On a recent walk through Central Park, I stumbled upon a statue of a warrior, mounted on a horse, brandishing two swords. The monument bore the following inscription:
King Jagiello – Founder of a Free Union of the Peoples of East Central Europe — Victor Over the Teutonic Aggressors at Grunwald — July 15, 1410
Change the name of the aggressors and of the battle, give the warrior a green T-shirt and replace his swords with smartphones, and you could replace the medieval warrior-king, Wadyslav II Jagiello, with the President of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Last month marked the 612th anniversary of a legendary medieval battle, one of the most unexpected military victories in European history. At Grunwald, on July 15, 1410, the tenacious Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, led by the brilliant and talented warrior-king, Wadyslav II Jagiello, and aided by a ragtag coalition of recruits from much of the rest of eastern Europe, vanquished the Teutonic Knights, one of the most highly sophisticated, powerful, and menacing civilizations in medieval Europe. Their victory ushered in the Polish Golden Age, which would provide an anchor of relative stability in eastern Europe for centuries.
So, who was King Wadyslav Jagiello (pronounced Ya-Guy-Lo)? Who were the Teutonic Aggressors? And how did a statue of Jagiello end up in Central Park? What can we take away from a king and a battle that occurred more than six centuries ago?
Jagiello was born sometime in the 1350s, one of 13 sons of Lithuania’s Grand Duke. In 1377, upon the death of his father, Jagiello ascended the throne as co-regent with his uncle, Kestutis. Kestutis was mysteriously murdered in 1382 while in prison where Jagiello had sent him.
Catholic Poland and Lithuania shared a common enemy in the Teutonic Knights. While his mother, Russian by birth, encouraged him to marry a Russian princess to forge a stronger alliance with Russia, Jagiello instead married a Polish princess, Jadwiga, converted to Catholicism, and was crowned King of Poland in 1386. Lithuania and Poland would henceforth operate as separate states under one crown, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Jagiello established what remains one of the oldest universities of Europe, Jagiellonian University, whose distinguished alumni include both Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. But Jagiello was best known as a skilled military leader and masterful diplomat, most remembered for his surprise victory at Grunwald.
The Teutonic Knights were a crusading military order founded in 1198, under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire, to help retake Jerusalem from Saladin in the failed Third Crusade. After the decline of the Crusader states in the early 13th century, the Knights took aim at other territories—first Transylvania, then the Baltic states, and later much of Prussia. They developed a sophisticated and powerful civilization—perhaps the most advanced state Europe—and developed into the malevolent European super-power of their day.
In 1409, Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on Jagiello’s Commonwealth under the false pretense of spreading the Christian faith (Poland had been Christian since 966). On July 15, 1410, following the end of a ceasefire mediated by Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, Jagiello launched a surprise invasion at the German town of Grunwald. Under his leadership, within hours, a ragtag coalition of Catholic Poles, pagan Lithuanians, Muslim Tatars, and Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians crushed the Teutonic Knights. Eight thousand aggressors, including most of the knights, were killed, and 14,000 were taken prisoner.
The peace treaty that resolved most of the territorial issues imposed heavy reparations on the Teutonic Knights, from which they never recovered. They were never a credible fighting force again. Jagiello’s victory ushered in Poland’s Golden Era of commerce, education, arts, and literature. Jagiello and his progeny became one of the most influential dynasties in Central Europe and reigned for centuries.
A bronze statue of Jagiello mounted on his horse was erected in Krakow in 1910 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald. A replica of this statue sits across from Belvedere Castle, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Central Park today.
The Central Park monument was created for the Polish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. The statue symbolically guarded the pavilion as a not-so-subtle reminder to Nazi Germany of the fate of its Teutonic ancestors. On September 1,1939, four months after the opening of the pavilion, Germany invaded Poland. And tragically, the original Krakow statue of Jagiello was removed by the Nazis and melted down to manufacture bullets.
The New York statue was put into storage when the World’s Fair closed in 1940. It was recovered from storage and unveiled in Central Park in 1945, on the 535th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, two months after V-E Day.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal history, path to power, and governing system could not be more different from King Wladislaw II Jagiello’s. Jagiello was no democrat, and Zelensky did not descend from European royalty. However, a victory by Ukraine over the Russian aggressors could be as significant and lasting for Central and Eastern Europe today as was Jagiello’s six centuries ago. Just as Jagiello, one of the most skilled diplomats and military leaders of his day, formed an international coalition of diverse powers to fight his sworn enemies in their trumped-up war on his country, Zelensky has skillfully aligned most of the civilized world in his defense of his homeland and countering of Russian fabrications.
The civilized world’s tangible support, however, has not matched its rhetoric. Its military support, while improved since the early days of the war, has been begrudging and inconsistent. The United States and its allies must do more, and they must do it swiftly and aggressively. The Ukrainians are not only fighting for themselves; they are fighting for the rest of Europe and for us, and perhaps for the entire world.
Jagiello stood up to outside invasion, and inspired generations of eastern Europeans to oppose tyranny, including the spiritual liberator of Eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II. Likewise, with proper support, Zelensky could serve as similar inspiration well beyond Ukraine, to the Baltics, the Czechs, and Poles—even the Taiwanese—and to free people around the world, in our day and for generations to come.
Numerous reports show that public school curricula hostile to Jews and Israel are rapidly spreading into American classrooms. Jewish parents would normally assume that Jewish community leaders would be alarmed at the prospect of our children harassed and even hated for being Jewish and supporters of Israel. One would think Jewish leaders would be on top of this. We did. We were wrong.
My informal group of Jewish parents in Fairfax County, concerned about growing anti-Semitism in Northern Virginia public schools, assumed we could count on our local Jewish leadership to help us. Instead, we found a leadership that had generally failed to educate the Jewish community about this threat and seemed to have no appreciable strategy to fight it.
While our leaders are more responsive when hatred comes from neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they still have no strategy for addressing it, and they seem utterly flummoxed and paralyzed by the more nuanced anti-Semitism arising from groups other than these.
In our case, as we became aware of multiple incidents of anti-Semitism occurring over the years in our local schools in Northern Virginia, we reached out to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which presents itself as the authority to speak for the Jewish community. We soon found that the JCRC was conflicted in their interests and rather than prioritizing fighting anti-Semitism, we found them to be more interested in currying favor with elected officials and promoting a “progressive equity” agenda. The JCRC showed little interest in working with members of the Jewish community, especially grassroots organizations such as ours (we would later form United Against Antisemitism-Northern Virginia), unless we were in agreement with their agenda, and they insistently pushed back against Jewish individuals and groups who wished to take action against the growing anti-Semitism. The standard JCRC response toward concerned Jews was essentially: “We know the players. Back off and leave this to us.”
The JCRC showed itself either unwilling or unable to closely evaluate friends or foes, right in our local community. For example, in May 2021, as Israel was defending itself from Hamas’s indiscriminate shelling of Tel Aviv, we learned that Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) board member Abrar Omeish called Israel an apartheid, colonizing state, and accused Israel of killing innocents on her social media account, an account linked to her official school board webpage. Individual members of the Jewish community responded by calling for the school board to censure her, but to no avail.
A few days after she made her post, the JCRC issued a statement calling her tweet a: “one-sided, inaccurate, and hateful statement that smeared Israel, defamed Israelis, and disenfranchised the thousands of Jewish families in her district.” The JCRC offered her the opportunity to “amend her remarks,” and tried to convince her to take down her social media post. She refused, forcing the JCRC to rescind the honor they were scheduled to present to her as a “champion of faith equity” for her work in trying to include additional days of religious observance to the FCPS school calendar. Meanwhile, her post accumulated multiple anti-Semitic responses from people encouraging her, some of them calling for the destruction of Israel, some threatening Jews individually.
Now comes the truly shocking part: a cursory Google search revealed that as a college student at Yale University Omeish was president of the Muslim Students Association, an organization whose origins are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Her father, a former president of the Muslim American Society, another organization whose origins are also associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to resign from a Virginia commission on immigration when videos surfaced of him advocating for jihad in Israel. Her father also recommended that their mosque hire Anwar al-Awlaki as imam, which they did. As recently as 2018, the elder Omeish was cited by name in congressional testimony for his ties to terrorist organizations. Following in her father’s footsteps, Omeish led efforts to block the courageous feminist and Islamist critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on her campus. A few weeks after her social media post, as she delivered the commencement address at a high school graduation ceremony in her official capacity as a school board member, she introduced her terrorist-linked father as a special guest in the audience. She then told the graduating class to “remember their jihad.” The JCRC staff, one assumes, is composed of competent professionals, yet all the alarm bells that we – just parents – easily found spending thirty minutes on Google, either did not sound in any JCRC office, or worse, were ignored.
We were forced to ask ourselves: was the JCRC fooled or did they willingly turn a blind eye in their desire to court an “interfaith political partner” on the school board? Did their strategy of linking with “victim groups” – and proving they were anti-Islamophobes – conflict with what should be their first priority: keeping the Jewish community safe? Instead of educating the Jewish community about the threat of Islamist anti-Semitism, the JCRC, patronizingly, tried to dissuade us from taking further action against her.
When the school board initially ignored our calls for censuring Omeish, we became aware from multiple Jewish parents that the school district had a pattern of ignoring incidents of anti-Semitism in their schools. We naturally called on the JCRC to help us, join us – or even lead the effort in confronting the schools and protecting Jewish children from anti-Semitism. While the JCRC met with us several times, we quickly learned that they were more interested in forging political partnerships with elected officials than forcefully addressing numerous incidents of anti-Semitism in the local school district. Not only did they not appear to have an overall strategy to address antisemitism in the schools, they were unaware that the few programs they had initiated to address the problem, which they boasted about to the community, were not actually getting into the classrooms, showing little understanding of how to navigate the school system’s large bureaucracy. Instead, they wanted us to come to them regarding issues, but then at every point they discouraged us from operating on our own, effectively telling us to be quiet.
A few weeks after the Omeish incident, a Fairfax elementary school listed on its website a host of anti-racism resources for the community, including one called “Woke Kindergarten.” Woke Kindergarten describes its mission as an “abolitionist early childhood ecosystem” promoting “black and queer and trans liberation.” It advances the oppressor/oppressed binary of Critical Race Theory. So, where are America’s Jews in this framework? Well, Woke Kindergarten’s website which poses “woke wonderings” in “liberatory thought” asks, “If the United States defunded the Israeli military, how could this money be used to rebuild Palestine?” On its Instagram account, Woke Kindergarten labels Israel a “settler colony” that has “no right to exist.” Groups like Parents Defending Education publicized these and other posts as an example of FCPS promoting a site that utilized Critical Race Theory, and under pressure, the school district claimed it was a mistake and removed it.
Yet months later, after the media asserted that the Virginia gubernatorial election was, to a significant degree, about critical race theory, the JCRC held a two-part webinar entitled: “Beyond the Headlines: Understanding How History and Race are Taught in Our Schools,” that whitewashed CRT-based curricula. The JCRC promoted the first webinar, “What is Culturally Responsive Instruction in K-12 Schools? How Does It Impact Our Children?” as intending to clarify the “complex issue and how the current debate regarding school curricula impacts American Jews.” While Critical Race Theory was an election issue, the JCRC renamed and reframed it, giving their webinar the deceptively parve title: “Culturally Responsive Instruction in K-12 Schools.” The title purposefully obfuscated the issue. CRT – yes, a theoretical framework whose complex philosophical contentions are studied in universities – is the driving force that is changing curricula across the country. CRT ideology removes Jews from their historic position of being allies with America’s minority groups, and redefines them as “adjacent whites,” putting them in the oppressor class.
The JCRC sought to use the example of Woke Kindergarten in Fairfax schools to demonstrate how they protected Fairfax’s Jews from any potential problems CRT might present. During the webinar the JCRC explained that the school had quickly removed Woke Kindergarten because it did not match the equity officers’ vision of culturally responsive instruction. But in fact, Woke Kindergarten was never fully removed from the school district’s curriculum. Summer school lesson plans for elementary students revealed that links to Woke Kindergarten’s videos were used almost daily as part of literacy instruction. Our group found that this was perfectly in line with the vision of the school’s equity officer, who told us in conversations: “We use critical race theory as the frame for teaching history.”
