What Is The Wisdom That Knows Everything?: A Rabbinic Encounter with Levinas’ Talmud

Ira F. Stone
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

I have been invited to provide a rabbinic perspective on Levinas’ Talmud work. I have presumably been given this assignment because I am a Rabbi. The very structure of the assignment identifies and affirms the dichotomy that Emmanuel Levinas articulates in “The Temptation of Temptation” between Knowledge, the province of philosophers, and Wisdom, the province of Torah.

Critiquing philosophy, or the Western tradition that it under girds, is easy enough to do. But to do so without casting a critical eye on the Torah tradition of the Rabbis at the same time would be to miss what I as a Rabbi find most compelling in Levinas’ Talmudic work. To imagine that there is a harmonious tradition of Torah Wisdom standing at the ready awaiting the turn of the West and her philosophers desiring to learn its secrets is truly to miss the radical nature of Levinas’ work. The audiences of his Talmudic lectures were primarily Jewish, and through the intellectual leadership of the French-Jewish community he addressed in person, I believe, his audience was precisely the traditional Jewish community and her Rabbis. The Talmudic readings confront the constraining ontological categories of the Rabbinate just as Otherwise Than Being , or Beyond Essence and Levinas’ philosophic oeuvre confronted the tradition of Western thought from Thales of Miletus to Martin Heidegger. Therefore, to respond as a Rabbi to Levinas’ Talmudic readings is to either hear and internalize their critique or to reject them specifically on the grounds that they depart from the ossified canons of interpretation acceptable in the Rabbinic academy. [1]

So, all I can say in response to Levinas is that he is right. There is a Wisdom that challenges knowledge, and Rabbinic readers of Talmud have been as likely to choose knowledge over Wisdom as any group of Philosophers. But I will go further and point out that in his critique of Rabbinic ontology, he is neither alone or the first. On the contrary, he is part of a tradition, particularly centered among Lithuanian sages, but not restricted to them, who have tried to guide their community of faithful away from the temptation of knowledge back to the responsibility for wisdom. This tradition can be called somewhat imprecisely Mussar. [1] While it can be said to reach back into the Talmudic period itself, it is embodied in the relatively modern period by the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, continued by his student and Levinas’ indirect teacher Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, and beyond them to Rabbi Joseph Zundel of Salant and then the Salanter Rav, Rabbi Israel Lipkin the founder of the modern Mussar movement.

However, my interest here is not in intellectual history. Rather, my interest is in shedding more light on precisely what Levinas means by “the wisdom which knows everything without experiencing it” (NTR 34). In knowing this wisdom, what does one know? To shed light on this question and in light of the intellectual genealogy just outlined, I would like to briefly present a text in response to a text—a Rabbinic response indeed.

Yet first we must make some preliminary remarks. For in the title of my commentary, do I not approximate the flaw that Levinas feared he too had overlooked in putting exponents on words? Can not wisdom that knows everything be read as an exponential? And does not the philosophic, political, and religious tenor of our time also call out for action in place of interpretation as stridently as Levinas heard that call on the morning of his presentation? And how did Levinas’ resolution to the scruples he shared answer both of his initial hesitations? The impossibility of escaping all discourse appears directed at those calling for a cessation of interpretation. What about the problem of putting exponents on words? Of course, the need “to put some questions to the comrades even at the moment when the world is changing” remains. And the “inability to escape the horizon of this questioning speech” clearly is the justification, if you will, or if you prefer, the inevitability that inescapable discourse is precisely contained in the inevitable potential of words to take exponents. Exponential words are the words of true discourse, and it is the Talmud’s ability to model a methodology for discovering the exponents of words that makes it so precious to Levinas. Thus, his opening remark, rather than serving as the disclaimer it is usually thought to be, serves as part of that “wisdom that knows everything” upon which Levinas endeavors to expound. In part, I would suggest, it is the possibility of the exponentiation of language and the access to wisdom or even truth which is always only a receding glimpse dependent on the intrusion of infinity into the seeming totality of words. Thus, it is only by way of textual interpretation, the exponentiation of words, that we can both understand and overcome the Temptation of Temptations.

