I would like to consider with you the wisdom found in the literature of Israel as described by Rabbi Lewis Browne in his book “The Wisdom of Israel", written in 1945. My Grandmother gave me this 743 page book to me as a Bar Mitzvah gift. As a 13 year old, I did not have the desire or ability to read it.
Out of respect for my grandmother, first my mother then I kept the book. Forty five years later, I finally read it.
Browne, was a controversial Rabbi during the Post-World War II period. He gave up his pulpit to write and become a public speaker. When asked if he had been defrocked, he replied “no, just unsuited”. He starts the book by defining what literature he will include as “wise” and which authors he will consider “of Israel”. Concerning Wisdom, Browne chooses to exclude purely informational, mystical and ritual–based literature as well as literature that were intended only for Hebrews. Allow me to offer a midrash to describe what he does include. What is more important to God, Man’s relationship to man or man’s relationship to God? In the time of Noah, when man was being evil to his fellow man, God destroyed the world except for Noah’s family. At the time of The Tower of Babel, when man was disrespectful to God, God confused the perpetrators. Clearly man’s relationship with his fellow man is more important to God than ritual respect to God. Browne chooses to limit his “wisdom literature” to that dealing with man’s relationship with man.
What does Rabbi Browne believe makes literature “of Israel”? He chooses to define the literature of Israel, based on its cultural tradition. In fact all of the authors he chooses were born Jewish.
We are taught that Moses received the entire Law at Sinai; he recorded a portion and transmitted the remainder orally. Additional documents relating to the orally transmitted law were written down periodically, such as the Prophets, the Writings, the Mishnah, the Gemorrah, etc. Browne rejects this hypothesis, stating “Many people have an idea that Israel’s wisdom is all of one kind, like the hay in a farmer’s wagon. Actually it is more variegated than the stuff in a peddler’s pack. And this is only natural, considering the age of that wisdom and the many lands in which it was accumulated. The Jews, it must be realized have been learners as well as teachers throughout their wanderings. They have learned from the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Parthians, the Romans, the Arabs and every other people with whom good or ill fortune brought them in contact.”
As you would expect, Browne starts with selections from the TaNaK, continues with ancient books not included in the TaNaK such as The Admonitions of the Tobit and The Wisdom of Hillel. He describes the Greek influence in the writing of Philo Judaeus, the Roman influence in the writing of Flavius Josephus, the Islam influence in the writing of Maimonides, the influence of enlightenment and emancipation on the writing of Moses Mendelsohn, the Eastern European influence in the writing Sholom Aleichem and the American influence in the writings of Mordecai Kaplan.
Interestingly, he includes writings of John the Baptist and Jesus as literature of Israel as well as Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew and Heine, a purported convert from Judaism to Christianity. He excludes the psychiatric writing of Freud, the political writing of Marx and the scientific writing of Einstein accepting the literature as wise but not of Israel in spite of the fact that the authors were Jewish.
In this 743 page book, Browne spends only 15 pages on the five books of Moses, 16 pages on the Prophets, 43 pages on the Writings and 63 pages on the Talmud. The remaining 500 pages contain literature that post-dates the Talmud. Let me share a few of Browne’s examples:
a. Of the Ten Commandments he says, “Probably no single document has exercised a more pervasive influence on religious and moral life of all mankind.
b. Of Deuteronomy he says, considering its age it is phenomenally humane.
c. Of Maimonides he says” the greatest of all medieval sages.
d. Of Spinoza he says, “Despite that he wrote so little, Spinoza exercised an extraordinary influence over the subsequent development of thought.”
e. On Moses Mendelsohn he says, “Learned Gentiles called him a second Plato, his own people proclaimed him the third Moses.
f. Heinrich Heine, a purported convert to Christianity, wrote I never converted; how can a Jew bring himself to believe in the divinity of another Jew.
g. Of Mordecai Kaplan, he says “At the moment the liveliest religious movement appears to be one commonly called Conservative Judaism. Its leading thinker, Professor Mordecai Kaplan has recruited numerous rabbinical disciples who seek to reconstruct Jewish life so that it can conform to modern urgencies without losing its traditional sanctions.
h. Let me insert a piece of relatively current wise literature from a book that Rabbi Barmash recommended to me, “The World As I See It”, by Albert Einstein. “What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he feels it. But from the standpoint of view of daily life we exist for our fellow man-in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I has received and am still receiving.
Why do I think Browne’s book is worthy of discussion? In this book, Browne recognizes that the Wisdom of Israel extends beyond the TaNaK and the Talmud to the current time. It is my belief that if our current and future generations are to identify with our historic literature, they must somehow be able to relate it current times, to the wisdom of our contemporaries. To make my point, I will use another Midrash. Moses had come back to life and is sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s class. Rabbi Akiva is making an esoteric point that he attributes to Moses. Although Moses is happy that he is still remembered, he doesn’t have a clue what Rabbi Akiva is saying. The point of note is that, because of the increase in knowledge in the intervening period, Moses’ Law had changed so much that Moses doesn’t recognize it. Is it not appropriate that interpretation of Moses’ Law should continue to change based on our current knowledge?
In conclusion, let me take issue with one of the first Bible stories we learned as young children. The Book of Genesis tells us that God did not want Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and punished them for doing so. As a scientist I have learned that every cell of every living being contains a substance called DNA that allows that cell to produce all substances necessary for life and to faithfully reproduce itself. In man more DNA is dedicated to the function of one small organ, the brain, than any other organ. With that brain, man has continued to expand his “knowledge of good and evil”. As a relatively observant Jew, I believe in a supreme being who created the Universe, DNA and our brain. I do not believe our DNA came from the apple. I believe that by giving us that brain, God expects us to use it to generate valuable knowledge and that valuable knowledge will continue to augment our wisdom and the literature we generate.