The Universality of Wisdom

CC Torah e1401013851211

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 God 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 God. 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. Tanach 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-Hayim (R. Hayim 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 God 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. God 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 God 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 God 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 God 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 [chochmah] 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 God, 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 chochmah, wisdom, which is the universal heritage of mankind. It flows from the definition of humanity as the image and likeness of God. 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 God. 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 Tanach – 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 God . . . 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-Hayim’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 God: creation and revelation. By wisdom, we come to understand God through His creation. By Torah, we understand God 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 God, and humanity as the image of God. R. Hayim 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.

Wohl Legacy; Empowering Communities, Transforming Lives
With thanks to the Wohl Legacy for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation.
Maurice was a visionary philanthropist. Vivienne was a woman of the deepest humility.
Together, they were a unique partnership of dedication and grace, for whom living was giving.

More on Yitro

Deed and Creed

The God who brought an enslaved people to liberty seeks the free worship of free human beings...

To Thank Before We Think

The Ten Commandments are the most famous religious and moral code in history. Until recently they adorned American courtrooms. They still adorn most synagogue arks.…

The Structure of the Good Society

In the House of Lords there is a special chamber used as, among other things, the place where new Peers are robed...

A Nation of Leaders

This week’s parsha consists of two episodes that seem to constitute a study in contrasts. The first is in chapter 18. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law and…
Yitro 5780

Particular Paths to a Universal God

The quintessential Jewish expression of thanks, gratitude and acknowledgment is Baruch Hashem, meaning “Thank God,” or “Praise be to the Lord.” Chassidim say of the…
Yitro 5779

Mount Sinai and the Birth of Freedom

The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parsha of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique…
Yitro 5778

The Bond of Loyalty and Love

In the course of any life there are moments of awe and amazement when, with a full heart, you thank God shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazeman…

Justice or Peace?

The sedra of Yitro, which contains the account of the greatest Divine revelation in history, at Mount Sinai, begins on a note that is human,…

The Politics of Revelation

The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parsha of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the…
Yitro 5772

The Custom that Refused to Die

There’s an enthralling story about the Ten Commandments and the role they played in Jewish worship and the synagogue. It begins with a little-known fact.…
Yitro 5768

A Holy Nation

Immediately prior to the great revelation at Mount Sinai, God instructs Moses as to the nature of the covenant He is proposing to make with the…