The structure of Shemot chapters 18-20 is little short of astonishing. In 19-20, we read of the moment in which the Israelites received their constitution as a kingdom of priests and the holy nation. It was a unique encounter. Not only was the epiphany at Mount Sinai never repeated in Jewish history. It has no parallel in any other religious literature. Never before or since has G-d appeared to an entire nation.
In chapter 18, by contrast, Israel receives its first system of governance: a structure of delegated authority with Moses at the top, supported by heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (a structure known today as subsidiarity). This, however, did not come at the bidding of G-d. It was proposed by a human being. More remarkably still, he was not Jewish. He was Yitro, father-in-law of Moses. Indeed, tradition gave him the honour of calling this entire sedra by his name.
Why was it that this important development came, as it were, from outside? It is not enough to say, simply, that this is how things happened. Tenakh is history, but not mere history. Seen through the eye of faith, things happen for a reason. Events have moral meaning. We are meant to learn lessons from them. What then was the significance of the fact that it was Yitro, not Moses, who gave the Israelites their first tutorial in how to organise a society? On this, one of the classic commentaries, Ohr ha-Hayyim (R. Hayyim ibn Attar of Morocco, later of Israel, 1696-1743) made a striking observation:
It seems to me that the reason [that this teaching came from Yitro] is that G-d wanted to show the Israelites of that generation - and of all generations - that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect [gedolim be-havanah uve-haskalah]. The example of this was Yitro: his advice and the way he chose to organise a society. For there are indeed among the nations people who recognise well-authenticated propositions [devarim me'usharim].
The [divine] intention here was to show that the Israelites were not chosen because they were better-endowed with intelligence and discernment than all other nations: the proof is the intelligence of Yitro. G-d did not choose the Israelites because of their wisdom or intellect but because of His supreme kindness [hessed elyon] and his love of the patriarchs. This is all the more compelling according to the view that Yitro came before the giving of the Torah [there is a debate among the sages as to whether chapters 18-20 are in chronological sequence]. That is why G-d in His wisdom arranged that Yitro should give his advice before the giving of the Torah, in order to signal that although there are among the nations more sages than in Israel, nonetheless G-d brought the children of Israel close to Him and chose them [as his special people]. Hence we have all the more reason gratefully to praise G-d for His choice of our people in His loving-kindness.
This is a fascinating insight, and points to a fundamental distinction in Judaism, between wisdom [hokhmah] and revelation [Torah]. A midrash puts it sharply:
“If you are told, there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If you are told there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.”
Judaism has an unusual dual structure. On the one hand, there is the covenant with Noah, and through him, with all humanity. On the other, there is the covenant of Sinai, specific to the Jewish people. This means that though Judaism is a particularist faith, we also believe that all human beings have access to G-d, and - if they are righteous - a share in the world to come.
Corresponding to this, Judaism has a dual epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is hokhmah, wisdom, which is the universal heritage of mankind. It flows from the definition of humanity as the image and likeness of G-d. Rashi translates 'in our likeness' as meaning, 'with the capacity to understand and discern'. On the other hand, there is Torah, the covenant binding Israel to the sovereignty of G-d. There is nothing universal about this. Torah flows from the highly specific historical experience of the patriarchs and their descendants. It sets forth a unique code of sanctity, by which the people were to govern their lives. About this, the Psalm says, 'He has revealed his word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation . . .' (Ps. 147: 19-20).
Among the differences are these: wisdom is the truth we discover, by reason, observation and experience. Torah is the truth we inherit. Revealed at Sinai, it has been handed on from generation to generation. Wisdom teaches us facts; Torah teaches us laws. Wisdom tells us how the world is; Torah tells us how it ought to be. Wisdom is subject to proof; Torah requires something else, authentication, meaning that it has come down to us through the centuries by way of a reliable chain of transmission from sage to sage. That is why Moses Maimonides can write, in his Commentary to the Mishnah: 'Accept the truth, whoever says it.' The sages, by contrast, said 'He who repeats a teaching in the name of the person who first said it, brings redemption to the world.' For the sages, who said it is crucial; for Maimonides, it is irrelevant. There is, however, no disagreement between them, because they are talking about different things: Maimonides about wisdom, the sages about Torah.
