“The Glory of God Is Intelligence” A Theology of Torah Learning in Judaism
Jacob Neusner, “‘The Glory of God Is Intelligence’: A Theology of Torah Learning in Judaism,” in The Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of Intellect in Judaism(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 1–12.
What one person means by the religious, another understands as secular. To us Jews and to you Mormons, food taboos express an aspect of the religious life. To others they do not. Religious folk may learn from one another— which is our task this day—when we illuminate those religious convictions and concerns which we share. One such trait, shared by the Jewish religion and the religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the conviction that religion thrives through the use of the mind and intellect. Skepticism and critical thinking are friends, not enemies, of religion. That is why intellectuals of the Mormon faith will grasp the conviction, expressed in the particular language of Judaism, that Talmud Torah—study of divine revelation— outweighs all else, that the human being was made to study Torah, and many other sayings which express the same idea. In this lecture I want to offer a theology of learning in Judaism which may supply a fresh perspective on why learning may be deemed by Mormons to be not merely a useful, secular value, but an act of religion and of sanctification.
Brigham Young University came into being, as you all know, when, in 1876, Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave Karl Maeser the following commission: “You are to go to Provo, Brother Maeser. I want you to organize and conduct an academy to be established in the name of the Church—a Church School.” And he added: “I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God.” No informed Jew can find alien or strange such an ideal, an ideal expressed in the motto of this university, “The Glory of God Is Intelligence.” For the most distinctive and paramount trait of Judaism as it has been known for the past two thousand years is the conviction that the primary mode of the service of God (not the sole mode, but the paramount one) is the study of Torah. Torah is revelation. Torah, by its content and its nature, encompasses all of God-given knowledge. Torah must then include, in the words of Brigham Young, even the alphabet and even the multiplication tables. (We have in Judaism, indeed in theologies based upon revelations developed through studies of the letters of the alphabet and of numbers, the foundations of all learning. So the correspondence is not merely rhetorical or metaphorical.)
Religions say the same thing in different ways. Let us ask, when Judaism states, “The study of Torah—revelation—outweighs all else,” and when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, “The glory of God is intelligence,” what is it that the two affirm about the nature of the human being and of God? The answer begins in the scripture, Let us make man in our likeness. Judaism maintains that that part of man which is like God is not the corporeal, but the spiritual, aspect of man. Man is made in God’s image. And that part of man which is like God is the thing which separates man from beast: the mind, consciousness. When man uses his mind, he is acting like God. So all things begin in consciousness and self-consciousness.
Judaism’s conception of man is this: We think, therefore, we and what we do are worth taking seriously. We respond to reason and subject ourselves to discipline founded upon criticism. Our response consists in self-consciousness about all we do, think, and say. To be sure, man is dual. We are twin things, ready to do evil and ready to do good. As the talmudic warning about not interrupting one’s study even to admire a tree—that is, nature—makes clear, man cannot afford even for one instant to break off from consciousness, to open ourselves to what appears then to be “natural”; to be mindless is to lose touch with revealed order and revealed law, the luminous disciplines of the sacred. It follows from this viewpoint that, when we use our minds, we not only serve God, we also act like God. The imitation of God through the use of the intellect, as much as through service to God’s people, or through ethical behavior, or even acceptance of suffering, is hardly a common perspective in the world of religions. Yet, I think it is clear, God gives us our minds, and that which God gives us which is distinctive to us is what in us is like God.
It should be remembered that these rather general observations will be given much specificity when we consider, in the fourth lecture, precisely what we mean by using our minds, that is, what the Jew does when he or she “studies Torah”—the document one studies, the way in which one does the work. At this point, however, the theological results are given, and only later, the concrete historical and literary foundations thereof.
There are two further sides to the matter. First, we must ask ourselves, How can we understand the notion that when we use our minds, we imitate God? How, in Mormon words, can we maintain, “The glory of God is intelligence”? To phrase the question in the terms of Judaism, let me report that “study of Torah”—the Judaic equivalent to “intelligence” of LDS language—involves highly critical attitudes and modes of thought. Specifically, there are four ways in which any proposition, of faith or of law, will be analyzed in the pages of the Talmud, which, alongside the scriptures, is one of the principal sacred books of Judaism. These four ways are (1) abstract, rational criticism of each tradition in sequence; (2) historical criticism of sources and their relationships; (3) philological and literary criticism of the meanings of words and phrases; and (4) practical criticism of what people actually do in order to carry out their religious obligations. It goes without saying that these four modes of criticism are entirely contemporary. Careful, skeptical examination of answers posed to problems is utterly commonplace to modern men and women. Historical criticism of sources, which does not gullibly accept whatever is alleged as fact, is the beginning of historical study. Philological study of the origins and meanings of words, literary criticism of the style of expression—these are familiar. Finally, we take for granted that it is normal to examine people’s actions against some large principle of behavior. These are traits of inquiry which are both Judaic and routinely modern. That is why we can understand Talmud Torah as an accessible human experience, relate to the idea, and find its theology relevant to our own situation, even though it is not that of classical Judaism. Modern men and women use their minds in those ways in which Judaic men and women who study Torah use theirs. But the latter deem that use of mind to constitute an act of liturgy—work in the name and for the sake of God.
