Monday, April 18, 2011

Too Smart for the Room

One of the finest and yet underrated Jewish thinkers of our time is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. I believe his identification with Yeshiva University has over shadowed his even greater contributions to Jewish thought. In my view no serious Jewish thinker should overlook his many writings.

A new book by Dr. Lamm entitled ‘Festivals of Faith’ recently published by OU Press once again demonstrates this. It is a book of essays dealing with all the Yomim Tovim - pre-dating his time at YU - taken from when he was the Rabbi of The Jewish Center in New York. These sermons and Divrei Torah are as relevant today as they were when he first delivered them. At least the ones that I read.

Although I did not have the time to read the entire book I did have an opportunity to look at a couple of essays that deal with Pesach. One of which is the following.

One of the most famous portions of the Haggadah is the part that deals with the four sons. They are identified in order of appearance as follows: The Chacham (wise son); The Rasha (evil son); The Tam (simple or foolish son); and the ‘quiet’ son who is unable to ask any questions.

Dr. Lamm makes a point of the fact that there is not that much difference between the simple son who asks a simple question and the one who does not even know enough to ask a question. He also points out that the dichotomy between the Chacham and the Rasha seems to be incorrect. They are not really counterparts but reflect entirely different traits. The Chacham is a wise son reflecting a high degree of intelligence. The counterpart to that is stupidity, not evil. Evil is an ethical description - not one that reflects intelligence. And yet the Hagaddah seems to juxtapose the wise son with the evil one as though they were opposites. In reality however the ‘quiet’ son is the more natural opposite of the Chacham.

In order to resolve this apparent difficulty, Dr. Lamm references Rabbi Yitzchak Arama’s Sefer, Akeidas Yitzchak. He differs with the Jerusalem Talmud’s description (Pesachim 10:4) of the Tam as a tipesh – a foolish son. He instead translates Tam in a complimentary way as ‘perfect’. The same way the Gemarah describes the patriarch Jacob - perfect in his ethical ways (Yaakov Ish Tam). This puts him ethically opposite the Rasha. The Chacham on the other hand deals with intelligence and is pitted against the ‘quiet’ son who is not smart enough to even ask a question.

That interpretation seems to make a lot more sense to me than the traditional one.

Dr. Lamm then proceeds to analyze the Chacham and the Tam and suggests that the Tam is actually ethically superior to Chacham. The Tam asks a simple question: ‘What is this?’ He does not need to show off his intelligence with a detailed and difficult question. He simply wants to know… He is not interested in showing off. He is secure in his knowledge about himself.

The Chacham on the other hand is not satisfied with just knowing the answers. He has to show off just how smart he is by asking a detailed question ‘proving’ just how much he already knows! This is not the trait of ethical people with great minds. They know who they are and don’t need to show off. They generally lead relatively simple lifestyles.

Dr. Lamm points to the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish both of whom were among the most brilliant minds of their time and yet were the essence of simplicity. And the same is true even with secular geniuses like Albert Einstein.

People who want to display their intelligence can easily go astray by being ‘too wise’. This was demonstrated by one of the most famous intelligent people of all time, Korach. He showed off his intelligence by challenging Moshe’s leadership with a question about the proportion of Techeiles in Tzitzis. He showed off his intelligence but ended up outsmarting himself!

The Tam who is wholesome and good may very well be as smart or smarter than the Chacham. But he does not wear his brilliance on his sleeve and therein lies his superiority over the Chacham. He restrains the urge to show off his intelligence.

The crux of the matter – says Dr. Lamm – is not the possession of intellect but value one assigns to intelligence and to goodness.

How does all this relate to today? Dr. Lamm suggests that we live today in an over abundance of knowledge at the expense of integrity. Science reigns supreme and colleges are overcrowded. Knowledge is universally acknowledged as the key to everything. While this is to an extent true – when this is stressed over all else, then man becomes a machine and we have outsmarted ourselves. We are- in our day - headed for the ways of the Chacham and not the Tam. In an attempt to remedy the ignorance many of us are victim to, there has been an overemphasis on accumulating knowledge at the expense of ethics. And this can lead to a path away from Judaism.

Witness – Dr Lamm says – the virtual explosion of books on so called Jewish theology. These are books by a new breed of writers expressing Jewish thought as a sort of intellectual exercise. But for all their sophisticated words about the commitment to Judaism you will rarely find one of them who attends a Shul, lays Teffilin, or is careful about Kashrus! There are people who weigh every word of Martin Buber but have never read through the Bible even in translation!

When looking through catalogues of adult education institutes of synagogues you will find that the wrong questions are being asked. There is too much Chachmah and not enough Temimus. Instead of courses on ‘Judaism and Civil Rights’ or ‘Judaism and Democracy’ Dr. Lamm would suggest courses on Judaism itself – asking the simple question of the Tam: Mah Zos? What is it? Knowing the basics is the smartest move of all. Asking the simple question can give one more profound answers than asking the complex ones. The Tam is therefore not one bit less smat than the Chacham. As Shlomo HaMelech - the smartest man who ever lived - said in Koheles (Ecclesiastes 7;16): Al Tischakem Yoser – Do not be over-smart. Words as true today as they were 3000 years ago.

Chag Kosher V'Sameach