Monthly Archives: June 2015

“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”… or isn’t?

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Many times we receive through the Internet (in Facebook, or even in e-mail messages) nice sentences attributed to certain people or writing works. We generally don’t bother looking for the source. It is a lot of work. And, besides, who cares?

We should care, indeed. Not only because of the possibility of plagiarism, but mainly because a misattribution leads us to misunderstand ideas, theories, writers, thinkers, religions, etc.

Some time ago I came across with an interesting case such that. A person received the popular quote “The highest form of wisdom is kindness”, attributed to the Talmud. She sought for the original source and quote, but nothing. She couldn’t find anything of the like in the Rabbinical Literature.

Well, the reason is simply because this is not a classical Jewish thought. It is neither in the Talmud, nor in later Jewish thinkers.

The Jewish conception of kindness does not make of it a kind of wisdom; neither the highest, nor the lowest. Kindness is a great gift, but it is never related to wisdom. Wisdom is intellect; kindness is feeling. Both are important, but one is not the consequence of the other.

Feelings may alter knowledge in a negative way. To know, you must stay affectively neutral.

Intellect may alter feelings in a negative way. To feel, you must experience by the means of your non intellectual faculties.

Jewish teachings speak of the value of wisdom together with or without something: silence, kindness, humbleness, piety and the like.

Jewish teachings speak of the need of being wise and kind at the same time, because both characteristics are the sparks of the Divine image in our souls.

Here there are some nice Jewish quotes, from the Bible and Rabbinical literature, about wisdom and kindness and their relationship:

The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour goes humility”. (Proverbs 15:33)

She opens her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)

Seven qualities serve the Divine Throne: wisdom, justice, right, kindness, mercy, truth and peace” (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 37)

Rava said: Just like this threshold helps aiming the door to close or to open, humbleness is a protection of wisdom” (Tractate Kallah Rabbati 3:3)

The ornament for the Torah is wisdom; the ornament for the wisdom is humbleness; the ornament for the humbleness is fear of God; the ornament of the fear of God is fulfillment of commandments; the ornament for the fulfillment of commandments is modesty” (Tractate Derekh Eretz 4:4)

Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name of Rav: “The Universe was created with ten elements: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, strength, admonition, mightiness, justice, right, kindness and mercy” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Haggigah 12a)

Rava used to say: the goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 17a)

A person must do good deeds and only then ask God for knowledge of Torah; a person must do right and just deeds and only then ask God for wisdom; a person must act with modesty and only then ask God for the ability of understanding” (Eliahu Rabbah 6, loc. “Ma zakha”).

So, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness” is not from the Talmud, is not Jewish. What is the source?

It is of Spanish Christian origin. It is found in “Excelencias de San Pedro, príncipe de los apóstoles” [“Excellences of Saint Peter, the apostles’ prince”], book III, ch. 6 (page 287), written by Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, Spanish bishop and viceroy of New Spain in the 17th century.

It comes as part of his exegesis to Mark 10:17: “there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”.

Don Juan asks why the man called Jesus Master and not Lord? He says that this is to advice the princes to choose ministers fit for the tasks: “if masters, then wise and kind. If they are not masters, then kindness is a very high wisdom” (“Si ha de ser maestro, sabiduría, y con ella la bondad; si no es maestro, la bondad es muy alta sabiduría”).

In the index of the book (page 578), under the word “Sabiduría“, comes the quote in the form that was later translated into English: “La bondad es la más alta sabiduría” [kindness is the highest form of wisdom].

So the next time you receive a nice quote, a charming sentence, attributed to someone (Jesus, Gandhi, Marx, Kant, the Talmud, Confucius, etc.), don’t just say: “Nice! Who cares who really wrote it!” Look for the author. He and she deserve it. The misattributed source deserves it, too!

Parshat Korah

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The issue with Korah and his revolt against Moshe and Aharon is important, in my view, because of the reaction of the People of Israel to his words.

There is no doubt that we can understand Korah’s complaint. His question is apparently simple and thought provoking: “all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).

He demanded Moshe to stop ruling and to share the power equally with all the people. He demanded democracy, because everyone can and has the right to govern.

It is a just demand, not only in our modern eyes, but it should have been so also for Moshe. He did not accept Joshua’s government zeal and did not stop Eldad and Meidad, who were prophesying in the camp, while Moshe and the seventy elders were outside. He rebuked Joshua, indeed: “Are you zealous for my sake? May all the Lord’s people be prophets!” (id., 11:29).

So, equality and democracy. What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that Korah’s sentence isn’t more than a kind of news headline. The contents of what he really demanded appears when Moshe calls him to order: “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel… And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (id. 16:9-10).

Korah really wanted more power for hiself and his comrades. It was none of his business whether the people has or lacks equal rights to govern. He wanted to be both Levy and Priest.

However, in the public opinion he was regarded as a hero who sacrifices himself for the sake of the People. His speech and his actions were those of a demagogue, who takes advantage of the emotional and unrestrained reaction of the masses to arrive to his personal goals.

The people went astray by what was apparently just. It did not really examine the situation. If it is apparently so, then it is definitely so.

This is the core of the problem presented in our parashah. Because a quick judgment like this one, that seals the fate based on a superficial impression, bodes disaster. And it happened, indeed – death and destruction.

Why the Korah affaire comes right after the paragraph commanding the tzitzit (the fringes in the garments)? There is a midrash explaining that Korah took a tallit, a garment, made completely of t’khelet, the product with which only one thread of the tzitzit had to be colored. He then asked Moshe if it had to have tzitzit also, since it was completely made of t’khelet. When Moshe answered positively, Korah treated him with disdain. (Jer. Tal. Sanhedrin 10:5, B’midbar Rabbah Korah 18:3)

We must nevertheless remember that one of the central points in the commandment of tzitzit is “that you may not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (id. 15:39). The heart, in the Bible represents the thinking. Do not let your thinking go astray after what your eyes see. Examine, inspect, discern. That is what holiness is about. That is what we are commanded to do.

The story in Korah, the reaction of the People to demagogic addresses, is the opposite example of what the Torah expects from us, of what God commanded us to recall in and by the tzitzit. “Do not go about”, but they did. They let themselves be influenced by the headlines their eyes saw, they were captivated by the nice voice of the populist tyrant who sweetens his words with nonsense that sounds good. Nonsense quickly absorbed and that stands in the way of good sense, of logic and of reality testing.

May all the Lord’s people be prophets! Prophets, but not a flock following the Siren’s song.