spent learning each topic is correct as stated and offers a fair comparison.

Learning physics required learning a new language -- many sorts of advanced mathematics.  Learning about Judaism also required learning a new language -- both Hebrew and Aramaic.  Both disciplines require both deductive (given these principles, derive this result) and inductive (given these specific examples, find the overarching principles at work) reasoning.  Both require a breadth of knowledge not typical of other disciplines.  A chemist, for example, can specialize in one area of chemistry and largely ignore the intricacies of other areas of chemistry.  Physics in not like that; each and every area of physics is related to and dependent on the other areas.  The same is true for Torah; on steroids.

Once a person has passed a kidney stone, he feels good that he has survived and is just happy that the pain has stopped.  There is a certain pride in having survived and ordeal, of course.  Moreover, he is now looked at with some respect/admiration at having endured and survived the ordeal; though few would wish to replicate his efforts.  Ditto for a Ph.D. in physics.

Once a person has given birth, she also feels good that she has survived and is certainly happy that the pain has stopped.  Moreover, she is now looked at with some respect/admiration at having endured and survived the ordeal.  However, she also has something amazing: she has a baby!  Even more, many do want to strive to also be able to replicate her efforts.

Ditto for סמיכה.  I am not at all the same person I was when I started this process.  Part of being granted סמיכה is the acknowledgement and demonstrated having internalized the Torah and striving to become a בן תורה.  That accomplishment is a source of personal pride and was much more difficult to achieve than than the acquisition of knowledge.

I got the most beautiful bracha from a good friend when he heard my news.  He said, "People now respect your סמיכה because of who granted it.  You should merit that same respect because of your own accomplishments."



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