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Guide for the Perplexed
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CHAPTER LIV

THE term hokmah (“wisdom”) in Hebrew is used of four different things: (1) It denotes the knowledge of those truths which lead to the knowledge of God. Comp. “But where shall wisdom be found?” (Job xxviii. 12); “If thou seekest her like silver” (Prov. ii. 4). The word occurs frequently in this sense. (2) The expression hokmah denotes also knowledge of any workmanship. Comp. “And every wise-hearted among you shall come and make all that the Lord hath commanded” (Exod. xxxv. 10); “And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin” (ibid. ver. 25). (3) It is also used of the acquisition of moral principles. Comp. “And teach his senators wisdom” (Ps. cv. 22); “With the ancient is wisdom” (Job xii. 12); for it is chiefly the disposition for acquiring moral principles that is developed by old age alone. (4) It implies, lastly, the notion of cunning and subtlety; comp. “Come on, let us deal wisely with them” (Exod. i. 10). In the same sense the term is used in the following passages: “And fetched thence a wise woman” (2 Sam. xiv. 2); “They are wise to do evil” (Jer. iv. 22). It is possible that the Hebrew hokmah (“wisdom”) expresses the idea of cunning and planning, which may serve in one case as a means of acquiring intellectual perfection, or good moral principles; but may in another case produce skill in workmanship, or even be employed in establishing bad opinions and principles. The attribute hakam (“wise”) is therefore given to a person that possesses great intellectual faculties, or good moral principles, or skill in art: but also to persons cunning in evil deeds and principles.

According to this explanation, a person that has a true knowledge of the whole Law is called wise in a double sense: he is wise because the Law instructs him in the highest truths, and secondly, because it teaches him good morals. But as the truths contained in the Law are taught by way of tradition, not by a philosophical method, the knowledge of the Law, and the acquisition of true wisdom, are treated in the books of the Prophets and in the words of our Sages as two different things; real wisdom demonstrates by proof those truths which Scripture teaches us by way of tradition. It is to this kind of wisdom, which proves the truth of the Law, that Scripture refers when it extols wisdom, and speaks of the high value of this perfection, and of the consequent paucity of men capable of acquiring it, in sayings like these: “Not many are wise” (Job xxxii. 9); “But where shall wisdom be found” (ibid. xxviii. 12)? In the writings of our Sages we notice likewise many passages in which distinction is made between knowledge of the Law and wisdom. They say of Moses, our Teacher, that he was Father in the knowledge of the Law, in wisdom and in prophecy. When Scripture says of Solomon, “And he was wiser than all men” (1 Kings v. 11), our Sages add, “but not greater than Moses”; and the phrase, “than all men,” is explained to mean, “than all men of his generation”; for this reason [only] “Heman, Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol,” the renowned wise men of that time, are named. Our Sages further say, that man has first to render account concerning his knowledge of the Law, then concerning the acquisition of wisdom, and at last concerning the lessons derived by logical conclusions from the Law, i.e., the lessons concerning his actions. This is also the right order: we must first learn the truths by tradition, after this we must be taught how to prove them, and then investigate the actions that help to improve man’s ways. The idea that man will have to render account concerning these three things in the order described, is expressed by our Sages in the following passage: “When man comes to the trial, he is first asked, ‘Hast thou fixed certain seasons for the study of the Law? Hast thou been engaged in the acquisition of wisdom? Hast thou derived from one thing another thing?’” This proves that our Sages distinguished between the knowledge of the Law on the one hand, and wisdom on the other, as the means of proving the lessons taught in the Law by correct reasoning.

Hear now what I have to say after having given the above explanation. The ancient and the modem philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection. The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connexion between this possession and its possessor; it is a perfectly imaginary relation when on account of the great advantage a person derives from these possessions, he says, This is my house, this is my servant, this is my money, and these are my hosts and armies. For when he examines himself he will find that all these things are external, and their qualities are entirely independent of the possessor. When, therefore, that relation ceases, he that has been a great king may one morning find that there is no difference between him and the lowest person, and yet no change has taken place in the things which were ascribed to him. The philosophers have shown that he whose sole aim in all his exertions and endeavours is the possession of this kind of perfection, only seeks perfectly imaginary and transient things; and even if these remain his property all his lifetime, they do not give him any perfection.

