As I mentioned on Thursday in my post on the first chapter of the Tanya, Rava seems to be defending the many Jews with whom he has been in contact who do not follow the words of the Sages, as referenced in bYevamos 20a and bNiddah 12a, respectively:
אמר אביי כל המקיים דברי חכמים נקרא קדוש
אמר ליה רבא וכל שאינו מקיים דברי חכמים קדוש הוא דלא מיקרי רשע נמי לא מיקרי
Abaye said: “All whosoever acts in accordance with the words of the sages is called a holy man.”
Rava said to him: “Then he who does not act in accordance with the words of the sages is not called a holy man? Is he also called a wicked man?”
אמר ליה שאני אומר כל המקיים דברי חכמים נקרא צנוע
אמר רבא ושאינו מקיים דברי חכמים צנוע הוא דלא מקרי הא רשע לא מקרי
Rabbi Ammi said to Rabbi Abba, son of Mamal:
Because I maintain that whosoever observes the words of the Sages may be described as virtuous.”
Said Raba: “Would then one who does not observe the words of the Sages merely lose the designation of virtuous man? But would he not be called wicked?”
However, Rava doesn’t leave his rhetorical questions standing and continues: in the excerpt from Niddah, he says “אלא צנועות עד שבדקו בו עצמן לפני תשמיש זה אין בודקות בו לפני תשמיש אחר ושאינן צנועות בודקות – Rather, those ladies who are modest: that they check it themselves before one particular sex-session, but they don’t check it before another sex-session; while those ladies who are not modest, do check;” in the excerpt from Yevamot, he says “אלא קדש עצמך במותר לך – Rather, sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you.” It is clear that he is not satisfied leaving his rhetorical question and suggests an alternative to the statements of Abaye and Rabbi Ammi.
At first glance, it may seem strange that Rava would defend such Jews, especially since the Talmud records instances of him vigorously defending the words of the Sages! For instance (bMakkot 22b):
אמר רבא כמה טפשאי שאר אינשי דקיימי מקמי ספר תורה ולא קיימי מקמי גברא רבה דאילו בס”ת כתיב ארבעים ואתו רבנן בצרו חדא
Rava said: “How stupid are those other people who stand up [in deference] to the Scroll of the Torah but do not stand up [in deference] to a great personage, because, while in the Torah Scroll forty lashes are prescribed, the Rabbis come and [by interpretation] reduce them by one.”
And then there’s also this statement of Rava’s and his actions in which he provides his approach to what an אפיקורוס is (bSanhedrin 99b-100a):
רבא אמר כגון הני דבי בנימין אסיא דאמרי מאי אהני לן רבנן מעולםלא שרו לן עורבא ולא אסרו לן יונה רבא כי הוו מייתי טריפתא דבי בנימין קמיה כי הוה חזי בה טעמא להיתירא אמר להו תחזו דקא שרינא לכו עורבא כי הוה חזי לה טעמא לאיסורא אמר להו תחזו דקא אסרנא לכו יונה
Rava said: “Such as those of the household of Benjamin the doctor who say, ‘Of what use are the rabbis to us? They have never permitted us the raven, nor forbidden us the dove.'” Whenever a [suspected] trefa of the family Benjamin was brought before Rava, if he saw a reason for permitting it, he would remark to them, “See, I permit you the raven.” If there were grounds for forbidding it, he would observe, “See, I forbid you the dove.”
It seems from the two previous examples that Rava is strongly in favor of promoting the words of the sages! However, he was the rabbi in Mehoza, which was not an easy town in which to be a rabbi, since he “apparently had to reply to a deep-seated skepticism toward rabbinic authority and to defend the authenticity of the rabbinic oral tradition. The skepticism of Mahozan Jewry was fueled in part by the acceptance of the Manichaean polemic against Zoroastrianism and its insistence on oral transmission, and by a strong concern with the problem of theodicy, encouraged by a familiarity with Zoroastrian theology.”1 So, he very much needed to defend the rabbinic tradition in dealing with Jews who did not care for it, which is why the Talmud records instances of him being vocally engaged in defending it.
However, in dealing with these types of Jews who still were involved in the Jewish community and wanted to be connected, yet were very leery of the rabbinic tradition, Rava seems to defend such Jews. It would seem that he thought: how could they be called רשעים when they still wanted to connect as Jews, even if they were not so keen on the rabbinic tradition?
1 – Yaakov Elman, “The Babylonian Talmud in Its Historical Context,” in Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg To Schottenstein, ed. Sharon Liberman Mintz & Gabriel M. Goldstein (New York City: Yeshiva University Museum, 2006), 26-27.