Thursday, 15 Mar 2012

Written by Benji Stanley

At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question was discussed by the upper ministries of the German Establishment. Eight of the sixteen high officials that signed the Wannsee document had Phds. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had three Phds. Surely no one can still believe that learning inevitably leads to moral behaviour? Yet still we kvel, with such pride, if we or our children or grand-children get into the top universities. Last Shabbat I listened to a bar mitzvah boy speak about how his grandma as a young girl and her mother had tried to cross the border, fleeing from the Nazis. They feared for their lives if the border official asked to see their passports and papers. He did. He looked at what was given to him, returned them to these terrified women and said, “Please continue, I have not seen you or these documents”. The bar mitzvah boy, Ben, talked about how he owed his life to their safe passage. The contrast between Goebbels and the border official tells us to let go of the over-riding collective myth of the Western enlightenment. Learning does not necessarily build moral fibre.

As we approach Pesach we find in the haggadah too an alertness to abuses of intelligence. On the one hand, there is the Hakham, the wise son, who is truly wise- however much it irks us! He asks a question, which is understood as genuine, “what are the laws that God commanded”?  He gives his parent the opportunity to share and teach. Yet, on the other hand, the root for wisdom, chet- chaf- mem, appears once more in the haggadah. “Hava nitchachmah lo pen yirbeh.…”; at our Passover seder we quote and discuss this verse from Exodus 1:10, in which Pharoah declares with that same wise root, “come let us be crafty” with the people of Israel lest they become too numerous. There is a fine line between being wise and being clever. Indeed in Pharoah’s royal “we”, in his “let us be crafty” at the beginning of Exodus we might hear a gentle echo of that very first royal ‘we’ at the beginning of Genesis, “and God said let us make humanity in our image” (Genesis 1:26). The echo is jarring. God gave us the capacity for thought and creativity to empower us, to welcome us into a relationship with Her. Pharoah uses this capacity to limit and dehumanise people.

Goebbels and Pharoah are, of course, extreme examples, but does not each of us know that we sometimes abuse our knowledge? To hurt or to demean someone we may correct them, or grin just a bit to hint at how foolish they’re being. “Thank God he made that mistake” sometimes crosses one’s mind, or “well she’s clearly not that smart, saying something like that”. A competitive intellect can be hurtful and academic learning is limited. Straight after graduating with a BA in English I became the Education Worker for RSY-Netzer, the youth wing of the Reform Movement. I went from books and essays to organising camps for a couple of hundred young people and- don’t tell all those parents and young people- I had no idea what I was doing! How to work with people, how to ask for help; I constantly struggled to solve problems that needed to be shared.

So how can we be wise and not crafty? Some conceptions of “hokhmah” (wisdom) could help. In the first part of this week’s double Torah portion, Va-Yakhel, God entreats “kol hakham lev” (35:10) to come forward and build the mishkan, God’s dwelling place on earth. Bezalel and Ohaliab are put at the head of the building effort because “God gave hokhmah…to them” (36:1). Here hokhmah is perhaps best translated as “skill” rather than “wisdom”, but nevertheless the quality is internal. This hokhmah pushes us to make our learning creative, practical and collaborative. Jewish skills allow us to be active contributors to a community; the willingness to read Torah or to give a d’var Torah turns learning into giving.

Hokhmah is later pulled by the Rabbis in seemingly opposite directions. On one hand, it becomes the personification of Torah itself. The Hokhmah that speaks in the Book of Proverbs, explaining that “God created me at the beginning of his course” (8:22) is identified in Bereishit Rabba (1:2) as Torah itself, God’s help mate in creating the world. Here too is a challenge for us: how can we make Torah so vibrant and close, that she accompanies us when we’re sad and happy, that we remember the words she said, and to apply them at the right moment? How can we be so close to Torah that she challenges and changes us; that  she beats us over the head with what she has already told us over and over again- and yet we need telling over and over again.

The challenge of intimately knowing Torah is all the greater when we’re aware of how much else there is to know in the world- how much literature and politics, for example. Indeed, the Rabbis identified hokhmah with both Torah and its apparent opposite, “secular knowledge”; Eichah Rabba (2:13) teaches “if a person tells you there is hokhmah among the nations of the world , believe him, but if he tells you there is Torah among them do not believe him”. The Hebrew name for the Judische Wissenschaft (the nineteenth century movement that applied the latest critical methods to Jewish texts) is, in fact, Hokhmat Yisrael, “Jewish Wisdom”. This movement sought to combine the Hokhmah of Torah with the Hokhmah of secular studies.

Learning does not necessarily lead to moral behaviour but I pray to God that it can lead towards goodness if we are radically committed to loving both Torah and the wider world. Torah without a commitment to the world is insular. Living in the world without Torah can be aimless, terrifying even. When we see how bad clever people can be and how good simple people can be, we might learn that we should just go with our gut- and jettison learning all together.  However, I know that my gut is often wrong.

Living in harmony with other people is challenging. We seek guidance in Torah and Torah guides us back to real relationships in the real world. I have heard that some Reform and Liberal Jews are concerned about a “swing towards tradition”. It is more than a swing. It is a contemporary attempt to make learning transformative. Is there any more reliable approach to making learning relational than studying in twos, in traditional chevrutah? Is there any better way to assemble a community frequently and regularly than trying to get ten people into the room for prayer? Is there any firmer affirmation of a commitment to both learning and love than wrapping the strap of tefillin around your finger early in the morning, and saying of our relationship to God and the person next to us: “I betroth you to me; I betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, and in kindness and mercy, I betroth you to me in faith, and you shall know God”?

Knowledge that is good requires the marriage of Torah and worldly wisdom, of learning and community. In the short term, in the build up to Pesach, I hope we can each try to be wise in drawing out the best in others, rather than clever in putting them down.

Benji Stanley
March 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.