What makes these ways of thinking different from modern modes of thought, then, is the remarkable claim that, in the give and take of argument, in the processes of criticism, we do something transcendent, more than this-worldly. I cannot overemphasize how remarkable is the combination of rational criticism and the supernatural value attached to that criticism. We simply cannot understand Judaism without confronting the otherworldly context in which this so completely secular mode of thinking goes forward. The claim is that, in seeking reason and order, we serve God.
But what are we to make of that claim? Does lucid thinking bring heavenly illumination? Perhaps the best answer may be sought in our own experience. Whence comes insight? Having put everything together in a logical and orderly way, we sometimes find ourselves immobilized. We know something, but we do not know what it means, what it suggests beyond itself. But then sometimes we catch an unexpected insight. We come in some mysterious way to a comprehension of a whole which exceeds the sum of its parts. And we cannot explain how we have seen what, in a single instant, stuns us by its ineluctable Tightness, fittingness—by the unearned insight, the inexplicable understanding. For the rabbis of Judaism, that stunning moment of rational insight comes with siyyata dishamaya, the help of heaven. The charisma imparted by the rabbinic imagination to the brilliant man is not different in substance from the moral authority and spiritual dignity imparted by contemporary intellectuals to the great minds of the age. The profound honor to be paid to the intellectual paragons—the explorers of the unknown, the men and women with courage to doubt the accepted truths of the hour—is not much different from the deference shown by the disciple to the rabbi. So the religious experience of the rabbi and the secular experience of the intellectual differ not in external character. They gravely differ in the ways by which we explain and account for that experience.
It follows that the religious intellectual, Mormon or Jewish, pursues the disciplines of the intellect in the same skeptical and critical spirit as does the nonreligious intellectual. But the religious intellectual understands that, when there is insight, when the parts add up to more than the sum of the whole, then our minds have achieved that which is transcendent. The moment of inexplicable understanding, of rational insight, in which things fall together into a whole, to us is a moment of revelation. And, we believe, it is God who reveals insight and truth: “The glory of God is intelligence.”
Once we confront the notion that, when we use our minds, we enter the world of transcendence, we then have to ask, What is at the center of the intellectual task? To answer this question, we turn back to the words of Brigham Young to Brother Maeser: “I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God.” Judaism, for its part, maintains that—for a reason I shall explain—the study of Torah encompasses each and every aspect of life. It will follow that one cannot study the alphabet or the multiplication tables without learning something about the world which is the Lord’s. The ultimate task of study of Torah is not solely ethical. It is holiness. To be sure, one must do the good, but Torah encompasses more than ethical behavior. The good is more than the moral; it is also the well-regulated conduct of matters to which morality is impertinent. The whole man, private and public, is to be disciplined. For no limits are set to the methods of exploring reason and searching for order. Social order with its concomitant ethical concern is no more important than the psychic order of the individual, with its full articulation in the “ritual” life. All reality comes under the discipline of the critical intellect; all is capable of sanctification.
This brings me to the issue I alluded to a moment ago. Why is it that, for Judaism, the study of Torah encompasses each and every aspect of life? Or why is it that the whole of a university faculty, in all areas and subjects, may be deemed at Brigham Young University to participate in the study of revelation? Let me begin by speaking of the Judaic tradition alone, then generalize the frame of reference. The single-minded pursuit of unifying truths about all reality constitutes the primary intellectual discipline of Judaism. But the discipline does not derive from the secular and inductive perception of unifying order in the natural world. Order comes, rather, from the lessons imparted supernaturally by revelation, that is, in the Torah. The sages perceive the Torah not as a melange of sources and laws of different origins, but as a single, unitary document, a corpus of laws reflective of an underlying ordered will. The Torah reveals the way things are meant to be, just as the rabbis’ formulation and presentation of their laws tell how things are meant to be, whether or not that is how they actually are done. Order derives from the plan and will of the Creator of the world, the foundation of all reality. The Torah is interpreted by the talmudic rabbis to be the architect’s design for reality: God looked into the Torah and created the world, just as an architect follows his prior design in raising a building. A single, whole Torah underlies the one, seamless reality of the world. The search for the unities hidden by the pluralities of the trivial world, the supposition that some one thing is revealed by many things—these represent, in intellectual form, the theological and metaphysical conception of a single, unique God, creator of heaven and earth, revealer of one complete Torah, guarantor of the unity and ultimate meaning of all the human actions and events that constitute history. On that account the Talmud links the private deeds of man to a larger pattern, provides a large and general “meaning” for small, particular, trivial doings.