Worse yet, neither of the JCRC’s guest presenters were from the Commonwealth of Virginia, where this was the recent election issue. One guest was a director of equity at a Maryland school district and the other guest was a university associate director of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Education in New York who told the audience, “Jews should embrace CRT.”
Jewish leaders should tell this inconvenient truth about Critical Race Theory: no matter how much their radicalized allies promote it, CRT is dangerous for Jews. It casts Jews as “white adjacents” with disproportionate and ill-gotten power and it views the Israeli/Palestinian crisis through the lens of race where “white” Israel becomes an apartheid state and therefore like all systems of oppression, must be destroyed. Instead of the JCRC explaining this to the Jewish community, and fighting it, our JCRC is telling the community we should support an ideology that inevitably leads to anti-Semitism.
The JCRC’s assurances that they had anti-Semitism under control in the schools also ran counter to the many examples parents shared of anti-Semitism that had been largely ignored by school administrators. Not only had the JCRC failed in providing much needed clarity and leadership regarding nuanced and politically charged anti-Semitism, but they were not even adequately addressing the more easily recognizable forms of anti-Semitism. Parents shared numerous examples of swastikas that remained unerased for years, of students performing the sieg heil, of them singing happy birthday to Hitler, and of them telling deeply offensive Holocaust jokes to Jewish students, many of whom were also repeatedly subject to ethnic slurs. Administrators also refused to provide reasonable accommodations for Jewish students when school activities coincided with Jewish holidays.
Assurances by the JCRC that they were working behind the scenes to improve the situation were not reassuring. (Activists throughout the country have shared with us similar experiences about their JCRC essentially telling them to back off and let them handle the situation.) The incidents we collected had been occurring for years with no apparent improvement and no apparent larger strategy in place to address this ongoing issue. Worse yet, when we asked the JCRC about trends in anti-Semitism in Fairfax schools, they admitted that after all these years, they had not collected that data. Realizing the truth about the ineffectiveness of the JCRC, our group reached out to the ZOA and other Jewish organizations who agreed to officially advocate for our Jewish families by demanding FCPS take action to address anti-Semitism in their schools. To our astonishment, our group soon discovered that the JCRC was coordinating back-channel discussions to convince one of the Jewish organizations to rescind their support. The JCRC showed greater concern in controlling the dialogue and relationships than leading any effort to solve our problems. However, given the repeated pattern of anti-Semitic harassment ignored by school officials, the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint against the school district. Since the complaint has been filed, we have brought two more incidents of students performing the sieg heil and impersonating Hitler to the school district and the JCRC’s attention.
Most recently, we heard from individual members of the Jewish community that the NEA, the largest teachers union in the United States, was holding a vote on three anti-Israel “New Business Items” at their upcoming annual convention. The first two items called for the NEA to allot resources to “educate members and the general public about the history, culture, and struggles of Palestinians, including the detention, abuse, and displacement of children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and to advocate for the rights of Palestinians using one-sided and factually inaccurate sources from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. A third New Business Item stated that the NEA will support members who engage in this work “when they are under attack.” While the first item failed, the second went to committee, and the third, which provides union support to members who promote a factually inaccurate narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, passed by twenty percentage points.
It came to our attention that our members were alerted to this upcoming NEA vote by the JCRC. Rather than inform the larger Jewish community and mobilize them, the JCRC decided to only share this information with whom it considered to be concerned individuals by private email. Our organization, which had been fighting anti-Semitism in K-12 schools for over a year, did not receive an email. When we asked the JCRC if they would be making a public statement about the NEA’s items, a move that will impact Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, they responded that this was being handled “nationally.” Finding that answer dissatisfying, we organized Jews across the country to write letters and got media coverage of the NEA convention.
The JCRC’s framing of the NEA resolutions as a national issue and therefore outside their purview, seemed highly problematic given their active involvement in other national issues. At the same time the NEA issue was happening, the JCRC issued a detailed plan responding to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They coordinated with other organizations and participated in marches and appeared at events with lawmakers. They have had at least three webinars on abortion and reproductive rights in the month since the ruling with more planned. The JCRC also issued a statement in Kennedy v. Bremerton. The JCRC comfortably criticized the decisions in both cases, and the Christian right presumably behind them, for being purportedly harmful to Jews, but was unwilling to also publicly criticize the leftist NEA for entertaining and supporting measures that would back teachers who engage in spreading falsehoods about Israel in our public schools.
Early in the process of our interactions with the JCRC, hoping to partner with them and encourage them to take a more aggressive approach to fighting anti-Semitism and often becoming discouraged and disappointed in their approach, we became aware from various news articles in Jewish media that this situation was not unique. From Raleigh to Boston to Los Angeles, Jewish community members report a similar frustration with their local Jewish organizations who seemingly lack a strategy for addressing growing anti-Semitism. Rather than supporting and partnering with Jewish grassroots organizations nationwide, the legacy Jewish organizations have sought to maintain their “expert” status, often dissuading and sometimes even undermining these activist groups. We reached out to the Jewish Leadership Project, which has provided support to our group and others like us throughout the country who are deeply concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism and the lack of urgency and a cohesive strategy by organizations like the JCRC. Multiple ideological threats have left the Jewish community more vulnerable than it has been in years. Jewish leadership needs to stop promoting their social justice agenda and rethink a strategy based on the illusion that the radicalized left is our ally. They need to start prioritizing the safety of the Jewish community.
Hand of God: Soul
Bound to stumble and fall but my strength comes not from man at all. Matisyahu
Wisdom resides in the soul of nature—of humanity. Most of us learn from an early age that some people are more soulful, what I call ‘touched by G-d,’ and we feel blessed to have them in our lives. But what does it mean for a work of art—a poem, photograph, painting, sculpture—to have soul? Our reference point, of course, is nature. The ‘wisdom of trees’ has almost become a cliché—but for a reason. A tree’s resilience stems from its strong roots and mighty core; its beautiful branches and leaves are the rewards of that labor. A soulful painting or building often feels as though it’s speaking directly to our own souls, because there’s nothing superficial, frivolous—fake—preventing that dialogue.
Being surrounded by soulful, transcendent art + design nourishes our own souls. In an age of social media, Instaporn, and filtered selfies, it’s needed now more than ever.
Karen Lehrman Bloch
“Beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.”
“God wants, man dreams, the work is born.”
“Every recognition of beauty is a form of prayer.”
From nothing only nothing may come. So said Parimenedes, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and founder of ontology when he argued against the notion that nothing is eternal and that all things are subject to obsolescence and replacement. ‘Ex nihilo nihil fit’ or ‘nothing comes from nothing’ can also be taken to mean that creation is complete and can neither be added to nor subtracted from, only transmuted—like the clay that is shaped and fired so that it can become a bowl. This echoes Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 1:9, which reads ‘what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.’ It should go without saying that this doesn’t rule out the appearance of new forms, but those new forms would not come from nothing, but would instead be products of nature’s ability to convert matter into things that may appear new, but that are, at the sub-atomic level, ancient.
Which brings us to the subject of ‘eternal truth.’ If nothing comes from nothing, then truth, like matter, must be constant. The pursuit of these constant or unchanging truths is, or should be, the shared cause of philosophy and science as it relates to the physical world. This was the belief of modernists and liberals alike. Yes, modernists and liberals took a non-classical approach to understanding phenomena, but they never confused the objective with the subjective or said that a thing could be called ‘true’ absent evaluation or demonstration. Had modernists and liberals believed otherwise, then much of the progress that we now take for granted would not have come to pass. And it may be that certain people have rejected eternal truth in order to embrace post-truth politics, which is to say, the elevation of narrative above what can be called objectively true, because these people live in an age in which it has become easy to take the modern world and everything that made it possible for granted. By way of illustration, the anti-vaxx movement, which overlaps with, but shouldn’t be conflated with widespread opposition to vaccine mandates, is enabled by a society that no longer fears the ravages of polio, smallpox, and tuberculosis and that shrugged its shoulders when a smallpox outbreak was traced to an affluent LA suburb wherein vaccine refusal had become fashionable.
The ideological extremes that play too large a role in American political discourse are likewise the result of social amnesia. That amnesia, which has caused many of us to forget that revolutions decimate society and rarely result in the keeping of revolutionary promises, has turned too many of us into what can be neatly referred to as ‘nihilistic idealists’ and ‘cultist nationalists.’
The nihilistic idealist is one who believes that something can come from nothing, or that it is possible to construct reality using a set of beliefs that are ‘true’ not because they rise to the level of objective truth, but because they have been declared true by persons who possess the ‘virtuousness’ of the oppressed, the marginalized, and the underrepresented. Never mind that the Hutus were just that before they carried out their genocide against the Tutsis and that the Third Reich was born of working-class grievances. Just as might does not make right, neither is one right simply because one is in the minority or a member of the opposition.
On to the cultist nationalist. Know the cultist nationalist by his or her tendency to see conspiracy everywhere and to view himself or herself as the savior of the state and its democratic institutions in the same way that the nihilistic idealist views himself or herself as the savior of all of who are tyrannized by the ‘capitalist patriarchy.’ For the cultist nationalist, right-wing politics is truth and anyone who questions that truth is an enemy of the state. This belief bastardizes Aristotle’s politics, which did not treat politics as a prescriptive or descriptive, but rather as a practical science and discipline, the purpose of which is to generate noble action and thereby increase the happiness of the populi. When a politics generates too much contempt (both within the ranks of persons who subscribe to that politics and in those who subscribe to a different politics) it has failed to live up to the Aristotelian ideal and can be called cultist.
But, with corporate media trumpeting this or that half of the binary of American political extremes as loudly and as incessantly as it does, is it still possible for American society as a whole to remember that the truth has not changed and that it is very much on the side of persons who, in spite of it all, have remained humble and free enough to avoid and even challenge that binary? The answer is “yes” and that answer can only be given in the form of divestment from and challenges issued to a political culture whose “truths” are so fragile that they cannot withstand the kind of discourse that eternal truth thrives on. And just as discourse can be used to separate truths of convenience from what is objectively true, it can also be used to bring people together so long as that discourse is civil.
Because who doesn’t respect a person who respects others as a matter of course and who would never pick up a sword when language and composure are enough?
In the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, there is a viceroy ruling Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s stead. The interim ruler’s name was Belshazzar, and he was Nebuchadnezzar’s son. As the story goes, one day, Belshazzar held a great feast for his thousand nobles. At this feast, he got drunk and did something never done before. (About seventy years prior, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and conquered Israel, among many other nations, he took the holy things from the temple—cups and bowls made of gold and silver—and had them placed in his treasury.) The treasury was where they were kept all of this time. During the festivities, Belshazzar decided to have those things taken out so he could continue in his revelry and further intoxicate himself and his nobles with the holy items. They all indulged and worshipped their idol gods.
As Daniel 5:5-6 reads:
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.
Belshazzar couldn’t find any diviners who could decipher the writing on the wall, until one of his nobles told him about Daniel, an Israelite who had served Nebuchadnezzar the past seventy years, “in whom is the spirit of the holy gods.” G-d gave Daniel the gift of unlocking mysteries and revealing secrets to King Nebuchadnezzar, and now his son was in need of Daniel’s very services. Belshazzar told Daniel that if he could tell him what the writing on the wall meant, he would clothe Daniel in the finest clothes, and make him third ruler in all the land. Daniel rejected the gifts but still told Belshazzar the meaning of the writing. As Daniel spoke, he gave Belshazzar (and the readers) context to his rulership, telling him that G-d gave Nebuchadnezzar authority over the known world, and Nebuchadnezzar destroyed many civilizations, but kept the holy things in his treasury. He explained that when Nebuchadnezzar got too arrogant, G-d made him lose his mind and live amongst the animals as a beast for several years until he recognized that the Holy One of Israel was the one true God. Then Daniel pivoted and told Belshazzar that he, even though he had seen all of this, had “lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.” Then he interpreted what was written on the wall in Daniel 15:25-27:
“…And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Belshazzar fulfilled his promises to Daniel and ordered that the finest clothes be put on him and that he be promoted to third in command, even though Daniel had refused the gifts. That very night, the Persians invaded the kingdom, killed Belshazzar, and became the new rulers of Babylon and a world superpower.
