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The Ways of Wisdom: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:12

The Ways of Wisdom: Ethics of the Fathers, 2:12

Which is greater: knowledge or reason?

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[Rabban Yochanon] used to say: If all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos would be on the other side, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in [Rabban Yochanon's] name: If all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale, even with Eliezer ben Hyrkanos among them, and Elazar ben Arach would be on the second side, he would outweigh them all. -- Ethics of the Fathers, 2:12

It's bad enough that Jews argue incessantly with Jews. How much worse if, according to our mishna, we seem to find the greatest sage of the Jewish people arguing even with himself?

We have already discussed the respective qualities of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. Their teacher, Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai, described Eliezer ben Hyrkanos as a "cemented cistern that never loses a drop." So profound was Rabbi Eliezer's reverence for Torah and so successful was his internalization of Torah that he never forgot a single word.

In contrast, Rabban Yochanon described Elazar ben Arach as an "ever-strengthening spring," who not only learned and retained Torah but expanded upon the Torah he learned, disseminating new insights and applications.

Why did Rabban Yochanon first give such distinction to one, then reverse himself and give it to the other?

Truly, both these disciples were extraordinary scholars of extraordinary ability. Had Rabban Yochanon praised either of them for achieving such greatness that he "outweighed" all the other sages of Israel, we would have readily accepted his commendation. But how can we understand that Rabban Yochanon first gave such distinction to one, then reversed himself and gave it to the other?

It has been observed that the volume of knowledge in any academic or professional discipline today has grown so overwhelming that generalists, requiring familiarity with ever-expanding fields of study, end up knowing nothing about everything, while specialists, requiring mastery over ever-narrowing areas of focus, end up knowing everything about nothing.

As with virtually everything in Judaism, Torah study requires balance, so that every sage worthy of the title possessed both breadth and depth of Torah knowledge. Obviously, different scholars excelled in different areas. Some sages, like Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, distinguished themselves in the style of learning called bekius -- breadth of study -- acquiring such a vast range of knowledge that every detail of Torah could be understood in the context of the totality of Torah. Just as the pieces of a puzzle acquire form and meaning only when they are correctly assembled, so too does the sense of many Torah precepts appear only after acquiring an overview of Torah as a whole. This capacity to see the totality of Torah was the genius of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos.

But collection of information, no matter how well it is internalized, is insufficient by itself. True understanding requires reasoning, analysis, and interpretation to apply that information, especially to new situations and conditions. The style of learning called be'iyun -- deep analytic interpretation -- was the area in which Rabbi Elazar ben Arach shined.

Although each of these types of learning is valuable by itself, neither is complete without the other. To simply absorb information renders one nothing more than "a bag of books." Even where mastery over accumulated knowledge provides depth of understanding, it will produce neither practical application nor new insights unless it is subject to thoughtful analysis.

Logic without information, therefore, produces erroneous conclusions; information without logic produces none at all.

Conversely, all the brilliant analysis in the world will produce nothing of value if it does not rest on a foundation of knowledge. As much as we may believe in today's egalitarian world that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, we are not entitled to our own facts. Reality remains reality, no matter how many good reasons we may have why it should be otherwise.

Logic without information, therefore, produces erroneous conclusions; information without logic produces none at all.

In his assessment of his two greatest disciples, Rabban Yochanon does not contradict himself when he says that each of them outweighs all others. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was the greatest in breadth of knowledge, while Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was the greatest in analysis and interpretation. And although each represented the highest level of achievement in his own area, each possessed greatness in the area of the other as well. Had they not distinguished themselves in both, they could not have distinguished themselves in either.

Nevertheless, Rabban Yochanon makes it clear that the two were not equals. For although Rabbi Elazar ben Arach may not have matched his colleague in raw integration of information, his talent for applying logic to the wealth of knowledge more than compensated for the advantage his colleague had over him. Like the ever strengthening spring to which his teacher compares him, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach built upon the Torah knowledge he had acquired so that it grew and grew and grew. No sage in Israel, and indeed not all the sages together, could equal his contribution to the preservation and continuity of Jewish tradition.

In his assessment of these two disciples, Rabban Yochanon offers an insight into man's quest for wisdom that is both priceless and timeless. Whether spiritual or secular, whether mechanical or moral, all human wisdom comprises two elements: knowledge and reason. To accumulate a pool of facts, no matter how broad or how deep, no matter how sweeping or how detailed, without the application of reason, is to stop short of true wisdom, leaving one with a sea of information but without the means to drink from it.

To possess the capacity for the most penetrating analysis, however, without a wide and solid foundation in fact, is to embark down a path toward cogent but inaccurate conclusions, to walk with the confidence of reason straight into the abyss of intellectual and moral folly.

Published: July 9, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Anonymous, July 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Sustainable living

With all the knowledge regarding global warming, the polluting of our oceans, rivers and streams, why hasn't the behavior of many Jewish communites and organizations changed in order to offset the consequences of their actions and nonactions. Printing on recycled paper is just one action they all could take.

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