The text is from the commentary of the Gaon of Vilna on the Book of Proverbs. We read in the first chapter, verse 7: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and discipline.” It would not be in keeping with Levinas’ tradition of approaching his texts through the particulars of his life situation for me not to preface my interpretation of this passage by explaining that, moments after I received the news of my mother’s death, I began to recite to myself the verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Listen, my son, to the Mussar of your father and do not spurn the Torah of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8). Though I was certainly very familiar with it, I had never systematically studied the Book of Proverbs before and cannot account for the appearance of this verse in my consciousness. I used the verse as the basis for the eulogy that I delivered at my mother’s funeral and then determined that the Book of Proverbs with its high moral tone would just barely fit into the category of Sacred literature that one is permitted to study during the days of shiva , the seven days of mourning. Knowing that I would be left alone for hours at a time, studying the Book of Proverbs seemed a better choice than most other reading material that I could use during those hours. In fact, despite an active community of consolation that filled my shiva house continuously throughout the afternoon and evening, after the early morning service I was left to myself. I filled that time learning the Book of Proverbs accompanied by the commentary of the great Gaon of Vilna. Through the eyes of the Gaon, I found that I had entered a profound world, a world that delved into the very secrets of Jewish thought and connected that to the world of Mussar . Through this study, I was able to begin to appreciate the connection between the Gaon’s teaching and the Mussar of the Mussar Movement that had always been claimed, but whose self-evidence had previously escaped me.

I did not expect that my mother would have appreciated the content of my study. But for me, and after all I was the mourner, the act of dedicating the quiet morning hours of my shiva to this study in her memory had a powerful effect. Not only was it comforting and therefore healing in the conventional sense; its insights also helped me to sort out the many feelings I had during that week: feelings about my mother, my family, even about my community and individuals in that community as they visited me.

For the sake of brevity, I begin with the second verse, skipping a complicated understanding of exactly what a proverb is that the Gaon offers in his commentary to verse one. The verse reads

לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר להָבִין אִמְרֵי בִינָֽה

To know Hochma, Mussar; to understand words of discernment (Bina.)

Given these rubrics, this first book takes up the general subject of the order that they will appear and their deeper significances and relationship one to the other. First is the generalization derived from the words: To Know: This explains that the intent or goal of this book is knowledge of Hochma Mussar , and an understanding of Bina.

To know Hochma: means not to fall under the power of the Yetzer HaRa to turn aside one’s feet and follow after it and not to be persuaded by its seductions. Thus wisdom is given a very specific meaning. It is the knowledge of ethical choice, but not just the knowledge only but the ethical choice itself properly made.

On the other hand “to [know] Mussar,” as it were, means that if one’s Yetzer HaRa gains mastery over a person that person is able to muster the discipline to break it as it is written: (Isaiah 49:9) “saying to the prisoners, ‘Go free,’ To those who are in darkness ‘Show yourselves'” Namely, those who are already in the clutches of the Yetzer HaRa are prisoners under its hand and its power is heavily upon them, they will be freed by virtue of Mussar , discipline; and others of them who are in darkness and do not see the light and don’t recognize their own foolishness, by virtue of the Torah it will be revealed to them and they will recognize their foolishness. Thus Mussar either requires Torah or leads to Torah , or perhaps both. But Torah is clearly distinguished from wisdom, for one thing, and, as we’ll see below, its relation to the basic categories of statutes, laws and Mitzvot is also not one of simple identity.

However, having brought Torah into the mix, the Gaon is quick to derive from the next term To discern words of discernment: that even if they break their Yetzer and their appetite they be seen to break it in the way of the Torah and not by seeming to be more righteous than what is written in the Torah , for example, one who not only fasts all through the week (apparently a laudable asceticism) should certainly not also fast on the Sabbath. Trying to be more pious than the Torah is not permitted. The Gaon is clearly aware that an important part of Mussar is avoiding the prideful righteousness that such pietistic concern can breed.

