World of the Sages: The wisdom of the other

From statements in rabbinic literature, it appears that contributions of the other should be recognized.

sage 88 (photo credit: )
sage 88
(photo credit: )
The Babylonian sage Rav Ketina was once walking along the road (B. Brachot 59a). When he passed the door of a necromancer, the ground thundered with a powerful earthquake. Rav Ketina called out to the necromancer, who communicated with the dead using the bones of a corpse: "Does the bone necromancer know what is the cause of this earthshaking rumbling?" Without hesitation, the necromancer called back: "Ketina, Ketina, why should I not know!? When the Holy One, blessed be He, remembers His children who endure in misery amid the nations of the world, He sheds two tears that fall into the Mediterranean Sea. The sound of these teardrops is heard from one end of the world to the other. And this is what we perceive as an earthquake." Rav Ketina responded harshly: "The bone necromancer is a fraud and his words are lies. For if his explanation was founded in reality, there should have been two earthquakes - one for each teardrop!" Surprisingly, the Talmud comments that it was not as Rav Ketina had claimed, but in fact there had been two earthquakes, and the necromancer's explanation did at least fit the experienced reality. Rav Ketina's stark rejection of the necromancer's approach was, therefore, rooted elsewhere: He did not want to give valence to a performer of a craft foreign to our tradition and forbidden by Torah law (see Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:9-14). Thus Rav Ketina offered his own explanation, citing a scriptural verse in support: God claps His hands, and the earth shakes as a result. The talmudic passage continues, presenting three other possible explanations, each with a biblical proof text: God emits a sigh, God kicks the sky or God pushes His legs under the throne of glory. Rav Hai Gaon (10th-11th centuries, Babylon), and many commentators in his wake, qualified this entire exchange in a sweeping statement: "This passage is aggada, and with regard to it and anything like it, the sages said, 'We do not rely on the words of aggada.'" Rav Hai continues explaining the a priori criterion for relating to talmudic passages: God cannot be compared to any physical being. Hence we cannot refer to His clapping hands, His tears, His sighing or His legs. Any talmudic passage that contravenes this principle must not be read in a literal sense. Rather, such passages should be interpreted strictly as metaphor. The approach of Rav Hai relegating anthropomorphism - biblical and rabbinic - to the world of symbolism, metaphor and allegory is a line that has been widely accepted in Jewish thought for centuries, and has been codified as a principle of our faith. Though the approach may have been born in response to probing questions of the Karaites and from Islam, and later from Christianity, it is an attitude that continues to hold currency in our tradition to this day. Rav Ketina's encounter with the necromancer certainly does not suggest any disquiet with anthropomorphism, and hence Rav Hai demanded that it be reinterpreted. Even with the repudiation of the literal connotation this passage, the tale remains part of the Jewish bookcase, and thus inveigles us to search for relevance and meaning. One possible avenue is to explore the relationship to the other. As noted, Rav Ketina's objection was not based on the thrust or content of the necromancer's words. Viewing human experience - particularly Jewish conduct - and natural phenomena as a cause-and-effect relationship with the Almighty is not a concept foreign to rabbinic thought. Rav Ketina's objection, therefore, was to the necromancer himself. As the Talmud explains: Rav Ketina was concerned that others would mistakenly follow the bone sorcerer and therefore he sought to censure anything the necromancer said, refusing to accord him even the minimum respect in public. This raises the question of what place there is in our tradition for the intellectual contribution of the other? Rav Ketina's message was that the necromancer has no place. Does this apply to others whose source of knowledge is outside our tradition, or is the objection specifically to the one who plies a particular trade that is anathema to our heritage? From other statements in rabbinic literature, it would appear that the contributions of the other are to be recognized and even appreciated. Commenting on the description of Haman's cronies first as "his intimate friends" and later in the verse as "his wise men" (Esther 6:13), the Talmud notes that whoever says something wise - even if he is from the nations of the world - is acknowledged as a wise person (B. Megilla 16a). Elsewhere the sages distinguish between two types of knowledge (Lamentations Raba 2:13): Torah and wisdom. Wisdom is the province of all - Jew and gentile alike. There is no reason that only Jews can possess wisdom. Torah, on the other hand, is the heritage unique to the Jewish people. Once again we see that wisdom can be found in the hands of the other. What then is the difference between the necromancer and other wise people? It appears that the source of the knowledge is at the root of the issue. The necromancer employs the deceased for information gathering. This method is censured in the Torah, possibly because it creates a medium to knowledge that seeks to circumvent the Almighty. In contrast, the wise person seeks truth using the divine faculty of wisdom. While there is no guarantee that the wise person will credit or even acknowledge God in his achievement of wisdom, at least he does not refer to a medium other than the divine. In our quest for knowledge and for wisdom, there are many sources available to us. Limiting ourselves to our own family - whether it is immediate family or even extended family - would be narrowing the scope of opportunity, probably resulting in missing important information from which we could have otherwise benefited. Alas, unchecked drawing of knowledge can result in wisdom that is born out of dubious circumstances and whose veracity is doubtful. As we seek to quench the insatiable thirst for knowledge, we do well to carefully consider what we drink. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.