Jewish Understandings of Wisdom and Sharing Wisdom

Meir Sendor

Maimonides, “Foundations of the Torah,” 2:1, Mishneh Torah.

It is well known and clear that the love of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not bound in a person’s heart until he meditates on it constantly as is appropriate and abandons everything in the world except for this, as it says “[You shall love the Lord your God] with all you heart and all your soul (Deut 6:5).” A person cannot love God except according to the knowledge by which he knows Him. According to the knowledge will be the love: if a little, then a little; if a lot, then a lot. Therefore a person must dedicate himself to understand and gain insight concerning those wisdoms and understandings which inform him of his Creator, according to a person’s capacity to understand and to grasp, as we have explained in the laws of the Foundations of the Torah.

[R. Elijah b. Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), quoted by R. Barukh Schick of Shklov (d. 1808) in the latter’s introduction to his book on geometry: “When I visited Vilna in Tevet 5538 (1778)… I heard from the holy lips of the Gaon of Vilna that to the extent one is deficient in other wisdoms he will be deficient a hundredfold in Torah study, for Torah and wisdom are bound up together…”]

R. Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot (Jerusalem, 1969) 152:

God has been charitable with His world by not placing all aptitudes in one place, not in one person and not in one nation, not in one land, not in one generation nor in one world. Rather, aptitudes are scattered, and the need for wholeness, which is the most idealistic attracting power, motivates the pursuit of the most exalted unity, which must necessarily come to the world, “and in that day the Lord will be one and His Name one (Zech 14:9).”

The eternal treasury of the virtue of Israel is hidden. But to unite the world with them in a general sense it is necessary that certain aspects of certain aptitudes be lacking in Israel, such that they be made whole by the world and all the noble ones of the nations. In this way there is a place for a receptivity in Israel to receive from the world. As a consequence the way is open for influence, though receptivity is external and influence is internal. This is to say that the innerness of life is whole in Israel, without need for assistance from any alien power in the world, and all power of dominion in Israel flows from the innerness of life, “from the midst of your brethren – from the most distinguished of your brethren (Baba Kama 88a on Deut. 17:15).” It is regarding the externality of life that it occurs that fulfillment is necessary specifically from the outside, “the beauty of Yafet in the tents of Shem (Megillah 9b on Gen. 9:27),” “the valor of the nations you shall consume, and by their glory you shall be exalted… (Is. 61:6).” From the flow of the innerness of life the Congregation of Israel only influences, never receives, “the Lord set him apart, and with him is no strange deity (Deut. 32:12 ).”

Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik, “A Stranger and a Resident,” in Reflections of the Rav, ed. A. R. Besdin, vol. 1 (Hoboken, N.J., 1993) 176-7.

In the private religious realm, each faith has its own “words” and forms which are uniquely intimate, reflecting its philosophical character, and are totally incomprehensible to people of other faiths. The claims of supernatural experiences on the part of each group differ, and an attempt to achieve dialogue on this level can cause more friction than amity, more confusion than clarity, and thereby prove harmful to the interrelationship.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, Ma’or va-Shemesh, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1986) 144.

It is written “the secret of God is for those who fear Him.” It can be said, that to understand what is meant by “secrets of the Torah”… is not to say that what is intended is the wisdom of Kabbalah and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, of blessed memory and the holy Zohar. For the term “secret” is something that is impossible to reveal to others at all, whereas all Kabbalah and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Zohar can be revealed to others and explained adequately. If so, since it is revealed it is not a secret. But a secret that is impossible to reveal to any person, a “secret of God,” that is, the essence of divinity, that He was, is and will be and that He is the radical and root of all the worlds, this is impossible to reveal to any person. Rather, each person thinks for himself the grasp of divinity according to his intellect and the intimations of his heart. The more a person purifies himself and exerts himself with many exertions to grasp, so his pure intellect will grasp more and more. What the intellect grasps of His divinity, blessed be He — it is impossible to reveal to any person, from the depths of one’s heart, that which is in one’s heart and intellect, even though one can speak to others and introduce into their hearts the reality of His divinity and the awe of Him, blessed be He. But the full hiddenness of one’s heart it is impossible to reveal to them, as is known to anyone who has entered divine service in truth. Therefore it is called a secret, for it is truly a secret, for it is impossible to reveal to any other person that which one has in the inner point of the heart and the mind. Rather, each one understands according to his efforts and the purity of his material nature.


Talmud Sukkah 28:

The rabbis taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples: thirty of them were worthy that the Shekhina should rest on them as on Moses our Master; thirty of them were worthy the sun should be stopped for their sake, as it did before Joshua the son of Nun, and twenty were mediocre. The greatest of all the disciples was Jonathan b. Uziel, the least of all was R. Johanan b. Zakai. It was said of the latter, that he did not leave out the Bible, the Mishna, the Gemara, Halakhoth, and Agadoth (legends), the observations of the Bible, observations of the Scribes, lenient ones and vigorous ones, the analogies of expression, equinoxes, geometries, the language of the angels and the language of the evil spirits and the language of the trees, the fables, the great things, the heavenly chariots and small things, the discussions of Abaye and Rava, to confirm what is written [Prov. viii. 21]: “That I may cause those that love me to inherit a lasting possession and their treasures will I fill.” And when the least of all was so, how much the more was the greatest of all. It was said of Jonathan b. Uziel, that when he studied the Torah any bird that flew over him was burned.

