Last week, I raised Ben Zoma’s famous four Talmudic questions: Who is wise? Who is strong? Who is rich? Who is honored? As I noted, I plan to dedicate my four High Holy Day sermons next fall to these queries. I’m putting them out to you, my community, now, in the hope that you will share your own thoughts and responses with me. Your insights and answers will inform my sermons, making for a more communal experience during the Days of Awe.
So for this week’s question: “Who is wise?”
For many years, IQ was seen as the standard measure of intelligence. In recent years, thanks to the work of thinkers like Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman, we tend to think in terms of multiple intelligences. One can be a musical genius and still be very slow at learning languages. Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are surely just as critical as cognitive reasoning, and “street smarts” are no less important than acumen in the the classroom.
Maybe, then, there is no good, over-arching, single answer to Ben Zoma’s question. Perhaps there are many kinds of wisdom—and the world needs all of them. Each of us contributes our own gifts.
I also like to distinguish between wisdom and intelligence. Ben Zoma does not ask: “Who is smart?” He asks, “Who is wise?” which is not the same thing.
In the Jewish mystical tradition, three of the sephirot, the emanations of God that are found on the classic kabbalistic tree, correspond to ways of knowing the world: chochmah, binah, and da’at. As Rabbi Noah Orlowek explains them, chochmah is practical knowledge—how to do things. Binah is knowledge of relationships, putting A and B together, logical reasoning and intuition. And da’at is experiential knowledge. By Rabbi Orlowek’s adept analogy, when you tell a child not to touch the hot stove, you’ve given her chochmah. When the child sees a pot on the stove and figures out that it might be hot, too, she’s employing binah. When, nonetheless, she puts her hand on the stove—now she has da’at!