Marc KatzComment

Can We Be Too Clever? (Parashat Shoftim)

Marc KatzComment
Can We Be Too Clever? (Parashat Shoftim)

According to the Torah, God endowed humanity with intellect and logic. We are creative beings able to see possibilities. It is woven into our DNA. As one Midrash explains:

Rabbi Aha said: when the Holy One, Blessed be He, came to create the world, he consulted the angels of the heavenly court. He said to them: "Let us make Adam" (Genesis 1:26). They said to him: this Adam, what is his nature? He said to them: his wisdom exceeds yours. He brought before the angels the domesticated beasts, the wild beasts, and the birds. He said to them: what are their names? They did not know. He brought them before Adam. He said to him: what are their names? Adam said: this is an ox, this is a donkey, this is a cow, this is a camel. And you, what is your name? Adam said to him: it is fitting that I should be called 'Adam' as I was created from the earth [adamah] (Genesis Rabbah 17:4)

Here, our Rabbis explain that the wonder of humanity and the attribute that separates us from angels is our minds. We are able to see possibilities, to understand the essence of our world and name it. The angels could not see each animal for what it was, but we could, and this allowed us to give each creature the perfect descriptor.

This piece of our nature, according to our Rabbis should be celebrated. In fact, our creativity is perhaps our most important predictor of rabbinic success. When searching for the best students, our ancient Rabbis looked for people who could argue any point as well as its opposite. Here are two examples:

  • Rabbi Meir had a disciple, and his name was Sumakhus, who would state with regard to each and every matter of ritual impurity forty-eight reasons in support of the ruling of impurity, and with regard to each and every matter of ritual purity forty-eight reasons in support of the ruling of purity (Eruvin 13b)..

  • There was a distinguished disciple at Yavne who could with his incisive intellect purify the creeping animal, explicitly deemed ritually impure by the Torah, adducing one hundred and fifty reasons in support of his argument (Eruvin 13b).

These two stories show that we, as a people, have always valued the mind. While other cultures have worshiped the body, we have been wowed by feats of logic. These Rabbis show us that we are capable of incredible intellectual achievements. God’s gift of humanity is that we are capable, through study and thought, of making the impossible, possible.

However, there are risks with being this clever and our Rabbis understood this. We may be smart, but we were often too smart. We may be creative but our inventiveness can sometimes lead us toward unnecessary loopholes. If we look at this week’s Torah portion we see these hazards clearly. Our Torah talks about the laws of how to be a good king. As it explains:

Moreover, [a king] shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess (Deuteronomy 17:17-18)

In essence, a good king must have moderation. He can amass wealth but only for the good of society. He can keep horses but only what his army needs. He can have wives, but not too many.

Yet, we know that leaders don’t always act this way. The most famous case in the Bible of a leader becoming rich in excess and taking too many wives is Solomon. Thus a question arises: How can Solomon, who certainly knew the Torah well, choose to ignore it’s teaching?

The answer was that Solomon was too smart for his own good. Our Rabbis explain:

And Rabbi Yitzḥak says: For what reason were the rationales of Torah commandments not revealed? It was because the rationales of two verses were revealed, and the greatest in the world, King Solomon, failed in those matters. It is written with regard to a king: “He shall not add many wives for himself, that his heart should not turn away” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon said: I will add many, but I will not turn away, as he thought that it is permitted to have many wives if one is otherwise meticulous not to stray. And later, it is written: “For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (I Kings 11:4). And it is also written: “Only he shall not accumulate many horses for himself nor return the people to Egypt for the sake of accumulating horses” (Deuteronomy 17:16), and Solomon said: I will accumulate many, but I will not return. And it is written: “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver” (I Kings 10:29). (Sanhedrin 21b).

In essence, Solomon’s folly was that he read the rationales of the Torah and found a way around them. He said, “If having too many wives these will lead someone toward idolatry, then someone like me who wouldn’t possibility worship idols should be exempt from this law.” Ironically, Solomon did eventually turn to false gods.

Knowing this, our Rabbis imagine that while God has reasons for each of the 613 laws, the risk of including these reasons are too many. For every “why” given, a door is opened for loophole to be exploited.

Humanity is smart, so smart that we can talk ourselves out of the leaps of faith required to lead a religious life. Sometimes, Judaism is lived well in the head. At other times, we need to silence the noise of our heads to hear our hearts. Though we should celebrate our intellect, we cannot let it become a corrupting force.

There is beauty in religious practice - in Shabbat, in observing holidays, in the Brit Milah. Yet, all too often we artfully talk ourselves out of these practices because we know better and miss finding the meaning hidden within them.

I can give you as many reasons why you shouldn’t practice Judaism as that you should. But that’s beside the point. We are blessed with an amazing head on our shoulders, but sometimes we benefit from turning it off.