The Book of Daniel has always been one of my favorite books to read. One thing I caught this time while reading chapter five was that, according to Jewish sages and commentators, the reason Belshazzar held the feast in the first place was because he knew of the prophecy given through the prophet Jeremiah about two generations prior that G-d would raise up Nebuchadnezzar and that Israel would go into captivity for seventy years. Belshazzar thought that the seventy years had passed, and so he held the banquet to both celebrate Babylon’s continued existence, and to mock the G-d of Israel. He purposefully called for the holy things of the destroyed Jerusalem temple to drink from as a middle finger to their G-d.
Turns out, Belshazzar’s math was wrong.
Seventy years had not yet passed, but the end was fast approaching. With the dismantling of the Babylonian kingdom came the reign of Persia and the return of the Jewish exiles to their homeland. The return was indeed after seventy years of captivity.
In Belshazzar’s arrogance, he purposely defiled the holy things of Jerusalem, something his predecessor never even did, just to make a point that he is more powerful than the G-d of Israel. It was this heinous act that moved G-d’s hand, as Daniel says in 15:23:
“…but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.”
It was from Belshazzar’s arrogance that he acted, but his actions were foolish. It is when we think we are wiser than the Creator of the universe that we make the most foolish decisions. Even if Belshazzar’s math was correct, and somehow, G-d never returned the exiles to Jerusalem, Daniel noted that Belshazzar has seen everything G-d put Nebuchadnezzar through and did not take it to heart. The Babylonian dynasty ends swiftly in Daniel 5:30:
That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the [Persian] received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
Whether it be a person or a nation, arrogance breeds foolishness. And that foolishness will breed death. This is why Proverbs 16:18 is a timeless principle:
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
To be fair, this topic is extremely complex. Breaking down the two words “Eternal” and “Wisdom” does not make it any easier. We can easily look up each word in the dictionary and this would give us the simplest and most direct answer for each word’s definition, but not their true meaning. If we consider Eternity to be the ongoing of something ad infinitum, then we open many pandoras boxes. For example, if one believes in true eternity, then the Universe, and all the matter in it (whatever form it happens to eventually take), will exist forever. However, there are many in science who believe in the Great Collapse, whereby the Universe is expanding today, and someday it will begin to contract on itself, going from a cool state to a hotter state as matter condenses, eventually forming a singularity before exploding again and starting the cycle all over. We do see this pattern in nature in all things. The smallest cellular organisms are born, live, and die, the largest Galaxies are born, live, and die. So where does that leave Eternity? Can something be eternal when its existence relies on the very fabric of space and time itself?
Now that the complex cosmological questions have been presented, let’s slow this thought process down a few light years and agree that Eternity as we know it is based on the laws of nature that we understand today. In the time and space where humanity has existed, our understanding of eternity might be described as something that outlasts humanity itself. In the context of our topic, Eternal Wisdom, this seems to make the most sense. To those humans who believe in a Deity that existed before time and will exist afterward, it’s a safe bet that such an omnipotent being would also have everlasting, and obviously, eternal wisdom. For the sake of this essay, however, let us open the discussion to less divine beings and if so, what does Eternal Wisdom look like for them? Is it something a human being can achieve? Or might something else achieve such vast experience?
Scientia non providere experienta
Knowledge does not provide experience. This is a critical concept, as the Latin above pronounces in the subhead. One can be extremely intelligent, imbued with vast amounts of information, but none of that leads to experience. There is a connection between the neurons in a brain and the outcome of a learned capability. Homo Sapiens evolved over time and have developed ever better abilities to acquire knowledge about a thing, and then over time, gain experience in a thing. This last bit about time is what defines one’s ability to gain Wisdom. True wisdom is being able to learn about a thing you have experienced to the degree that you are an expert in that thing, whatever it is.
Take for example the art of negotiations. A graduate from university with a shiny diploma and sparkling smile may have acquired very valuable knowledge about how to negotiate with other people, whether it be for legal purposes or capital trade. They may have even tried these methods in various classes and among groups. However, it is very likely that a well-seasoned used car dealer knows more about how to gain the advantage over their adversary in the art of negotiation without ever having set foot on a university campus. The reason is experience. The used car dealer has thousands of iterations of negotiating skill built into his or her brain. They can detect the subtle shift in tone, facial expressions, words being used, inflection of a voice, and they can size up a person and form a far better judgment in their minds at near instant speeds; whereas the student is oblivious to many if not all of these hidden pieces of information. Wisdom comes from experience, which is reinforced by understanding: “I have done a thing and I was successful, but I realized WHY I was successful and have implemented this learned thing.” This process might continue many more times before true wisdom about a thing is gained.
Merging wisdom with eternity
As a student of history, it is impossible to approach the topic of Wisdom itself without invoking the Divine. This article is agnostic as we attempt to rationalize what Eternal Wisdom looks like without a Divine entity, if that is even possible. I believe we will see that it could be, within the scope of our framework outlined above, in our Universe, and with our laws of nature as we know them to be. Take an average human lifetime as a good example: when people are born, we humans take quite a while to develop autonomy, but from the very beginning we can observe quick and critical learned experiences, which eventually lead to expertise, but not necessarily Wisdom of a thing. “I know how to write my name with a pencil. I learned this skill in my early years in school. Over time I became better at it, my letters became more legible, and my letters stayed even across the lined paper.” However, for most of us, the quality of our penmanship reached a plateau and there it remained. It stopped getting better, not necessarily for the lack of trying, or the lack of ability. We reached a level where our conscious mind inferred that enough experience had been gained for us to move forward without needing more practice. This is Wisdom: knowing when you know enough. You probably expected Wisdom to be more profound and Divine than a left-handed person with terrible penmanship, but consider that the most beautiful penmanship does not make one a better person, a better salesperson, than the person with poor penmanship. Some of the greatest minds had terrible penmanship. It was wisdom that allowed the person with poor penmanship to stop practicing and move on to more complex thoughts and ideas; that ability is wisdom.
Expand this to thousands upon thousands of small experiences accumulated over time exponentially growing and creating new neural pathways in every human’s brain (and every animal brain for that matter, for wisdom is not unique to humanity), and we see the very beginning of Eternal Wisdom, which is carried over in our DNA and through generations from parent to child, from sibling to sibling and from person to person. In a sense, whether we realize it or not, all of humanity is part of a giant collective of interconnected wisdom; we are contributing to a massive information system made up of 7.7 billion humans on planet Earth. Wisdom is therefore expanding and developing at an exponential rate. The average human brain has 86 billion neurons and at the present time of writing this article there are 7.7 billion humans on planet Earth, which means as a collective species we have 6.62220 neurons working individually, but also loosely connected to advancing our collective wisdom. We are a massive biological computer and as long as humans exist, our knowledge will exist, as will our ever-growing body of wisdom. There is a very good discussion to be had about Humanities Wisdom at the current time of this article, and whether we have the wisdom to control the technological level we have progressed to. Such a topic is beyond the scope of this discussion and could be a future topic itself. Suffice it to say, we are in extreme danger as we have progressed very quickly in technology but lack the wisdom to understand and control it.
Reversing the title gives us a better context of what is possible. Wisdom comes first, then the eternity of what that wisdom can become. Eternity before Wisdom implies some divine involvement, which is above humanity and above us; that was the concept our ancestors believed, from Moses to Jesus to Plato.
As we humans continue to develop our collective consciousness and move beyond the information age to the next phase of intellectual and social evolution, we will see our wisdom increasing exponentially about all things. We humans have come a very long way. We have mastered fire, we have wisdom about the seasons and the crops, we know seafaring and we understand the human body in ways we never could before. We have wisdom, not just knowledge of these things. Wisdom, which is passed on to new generations. However, can it be eternal? Is it possible for humanity’s collective wisdom to exist without humanity? No single human has the wisdom of all humans, far from it, we barely have the wisdom of ourselves and our close associates much less the rest of the planet, but there might be a way. If we imagine beyond the current information age, to a time where people’s minds are directly connected to a global network, sharing and accessing this information at the speed of thought, tremendous possibilities reveal themselves. This very science is being worked on, tested, and thought about by countless scientists around the world. It may be another hundred or two hundred years, but the day will come when all people will be connected at the neuronal level. This connection essentially turns all of humanity into one giant computer, using the collective power to solve daily problems and more that we cannot even dream of. In that framework, in that world, Wisdom can in fact be Eternal, because even if humanity might fail, it is very likely that we would be able to migrate our Wisdom to other mediums outside the biological, or at the very least some regenerative system, while not human, may still be biological acting like a silicon-based computer that we know today but biological. This is not fantasy. An example of this kind of science is “Dormio,” a project to build a device that could record and even guide people’s dreams. The end result was an ability to actually see rudimentary images of what people were dreaming, and even guide those dreams by implanting objects and features.
We can take our wisdom to the stars. We can explore the universe and everything in it. We can be eternal.
In the image of God, we become divine
While trying to remain agnostic, most cultures believe that humanity was divinely created in the image of its creator, that our uniqueness was provided to us and is that which separates us from all other living creatures. Suppose for a moment that such a divine entity does in fact exist, that the Universe as we know it, or the Multiverse, is not the madness we think (pun intended), and has an overarching order to the chaos, the grand birth, life and death of all things. In this case, and in its own image, perhaps Humanity may exist in a way that allows us to take our Wisdom with us and keep that Wisdom eternally. As we mentioned earlier, we are as a whole, one very large biological computer. We know that DNA is a storage medium for information, and we know that this information is passed on to our progeny. At the dawn of the 21st century, we see ourselves at the pinnacle of technological sophistication. We have developed the computer, the information age, global networks, and immediate information. We have explored neural networks and modeled the human brain. We are, however, infants. Barely one hundred years ago, the horse was still a common mode of transportation for most of the world, airplanes were still a new thing, and computers were more idea than reality. Let’s imagine for a moment, Humanity of the future, perhaps the 23rd century. By that time, it is likely that we will have left our silicon, copper wire, technology and moved on to different mediums. What if that medium were biological and self-healing, what might that look like? It might look very much like a human being of today, our carbon-based bodies today do not repair themselves well over time, we age and oxidize and ultimately our senescent cells grow old and take up more and more of our bodies, and we die. Quite literally, we succumb to time and usage. However, it may not end up like this in the future. We might very well see a time when humanity’s understanding of biological systems, and our ability to manipulate those systems at will, can provide us with unlimited repair, unlimited change and modification to endure the rigors of space travel, and in a sense time travel as well, as we use our knowledge of chemistry and biology to enhance the Homo Sapiens of today into an Eternal version of tomorrow. Sounds like hogwash, but we can see the seeds of this capability in our research today. Here is a short list of advanced research we are doing today to explain what I mean. We have the building blocks for nano technology, both silicon-based and biological-based “robots” that could eventually repair our bodies at the molecular level. Just like in the movies, you get a cut, it heals very quickly as these internal bots repair the damage using resources from your body.
We have used DNA to store entire swaths of data; massive volumes have been stored on a single strand of DNA because DNA is something of a computer.
We are learning to map the human brain and have implanted false memories into the human brain; we have visualized images from dream states on our silicon-based computers. We can take brain data and move it elsewhere.
These and many more advanced research topics are in progress now, and provide us with just a glimpse of the potential that humanity might achieve in the 23rd century. Once we master the ability to repair our bodies, migrate and manipulate biological-based data at will, communicate and leverage those advancements for the collective good, humanity will indeed become as Eternal as the Universes it inhabits. We will have reached a level of consciousness where we will have truly achieved Eternal Wisdom. In the Old Testament, when God realized that Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, He said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” (Gen. 3:22-23). To bring us full circle, Wisdom Eternal can only be gained by a group and a collective of learned experiences over time, passed from generation to generation until such time as we have reached a state of being where we are in fact creating the Tree of Life. It is up to you and I, and all of Humanity to pass the test, to overcome the trials before us, by using our collective wisdom to become Eternally Wise.
Working as a multimedia reporter for several decades in one of the most volatile regions of the world, I would also commonly shoot my own photos and footage in order to more deeply comprehend the subjects I was covering.
Striving to be as accurate and focused visually as I am in print and online, that journalistic aptitude and essential thematic clarity of vision carries over to my current photography, where I mainly work in black and white, in order to see the soul within the image, rather than the distracting gloss of color.
Although I have worked with many DSLR cameras and desktop editing suites over the decades, in recent years, as mobile camera lenses and software have exponentially improved, I’ve almost completely moved over to smartphones as a quality photographic tool of choice, and online editing platforms for the immediacy and cross-platform shareability of the results.
