Shmuly Yanklowitz

Yearning for transformative wisdom

We are all yearning to understand something deeper, something beyond ourselves. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch taught that the blessing of “hamalach ha’goel” given to children is that we should be like fish that can swim to depths that humans treading on the surface cannot see. There are many different types of wisdom that we can embrace. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, for example, teaches that secular wisdom (chokhmah) is a philosophical orientation while the Torah is normative (Future Tense, 221):

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific inheritance of the Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tell us what ought to be.

sefarim picHe adds that “Chockmah is where we encounter God through creation; Torah is how we hear God through revelation” (The Chief Rabbi’s Hagaddah, essays section, 6). But intellectual synergy can be difficult because of how different our fundamental philosophical orientations can be. The French-born author Anaïs Nin writes: “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Nin is touching on the larger point that for human beings there is no unfiltered reality. All objective data must pass and be processed through the subjective mind to be experienced. This processing is what philosopher Erich Fromm referred to as our “frame of orientation.” While this may be a societal problem (understanding each other), it is also an individual opportunity. American dancer/choreographer Martha Graham wrote to Agnes DeMille, another American dancer/choreographer, about the importance of cultivating our unique wisdom and energy:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not hear it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; not how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction at any time. There is only a divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.

Many hide from attaining wisdom for this reason—that it is challenging to understand others, sometimes even unpleasant. Many others refrain from transformative learning because of the new responsibilities that would emerge with such a new understanding. These concerns are well founded, because it is true that once we understand on an elevated plane of reality, we may become very powerful. Consider the wisdom of Nelson Mandela’s words from his inaugural address:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us. Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

When we come to understand our unique position and potential in the world, we can become terrified by how much needs to be done. To stay focused on learning and growing, we must have positive supports and a healthy lifestyle. The great Maimonides (the Rambam) taught that two different types of wisdom could help to heal one from sadness and alienation (Introduction to his Commentary on Pirke Avot, Chapter 5):

If one is afflicted with melancholy, he should cure it by listening to
songs and various kinds of the melodies, by walking in gardens and fine buildings, by sitting before beautiful forms, and by things like this which delight the soul and make the disturbance of melancholy disappear from it. In all this he should aim at making his body healthy, the goal of his body’s health being that he attain knowledge.

Secondly, the Rambam suggested (Mishnah Torah, Deot 2:1):

What is a remedy for sicknesses of the soul? Go next to wise people, for they are healers of the soul, healing it by means of temperaments which they teach until they have returned the soul to the good ways. Concerning those who recognize in themselves bad temperaments but do not amongst wise people Solomon said, “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

maimonies picMaimonides teaches that we should put ourselves in beautiful natural environments that elevate the soul sensually, and furthermore, surround ourselves with people of wisdom. We must position ourselves for a lifelong journey of learning. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released the shocking statistic that only 47% of Americans said they read a book for pleasure last year. This is not only shocking, but also profoundly unfortunate. Learning should not just be interesting, or helpful, or even just personally healing; learning can, and should, be much more. Judaism mandates that our learning be transformative and translate into character development and behavioral change.

Regardless of the newfound understanding of others, responsibilities, or ethical obligations that may accompany such transformative learning, we must not shun the philosophical and intellectual revelation that comes from deeper understanding of G-d and our world. We must embrace our intellectual capabilities, mental faculties, and spiritual yearnings, and seek deeper wisdom. It is through consistent transformative learning that we develop our intellect, empathy, and dedication to service that subsequently leads us to fulfill our unique roles enhancing the world.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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