The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim; because it is a perfection of the body, and man does not possess it as man, but as a living being: he has this property besides in common with the lowest animal; and even if a person possesses the greatest possible strength, he could not be as strong as a mule, much less can he be as strong as a lion or an elephant; he, therefore, can at the utmost have strength that might enable him to carry a heavy burden, or break a thick substance, or do similar things, in which there is no great profit for the body. The soul derives no profit whatever from this kind of perfection.

The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbour; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.

The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man; the possession of the highest intellectual faculties: the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Prov. v. 17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others, whilst neglecting your soul till it has lost entirely its original purity through the dominion of the bodily powers over it. The same idea is expressed in the beginning of those poems, which allegorically represent the state of our soul. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Song i. 6). Also the following passage refers to the same subject, “Lest thou give thine honour unto others, and thy years unto the cruel” (Prov. v. 9).

The prophets have likewise explained unto us these things, and have expressed the same opinion on them as the philosophers. They say distinctly that perfection in property, in health, or in character, is not a perfection worthy to be sought as a cause of pride and glory for us; that the knowledge of God, i.e., true wisdom, is the only perfection which we should seek, and in which we should glorify ourselves. Jeremiah, referring to these four kinds of perfection, says: “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me” (Jer. ix. 22, 23). See how the prophet arranged them according to their estimation in the eyes of the multitude. The rich man occupies the first rank; next is the mighty man; and then the wise man; that is, the man of good moral principles: for in the eyes of the multitude, who are addressed in these words, he is likewise a great man. This is the reason why the three classes are enumerated in this order.

Our Sages have likewise derived from this passage the above-mentioned lessons, and stated the same theory that has been explained in this chapter, viz., that the simple term hokmah, as a rule, denotes the highest aim of man, the knowledge of God; that those properties which man acquires, makes his peculiar treasure, and considers as his perfection, in reality do not include any perfection: and that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, viz., the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it. Hear the opinion of our Sages on this subject in their own words. The passage occurs in Bereshit Rabba, and runs thus, “In one place Scripture says, ‘And all things that are desirable (hafazim) are not to be compared to her’ (Prov. viii. 11); and in another place, ‘And all things that thou desirest (hafazeha) are not to be compared unto her’” (ibid. iii. 15). By “things that are desirable” the performance of Divine precepts and good deeds is to be understood, whilst “things that thou desirest” refer to precious stones and pearls. Both — things that are desirable, and things that thou desirest — cannot be compared to wisdom, but “in this let him that glorieth glory, that he understandeth and knoweth me.” Consider how concise this saying is, and how perfect its author; how nothing is here omitted of all that we have put forth after lengthy explanations and preliminary remarks.

Having stated the sublime ideas contained in that Scriptural passage, and quoted the explanation of our Sages, we will now complete what the remainder of that passage teaches us. The prophet does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection; for if this only had been his intention, he would have said, “But in this let him who glorieth glory, that he understandeth and knoweth me,” and would have stopped there; or he would have said, “that he understandeth and knoweth me that I am One,” or, “that I have not any likeness,” or, “that there is none like me,” or a similar phrase. He says, however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown (Part I. liv.) in expounding the passage, “Show me now thy ways” (Exod. xxxviii. 13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, hesed,” loving-kindness,” mishpat,” judgment,” and zedakah,” righteousness.” Another very important lesson is taught by the additional phrase, “in the earth.” It implies a fundamental principle of the Law: it rejects the theory of those who boldly assert that God’s providence does not extend below the sphere of the moon, and that the earth with its contents is abandoned, that “the Lord hath forsaken the earth” (Ez. viii. 12). It teaches, as has been taught by the greatest of all wise men in the words, “The earth is the Lord’s” (Exod. ix. 29), that His providence extends to the earth in accordance with its nature, in the same manner as it controls the heavens in accordance with their nature. This is expressed in the words, “That I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth.” The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, “For in these things I delight, saith the Lord,” i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown (Part I. liv.) that the object of the enumeration of God’s thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired — as far as this is possible for man — the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.

This is all that I thought proper to discuss in this treatise, and which I considered useful for men like you. I hope that, by the help of God, you will, after due reflection, comprehend all the things which I have treated here. May He grant us and all Israel with us to attain what He promised us, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped” (Isa. xxxv. 5); “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the shadow of death upon them hath the light shined” (ibid. ix. 1).

God is near to all who call Him, if they call Him in truth, and turn to Him. He is found by every one who seeks Him, if he always goes towards Him, and never goes astray.

AMEN.

END.

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