The clever and the good
Friday, 30 June 2017 | 6 Tammuz, 5777
We’re a pretty smart people. We gave the world the Bible and a good number of literary masterpieces. We’re, on the whole, well-learned, well-educated and creative. We’ve earned more Nobel prizes than any other comparable group. Yet for all this, we are sometimes so foolish in our intelligence.
Both local communal events and recent events in Israel testify not to our acumen but to our lack of acuity. I’m referring to the sad and unparalleled closure of a shule in Sydney due to a fractious conflict between the rabbi and the congregation. I’m also referring to the recent decisions by President Netanyahu to freeze the Western Wall agreement and to legislate a conversion bill.
The former, coming as it did following the parasha of Korach with its warnings on the failure to compromise, its call to seek peace with your antagonists and to recognise the difference between principle and power is especially egregious. It shames us all when a noble religious community and esteemed spiritual leader reach such a low point. The latter, with its suggestions of political expediency, reneging on promises and failure to find compromise is disheartening. The Orthodox religious community and especially the Haredi leadership have a lot to answer for. In a superb piece in The Times of Israel Yossi Klein Halevi (a religious Orthodox Jew) writes that in an era when the basic consensus about Jewish identity is unravelling Zionism’s purpose is to uphold peoplehood as the neutral binding ground of Jewishness. He continues:
“The Jewish people owes much to the haredi world – for its heroic efforts in salvaging Jewish life after the Shoah, for its self-sacrifice, for its dedication to Torah. But that gratitude cannot obscure the deep ideological conflict that exists between the haredim and the mainstream of the Jewish people, including many religious Zionists. The compromise over the Wall is a Zionist act – accommodating all parts of the Jewish people in our sovereign space. The haredi community must not be allowed to sabotage the essence of Zionism in our time – which is to uphold the integrity of Jewish peoplehood.”
The haredim are among the best Torah – educated of our people; they are learned and intelligent but their approach to these critical issues is quite simply lacking in deep thoughtfulness and apparently devoid of empathy for Am Israel not to mention Medinat Yisrael.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is don’t over-value the intellect. The intellect on its own is limited and doesn’t lead to the best choices. This, after all, is one of the profound messages of our parasha ,“Chukat”,which opens with a חוק chok, a law that makes no sense in terms of rationality. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the chok reminds us that the rational brain can absorb 11 million pieces of information at any given point but that is only a tiny fraction of what lies below the threshold of awareness. Neuroscience today has revealed that emotion plays an enormous role in decision making, that emotional intelligence is pivotal for humanity. In the Torah’s felicitous phrase we need “חכמת לב“, intelligent hearts. Intellectual intelligence (IQ) needs to be accompanied by emotional intelligence (EQ) in order to achieve moral intelligence (MQ?). My late father-in-law put it more simply: You can be book-smart but life-dumb!
We Jews prize the intellect; we’ve created an army of lawyers, writers and professors. We have established yeshivot which hone the cerebral to a fine degree. Yet for all this, we need to remember what Judaism has always taught: that the mind and heart need to work in tandem. That cleverness on its own is limiting just as emotion unchecked can be damaging. The fine balance between head and heart was put well by Abraham Heschel when he said “When I was young, I admired clever people, now that I’m old, I admire good people? He may have been inspired by the witty poem of Elizabeth Wordsworth:
“If all the good people were clever
And all the clever people were good
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could
But somehow, ‘tis seldom or ner
The two hit off as they should
The good are so harsh to the clever
The clever so rude to the good!”