When I taught in Jewish Middle and High Schools over the course of more than forty years, I would always make clear to the members of my classes that when I returned a quiz or a test, the results were something between me and the student, and therefore screams of triumph, moans of failure, etc., were inappropriate and even considered rude to one’s classmates. I wanted to guarantee that not only would students realize that any efforts that they had done was more important to me than the specific facts that they could recall, but also that certain aspects of their academic achievements were not something that they necessarily had complete control over.
The specific Jewish value that underlay such comments to my classes appears in the standard Jewish liturgy.
In the first of the thirteen middle blessings, known as “Bakasha” (requests) of the weekday Silent Devotion, we find a pointed formulation regarding the respective cognitive abilities with which each of us are endowed:
You graciously bestow knowledge upon man, and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from You, (additional) wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.
The implicit assumption underlying this supplicatory blessing is that the intelligence which we employ in our day-to-day existences is not something for which we can take credit, but rather constitutes an endowment from without. Whether one wishes to attribute his mental capacity to nothing beyond his/her specific genetic make-up or is prepared to attribute to God his naturally-endowed mental gifts, at the end of the day, s/he him/herself is not responsible for such abilities or lacks thereof. Naturally, what we end up doing with our respective intelligences—whether we maximize our innate abilities in order to even qualify as “overachievers” or frivolously allow them to go to waste because we would rather engage in what appear to be more immediately enjoyable activities, e.g., studying, enrolling in various educational institutions, and pursuing mind-expanding internships and other opportunities-- is usually completely up to us. But regarding the potential for maximizing or minimizing each of our minds, this is literally beyond our individual control.
The position assumed by Jewish liturgy in terms of this weekday blessing is in keeping with what is implied in a well-know biblical story. King Solomon, finding himself installed as the Jewish king at a very young age and worrying that he may not be up to the task, requests of God the sort of intelligence that will allow him to rule and judge properly:
I Kings 3:9
Give Thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great people?
The text goes on to describe how God acquiesces to Solomon’s request, resulting in:
And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 11
For he was wiser than all men… and his fame was in all the nations round about.
While Solomon is typically extolled for his exceptional wisdom, recognizing that his excellence was the result of an additional granting to him of intelligence originating from God, further supports the contention that all intellectual ability, even that with which an individual begins his life, is Divinely given.
Acknowledging that attributing to God, rather than to ourselves, our personal mental acuity, is a central Jewish value, and leads to several important perspectives and realizations:
1) Just as the bible warns against undue arrogance when the farmer experiences excessive pride as a result of looking upon the crops at harvest time that he thinks he has managed to raise without anyone else’s assistance:
) thou say in thy heart: My
power and the might of my
hand hath gotten me this wealth. 18
But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day.
so too, for us to take complete personal credit for, e.g., academic achievements, being accepted to a competitive institution of higher learning, accepting a prestigious professional position, writing a well-received book, or delivering a widely-praised paper at an important conference, is simply disingenuous. You may have applied yourself to an extraordinary extent, but you can’t take credit for the “raw material” with which you have been working.
2) When one encounters someone of limited intelligence, one should not assume a stance of superiority by comparing one’s own intellectual ability with theirs, but rather allow him/herself to be struck by the marvelous variety of creations in general, and types of human beings in particular, that are found in everyday existence. The Rabbis did not allow people who are “different” to be objects of derision, as often was the case regarding the “jesters” at royal courts, but instead composed a special blessing of praise to God to be recited whenever such individuals are come upon:
Blessed art thou Oh God, our God and Lord of the universe, who has created such a diverse set of beings.
3) Finally, and, in my opinion, most profoundly, in one of his classic essays describing Jewish ideas, “Catharsis” https://tinyurl.com/yxcet567
, Spring 1978), Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik describes the necessity of man being able to admit defeat and therefore “retreat” in significant areas of his life. Among such regions, R. Soloveitchik includes man’s intellectual capacities:
…Cognitive catharsis consists in discovering the unknowability of being. Commitment to knowledge, to scientific inquiry, implies, ipso facto, the recognition of the eternal mystery, which grows with the advance of knowledge, which deepens with the triumphant march of the human mind, and which becomes, with every cognitive breakthrough, more baffling, perplexing and challenging… (p. 51)
While R. Soloveitchik’s description can be understood on many levels, within the context of attributing to God all aspects of one’s intelligence, even if one were to perceive that he has significant ability in this regard, the Rav’s observation resonates with me regarding the frustrations often encountered by one’s students during the course of their personal learning and studying. There are times when one finds that interpreting a text or making an association between different sources proves elusive and one’s lack of success can be even depressing and a cause for abandoning this type of inquiry or even field of study. According to the Jewish value that cognitive ability does not necessarily reflect a personal inadequacy, but rather is an existential part of human imperfection when confronting God’s Oneness, Wholeness, as well as His creation, the entire experience constitutes a religious confirmation of general verity rather than merely a reflection of some personal limitation. Consequently, not doing well on a particular exam could be construed as a religious experience!
It would appear that the Jewish value of remaining humble even regarding one’s intellectual abilities, is a moral value of considerable importance. Not only day school students, but all Jews have often been depicted, and even regard themselves, as belonging to “the people of the book.” Some Jews have dealt with persecution, discrimination, and minority status by devoting themselves to serious study and academic excellence, thereby responding pro-actively to their detractors. However, as is the case in so many human endeavors, such achievements can go to one’s head, resulting in unrealistic perceptions of oneself as well as of others. Attributing one’s intellectual ability to God can hopefully keep in check the possibility of such untoward thoughts both in the classroom and beyond.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://firstname.lastname@example.org and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the first Quarter of 5779. You can see that entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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