Deadly Stones: a masked Arab youth fires off a slingshot at Israeli Border Police during an alleyway confrontation in Kfar Shiloach/Silwan, a contested Jerusalem neighborhood.
Massed Media: an Arab holds a staged “protest” moment for sympathetic media during a during a street confrontation in Kfar Shiloach/Silwan, a contested Jerusalem neighborhood.
Street Fighter: a masked Arab youth hurls a stone at Israeli Border Police during an alleyway confrontation in Kfar Shiloach/Silwan, a contested Jerusalem neighborhood.
Sacred Melodies: Hassidic Jews from New Jersey chant a “niggun” at a cenotaph honoring 3rd Cent. Mishnahic sage, Yehuda II, near Tzfat, in northern Israel.
Tzfat Night Bus: a Tzfat city bus appears to vanish into the Ottoman-era Saraya Fortress as it rounds a traffic circle in a time-lapse shot.
Sea of Galilee: shafts of sunlight break through low clouds over the Kinneret Sea of Galilee, as seen from the Mt. Of Beatitudes.
Jerusalem of Lights: Jewish tombs on the Mount of Olives face the Old City.
Pesach Prep: Youths duel with rolling pins between batches of Pesach matzos at the traditional tomb of Shem and Ever in Tzfat.
Negev War Memorial: a timeline of battles to liberate the Negev is etched into a wall of a dramatic memorial in Beersheva, in southern Israel.
From Darkness to Light: rail commuters at Tel Aviv University hurry beneath garlands of Israeli flags as the nation transits from Memorial Day to Independence Day celebrations.
Tel Aviv Takes All Kinds: Hassidic youth gaze at the Mediterranean Sea and passing joggers at Tel Aviv’s “Namal” pedestrian promenade.
Ethiopian Princesses: Doe-eyed immigrants at an Absorption Ministry housing center in northern Israel.
Wedding Memorial: an Israeli child at a wedding in Tzfat gazes at memorial candles lit in the memory of a trio of teens – Naftali Frenkel (16, of Nof Ayalon), Gilad Shaer (16, of Talmon), and Eyal Yifrah (19, of Elad) – who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists south of Jerusalem in June, 2014.
Many voices vie for our attention claiming to teach wisdom. In our current point on the Information Age continuum, we would do well to remember Biblical flesh and blood archetypes and the Source from which their wisdom stories flow.
In generational waves of mysterious foreshadowing, actual and allegorical, which only the Divine could accomplish, at least 400 years (as referenced in both the Torah and the New Testament, Exodus 12:40; Galatians 3:17) before Moses confronted Egypt’s Pharaoh, Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob, served and brought blessing to Egypt’s Pharoah. And before the beloved son, Joseph, stood before Pharaoh, his great grandfather, Abram, in a transcendent connection to the future, stood before Pharaoh having come to Egypt to escape great famine.
The word Pharaoh sounds exotic and far removed from 21st century. In the sense, however, each person rules her own being, possesses her own prerogatives, makes his own decisions whether personal and unseen like how one feels about another, or public and far reaching like political policies or business practices, each person is a little Pharaoh. And as the three Pharaohs examined in this Biblical inquiry find wisdom (or don’t) when contact is made with God as symbolized by a Biblical patriarch, so each human heart finds wisdom or doesn’t as individual selves and the God Who made each one, connect.
Abram + Pharaoh
Before Abram and God entered the covenant of the pieces, before Abram and Melchizedek, king of Salem and high priest of God, shared bread and wine, before the covenant of circumcision; and before God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, God first told Abram to leave all he had ever known; his country, his kinsmen, his now deceased father, Terah’s household, and go to a place God would show him. Abram obeyed God. God made this promise to Abram,
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12: 2-3 ESV)
The most holy Ten Commandments which God wrote for Moses with His own finger, generations following Abram’s promise from God, contain the same pattern as Abram’s promise: human hearts which love the Law bind blessing to their lives and human hearts that dismiss the Law bind cursing to their lives. (Deuteronomy 28)
Abram and his wife Sarai were traveling to find the place God wanted them to find. On their way, a terrible famine swept the land, and the escape-country was Egypt. Because of Sarai’s great beauty, Abram realized there existed high probability he would be murdered and Sarai would be taken. He told Sarai to tell people she was his sister. This was true. Terah was their father. They had different mothers. (Genesis chapter twenty explains a little more.) Word got back to Pharaoh about Sarai’s beauty and he brought Sarai into his household as his wife.
The result? Plagues came to Pharaoh and his entire household.
Through this lens of wisdom seeking, Abram represents God. Pharaoh represents humanity.
Pharaoh had not intentionally done anything against God. He had no knowledge of Sarai and Abram’s marriage. And yet, because Pharaoh did something against God’s will – against the coming covenants between Abram and God – Pharaoh incurred God’s curses as plagues.
Sarai, merely being in Egypt would not transgress God’s will and therefore bring plagues to Pharaoh. But Sarai being brought into Pharaoh’s household as his wife would transgress God’s will and would bring curses to Pharaoh.
Most things in everyday life: friends, food, work, entertainments are like Sarai in Egypt. They exist in neutrality, or even as blessings from God. But the friend who becomes inappropriately close to another’s spouse in heart and/or body; the food meant to sustain life that becomes an addiction (or prescribed medication, alcohol, sex); the work that morphs into a kind of consumption; the entertainment that distracts from pursuits of substance, and any other benign thing that becomes a Sarai in Pharaoh’s household, becomes a thing that transgresses the Law of God. Therefore, that thing must bind curses to the human attached to it. This is true because God is without hypocrisy and does not contradict Himself. If one plants a watermelon seed thinking it is an apple seed, the watermelon seed’s DNA will grow up as what it is, regardless of the wishes or intents or ignorance of the planter. But once the planter realizes her mistake, she is wise to acknowledge a law exists that supersedes her wish (no matter how justified she feels it is) for apples.
It is Pharaoh’s response to the plagues that shows his wisdom. Pharaoh realized there was a greater law at work beyond his understanding and simply saying, “But I didn’t know,” was not enough. Pharaoh, in essence, repented completely of taking Sarai as his wife. The teachings of Jesus reflect Pharaoh’s response. Jesus said, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:9 ESV)
Pharaoh understood it was better to lose Sarai than to continue hoping the consequence could be waited out. “And Pharaoh gave orders to his men concerning him (Abram) and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.” (Genesis 12:20 ESV)
Wisdom acknowledges God’s ways are better than all other human ways of living one’s life in transgression to His Laws. And wisdom recognizes this is true even if returning to God’s ways is deeply painful and costs a person something precious; something one might feel she cannot live without or is justified in keeping. A wise person, however, says in her heart, “I will have no other gods,” and ends the affair; gets help for the addiction; evaluates priorities and adjusts accordingly. A wise person asks God for His help in doing this. It cannot be done without His abiding Presence.
Jacob, Joseph, + Pharaoh
After Jacob married Leah whom he didn’t love and Rachel whom he did love, Rachel gave him his youngest and most beloved son, Joseph. Afterward, Joseph understood his dreams of his accession to be from God and shared them with his brothers and father and mother perhaps while wearing the multi-colored coat Jacob had given Joseph, and after Joseph’s ten older brothers sold him into slavery so that he landed in Egypt, Joseph, handsome and well-built, served his master, Potiphar well and was rewarded with false accusations of rape by Potiphar’s wife.
After Joseph bore his underserved punishment in prison by serving the prison keeper well, Joseph became a conduit of God and correctly interpreted the Pharaoh’s servants’ dreams while they were in prison and was finally remembered (two years later) by Pharaoh’s cupbearer when none of the Egyptian spiritualists could interpret Pharaoh’s recent troubling dream.
Joseph, like his great grandfather Abraham, stood before the Pharoah of Egypt.
After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he boldly proceeded with an action agenda to prepare Egypt for the next fourteen years.
Pharoah, representing humans, listened to and accepted all that Joseph, representing God, said.
How interesting Pharaoh expressed no concern nor grief about his own spiritualists’ inabilities. Like the Pharaoh of Abraham’s time, this Pharaoh submitted himself to God without needing to cover his uncomfortableness with Joseph’s God, with statements like, “You’ve given me a lot to consider,” or “I’ll need to weigh my options.”
Pharaoh asked his servants, “Can we find a man like this in whom is the Spirit of God?” Clearly the rhetorical answer was no because immediately following the question Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over all my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command.” (Genesis 41: 38-39 ESV)
Not only did Pharaoh wholly recognize the immediacy of God over his former spiritual practices, but he also submitted his own efficacy, his own autonomy, his own prerogatives, and all his kingdom institutions and persons in it, to Joseph’s instructions, and therefore the implied supremacy of God emblemed through Joseph. Pharaoh, being wise, had no fear his advancing Joseph would diminish him.
Because the Pharaoh understood submitting to God meant there would still be difficult years ahead; that following God’s instructions did not guarantee an easy path, one can see the ruler had genuinely humbled himself to the degree true wisdom requires. To his credit he didn’t cajole his spiritualists to manifest a different outcome. He didn’t ask Joseph to intercede so perhaps God would change the prophetic dream. He simply recognized God’s authority over all outcomes throughout time and place and submitted his kingly authority to God’s counsel. The wisdom-seeking person will do the same.
During the dream-prophesied famine, Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his entire household came to Egypt to buy food from Pharaoh’s storehouses.
Pharaoh again humbled himself before God represented in Jacob’s person.
Jacob, whose name God had changed to Israel, blessed Pharaoh. And Pharaoh who did not ask for the blessing, humbly received it, knowing by doing this he was admitting God, through Israel, was greater than Pharaoh and all Egypt.
Not only did Pharaoh humble himself to receive Israel’s blessing, but he also gave to Israel and all his household, the best land in Egypt, the land of Goshen.
The wise person will do the same. She will humble herself before God admitting she is not all-sufficient but dependent on Him for her very breath, and when she receives from Him whatever blessing He chooses to give, she will return a portion of it, the best of it, to Him, with delight.
Moses + Pharoah
After generations passed and the Twelve Tribes of Israel populated Egypt, the good stories of Joseph and the God he served were forgotten and the Pharaoh feared the increasing numbers of Israel’s children thriving in Egypt and made them slaves who built him great cities.
And after the cries of Israel’s children reached God, Moses came to the burning-but-not-consumed bush and in his great humility asked God His Name. God answered, “I AM.”
Moses, then, like his father Abraham and his father Jacob and his father Joseph, stood before Pharaoh.
The Pharaoh before whom Moses stood embodied all that is antithetical to wisdom.
He was irrational. In miracle demonstrations between his spiritualists and God, he could not admit his practices and his spiritual disciplines were empty and ineffective. Perhaps he was afraid of God’s demonstrations of power, but he needed to appear right and never acknowledged God’s superiority.
He was manipulative and indiscreet. Six of the ten plagues God sent produced from Pharaoh a promise to let the children of Israel go to the desert and worship God as God had instructed them, if only Moses would ask God to lift the plague. God kept His word and lifted each plague each time He was asked. Pharaoh broke his word and refused to the let the children of Israel go every time he promised he would. Pharaoh made promises knowing he would break them if the alternative looked better. The unwise person manipulates to get her way but lacks the discretion to see, after a while, each broken promise reveals the ignorance and self-centered ambition of the manipulative heart.
Jesus would explain it like this, “Let what you say be simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:37 ESV)
And finally, the most reckless, dull, and witless demonstration of Pharaoh’s proud stupidity is this:
Then he (Pharaoh) summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also! (Exodus 12:31-32 ESV)
It is the last three words that reveal Pharaoh’s folly. We know from the text this declaration will simply be another broken promise. Pharaoh, unlike the Pharaohs of Abraham and Joseph’s time had no true heart submission to the supremacy of God, which allowed no mental revelation of the preeminence of God’s ways compared to his own. Pharaoh wanted relief from the consequences of his rebellion to God without humbling himself through repentance. Pharaoh had no desire to submit his rule to God’s authority, much less to ask for His guidance. But hey! If he can manipulate a blessing for himself in his dealings with the allegedly inferior Moses, then why not ask?
Another line of reasoning in Pharaoh’s demand, “bless me also!” is Pharaoh needed to equate himself with God. He got the last word in (so he thought) and that last word translates to: While you’re blessing your God, bless me as your god too.
