In Pursuit of Wisdom

by Yaakov Rosenblatt

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting family in New Jersey, I picked up a copy of The Lakewood Voice (Dec 25), a hand-out magazine comprised of news and advertisements. The cover story was about Lakewood Mesivtas. There was an informative article about why entry bechinos are delayed until Tu B’Adar. And there was a description of three types of bechinos an 8th grade boy might receive. The first option is a bechina in which the boy is asked to prepare a piece of Gemara. The second, considered more difficult, is where the boy is questioned at random on the Gemara he learned year to date. The third type of bechina, considered most challenging, is where the boy is asked questions he cannot answer. In that case, the tester isn’t expecting an answer, but is probing to see how the young man’s mind works.

I was surprised that there wasn’t a fourth option: a written test with questions on the entire body of information learned, middle school to date, including gemara, chumash, halacha, and yedi’os klalios. This would give the school a clear recap of the boy’s academic level.

Philosophically, a coming-of-age transition which assessed broad based Torah knowledge would strengthen the idea that lifelong commitment to Avodas Hashem is fortified by the mastery of a wide range of Torah learning. A written test takes away the drama of nerves and social discomfort, and forces students to draw on information absorbed methodically throughout their middle school years.

To me, the oral testing method seems to benefit the clever student over the diligent one. Human interaction in the test of admission allows the school to appreciate a clever mind, even if mastery has not been achieved. Because a question can be answered many different ways, it allows the student to address the issue using bodies of information he has mastered, and ignoring areas in which he is weak.

Facing a written test is like facing the real world. Holes in absorbed material stand out clearly. The information mastered may be enough to pass the test, but it will not be enough to achieve a perfect score. The weaknesses can then be recognized and addressed.

As one who took just a few verbal tests throughout high school, and almost no tests throughout Beis Midrash and Kollel, and as one who suffers, today, from holes in a knowledge base not filled in 10 years of Beis Midrash and Kollel study, I am partial to systems that educate with written tests.
Written tests define success and failure. Written tests don’t allow you to talk your way out of a question. And written exams don’t allow you to impress the questioner with a counter-question that is quite brilliant but beside the point. Written tests favor wisdom and discourage cleverness.

Which parallels my real world experience. The older I get the less I appreciate cleverness. It doesn’t seem to result in affable personalities. It doesn’t seem to produce selfless individuals. It doesn’t seem to grow a confident and resilient commitment to Avodas Hakodesh.

In the real world, cleverness is mostly feckless. It is the repast of those left on the sidelines; the brainy academic passed over for a promotion. The values of grit, thrift, consistency and integrity are critical to success in almost anything we do, and those are found in close proximity to wisdom.

It appears that the pursuit of cleverness and the quest for wisdom are two parallel mindsets that create two different cultures.


A clever mind, like an artistic mind, will have highs and lows; a wise mind will crave stability.

A clever mind will complicate concepts; a wise mind will simplify ideas.

A clever mind sits at a meeting thinking of something clever to say; a wise mind sees that as intellectual hedonism, and instead works to guide the dialogue to a productive conclusion.

A clever person seeks to make a million dollars; a wise person seeks to provide for his family.

A clever person is focused on whether other people think he is clever; a wise person doesn’t think he is wise nor that other people think he is so.

A clever person has trouble being humble; a wise person is humbled, as he studies, by the broad scope of knowledge.

A clever person speaks quickly; a wise person speaks carefully.

A clever person is impressed by a clever idea; a wise person is impressed by a sustainable idea.

A clever person will delineate how merchants are taking advantage of consumers; a wise person will see it as an opportunity to create a new business.

A clever person will focus on winning the argument; a wise person will work to help the other person to gravitate to his way of thinking.

A clever person can intimidate others to his way of thinking; a wise person knows that those who can be easily intimidated are hardly worthy followers at all.

A clever person will use lomdus to explain a late credit card payment; a wise person will pay the bill on time.

A clever person builds social models that don’t recognize human vulnerability; a wise person’s social constructs begins with people as they are: imperfect.

