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Yitro (5769) – The Universality of Wisdom

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The structure of Shemot chapters 18-20 is little short of astonishing. In 19-20, we read of the moment in which the Israelites received their constitution as a kingdom of priests and the holy nation. It was a unique encounter. Not only was the epiphany at Mount Sinai never repeated in Jewish history. It has no parallel in any other religious literature. Never before or since has G-d appeared to an entire nation.

In chapter 18, by contrast, Israel receives its first system of governance: a structure of delegated authority with Moses at the top, supported by heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (a structure known today as subsidiarity). This, however, did not come at the bidding of G-d. It was proposed by a human being. More remarkably still, he was not Jewish. He was Yitro, father-in-law of Moses. Indeed, tradition gave him the honour of calling this entire sedra by his name.

Why was it that this important development came, as it were, from outside? It is not enough to say, simply, that this is how things happened. Tenakh is history, but not mere history. Seen through the eye of faith, things happen for a reason. Events have moral meaning. We are meant to learn lessons from them. What then was the significance of the fact that it was Yitro, not Moses, who gave the Israelites their first tutorial in how to organise a society? On this, one of the classic commentaries, Ohr ha-Hayyim (R. Hayyim ibn Attar of Morocco, later of Israel, 1696-1743) made a striking observation:

It seems to me that the reason [that this teaching came from Yitro] is that G-d wanted to show the Israelites of that generation – and of all generations – that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect [gedolim be-havanah uve-haskalah]. The example of this was Yitro: his advice and the way he chose to organise a society. For there are indeed among the nations people who recognise well-authenticated propositions [devarim me’usharim].

The [divine] intention here was to show that the Israelites were not chosen because they were better-endowed with intelligence and discernment than all other nations: the proof is the intelligence of Yitro. G-d did not choose the Israelites because of their wisdom or intellect but because of His supreme kindness [hessed elyon] and his love of the patriarchs. This is all the more compelling according to the view that Yitro came before the giving of the Torah [there is a debate among the sages as to whether chapters 18-20 are in chronological sequence]. That is why G-d in His wisdom arranged that Yitro should give his advice before the giving of the Torah, in order to signal that although there are among the nations more sages than in Israel, nonetheless G-d brought the children of Israel close to Him and chose them [as his special people]. Hence we have all the more reason gratefully to praise G-d for His choice of our people in His loving-kindness.

This is a fascinating insight, and points to a fundamental distinction in Judaism, between wisdom [hokhmah] and revelation [Torah]. A midrash puts it sharply:

“If you are told, there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If you are told there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.”

Judaism has an unusual dual structure. On the one hand, there is the covenant with Noah, and through him, with all humanity. On the other, there is the covenant of Sinai, specific to the Jewish people. This means that though Judaism is a particularist faith, we also believe that all human beings have access to G-d, and – if they are righteous – a share in the world to come.

Corresponding to this, Judaism has a dual epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is hokhmah, wisdom, which is the universal heritage of mankind. It flows from the definition of humanity as the image and likeness of G-d. Rashi translates ‘in our likeness’ as meaning, ‘with the capacity to understand and discern’. On the other hand, there is Torah, the covenant binding Israel to the sovereignty of G-d. There is nothing universal about this. Torah flows from the highly specific historical experience of the patriarchs and their descendants. It sets forth a unique code of sanctity, by which the people were to govern their lives. About this, the Psalm says, ‘He has revealed his word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation . . .’ (Ps. 147: 19-20).

Among the differences are these: wisdom is the truth we discover, by reason, observation and experience. Torah is the truth we inherit. Revealed at Sinai, it has been handed on from generation to generation. Wisdom teaches us facts; Torah teaches us laws. Wisdom tells us how the world is; Torah tells us how it ought to be. Wisdom is subject to proof; Torah requires something else, authentication, meaning that it has come down to us through the centuries by way of a reliable chain of transmission from sage to sage. That is why Moses Maimonides can write, in his Commentary to the Mishnah: ‘Accept the truth, whoever says it.’ The sages, by contrast, said ‘He who repeats a teaching in the name of the person who first said it, brings redemption to the world.’ For the sages, who said it is crucial; for Maimonides, it is irrelevant. There is, however, no disagreement between them, because they are talking about different things: Maimonides about wisdom, the sages about Torah.

There is a phrase in current circulation which is profoundly unhelpful: limmudei chol, ‘secular studies’. Wisdom – which today would include the natural, biological and social sciences, mathematics, logic, history and literature – is not secular in Judaism. To the contrary, wisdom is a biblical category. Several books of Tenakh – especially Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job – are dedicated to it. The sages even coined a special blessing to be recited on seeing ‘one of the sages of the nations of the world’: ‘Blessed are You, O G-d . . . who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood’ (my custom is to recite it on seeing a Nobel Prize winner). Despite the fact that wisdom is not Torah, nor is it (this is the Ohr ha-Hayyim’s point) in any way special to the people of Israel, it is nonetheless a profoundly religious phenomenon. The difference between wisdom and Torah corresponds to the two primary aspects of G-d: creation and revelation. By wisdom, we come to understand G-d through His creation. By Torah, we understand G-d through His revelation.

This suggests a quite new way of looking at ‘secular’ studies and their place in the religious life. They are not secular at all. Instead we can define wisdom as everything that leads us better to understand the universe as the work of G-d, and humanity as the image of G-d. R. Hayyim ibn Attar’s remark about Yitro contains within it a profound insight. Wisdom teaches us about creation. Torah tells us about revelation. When we apply revelation to creation the result is redemption, the third fundamental category of Judaism. We cannot transform the world without understanding the world. That is why wisdom – otherwise known as the arts and sciences – has an honourable place in the intellectual landscape of faith.