Moses did not answer Pharaoh. Perhaps that is the wisest reply.
In the New Testament, James writes the first letter to the nascent church, which he calls the Twelve Tribes scattered abroad. (This is because persecution had come). James explains there are two kinds of wisdom and describes their characteristics and source:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (James 3:13-18 ESV)
If wisdom is to be grasped, surely one would do well to consider these sacred stories rolling and returning upon themselves in patterns and complexities only an all-wise God could communicate.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
God’s wisdom is eternal.
I was born in a country where the mere mention of God could get you into trouble, and I did not learn about God’s wisdom until I moved to the United States of America.
In my twenty-three years of living in the Soviet Union, I had never seen a Bible. There was no room for God in the USSR. Religion was anathema to the Communist Party.
In contrast, most people who live in the free world of the West can practice their religion of choice. The parents of young children can introduce them to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Confucianism, or Baha’ism at one point or another in their developing lives. Children can attend religious schools where they can study the sacred texts of the Old Testament, Talmud, the New Testament, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Veda, Tripitakas, Guru Granth Sahib, or the Holy Quran, among many other religious books that are available to study.
None of these sacred works were for sale in the USSR. My own introduction to the Old Testament at age thirty-three in New York was an awe-inspiring experience.
It happened while I was at Barnes & Noble on a lunch break, searching for a specific book for my three-year-old son. Mindful of my limited time, I looked for a salesclerk as soon as I stepped inside. Almost immediately, I found one and asked for her help. She walked me over to a specific area of the store and pointed her finger at a book.
Taking a step forward, I pulled the thin paperback from the shelf and flipped through its colorful pages. I double-checked the edition number and the author’s name against the information given by my son’s teacher to make sure that everything matched.
Satisfied, I was about to leave when, out of nowhere, a compelling yet unfamiliar voice told me to go to the Judaica section and pick out a Bible. The words I heard made me uneasy. Not knowing what to make of them, I turned around to confront the speaker, but no one was there.
Bewildered, frozen in place, and disappointed, I listened to the sound of my fast-beating heart that echoed in the silence of the aisle and resonated inside my brain. The words I heard sounded genuine, and their message was so powerful. My intuition told me to heed the advice. At that instant, I knew I had to find the Judaica section.
Overwhelmed with emotions, spellbound, I looked for signs to direct me to the place I needed to discover. I almost lost hope when, once again, I heard the same voice telling me to look up.
I lifted my head and thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets. To my amazement, I actually found myself standing in front of the Judaica section, the very place I was seeking. I felt my heart in my throat and wondered what kind of invisible force had brought me here. I had little understanding of what had happened. Shaken to the core of my being, I could not recall moving a muscle after selecting my son’s book.
However, my inner excitement was dampened quickly by the inability to control my actions. I hated that. I like to be in charge, especially regarding my physical body. Still, in a trance-like state and with child-like admiration, I slowly walked down the aisle facing the many shelves stacked high with religious manuscripts. There were rows upon rows of Bibles. Each sacred text contained God’s words. I could not take my eyes off of them.
I wanted so badly to touch these books, but the non-believer in me struggled with the idea of placing my hand on a holy scroll. Just thinking about committing this act, in an instant, put my body in a state of flight or fight. The high dosage of adrenaline surging through my veins brought back the long-forgotten constant fear I lived with inside the Soviet Union. I reminded myself that I was in Barnes & Noble and did not have to flee.
In the USSR, people did not talk about God or the supernatural. They did not discuss omens, enchantments, or other types of mysticism. Practicing religion of any kind in public places was forbidden and even punishable by law. The only deity the oppressed masses of the proletariat were allowed to worship was the Communist Party.
To promote the Party’s own self-aggrandizement, the communists used fear as a tool to control the population.
In front of Judaica, I took a few long, deep breaths, exhaled slowly, and, surrendering myself to fate, I began to entertain the idea of finding a Bible. As I continued to examine the various editions of the Old Testament, I searched for one I could take home.
Never had I seen a Bible. I reached out and gently touched the sleek spines. Real, they were real! There were hundreds and hundreds of them, neatly arranged and perfectly aligned against the wall.
In my mind, I reflected upon the knowledge all these Bibles had hidden inside.
I looked closely at the many tomes and different sizes of the sacred text. Some were too large for me to carry, and others were small enough to fit into my pocket easily.
I lifted a thick, heavy volume bound in supple, grainy leather with awe and admiration and inhaled the distinct, pungent aroma of the cured hide. I savored this moment and took time to flip through the glossy and velvety pages of the Old Testament. I loved the craftsmanship of the rare editions, but these beautiful Bibles were too expensive for my budget.
I am a firm believer in fate and the idea that things happen for a reason. Being inside Barnes & Noble at that instant in my life re-affirmed this belief. Deep inside my soul, I felt it was providence. It was meant to be.
Resolved to find the one meant for me, I searched for a perfect copy of God’s word, but finding one to satisfy my requirements proved challenging. I wanted an inexpensive softcover version of a Bible with a large font that was easy to read. I needed the book to be light so I could carry it in my tote back and read it on a train on my way to and from work. It took me a while, but my persistence finally paid off when I came across a decently sized paperback. This unique, soft-covered, large-print edition won me over, plus at only $16.95, it was affordable. The title read, “The Concise Jewish Bible,” and I liked the sound of it. An overwhelming feeling of relief washed over me when I realized that my search had ended and I had accomplished my mission. I now had access to God’s sacred words!
Armed with the Bible and the picture book for my son, both pressed hard against my chest, I walked toward the register proudly. But as soon as I got in line to pay for them, my resolve had wavered. The stark awareness that later I would read the holy text hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt intimidated.
Inside my head, I berated myself for picking up the Bible I now held. You know well that you have zero, zilch connection to this subject matter. It’s a fact. Face it! You will never, ever, ever read it. The simple act of opening the book terrifies you. How could an atheist like you take what it says seriously? Stop being ridiculous. Save yourself some time and money. Do yourself a favor and, please, leave it alone.
Coming up with more excuses not to buy it, I retraced my steps back to Judaica and reluctantly placed the book in its designated spot. But, a few minutes later, when I returned to the register, my body again was overtaken by the same invisible force. This time, the now familiar voice became thunderous when it ordered me to go back and choose a Bible.
In the end, the unseen, mysterious, uncontrollable force won even though I resisted surrendering to its power to the best of my ability. In my determination to win, I stubbornly went back and forth at least twenty, if not more, times between the Judaica section and register. I checked my watch on my final trip and realized that I had only minutes left to get back to work. I grabbed the sacred text for the last time, went back to the register, paid for it, and hurriedly walked out of Barnes and Noble.
That night, upon returning home from work, I opened the Bible with humble trepidation and endless curiosity for the first time in my adult life. I read it one chapter at a time and found myself craving more of God’s eternal wisdom. Night after night, I acquired new knowledge about the history of my people.
I reflected upon my ancestors’ sacrifices to please their God. Their deeds and unbreakable faith filled my heart with pride and joy. Day after day, page after page, I kept reading. It became like a ritual, almost an obsession. I could hardly put it down until I came to the final page.
Knowledge is power and ignorance is not bliss. Finishing the book taught me so much about the identity stolen from me by the atheist establishment of the socialist society. And it also brought me closure. Rejecting my miserable existence in the former Soviet Union, I stopped being ashamed of being Jewish. I, instead, experienced the immense pleasure of being part of a people the Creator referred to as “The Chosen Ones.”
Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Reading the Old Testament, I understood what it meant to be Jewish. I discovered a religion called Judaism and learned that only those who practice it are identified as Jews. In a godless country of not enough, my nationality was Jewish, not because I practiced Judaism, but because my ancestors, who all died before I was born, did before the Communist Party took over.
Jesus was thirty-three when he changed the world. When I was thirty-three, I found a place where I belonged and discovered my identity. Things certainly happen for a reason.
The fateful lunch hour I spent inside Barnes & Noble turned out to be a significant turning point in my life. What happened to me that day was divine intervention. God was letting me know that he exists and that I should not be afraid of connecting with my roots. He made me aware that he is part of me, and I am part of him. God lives inside all of us. We can connect to him through our inner self and take part in his eternal wisdom. God created us in his image. We refer to our Creator as a divine, omnipotent presence. I could only assume that each one of us has the capacity to reflect these fine qualities onto others. To do so, we have to be open-minded, kind, non-judgmental, and compassionate.
God is willing to share his knowledge that has existed throughout all time with us. His wisdom is filled with mysteries. I am a living example of it. Inside the bookstore, the unseen deity had, in his not so gentle, rather disturbing way, awakened my spirituality.
His presence shook me to the core of my being, and later on, I realized that I needed that rude awakening to help me understand that God cared about me, and he wanted me to get to know him better. I also understood that, despite being ignorant about the religion of my people, God had never forsaken me. He walked beside me during the darkest hours of my life when I had to deal with anti-Semitism, the loss of my beloved father, and the subjugation of my rights in a country of not enough. He did not give me more than I could carry, and by doing that, he made me stronger and more compassionate.
Years later, I forgave my abusers and freed myself of the past. I moved on and became wiser. Wisdom is not a given. I worked hard to earn it. Wisdom became part of my journey, and for that, I am eternally grateful to God.
Many people in the world today, particularly in the West, think of religion as a pre-Enlightenment way of thinking. The truth, of course, is that prior to the Western Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries pretty much all human thought—good, bad, or otherwise—was grounded in religion, because science and the Objective Method were only beginning to take hold.
What I am calling “Eternal Traditions” refers to the best of the great religious traditions of humankind but is not limited to those below.
Zoroastrianism counts. As does the Rastafarian tradition. As does Baha’i, Sikhism, Jainism, and Shinto, all of which are followed by millions of people around the world.
The primary difference between the Eternal Traditions and other ways of thinking is that worshipful practice potentially transforms the individual into a person infused with Spirit or Oneness or G-d. The best practices of the Eternal Traditions open the hearts of the devotees.
There are, needless to say, pitfalls in spiritual practice or religious belief, not the least of which include rigid orthodoxy, conformity, self-righteousness, sexism, and the condemnation of the other.
The best of all religions, however, create compassion and art—beauty to nourish the soul.
“Written more than two thousand years ago, the Tao Te Ching is one of the true classics of spiritual literature. It is a guide to cultivating a life of peace, serenity, and compassion. Through aphorisms and parable, it leads readers toward the Tao, or the ‘Way’: harmony with the life force of the universe.”
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
The First Day
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness He called “night.”
And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahma. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.
We were given a giant canvas, And the freedom, To find our own space on it,
Move on to whichever corner of the canvas we wished to, Splash the colors of our choice, Shape up the shapes that fascinate us, Create our own masterpiece, Every moment of our lives?
What if, We were not alone in this?
What if, The canvas was shared by everyone else, Each with the same freedom, To find their own space on it,
Move on to whichever corner of the canvas they wished to, Splash the colors of their choice, Shape up the shapes that fascinate them, Create their own masterpiece, Every moment of their lives?
In the eclectic collection of these masterpieces, In a crowd of artwork of varying styles and proficiency, Could you have your masterpiece, Co-exist and blend with others’, And while it belonged to one giant masterpiece, Yet, stand out on its own?
What would you do, When at times, Someone spilled their paint on your piece?
Would you blurt out in rage and berate them, “Can you not see, moron, How you have spoilt my work”?
Or, would you smear over that spilled-over paint, And create an amazing art out of that, Adding more life to your own?
What would you do, When at times, The bloke painting in the space next to you, Paints something so off the mark, So out of sync with yours, That makes your creation so dissonant and discordant?
Would you ask him, “Sir, could you tone down your blue, And not have that ball look like an egg”?
Or, would you just use Blends and borders and outlines, Either to let his artwork accentuate yours, Or to provide a contrast, That makes your work shine out?
For, whether it is a splash of bright colors, Dancing and swirling with boundless energy, Or a dark, dull, dreary smudge, Every piece of art could be a masterpiece.
For the world’s a giant canvas, Whether we like their styles or not, Whether we agree with their color wheels or not, Everyone is out here, To paint their hearts out, On the same giant canvas that we do.
