The Many Forms of Wisdom

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on February 25, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft...and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you.  (Exodus 31:1-6)

I am a rabbi, and I have a Ph.D. in philosophy. So my skills of intellectual analysis have been well honed, and my skills of memory, although not as good, have been given much practice. Because I had terrific parents and because of some other features of my personal life, my ability to interact with people, although not as good as that of some people, is not bad.

On the other hand, in seventh grade I got a C in art and a D in woodshop. Although my teachers for those subjects left a lot to be desired, I frankly doubt that those grades would have been much higher even if I had had better teachers because I am just not good at drawing or making things. Subsequently, in college, I had a course in art history that taught me to appreciate the various aspects of paintings that make them have the effect that they have on those who look at them attentively, so I can say more about paintings than "I like that" or "I don't like that"; but my eight-year-old granddaughter is much, much better at creating paintings than I am.

When it comes to crafts, I am really a black sheep in my family. My father was a civil engineer, and my grandfather built houses in both Europe and the United States, but I am eleven thumbs. So I suffered greatly when I struggled to put together Big Wheels and other toys for my children as they were growing up, using instructions that were in heavily accented Japanese English. When my father was alive and my parents visited us from their home in Milwaukee, my wife had a list of things for him to fix in our house; once he passed away, my oft-repeated mantra became "Hire someone!"  My eleven-year-old grandson apparently inherited the mechanical ability of my father and grandfather, for he puts together Lego figures of hundreds of pieces in an hour or two, and he loves every minute of it. When we were recently visiting, I offered to help him put together a new Lego figure that we had bought him. When my wife asked him how long it would take to put it together, he told her that normally it would take an hour, but because I was "helping" him, it would take an hour and a half!

I am also not good at sports. In junior high school and high school, I would get B's in Physical Education, but that was only because I showed up in the proper gear for each class. My abilities in sports - with the one exception of swimming - were, well, mediocre at best.

I mention this personal information because I am keenly aware of what the Torah is talking about when it describes Bezalel and others as having "skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft" - and keenly aware also that I lack those skills. I therefore greatly appreciate them in others, and I am thankful that other people have them so that I can benefit from their abilities. Some of the people who have those skills, like my car mechanic, lack some of the intellectual skills and knowledge that I have, but I am immensely dependent on his skills to make my car work.

Jewish daily liturgy is aware of varieties of intelligence. In the Amidah, we ask God to grant us de'ah, binah, v'haskel, "knowledge, discernment, and wisdom." "Knowledge" in this list probably refers to familiarity with a wealth of facts; "discernment" - the Hebrew word is built on the root byn, meaning "between" -- refers to the ability to distinguish among things; and "wisdom," as in the noun sekhel, refers to experiential knowledge and also the knowledge of how to interact with people ("common sense," savoir faire). It is indeed an act of grace on God's part if God gives us all these forms of knowledge, and hence the verb used in this paragraph, hanenu, asking God to favor us with many forms of knowledge.

Unfortunately, as children grow up, their schools evaluate their work only in terms of the skills of writing and mathematics. It is only recently that educators officially recognized that there are, as Howard Gardner described them, "multiple intelligences."  The list in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, includes eight different modes: music-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal,  intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Although it is important for parents and schools to seek to foster and hone all of these forms of intelligence in the children in their charge, it is also important to understand that ultimately we are all better at some things than at others. Moreover, we need to appreciate people for their specific talents and not belittle them, let alone embarrass them, for their lack thereof in some areas of life. 

The Rabbis of the famous Academy of Yavneh had this exactly right:

I am a creature of God, and my neighbor is also His creature. My work is in the city, and his is in the field. I rise early to do my work, and he rises early to do his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his. Perhaps you may say that I do great things and he does small things, but we have learned that it matters not whether one does much or little [in the study of Torah] if only he directs his heart to Heaven. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 17a).  

May we all have the wisdom to recognize and value the varying talents that people have. May we also have patience with ourselves and with others, including the members of our family, if we or they are not good at some aspects of human achievement, for that is the human condition. Rather than get angry or sarcastic about that, we are much wiser to react as the Rabbis did, understanding that doing the best one can with one's innate talents and seeking to use them to serve God and humanity is the mission that each of us has in life.