A clever person will seek escape from troubles by spending time in the club of the clever; a wise person will seeks to deal with his limitations as a common man – directly.

A clever person doesn’t care how the culture perceives him; a wise person is engaged by the role of the frum Jew in the larger world

A clever person makes a lot of points; a wise person makes one point
A clever person demands perfection of others; a wise person highlights the goodness of other

A clever person doesn’t take criticism well; a wise person does, when it is respectful.

A clever person will bring up the past; a wise person will let it go.

A clever person will be engaged by scandal; a wise person will be deflated by it.

A clever person will suspect conspiracy; a wise person sees conspiracy in an open society as improbable

A clever person scoffs the imperfect; a wise person is troubled by the perception of perfection

A clever person sees rules as applying to those who need them; a wise person sees rules of mutual self-limitation as the basis of civilization.
A clever person feels most comfortable in small towns, where the common man is poor and or ignorant. A wise man feels a need to understand – and be understood by – the suburbs.

A clever person will find compromise difficult; a wise person will pursue middle ground

A clever person respects a quick wit and a sharp quip, a wise person respects forthright positions

A clever person feels most comfortable studying at a depth that only the clever can reach; a wise person is drawn to a wide view which requires a wide swath of knowledge.

A clever person might cut you off mid-sentence; a wise person knows that the more you listen to yourself speak, the sooner you may hear the inconsistencies in your position

A clever person has great ideas but poor follow through, a wise person has reasonable ideas and great perseverance.

A clever person need not be consistent; a wise person knows that society can only follow a simple, steady path

A clever mind is drawn to the loopholes in a law; a wise culture is drawn to its intention.

A clever mind respects brilliance even when destructive; a wise mind is scared of it
A clever mind is sure it is right; a wise mind believes so, with pause.

A clever mind is focused on symbols of piety and perfection; a wise mind doesn’t claim to be pious or perfect, just improving.

Time is moving by and our once young children are now becoming teenagers. Rather than to chart their destinies, my wife and I sense an obligation to set them on a path for success as Torah Jews, moored in Torah values and questing Torah knowledge.
The path we have chosen for our children is one that respects Torah wisdom, and that is without an appreciation for a sharp wit.

We don’t know that we are right in our choice. But we are making the best decision we can, given the people we are and the life lessons we have learned.

Rabbi Rosenblatt engages in kiruv and meat-production (not related and not necessarily in that order) in Dallas.

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12 Responses

  1. Simcha Younger says:

    I agree that yeshivas need a lot more testing, but I think that the particular suggestion of a written test is wrong, particularly as an entrance exam. An entrance test needs to test the capabilities of the student, while an end-of-term test checks his progress. The tests given internally by each institution should test for how much the student knows, cumulatively. Entrance tests need to test how well he can learn, and what he is ready for, but total knowledge is not important, except as far as the knowledge is necessary for the student’s success in the new institution.

    The three types of tests that the author describes are all appropriate for an entrance exam. The yeshiva considering a new student needs to know how well he learns, both on his own, and in class. They want a sense of his retention. They also need to see how he thinks. They do not need to know what he knows.

    The author argues nicely for the value of a thorough, cumulative test, but there is on reason to conclude that this test should be written. Written cumulative entrance tests, particularly, are detrimental to educational systems. A cumulative entrance test forces each school to teach towards the standards set by another, creating an artificial target which a school strives towards and which it is measured by, instead of allowing each school to set its own goals and standards, and then testing to measure the students’ progress towards those goals. Yeshivas should be able to state their educational goals, and give parents and students a clear periodical statement of their progress.

    I do not agree that a written test is better than a verbal test. A written test creates a high degree of formality in education, while an informal measurement is more natural to the task of education. A personal informal discussion, which can include all four testing elements (old material, new material, thought processes, and cumulative knowledge), is ideal both for an entrance exam, and for regular appraisal of the student’s progress.