To those, Who show us the dreams of “one world”, And surreptitiously, stealthily, secretly, Try to paint the whole wide world, With the color of their choice, We need to tell them loud and clear, “That, while we share this giant canvas, My colors, shapes and art are entirely mine, As yours are entirely yours”.
For, a canvas, Painted with one color all over, Is NOT a piece of art, Let alone a masterpiece.
Review of Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, eds Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student
For millennia, the greatest thinkers jostled with theologians about the meaning of the good life. Is the good life one of faith or reason? Because of the deep penetration of the ideology of progress into most of our educational, political, and social institutions, the main question these days is different. The more “woke” people amongst us at this moment of history don’t seem to be concerned with the ancient philosophical and theological question about the meaning of the “good life.”
The good life – today – involves neither reason nor faith. It is concerned with politics and power. The progressive political life – which aims to destroy the institutional and ideological foundations of Western colonialism and racism, for the sake of redressing historical injustices – is the only meaningful one. This kind of life is that of the activist. The only way to live this kind of life is to dismantle the foundational institutions built by the West, which for that mindset, are based on racism, colonialism, etc. Ancient philosophy and religion are two such foundational institutions.
Calling philosophy and religion out as the products of whiteness or white privilege is something of a duty on many college campuses and on social media. Given this situation, philosophical and religious questions about the good life don’t matter to most people because western religion and philosophy are seen as being a part of the same West that produced racism, colonization, and the genocide of indigenous peoples. That’s the “reasoning” that we hear so often these days. But it’s not just in academia; it’s on Netflix and Disney Plus, in board rooms and organizations, it’s baked into institutions and policies around North America.
How then, today, can we think about the good life without being deemed complicitous?
Over fifty years ago, the famous scholar of philosophy and politics, Leo Strauss framed the situation we still face, today, in terms of a choice between progress or return. We either go forward and deem the past as something to be rejected and reactionary or we return to it and take it on as the foundation of the good life. Progress deems the past as something to leave behind. Return is about going back to things in the past that are fundamental to a moral, intellectual, and political existence: such as revelation, a past event in which the divine entered the realm of the human and (for Strauss, primarily) gave the law.
(The relationship of law to revelation is of great interest to Strauss. The assumption being that a morality or a covenant commanded by God is more powerful and binding than one that human beings institute. As the scholar David Novak argues in several of his books, the American constitution is founded on the covenantal idea which, he argues, is the basis for all real trust and faith in the government and citizens to do what is just. As he argues, it is prior “historically and ontologically” to the constitution and to all ethics which rely on trust. To be sure, trust is the glue of society. Without it, no society can function. For Novak, building on Strauss, that historical and ontological basis for law and for the trust it draws on is in revelation and covenant.)
Strauss seems to suggest that return and progress can keep each other in check because, on the one hand, a modern philosopher like Baruch Spinoza can’t know for certain that miracles or transcendence in the physical world is impossible; on the other hand, religion cannot definitively prove the existence of God, miracles, etc. It believes in God; it does not know God.
When Strauss argued that the question about the good life is an ancient question that is at the foundation of the West, he thought that it should be deeply meaningful for us, even today, in a time informed, primarily, by progressive thought and politics. Leo Strauss brings the call for return, back from the dustbin of history; thereby suggesting something that presents a challenge that can prompt us – who are caught up in a misperception about who we are and what makes for a good life – to think. Thought is premised on opening oneself up to possibilities rather than denying them.
For Strauss, this is a return to the tension between Jerusalem (Revelation) and Athens (Reason). Today, we live in a world that has (seemingly) chosen Athens (reason and progress) over Jerusalem (return). (I say seemingly, because it is not the life of reason that we are living under today; it is the life of progressive political zealousness.) To be sure, the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, which Strauss appeals to in many of his writings, is based on giving equal credence to two entirely different answers to this very question about the good life. Strauss called it “the quarrel of the ancients.” It is the tension that can prompt us to think about the good life and its meaning.
In the spirit of Martin Heidegger, who wrote about the “forgetfulness of the question of Being,” Strauss argues that this fundamental question and tension has been forgotten by modernity and has caused us to go off in the wrong direction.
A major part of Strauss’s project was to – like Heidegger did with the “question of Being” – recover the quarrel and repeat it (wiederholung) in the modern period. He wanted to present it as unresolved, as opposed to the progressive Enlighteners who mistakenly thought that, as Strauss puts it in his 1935 book, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors, their “mockery” of “orthodoxy” was sufficient to win the argument and end the quarrel. But, as Strauss notes and as any logical person knows, mockery is not how one wins a philosophical or theological argument. It remains, to this day, unresolved.
I would suggest that the question of the good life, the tension between Athens (Reason) and Jerusalem (Revelation), the quarrel of the ancients, can be seen, today, as a form of Counter Enlightenment (something that was of interest, at the time of Strauss’s first major writings, to the Frankfurt School and thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin). If enlightenment chooses progress over return, there is no tension.
Counter enlightenment puts the notion of progress and its conclusions into question and allows us to rethink the meaning of Jerusalem and Athens. It allows for ancient questions to enter our way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in rather than take the quarrel as a settled issue. Even today, it can put into question our smug sense of progress and our ideas of what constitutes meaning and value. As Strauss says in one of his essays on Maimonides, also in the spirit of Heidegger, one must allow oneself – one’s thoughts and one’s beliefs – to be put into question by this tension, which has been repressed by the Enlightenment and the ideology of progress.
What do Orthodox Jews think about Strauss’s Challenge?
Since Strauss sees the “quarrel of the ancients” as directed at what he calls “orthodoxy” (associated with Revelation), Orthodox Jews are implicated and should, for good reason, ask whether his distinctions are accurate or insightful, if his form of counter-enlightenment has any relevance for Orthodox Jews today. To be sure, Strauss’s work on Jerusalem and Athens suggests that Orthodox Jews can engage in the task of return and renew the quarrel of the ancients in our own time. What do Orthodox Jews think about this challenge and how Strauss has framed it?
In the new collection of essays, Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith ed. by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student, we are given a unique opportunity to see how Orthodox Jews look at Strauss’s arguments, his framework, and how they fare in our world. We are given an opportunity to relive this ancient quarrel and entertain the meaning of faith, specifically the faith of Orthodox Judaism (which as Strauss notes, is the basis of this quarrel). This book, to be sure, also recovers and repeats this tension and should be studied rather than just read, if one is to feel the impact of the questions it raises.
In this review, I’d like to briefly discuss some of these contributions so as to convey a sense of the urgency that these essays have about how we think about faith today vis-à-vis the work of Leo Strauss and Spinoza (two names that most young people today have never heard of before, unless they, for some odd reason, start trending on social media).
Before touching on some of these pieces, which represent the main motifs in this collection, I will cite a part of the main passage from Strauss’s Preface to a famous essay on Spinoza, since this passage was sent to all of the orthodox scholars included in this book by the editors of this volume. What is most interesting about this group is that they are not Strauss scholars, by and large, so their response taps into an Orthodox Jewish reading of Strauss’s claims and distinctions and makes us give more thought to his descriptions and his very framework.
One of the main distinctions, which is deemed problematic by most authors in this volume, is Strauss’s distinction between belief and knowledge (which I noted above):
If orthodoxy claims to know that the Bible is divinely revealed, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, that Moses was the writer of the Pentateuch, that the miracles recorded in the Bible have happened and similar things, Spinoza has refuted orthodoxy. But the case is entirely different if orthodoxy limits itself to asserting that it believes the aforementioned things, i.e. that they cannot claim to possess the binding power of the known. For all assertions of orthodoxy rest on the irrefutable premise that the omnipotent God whose will is unfathomable, whose ways are not our ways, who has decided to dwell in the thick darkness, may exist. Given this premise, miracles and revelations in general, and hence all Biblical miracles in particular, are possible. Spinoza has not succeeded in showing that this premise is contradicted by anything we know…. Certain it is that Spinoza cannot legitimately deny the possibility of revelation. But to grant that revelation is possible means to grant that the philosophical account and the philosophical way of life are not necessarily, not evidently, the true account and the right way of life: philosophy, the quest for evident and necessary knowledge, rests itself on an evident decision, on an act of the will, just as faith does. Hence the antagonism between Spinoza and Judaism, between unbelief and belief, is ultimately not theoretical but moral. (My emphasis, in bold.)
Jack Abromowitz starts the volume off with an essay that frames Strauss’s approach to Judaism in terms of dichotomies we find in Plato’s famous dialogue, the Meno, about knowledge and belief. Do Orthodox Jews think in terms of this distinction or not?
Abromowitz suggests that Strauss is explaining orthodoxy to non-orthodox people and for this reason, he uses a dichotomy that they are familiar with (between knowledge and belief). Citing Strauss, he demonstrates that his argument is based on the claim that Jews believe in God’s existence, the Creation, etc. If they claim to know it, argues Strauss, Spinoza will win the argument (based on knowledge, which deals with certainty, verifiability, etc.).
But this argument is off, argues Abromowitz, citing Maimonides. Judaism is a kind of religion in which the goal is ultimately to know God (as the psalms say, “in all His ways”). Belief and knowledge, in other words, are a part of the same continuum. It isn’t an either/or situation. Faith is commitment, a relationship. It is not about belief. As one contributor to the volume, Simi Peters puts it, one does not believe in one’s wife or husband, one is committed to them. This is a primary metaphor for the relationship of God with his people.
Shalom Carmy’s essay, “An Argument for Businessmen,” builds on this idea when it argues that proofs of God’s existence (that God “may” exist) “will yield a conception of God limited by those premises.” “What is left out” by Strauss, argues Carmy, “is precisely the vitality and personal sovereignty of God. When real people seek God, their starting point may well be such initial insights and yearnings and concerns; yet when we encounter Him, we will always be confronted: we will be pushed and provoked to transcend those premises.”
Carmy points out that Strauss makes fun of what he calls “businessmen,” who don’t understand such arguments about Jerusalem and Athens. Strauss, argues Carmy, thinks that they are more driven to God by passion: “If, by contrast, the ‘businessman” refers to the kind of person who is more hungry for truth than attempting to prove beyond refutation abstract and unprovable theories, it may not be the worst way to pursue one’s life.” Carmy is interested in the personal God, which he thinks is missing from Strauss’s account of Orthodoxy: “If God is personal, as Orthodoxy believes, and if what is most valuable in human existence is personal, as seems the case to potential religious believers…then Strauss’ way of thinking is more an obstacle than a way to the truth that is worth struggling for and living in.”
Paul Franks, in his essay “Reason, Faith, and the Overcoming of Shame,” also sees proofs of God’s existence (that God “may” exist) as secondary to the I-Thou relationship with the personal God. He focuses in on the commandment: “The primary concept (of Orthodox Judaism) is that of the mitzvah or commandment…. Only insofar as it is first commanded by Moses on behalf of God, the ‘lover of the people’ addressed in the sconed person in the preceding verse – only insofar as it is a commandment grounded beyond the human yet in love for the human – is the Torah a heritage or a commandment.”
Citing Franz Rosenzweig, Franks argues that “as commandment, the Torah is part and parcel of a covenantal I-Thou relationship between God and the people of Israel, and between God and each Jew.” Franks adds that the overcoming of shame – namely, of the moment in the Torah of discovering nakedness after eating of the tree of Good and Evil – is made possible through this I-thou relationship which is epitomized by Torah Study between two people, of passing the tradition on to the children, the next generation. A living tradition – based on an I-Thou relationship – epitomizes Orthodoxy. According to Franks, this account is missing from Strauss’ description of Orthodoxy.
Alec Goldstein’s essay, “The Validity of Religious Experience in a Post-Kantian World,” also turns to the difference between the religious experience of God and the argument for God’s existence. Goldstein goes through several Jewish sources such as The Kuzari by Yehuda Levi, which turn to experience as the basis of faith: “For the Kuzari, the foundation of Jewish faith is not philosophy, but prophesy. It is prophecy, tradition, and the religious experience, which offer a far greater level of certainty than philosophy.”
Goldstein sees faith in terms of a kind of mystical experience with God. He turns to modern sources to argue that the sciences, which look for “verification,” don’t understand faith since “mystical encounters, by their very form, cannot live up to this standard of verification, they are not replicable. These are intensely personal experiences, unique to the individual, and cannot be corroborated by another distinct person. In other words, the method of verification that empiricism demands cannot be applied in these cases.”