There is a phrase in current circulation which is profoundly unhelpful: limmudei chol, 'secular studies'. Wisdom - which today would include the natural, biological and social sciences, mathematics, logic, history and literature - is not secular in Judaism. To the contrary, wisdom is a biblical category. Several books of Tenakh - especially Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job - are dedicated to it. The sages even coined a special blessing to be recited on seeing 'one of the sages of the nations of the world': 'Blessed are You, O G-d . . . who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood' (my custom is to recite it on seeing a Nobel Prize winner). Despite the fact that wisdom is not Torah, nor is it (this is the Ohr ha-Hayyim's point) in any way special to the people of Israel, it is nonetheless a profoundly religious phenomenon. The difference between wisdom and Torah corresponds to the two primary aspects of G-d: creation and revelation. By wisdom, we come to understand G-d through His creation. By Torah, we understand G-d through His revelation.
This suggests a quite new way of looking at 'secular' studies and their place in the religious life. They are not secular at all. Instead we can define wisdom as everything that leads us better to understand the universe as the work of G-d, and humanity as the image of G-d. R. Hayyim ibn Attar's remark about Yitro contains within it a profound insight. Wisdom teaches us about creation. Torah tells us about revelation. When we apply revelation to creation the result is redemption, the third fundamental category of Judaism. We cannot transform the world without understanding the world. That is why wisdom - otherwise known as the arts and sciences - has an honourable place in the intellectual landscape of faith.
The Unwritten Chapter
The Jewish Chronicle March 2008
In 1756 Voltaire, self-proclaimed defender of liberty, published a virulently antisemitic essay about the Jews. They had, he said, contributed nothing to the civilization of the world, no art, no science, no philosophy, no original thought even in religion. 'In short', he concluded, 'we find in them only an ignorant and barbarous people who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition'.
Within two centuries after those words were written, Jews had produced a stream of geniuses who transformed the very foundations of Western thought: in physics Einstein, in sociology Durkheim, in anthropology Levi-Strauss, in psychiatry Freud, in politics Marx, in music Mahler and Schoenberg, in literature Proust and Kafka, Bellow and Canetti.
A mere fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, Jews have produced 39 per cent of Nobel Prize winners in economics, 26 per cent in physics, 28 per cent in medicine, nine winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and 47 per cent of world chess champions.
It is an unparalleled achievement, so much so that a former editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, wrote that 'any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.'
Yet it is an achievement tinged with sadness. Many of these figures either renounced Judaism or, like Marx and Wittgenstein, came from families that had done so. It was inevitable. In nineteenth century Europe there were simply too many doors closed to Jews. Heinrich Heine called baptism his 'entrance-ticket to European culture.'
Jewish intellectuals in the age of antisemitism were in effect secular marranos. They hid their identity. In some cases – again Marx and Wittgenstein are examples – they overcompensated by developing attitudes that were themselves antisemitic. They were highly conflicted individuals, and they sought, through their work, to overcome that conflict.
The paradigm case was Spinoza, the first modern Jew. Spinoza, as Yirmiyahu Yovel reminds us, came from a family of marranos, Jews who, under Spanish persecution, publicly embraced Christianity while privately remaining Jews. This left them doubly alienated. They were regarded with suspicion by Christians because they were ethnically Jewish, and with disdain by Jews because they had abandoned their people and faith.
It is not surprising that they or their children said, a plague on both your houses, and sought a world in which there were neither Jews nor Christians, but just people. They placed their faith in the Enlightenment, science and a highly abstract form of reason.
Only in such a world could they be free.
There are two kinds of atheist. There are those who simply don't believe in G-d. But there are others who, with an almost religious fervor, seek to create a world in which there is no religion at all. Of the second kind, a disproportionate number have been Jews or ex-Jews, most notably Marx, Freud, and Spinoza himself. Only in a world purged of religion could people be free to be, not this or that, but simply to be.
It didn't happen. The tragedy, whose depth is still not fully appreciated, is that with the exception of Britain, the very countries that gave birth to the Enlightenment were also those that gave birth to racial antisemitism, and eventually the Holocaust. Nor can this be written off as a nationalist reaction against the Enlightenment, or a revolt of the xenophobic masses against a tolerant elite.
The truth is that for more than two centuries many of Europe's greatest minds, especially its philosophers, were also deeply antisemitic. They include Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Frege. The greatest German philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party, which he joined not when Hitler came to power, but four years earlier in 1929. Not once, after the War, did he express remorse.