    Yeshivas have minimal, or zero, testing during the course of the study there. This means that progress is not measured, either by the institution, or by the students. The absence of testing in yeshivas is not merely a historical oversight. Testing normally serves as a condition for advancement, and failing tests are a cause for not allowing students to continue. Yeshivas are not willing to penalize the students who cannot pass the tests, and definitely will not expel them. (I note that my use of the terms “penalize” and “expel” are not meant to be pejorative, that the student is being punished, but these are only descriptive of a process which will only allow continued attendance and progress based on testing.) Yeshivas also do not want their students to be working towards a fixed goal after which they move on to other things. These two considerations (and I believe both are wrong) make regular testing irrelevant, until the attitudes and stated goals change.

    I liked the comparison between the clever person and the wise man, but perhaps the ideal product of a yeshiva should be someone who comes in clever, and leaves wise.

  2. dr. bill says:

    I appreciate the important difference between being clever versus being wise.

    However, wrt a high school, I would ask 2 questions: 1) is “cleverness” the value extolled by these schools and hence a legitimate basis for admission? 2) How many of these schools offer secular studies at the level of Torah Vodaath of the 60’s? I suspect the answers would tell us more about the schools than the nature of their of admissions exam.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    1. In an engineering subject I took in college, the professor allowed the use of a personal crib sheet on one sheet of letter-size paper, prepared by the student (with a pen!—we didn’t have word processors or PCs then, anyway) before the exam. The idea was that the student had to be able to set priorities and organize his knowledge effectively, to make his crib sheet work to best advantage. This was a really good idea in practice!

    2. “A clever person feels most comfortable in small towns, where the common man is poor and or ignorant. A wise man feels a need to understand – and be understood by – the suburbs.” Sometimes, the general level of self-congratulation and self-deception is higher in the suburbs, or big cities for that matter, but not necessarily the general level of wisdom. It’s instructive that many famous tzaddikim and talmidei chachamim have flourished in small towns.

  4. joel rich says:

    one can’t respect torah wisdom and have a sharp wit?

    I suspect the reason for bechinot being the way they are is that’s the way they were in alte heim (prewar Europe). you open a Pandora’s box when you suggest change that recognizes modern theories and technologies.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Superb post! Now imagine how parents of daughters are not necessarily persuaded by the claim that a potential shidduch isn’t “the best guy in the Beis Medrash” with respect to his depth and level of Torah knowledge if the young man has not had a serious Bchinah in years.

  6. Chaim says:

    For what it’s worth, I think that yeshivos spend far too much time trying to produce “clever” talmidim rather than wise ones.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Cleverness and wisdom both have their places. You’d want a wise doctor to treat you and a wise lawyer to review contracts before you sign them, but a clever lawyer to represent you at court and a clever salesperson to sell whatever it is you’re making.

  8. Binyomin Segal says:

    I believe Rabbi Rosenblatt is in error when he equates the ability to remember large amounts of knowledge wisdom. Wisdom is quite a bit more than just the mastery of a large body of information. And frankly, I’m not sure how I would test for wisdom in any standardized way, nor would I expect much wisdom from eight graders. Indeed, Moshe Rabbenu found that even among the greatest of his generation it was hard to find.

    Rabbi Rosenblatt is suggesting that we hold our students accountable for the knowledge that they have been taught. And I agree that in general our schools need to do that to a greater degree. But I don’t believe that knowing (for example) what bracha should be made on every cereal, or even what the twelve months of the hebrew year are, are any more predictive of good middos and ehrlichkeit or even of wisdom than is being able to hold kup in a shver tosfos.

    The reality is that some people learn better by memorizing large bodies of information, while others do better just learning the key points and then applying them. Neither of these is wisdom. Though either type of student might display wisdom when they know themselves well enough to choose the correct method of studying to work with their strengths and weaknesses.

    Everyone agrees that wisdom is an admirable trait. But it is difficult to define, extremely difficult to teach, and practically impossible to test for.