Goldstein ends his essay with a description of the sensations he has (or fails to have) when he prays. This sensation nourishes and challenges his faith. But this seems to confirm what Strauss says about the difference between belief and knowledge. The two seem to be divided; one is based on experience, the other on the observable and verifiable. Faith can’t be verified or measured. Be that as it may, this essay and others see the I-Thou experience as missing in Strauss’s account of Orthodoxy and faith. Belief, they wish to show, is rooted in experience rather than a lack of knowledge or an assertion about God, Revelation, and Miracles.
In “Leo Strauss and the Lure of Orthodoxy, or, How to ‘Awaken a Prejudice,’” Mark Gottleib takes an in-depth look into Strauss’s reading of Orthodoxy and his use of it to challenge not just the Enlightenment but also Jewish thinkers who were influenced by it (from Mendelssohn to Herman Cohen): “By claiming he is trying to ‘awaken prejudice in favor (of this view of Maimonides)…and even more, to arouse suspicion against the powerful opposing prejudice,’ Strauss is signaling that all philosophical eras and periods, including the Enlightenment, ultimately reflect their own intellectual prejudices…Strauss’ deconstruction of the claims of universal rationality implied in the Enlightenment project evens the playing field when competing worldviews and rival conceptual schemes square off against each other, rendering Orthodoxy as philosophically plausible as Enlightenment skepticism if not decisive proof can be offered in either direction – which is exactly what Strauss claims is the case.”
Gottleib correctly points out how Strauss saw the “return” of Rosenzweig, Buber, and Cohen to the sources was ultimately based on the influence of Enlightenment thinking that emerges out of historicism: “While culturally attractive advocates of ‘new thinking’ wanted to free themselves from the grip of Enlightenment rationality, their own arguments against traditional Orthodoxy often brought them back into the bosom of that Jewishly-alien system of European thought that they claimed to be relinquishing.”
For this reason, he rightly points out that Strauss sees the return to a pre-modern Orthodoxy (epitomized in the work of Maimonides) as the best way to challenge the Enlightenment. This return consists of a return to the relationship of revelation and law (which Strauss) sees as integral to pre-modern Orthodoxy: “For Strauss, the linchpin of the entire medieval project is foregrounded on the concept of law. Thus, Maimonidies’ defense of divine law, and not the question of religious belief and knowledge as it was traditionally understood.” He adds, “the superiority of the medieval synthesis over its modern successors rests precisely in the prioritization of law over truth and community – or state-forming over the profession of belief…. For Strauss, the way forward was back.” This formation hits directly at the counter-enlightenment aspect of Strauss’s work and also shows us how law and the polity figure in Stauss’s distinctions.
Simi Peter’s essay, “Why Should a Jew Choose Belief,” is also an important contribution to this collection because it situates God in history, much like Emil Fackenheim sought to do. The historical revelation of Godliness, a collective revelation, is the basis for faith, and the basis for the commitment to the covenant. God must be encountered in history, not simply in this or that private experience. The covenantal relation, the relationship with the law, which is a mediation between God and the Jewish people, is a public experience.
What we find in this collection on Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinaitic faith is thought-provoking. As Strauss would argue, Jerusalem is much different from Athens. Nonetheless, the two must be thought together. The question is how? This volume suggests different answers to that question, but it also suggests that religion in general (but Judaism in particular) still matters in a world that seems to have abandoned it. Orthodox Judaism has a role to play here.
This suggests that, in the postmodern era we are living through, any relationship with God most likely doesn’t follow from reasoning and proofs of God’s existence. It emerges out of a passionate relationship with God, the Torah, and the law that has been handed down – as Maimonides notes – from one link of tradition to another.
Ultimately, relationships, what Levinas calls the face-to-face, are the basis of faith and trust. We are, as Levinas says, “elected by the other.” When Abraham – the father of three monotheistic religions – says Hi’neni (Here I am) in the Torah, in response to God’s calling, Levinas says that this means that I am here, ready to serve the Other (with a big O and a little o). This Hi’neni is something that is not arrived at through thinking; it is arrived at by simply being in the presence of the other. It is – regardless of how much we resist it and proffer a sense of individuality – inevitable. Response-ability, in other words, is built into Judaism and basically all experience. It is particular and universal.
Using such ideas, Levinas tries to revitalize Judaism in our time – like Franz Rosenzweig did before him, via his writings and the founding of the Lehrhaus – by situating it in this relationship with the other. We need to – as Leora Batzniksy has attempted in her book, Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation – think about Strauss, and his interest in law and revelation, in terms of an interlocutor like Levinas who sees the face-to-face experience as fundamental. We see this possibility lingering in this volume. All we need is, as I mentioned above, to study it and connect the dots (or as Strauss says of Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed, read for the connection between one chapter heading and another).
This matters today because, as these essays show, the good life is something that we can only think about when we think about what brings us face-to-face with each other. Religion brings us face-to-face, and so does politics and the law.
If we lose the divine basis of law and see Judaism and philosophy as colonialist, racist, or marginalizing gender, etc., how can we carry on the trust that the law invests in us and in all human beings to be just? Living a good life is not just about living a life according to reason or faith; it is about deciding on what is the best life for all of us. It is situated between the two. If one is negated, if return is negated, if not just Jerusalem but also Athens is negated, what is the basis for trust? What is the basis for good and evil if the past and all foundations are deemed to be racist?
We need the counter-enlightenment suggested by Strauss and by this collection because we need to take these questions seriously instead of seeing ourselves as beyond good and evil while, at the same time, blindly and hypocritically declaring that both Jerusalem and Athens must be canceled if we are to live a good life. If we don’t live in their tension, besides power and its redistribution, what are we living for and how can this kind of life be called good? That kind of life is more akin to Hobbes’s war of all against all, and as he once famously said, it is nasty and brutish. It’s really not what one would call a good life. Perhaps it’s time to return so that progress – redefined by those who see the past and the foundations of the West as a curse – doesn’t end up putting us into a Hobbesian nightmare where power is the law and might is right.
…In the dark I see shining toward me faces of epitaphs wailing their song. Graves of the whole vanished Jewish world blossom in my one-man tent. And I pray: Be a father, a mother to me, a sister, a brother, my own children, body-kin real as pain, from my own blood and skin be my own dead, let me grasp and take in these destroyed millions… Who else, like me, has his own nighttime death-garden?
Memorial Poem, Jacob Glatstein
One day there will be no more remaining Holocaust survivors. The world knew this logically; very soon, it will know it experientially.
I once heard a Holocaust survivor speak about this concept. One day, he said, the Holocaust would pass from living memory, from numbers on the arms of living men and women, stories told in auditoriums and around coffee tables in New York, Paris, Moscow, and Jerusalem, into the shadowy realm of history, to take its place alongside the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Khmelnitsky uprising. To dwell in dusty books and on the screens of televisions, images flickering for a moment while the viewer searches for the remote.
Since the moment they were liberated, many of the survivors bore within them a constant awareness that, like it or not, they were witnesses to one of the most monumental horrors in human history. That they bore a responsibility to, and were forever bound in a covenant with, those who had gone to their deaths. From the time Holocaust memorialization came into vogue in the 1960s, there was a creeping awareness that those wishing to make a record of memory were racing against time; that one day the sun would rise on a world that had within it no living witness of those days of horror. In the 1990s, the push became more urgent, with millions of dollars spent on projects to make recordings of oral history, to collect documents and artifacts from the ever-diminishing population of survivors.
We have been hearing for generations about the day of which he spoke. My interlocutor’s insight was nothing novel. But he gave the time after it a name I had never heard before. He called it the “Silent Time.”
The last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was either Simcha Rotem, who died in 2018, or Leon Kopelman, who died in 2021. The last survivor of the Sobibor uprising, Semion Rosenfeld, died in 2019.
In 2021, my last surviving grandparent died. She had been fourteen years old when she arrived at Auschwitz, lied about her age to Josef Mengele, and was directed to the line that led away from the gas chambers and the crematoria. She was ninety-one on the day she died. Not many of the alumni of the camps could have been younger than she. How many, now, could be left?
In the spring of 2022, I read that the March of the Living, on hiatus during the Covid pandemic, would resume. It would be the last year that living survivors would participate; the organizers were unable to find enough who were sufficiently healthy to make the trek.
There is more Holocaust education in American and European schools than ever before, more ready access to comprehensive information than at any time in history. Yet the number of people who have never heard of Auschwitz, who have only the dimmest inkling, or no inkling at all, of the unprecedented ghastliness of those years, grows at a steady pace.
The Silent Time hasn’t yet come. But it is no longer part of a dimly foreseen future, lazily drifting in our general direction. It is imminent.
There is a box in which I keep my family’s prewar photos. I see the faces in those pictures sometimes in my dreams, sepia-toned and fading. The beards and modest clothing of the more devout, shaven cheeks and lower necklines of those exploring the boundaries of modernity. Some grave, aloof, some haunted by tragedy and loss. A few with a hint of mirth. Families gathered at tables and in yards, at study in schools or at play in forests and riversides. Images of a world unknowingly plunging toward a destruction unparalleled in human history. Pictures from a civilization about to be destroyed. The few such artifacts that survived the war, hidden away by neighbors in attics and cupboards on the off chance that any survivors would return from the death camps.
Most of our family’s prewar photos have found their way to me. It fell to me to collect, catalogue, identify, and scan them for a posterity that shows, at best, a lukewarm interest.
What were they like, the people in those photos? What books did they read? What thoughts did they think? What music stirred their souls? What loves and hates, regrets and dreams lay behind the eyes that stare at me from those antique scraps of paper? I obsess over these questions that no longer have accessible answers. Most of the people in those pre-war photos are only names, leaves on a family tree. For some I know a birth date, a death date. For a few, I might know a few paltry details—for very few, I might have an anecdote passed down orally, yet to be written in any permanent form. Too many of them exist only as photos, without even a name remembered by anyone still living, swallowed up by the relentless pace of time and the fading of living memory.
“Really?” my cousin asks, incredulous. “You never had that nightmare?”
My wife looks at him as if he has three heads. Her family left the shtetls of Galitzia and Volhynia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She is third generation American in the branches of her family most recently arrived on these shores. Fifth or sixth generation in some of her other branches. No one in her family bore a number on their arm. None of her kin were pushed into mass graves or vanished as smoke into the sky on a spring day.
I am silent. I know exactly what my cousin is talking about. I have tossed and turned to the nightmare of being trapped in a Nazi death camp many times—less often as I’ve aged, but it’s never entirely left me. My cousins and I all know that dream. We have dreamed it all our lives, from the time we were children.
Three of my grandparents were from Munkacs, the “Jerusalem of the Carpathians.” When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, the Jews of Munkacs, the majority of the town’s population, were confined to a ghetto of a few city blocks. Between May 15 and June 7, 1944, daily transports carried 144,000 Jews from Munkacs and the surrounding cities to Auschwitz, where the vast majority, including most of my family, were murdered on arrival. The fourth grandparent, my mother’s father, came from a farm near Piestany in Slovakia. He joined the partisans, but we know almost nothing of his experiences. By the time the war was over, his parents and seven of his eleven siblings had been murdered.
My cousins and I were the first generation of our family born in America; born less than a decade removed from the Munkacs our parents left in the early 1970s. Growing up, nearly everyone we knew over the age of 50 was an alumnus of Auschwitz and a dozen other camps scattered across Eastern Europe. Some of them had lost wives, children, whole families whose identities I wouldn’t discover till years later, if ever. All of them did things to survive that we, in our modern security and prosperity, can only describe, and never truly imagine. The children of my family grew up surrounded by survivors, listening to their conversations and their songs, in the rustic Hungarian of Carpathian Ruthenia. They were remarkable people, by and large, who had put the horrors of their past behind them and had striven to become productive citizens. They had built new lives and had families, and did their best to live without bitterness. They were our grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts, loving and generous, but they could not help passing on some tiny measure of their trauma to us. Not enough to truly understand what they had gone through. But enough, perhaps, to get the gist of it, to have a speck of their terror and pain imprinted in our souls.
My wife tells me of new research, that trauma can be passed down through DNA. It sounds like Lamarckian voodoo to me. And yet there is no denying that my cousins and I have an experience alien to her, and the others like her whose families had lived in America before the war. My wife never had “the” nightmare. She couldn’t understand the panic I felt when I realized, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, that our children’s passports were about to expire. The idea of possibly needing those passports, of having to flee, was never even a passing shadow in her upbringing. She looks on with detached amusement as I hide away a small hoard of easily transportable valuables, “just in case.”
