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.