The Enlightenment was not accidentally antisemitic, but essentially and fundamentally so. It valued the universal; it despised the particular. But in nineteenth century Europe Jews were the very embodiment of particularity. Their religion was different; so were their customs, culture, their very way of thinking. The more Jews tried to be like everyone else, the more different they appeared, because if you really are like everyone else, you don't have to try. As the late Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, 'If someone says, I'm just a human being, I know he's a Jew.'
That chapter in European intellectual history is now closed. For me the image that captures its almost unbearable pathos is of Sigmund Freud in 1939, exiled from Vienna where his people were about to be turned into ashes, frantically writing his last work, Moses and Monotheism, in which he tried to show that Moses wasn't Jewish. By then it was too late to do anything but weep.
The intellectual challenge facing Jewry today is quite different. It is to think and write as Jews. We have earned the right to do so, and in the wake of the failure of the Enlightenment we have a duty to do so. A world in which to gain a hearing you have to pretend to be other than you are is intellectually and morally untenable. Rather than reject our heritage we must now give it its full ethical and spiritual dignity. For Judaism really is unique.
It is a supreme example of a religion predicated on education, scholarship and the life of the mind. Study, said the sages, is higher even than prayer. The seats of honour in the synagogue were reserved not for the rich or powerful but for the learned. Paul Johnson described rabbinic Judaism as an "ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals".
Judaism is the only religion in which human beings – Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job – argue with G-d Himself . Socrates was sentenced to death by the citizens of Athens for doing what every Jewish parent regards it as his or her duty to do: teach the young to ask questions. Which other civilization could have coined the phrase 'argument for the sake of heaven'?
The point goes deeper. Judaism is unique in having a dual structure that honours both the universal human condition and the particularity of systems of meaning. That duality runs through the whole of Judaism. The Torah begins with humanity as such: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its builders. Only then does it turn its attention to one family, Abraham, Sarah and their children and the singularity of their mission and faith.
It embodies a dual covenant. G-d makes one with Noah and through him with everyone. He then makes a far more specific and demanding covenant with Abraham and later with the Israelites at Sinai, calling on them to become 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation', and create a society built on justice and compassion.
Judaism recognizes two kinds of knowledge. One is Torah, the other, chokhmah, 'wisdom'. The first is unique to Jews. The second is the heritage of humanity as such. The sages said this explicitly: 'If you are told there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If you are told there is Torah among the nations, don't believe it.' Torah is the truth we inherit, wisdom is the truth we discover. Torah is what our ancestors received at Sinai and handed on in an unbroken tradition to successive generations. Wisdom is what human beings have discovered for themselves by observation and inference. Most of the books of Tanakh are dedicated to Torah, but not all. There are entire works that focus on wisdom, most famously Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Mishlei (Proverbs) and Job.
So high was the sages' regard for 'secular' wisdom that they coined a special blessing to be said on seeing an eminent non-Jewish scholar. They praised Greek astronomy. Maimonides wrote books on logic and medicine. He said that the natural sciences and philosophy are paths to the love and fear of G-d. In Judaism, 'secular' wisdom – the sciences and humanities – is not secular at all. It has religious dignity. It helps us see the universe as G-d's work and the human person as G-d's image. The G-d of revelation, we believe, is also the G-d of creation. The G-d who speaks to us through Torah is the G-d whose wisdom we discover through quantum physics and the structure of the genome.
Judaism is a supreme example of a religion true to its own principles yet open to the wisdom of the world. That is now our intellectual challenge, to think and speak not as secular marranos but as Jews. There are already wonderful examples. I think of psychotherapists like Viktor Frankl, Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman who have explored, in different ways, the psychology of hope. Michael Walzer and the late Daniel Elazar have pioneered in developing a Jewish political theory.
Leon Kass, who chaired the President's Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush, is also the author of a fine commentary on Genesis. Robert Winston has brought a Judaic sensibility to the treatment of infertility. When I asked Jeffrey Sachs, the world's leading developmental economist, why he did what he did, he answered without hesitation: Tikkun olam. I have tried in my own work to bring philosophy, sociology, games theory and global ethics into dialogue with Torah.
For two hundred years Jewish intellectuals felt the need to distance themselves from Judaism. That is true no longer. The time is right for a deep, far- reaching conversation between the worlds of Torah and chokhmah, the yeshiva and the university, Judaism and the arts and sciences, to create a new generation of religious intellectuals, scholars and poets, who influence the world by engaging with the world. Not since the golden age of Spanish Jewry have we had such an opportunity to create philosophers like Maimonides, poets like Judah Halevi and statesmen like Abrabanel. The time has come to restore the Judaic voice to the conversation of humankind.