[The disciples of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk were studying the passage in the Gemara Sukkah that says: “And when the least of all was so, how much the more was the greatest of all. It was said of Jonathan b. Uziel, that when he studied the Law any bird that flew over him was burned.” They asked: “if the greatest of the students was so, what was the teacher like?” Rabbi Menachem Mendel answered: “when Hillel the Elder studied the Torah, any bird that flew over him was not burned.”]

Maimonides, “Foundations of the Torah,” 2:10, Mishneh Torah.

The Holy One, blessed be He, recognizes His truth and knows it as it is. He does not know with a knowledge which is external to Him in the way that we know, for ourselves and our knowledge are not one. Rather, the Creator, may He be blessed, He, His knowledge, and His life are one from all sides and corners, in all manners of unity.

Were He to live as life, or know with a knowledge that is external from Him, there would be many gods, Him, His life, and His knowledge. The matter is not so. Rather, He is one from all sides and corners, in all manners of unity. Thus, it turns out that one can say, “He is the Knower, He is the Known, and He is the Knowing, all one.

This matter is beyond the ability of our mouths to express, [or our] ears to hear, nor is there [the capacity] within the heart of man to grasp it in its entirety… [This shows] that the Creator and His life are not two, as are the lives of living beings or the lives of the angels.

Thus, He does not recognize and know the creations in terms of the creations as we know them, but rather He knows them in terms of Himself. Thus, since He knows Himself, He knows everything, for the existence of everything else is dependent on Him.

Aristotle, Metaphysics 12:9

The nature of the divine thought involves certain problems; for while thought is held to be the most divine of things observed by us, the question how it must be situated in order to have that character involves difficulties. For if it thinks of nothing, what is there here of dignity? It is just like one who sleeps. And if it thinks, but this depends on something else, then (since that which is its substance is not the act of thinking, but a potency) it cannot be the best substance; for it is through thinking that its value belongs to it. Further, whether its substance is the faculty of thought or the act of thinking, what does it think of? Either of itself or of something else; and if of something else, either of the same thing always or of something different. Does it matter, then, or not, whether it thinks of the good or of any chance thing? Are there not some things about which it is incredible that it should think? Evidently, then, it thinks of that which is most divine and precious, and it does not change; for change would be change for the worse, and this would be already a movement. First, then, if ‘thought’ is not the act of thinking but a potency, it would be reasonable to suppose that the continuity of its thinking is wearisome to it. Secondly, there would evidently be something else more precious than thought, viz. that which is thought of. For both thinking and the act of thought will belong even to one who thinks of the worst thing in the world, so that if this ought to be avoided (and it ought, for there are even some things which it is better not to see than to see), the act of thinking cannot be the best of things. Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.

“But evidently knowledge and perception and opinion and understanding have always something else as their object, and themselves only by the way. Further, if thinking and being thought of are different, in respect of which does goodness belong to thought? For to be an act of thinking and to be an object of thought are not the same thing. We answer that in some cases the knowledge is the object. In the productive sciences it is the substance or essence of the object, matter omitted, and in the theoretical sciences the definition or the act of thinking is the object. Since, then, thought and the object of thought are not different in the case of things that have not matter, the divine thought and its object will be the same, i.e. the thinking will be one with the object of its thought.

“A further question is left-whether the object of the divine thought is composite; for if it were, thought would change in passing from part to part of the whole. We answer that everything which has not matter is indivisible-as human thought, or rather the thought of composite beings, is in a certain period of time (for it does not possess the good at this moment or at that, but its best, being something different from it, is attained only in a whole period of time), so throughout eternity is the thought which has itself for its object. Therefore Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking.

Talmud Hagigah 12a

“Since the day that God created man upon the earth and from one end of Heaven to the other end of Heaven (Deut 4:32)”? This is according to R. Elazar, who said that the first man extended from the earth up to heaven, and after he became spoiled, the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His hand upon him, and made him lower, as it is written (Ps. cxxxix. 5): “Behind and before hast thou hedged me in, and thou placest upon me thy hand.” Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “the first man was from one end of the world to the other end, as it says “from the day that God created man on the earth and from the end of heaven unto the end of heaven.” After he became spoiled the Holy One, blessed be He, placed his hand upon him and diminished him, as it is written (Ps. cxxxix. 5): “Behind and before hast thou hedged me in, and thou placest upon me thy hand.” If so, the verses contradict each other! This and that are one measure.

Was light created on the first day? Is it not written [Gen. 1: 17]: “And God set them in the expansion of the heaven,” and also [ibid. 1: 19]: “And it was evening and it was morning the fourth day”? This is as R. Elazar said: The light which the Holy One created on the first day, Adam saw by its means from one end of the world to the other. When the Holy One considered the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion, and that their works were vain, He took it from them and concealed it for the upright in the world to come. In this, however, the following Tanaim differ, as we have learned in a Boraitha: The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, Adam observed and saw by its means from one end of the world’ to the other. So said R. Jacob. But the sages said. These are the luminaries which were created on the first day, but were not hung up until the fourth day.

The Preparative
By Thomas Traherne (1637?–1674)

Then was my soul my only all to me,
A living endless eye,
Just bounded with the sky.
Whose power, whose act, whose essence, was to see:
I was an inward Sphere of Light,
Or an interminable Orb of Sight,
An endless and a living day,
A vital Sun that round about did ray
All life, all sense,
A naked simple pure Intelligence.

Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations 1:29

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world: and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.