The Gaon concludes his remarks on this second verse with the following remarkable comment; “Thus the secrets of heaven and earth and man are connected. And this is the foundation of Torah and Commandments and Middot as it is written explicitly by Isaiah (1:2) but we don’t expand upon this for those who understand will understand.” The verse in Isaiah that the Gaon is referring to reads: “Hear O heavens and give ear, O earth for I have spoken: I reared children and brought them up-and they have rebelled against me.” The obvious point is that the verse connects heaven, earth and humankind. Less obvious is the reason “we don’t expand upon this.” It could be because the message of the verse is particularly negative. It is a prophecy against a sinful Israel promising the wrath of God as punishment for their sins. It could also be because there is a deeper, more mysterious meaning to the verse and to this connection, a kabalistic meaning that the Gaon would naturally be hesitant to expound in a general commentary on a biblical book. This might account for the use of the word “sod” in the sentence above “This is the foundation of Torah, Commandments and Middot.” The sentence could be read, “This is the secret of Torah. Commandments and Middot.” That is, that heavens, earth and humans are connected. This is a powerful teaching and, I believe, is both the secret and the foundation of the Gaon’s reading of the Book of Proverbs.

7 יִרְאַת יהֹוָה רֵאשִׁית דָּעַת חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר אֱוִילִים בָּֽזוּ

The beginning of Knowledge is fear of Adonai, fools scorn Wisdom and Discipline.

Above in verse 2, the Gaon has already defined wisdom: to not fall under the power of the Yetzer Hara . The question that opens the book is: What knowledge is necessary in order to grasp this wisdom? Wisdom and knowledge are not only differentiated as two different types of content or information, but rather are differentiated as pertaining to two different dimensions of human consciousness. Yet they are closely linked together. Knowledge consists of information, or content; Wisdom is an action. It is, for all intents and purposes an ethical action, albeit initially understood negatively. To be wise is to be able to resist, control and transform the seductions of the Yetzer HaRa . Knowledge is the information or content that makes this possible.

At this early point in our commentary, then, it becomes necessary to speak about the Yetzer HaRa. Usually translated as the evil inclination and combined in Rabbinic thought with its counterpoint, the Yetzer HaTov or the good inclination. Traditional sources teach us that human beings are created with both a Yetzer HaRa and a Yetzer HaTov. Without a Yetzer HaRa a person would fail to marry, take a job or build a house. In other words, the normal acts of ego gratification, both physically and psychologically, depend upon the Yetzer HaRa. In this light I believe it is more accurate to translate the term Yetzer HaRa, as the inclination to serve the self, and therefore to translate the term Yetzer HaTov as the equally indigenous inclination of human consciousness to serve another.

In this context then, we can interpret the Gaon’s teaching about wisdom. To restrain the Yetzer HaRa is to restrain the inclination to serve the self, instead allowing for the inclination to serve another. If this is wisdom then knowledge must be the intellectual or philosophical content that will allow this service to appear compelling to the individual. The individual who does not find it compelling to restrain his or her inclination to serve him or herself is thus characterized as a fool.

The Gaon supports this reading of the text by referring to Mishna Avot (3:9) that teaches: “One whose fear precedes wisdom, his wisdom will endure, etc.” He explains that this means that one who has no fear of God distains wisdom, meaning more specifically: “he rejects the yoke” which is opposite what the one who does have feat of God. He then explains more precisely what constitutes distain and how fear of God is related to knowledge. When one possesses fear of God one endeavors to learn the details of how to conduct himself in the world, for the fear of God motivates him to want to conduct himself in a certain way and when a person wants something and finds it he treasures and guards it. But if he doesn’t have this motivation and does not restrain himself from sin, even if he is learned he doesn’t desire goodness and doesn’t find satisfaction because he hasn’t learned the elements regarding what he should be cautious about—”for whatever is not ready to mind one does not act upon”—Therefore, even if one is learned he distains Mussar and Wisdom and they are not established for him.


[1] See Ira F. Stone, Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998).
[2] In this regard, see Ira F. Stone, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar (New York: Aviv Press, 2007).