  9. joel rich says:

    On the relative value of wisdom and brilliance, there’s an interesting Ted Talk (IIUC Cross Current rules do not allow links to be posted) – here’s a sneak preview of an upcoming review that will appear on Torah Musings in the audio roundup column:

    Barry Schwartz: Our loss of wisdom (Ted Talk)

    We need wisdom not just brilliance. [I would add reliability, IMHO brilliance without wisdom and reliability gets you something like Bobby Fischer or Jimmy Hendrix] Need to know when rules need exceptions (me – lots to think about – what happens when an oral law becomes written and has years of regulation). Rules and incentives can take away from our moral skills [we become “check off the box” Jews].


  10. Dr. E says:

    It would not surprise me if some enterprising Mechanech offered his services to help 8th Graders prepare for the farhers/bechinos so that parents can get their boys into the “right” Mesivtas.

    This popular approach found in this Lexus of chinuch communities ignores the varied interests and acumen of students. There might be some brilliant and serious students who can indeed benefit from a balanced curriculum of 40-50% Gemara with the other half of the Limudei kodesh day dedicated to Tanach, Halacha, and Machshava. Can they kvetch through a 100% Gemara/Lomdus curriculum? Yes (and many do), but that would not reach their maximum potential in “learning”. Their Gemara acumen will be better for it! And they might become more “clever” whether to better understand that Ketzos, or in navigating real life! Among the Chinuch elite, anything less than 100% is thrown into the “lower” class which might be a combination behavioral problems, special needs, etc. (Of course, we are not even talking about an appropriate necessarily carve-out percentage in the day for serious secular studies.)

    Furthermore, there are still some in leadership positions among the elite, who preach the “cycling through” approach, whereby if large numbers of Talmidim are pushed through Gemara/Lomdus curriculum Yeshivos that is the best and only way to “produce” real Gedolim. This chinuch focus is very much consistent with what is being marketed in the ad. As we know, such a System has been an abysmal failure (with many collateral casualties), because it has not only been untrue from 1984 to 2014, but in fact it has never worked in Jewish History in producing the stated results.

  11. Allan Katz says:

    It amazes me how we ignore our wonderful tradition which fosters a love for learning , an appreciation that the process is far more important than the product and that learning is a cooperative and collaborative process . Here are some quotes from progressive educators

    Tests are not only unnecessary but unhelpful because they mostly tell us how many forgettable facts have been crammed into short-term memory, and how skilled students have become in the specialized art of test-taking.

    So Rabbi Rosenblatt thinks differently – ‘a written test with questions on the entire body of information learned, middle school to date, including gemara, chumash, halacha, and yedi’os klalios. This would give
    the school a clear recap of the boy’s academic academic level ‘

    Steven Wolk, an Illinois teacher shows he has an appreciation of learning ,he put it this way:
    In the real world of learning, tests and reports and worksheets aren’t the most meaningful way to understand a person’s growth, they’re just convenient ways in a system of schooling that’s based on mass production….I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations along the way. I don’t need any means of appraisal outside of my own observations and the student’s work, which is demonstration enough of their thinking, their growth, their knowledge, and their attitudes over time.[6]

    As Linda McNeil of Rice University has observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

    So I am for the interview – a kid could bring his portfolio showing further evidence of his learning for eg projects and chaburas etc and also share his learning with a presentation and a discussion. We want to see how he thinks and makes meaning of his learning , not what he remembers.

  12. Mordechai says:

    I enjoyed most of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s piece, and thank him for it, particularly the latter part with the many clever vs. wise contrasts.

    However, I am somewhat surprised by the first part. I believe that the Mesivtas administering the exams that he is talking about (unfortunately in my opinion) mostly value and place a lot more of an emphasis on the clever than he does, in their operations beyond the admission process. If that is so, why does he expect them to administer a test that is more fitting for a more wisdom focused curriculum?

    For a contrast (even though I know it is different, for halachic reasons, as held in such a community), I wonder what kind of bechinos are given to Bnos Yisroel in that area, and do they similarly focus on clever at the expense of wise? Maybe Rabbi R. can investigate and report back to us.

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