“The American cousins are different,” my grandmother once said. “Not worse or better, just different.”
We are at Yad Vashem, my 13-year-old daughter and I. We stand before a photo of a woman, hunched with age, leading some children by a fence in Auschwitz. I know the photo. Without reading the caption I know it is from the infamous Auschwitz Album taken by an SS photographer. I know that this unknown woman, photographed from behind so her face is obscured, is from Munkacs. She and the children are on their way to their deaths. Perhaps she arrived on the same train as my family. Perhaps she was with my great-grandparents during their brief and fatal visit to the gas chambers, just after their arrival.
“Why didn’t they leave before it got to this point?” my daughter asks. How can I explain it to her? How can she understand? She did not grow up with the memory of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, of Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald. She is not ignorant of Jewish history, but the war years are as remote to her as any other of the myriad persecutions she knows, intellectually, that her people have suffered in history. She has grown up in a time of prosperity and freedom that would have been incomprehensible to her ancestors of a few generations past. She knows that even in the worst-case scenario, Israel is always open to her as a refuge, but she can’t really conceive of ever having to flee her homeland, the trauma of uprooting herself from everything she has known.
I explain that many of the people whose images she sees didn’t have the resources to leave, and that, even if they did, no country would take them while it was still possible to get out. As we leave, our conversation turns to the importance of remembrance, the duty to carry the legacy of the murdered millions into the future. I speak to my daughter about the coming of the Silent Time. Like my wife, she is aware of its approach, but the full meaning of it, the warp and weft of it, is beyond her understanding. It is not her fault. She did not grow up surrounded by the legacy of the camps, did not consume it with every spoonful of my grandmother’s chicken soup. She is one generation too far removed to feel it in her bones.
The American children are different too.
A painting hung in my grandparents’ house for my entire life. My father doesn’t remember when they acquired it; it may have belonged to their family before the war. It depicts a man in baroque clothing and surroundings, idling in his study with a well-worn volume open before him.
The painting, nameless as far as I know, was one of the “Roccoco Series” by interwar period Czechoslovakian-Jewish painter Beregi Sandor (also known as Sámuel Welber, 1876-1943/4). Beregi, a native of Munkacs, was best known for his sensitive portraits of the Jewish community of Munkacs and of the non-Jewish Carpathian peasantry. In a diary entry, Beregi’s contemporary, Adalbert Erdeli, wrote that Beregi was “a man with a big heart, a man-artist, devoted to beauty. He is witty, unable to offend anybody in a company. He was a straightforward person, very kind. Life forced him to paint portraits of dead grandparents…. To judge his creativity, considering just his remarkable witty caricatures and female portraits, would be wrong. Sámuel was a magic artist.”
Nobody knows for certain how Beregi died. Was he beaten to death by Hungarian fascists in Budapest in 1943, as some eyewitnesses insist? Was he herded onto the cattle car bound for Auschwitz in May of 1944, as others reported? He exists now only as a name, and in the paintings he created in life. As far as I know, there is no surviving photograph of him. In some ways Beregi is more mysterious and less remembered than the nameless faces in my family album, who at least have an image to survive them.
My family’s Beregi painting is hardly a masterpiece. It’s not remotely his best work. “Roccoco Series” was a nod to a passing fad, paintings he could dash off to pay the bills, allowing him to wander the streets in search of subjects that spoke more profoundly to him as an artist. The painting came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2021. I spent days studying it, noting the tiny flakes, the pinholes worn into the canvas. I called Yad Vashem, offered it to the museum’s collection if only its art restorers would do what they could to preserve it. The discussions went on for months, intermittently interrupted by the pandemic and its disruptions, staff turnover and allocation of resources elsewhere. I persisted. Finally, the day came. Carefully, reverently, I wrapped the painting, frame and all, in bubble wrap, slid it into its box, carefully sealed it in against the elements. Then the courier was at my door, and the painting was gone, too quickly for a proper farewell.
Later that afternoon I gazed up at the sky, imagining I could see the contrails of the plane carrying the Beregi heavenward. A small vestige of a lost civilization, on its way to join its fellow-relics in its new home in Jerusalem. There, to serve as receptacles of memory to weather the Silent Time.
Because the Silent Time is almost upon us. Next year, the year after, perhaps five years from now—we, and all who come after us, will live in the Silent Time forever.
As young men in high school many decades ago, my best friend and I would often engage in discussions more of a philosophical nature than those focused on topics such as girls, drinking, and rock and roll. Which isn’t to say those topics held no interest for us; rather, if we talked about girls, for example, our perspective would be to consider the questions of relationship dynamics instead of perhaps the physical types we each found most appealing. At least most of the time. We were a curious pair, and almost anything would set us off on some conversational vector with the intent to arrive at the “why” of a particular subject. Curiosity, certainly a precursor to wisdom, is the province of youth… and all the more for those raised on a steady diet of Rod Serling monologues.
In my best friend’s basement—which is where we spent many afternoons and weekends in conversation—there was a painting on the wall: Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. Understand that it was a time pre-Internet, so researching information out of casual interest was an involved process of finding an expert to talk to or going to a library. We did the next best thing, which was to engage our imaginations and lay out plausibilities. Why was the woman sitting out on the grass like that? What was the significance of the cut inner circle of grass and the longer grass where she was? We spent a lot of time asking questions and positing answers, and somewhere in there we began to understand it was the process of scaffolding answers into an interpretation that was the important thing. What we couldn’t articulate then was that being able to interpret stacked knowledge was one of the first paths to wisdom. We began, in earnest, to examine circumstances around us and how they affected the thoughts and feelings we held inside. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
The fat man in the cave
So we started examining life. Imagine this: two teenage boys living in the suburban mid-Atlantic region of the Unites States with precious little actual life experience decide to examine life. In that context, what does it even mean to “examine life”? In the best tradition of Captain Kirk seeking out new life, we decided to define our strange new worlds by setting up fictional thought experiments and discuss our way through to understanding concepts, including right versus wrong, good versus evil. We named one such thought experiment “The Fat Man in the Cave,” and it went something like this:
You’re in a cave, with only one way in or out. A fat man (remember, we grew up in the pre-woke, pre-PC era) somehow gets his butt stuck in the cave entrance so that there is no way out. There is no hope of rescue for either you or the fat man before you suffocate. Your only option for survival is to kill the fat man to escape. Are you morally justified in killing the fat man to save yourself? In other words, is murder justified to save your life? To change the moral calculus, let’s suppose further that your family, spouse and children, are in the cave with you. Does that make killing the fat man an easier choice?
Many discussions flowed from that and other moral dilemma scenarios, and at one point we considered writing a book, which we never got around to. We did, however, read a number of authors, one of whom was Will Durant who said this in The Story of Philosophy:
“And last are the few whose delight is in meditation and understanding; who yearn not for goods, nor for victory, but for knowledge; who leave both market and battlefield to lose themselves in the quiet clarity of secluded thought; whose will is a light rather than a fire, whose haven is not power but truth: these are the men of wisdom, who stand aside unused by the world.”
We continued our experiments and discussions, seeking truth in our way, sometimes with interspersed ruminations of girls, drinking, and rock and roll. Looking back, it was during that time that I began to see the value of dialogue as a road along the way to wisdom—not the whole path, but a major segment of the journey. The cultivation of wisdom requires dialogue. That can be dialogue between self and others. Or it can be dialogue between present self and past self. And that requires a bit of time travel and self-awareness. As Aristotle observed, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Let’s consider what that time travel and self-awareness look like.
The accessibility of wisdom
At any given point in life, a person has thoughts and opinions that have been formed on basis of experience and information. The very act of living, interacting with people, consuming media, and participating in society provides additional experience and information during subsequent life points that (hopefully) contribute to growth and transformation. The elegance of wisdom is that a person does not need to know the source to reap the benefits. Nor does the particular source for a person need to be the original source of the wise epiphany or guidance. For example, is there much difference between Aristotle sharing with me his thoughts on the beginning of all wisdom and reading about it from the Internet… or a fortune cookie, for that matter? While the sources of wisdom may be obscured or lost in time, pearls of wisdom are able to multiply and spread through a great variety of means, far and wide.
From a Biblical perspective, the source of wisdom is God. Proverbs 2:1-6 reads:
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
The words of God’s wisdom are not limited to the Bible (nor is the wisdom from other religious texts so constrained). The wisdom of religious texts thousands of years old have spilled liberally into modern civilization. While Uncle Ben may have told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility,” many will recognize the source to be scriptural: “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
Because of the way people share ideas that are important and meaningful to them, wisdom constantly travels around and across a plane of collective consciousness. The same messages fall on different sets of eyes and ears in the ways that are most accessible to different people, if they are open to receiving the messages. Christina’s World, for whatever insight it provided to two boys in a basement in a Maryland home in the 1970s, was in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as acted out in a scene of Forrest Gump; when Forrest’s friend and love Jenny returns home, she throws herself on the ground in a mirror image of the pose of the woman in the painting.
Wisdom is passed from generation to generation through the writers and artists and poets of the age, and even now as filmmakers, bloggers, social media influencers, and TikTok personalities. This is one way that the wisdom of the ages remains eternally in our consciousness. How else to comprehend Shakespeare’s admonition in the year 1600: “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be. For loan oft loses both itself and friend” showing up on an episode of Gilligan’s Island in the 1960s? It’s a simple matter to survey popular media today to see how much the truths of eternal wisdom have been infused into the fabric of society in grand tapestry of the world’s civilizations throughout time.
Among many other topics there is wise guidance all around us on the satisfaction of raising children, the humility in caring for those in need, the value of being a good friend, the importance of generosity, the healing qualities of forgiveness, the happiness in feeding your inner child, the joy of loving and being loved well, and the way to live and die having had a fulfilled life. Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein, himself often a conduit of eternal wisdom, gave his perspective on what it takes to be a fulfilled person:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
The embedded wisdom here is not so much that accomplishing these tasks makes for a wise person, but it is more in the realization that attempting these things prepares a person to be open to the accessible wisdom that surrounds us, and that is available to us all until the very moment we die.
The wisdom of the death bed
One of the slivers of wisdom I have learned is that there are things worse than death. Having such a perspective surely touches the way a person lives life; it provides comfort in the understanding that there can be great value in sacrificing your life for a cause or for other people. In his 1842 collection of narrative poems, Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Babington Macaulay writes in the first verse of “Horatius”*:
Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate: “To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods.
How we die is as important as how we live, and what matters to us when we come to that moment of passing is what should have mattered during all the years that came before. If you want to know what’s important in life, look at what a person talks about on their death bed. When my father passed away 20 years ago, his family (my mother and two sisters) were there bedside him as he recollected the high points of his life to the doctor and nurses in attendance. Although his life story is filled with accomplishment and material success, he would only talk about us, his wife and his children, and that all the joy and happiness he experienced with us over the years was still his joy and happiness even as he lay dying. Perhaps for me, this is the one piece of wisdom I hold closest to my heart: your greatest treasure in life should be the people that you love and not the things that you have accomplished.
The irony of wisdom
Wisdom, sadly, is not a key to eternal happiness or a universal talisman against the heart-rending agonies of life. The irony of Wisdom is that not only does it not save a person from suffering, it transforms the suffering into something almost impossible to bear. But it gives meaning and affords understanding to those wounds that otherwise would have mysteriously appeared leaving the person simply with the plaintive question “why?” As Alexandre Dumas said, ”There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, Morrel, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.” That’s a terrifying balance if you think about it, but it’s one that I welcome as part of my journey. And who is to say where it will end for any of us?
One way to look at it is through the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in the poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in. Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me. Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.
As we seek wisdom, it is important for us to keep going, because it is true that no feeling is final, even the terror that presses down on your heart. Especially the terror. The optimist in me looks for happy endings, and in that, I resolve Rilke’s poem through the lens of Sophocles (which, interestingly, I first heard from Richard Nixon as he was interviewed by David Frost):
“One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
*A few lines from the first verse of the poem “Horatius” were recited by Tom Cruise in the movie Oblivion. It’s worth mentioning that the painting Christina’s World was also in the movie.