Behind this conception of the unifying role of reason and the integrating force of criticism lies the conviction that God supplies the model for man’s mind, therefore man, through reasoning in the Torah’s laws, may penetrate into God’s intent and plan. The rabbis of the Talmud believe they study Torah as God does in heaven; their schools—they maintain—are conducted like the academy on high. They perform rites just as God performs rites, wearing fringes as does he, putting on phylacteries just as God puts on phylacteries. In studying Torah they beseech the heavenly paradigm revealed by God “in his image,” handed down from Moses and the prophets to their own teachers.
If the rabbis of the Talmud study and realize the divine teachings of Moses, whom they call “our rabbi,” it is because the order they impose upon earthly affairs replicates on earth the order they perceive from heaven, the rational reconstruction of reality. It is Torah which reveals the mind of God, the principles by which he shaped reality. So studying Torah is not merely imitating God, who does the same, but is a way to the apprehension of God and the attainment of the sacred. The modes of argument are holy because they lead from earth to heaven, as prayer or fasting or self-denial cannot. Reason is the way, God’s way. The holy man is therefore he who is able to think clearly and penetrate profoundly into that reality corresponding to the mysteries of the Torah. And, as I have pointed out, since revelation concerns the creation of the world and tells us its purpose and meaning, whatever intellectual efforts uncover the character of creation and bring us closer to the Creator and ourselves constitute a vehicle of revelation.
It follows that the belief that one God made the world lays before the Jewish religious intellectual the work of discovering the order of the well-ordered existence and well-correlated relationships. The prevalent attitude of Talmud Torah is perfect seriousness (not specious solemnity) about life, man’s intentions, and his actions. The presupposition of the Judaic approach to life is that order is better than chaos, reflection than whim, decision than accident, and rationality than witlessness and force. The only admissible force is the power of logic, refined against the gross matter of daily living. The sole purpose is so to construct the discipline of everyday life and to pattern the relationships among men that all things are intelligible, well-regulated, trustworthy—and thereby sanctified. Judaism stands for the subjection of life to rational study. For nothing is so trivial as to be unrelated to some conceptual, abstract principle. All things are subject to critical analysis. But the mode of inquiry is not man’s alone. As I said, man is made in God’s image. And that part of man which is like God is not corporeal. It is the thing which separates man from beast: the mind, consciousness. When man uses his mind, he is acting like God. That surely is a conviction uncharacteristic of modern intellectuals. Yet it is at the heart of Judaic intellectuality.
This brings me to yet another dictum on the religious value of education, Brigham Young’s saying, “Education is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life.” I think the power to think clearly is best expressed, in Judaic modes of thought, through the perpetual skepticism which is characteristic of Talmudic modes of argument. This is expressed in response to every declarative sentence or affirmative statement. Once one states that matters are so, it is inevitable that he will find as a response: “Why do you think so?” or “Perhaps things are the opposite of what you say?” or “How can you say so when a contrary principle may be adduced?” Articulation, forthrightness, subtle reasoning but lucid expression, skepticism—these are the traits of intellectuals, not of untrained and undeveloped minds, nor of neat scholars, capable only to serve as curators of the past, but not as critics of the present.
Above all, Judaic thinking at its best rejects gullibility and credulity. It is, indeed, peculiarly modern in its systematic skepticism, its testing of each proposition, not to destroy but to refine what people suppose to be so. The Talmud’s first question, for example, is not “Who says so?” but “Why?” “What is the reason?” Faith is restricted to ultimate matters, to the fundamental principles of reality beyond which one may not penetrate. But humility in the face of ultimate questions is not confused with servility before the assertions, the truth claims, of authorities, ancient or modern, who are no more than mortal.
The way to deeper perception lies in skepticism about shallow assertion. One must place as small a stake as possible in the acceptance of specific allegations. The fewer vested convictions, the greater the chances for wide-ranging inquiry. But while modern skepticism may yield—at least in the eye of its critics—corrosive and negative results, in the Talmud, skepticism produces measured restraint and limited insight. The difference must be in the open-endedness of the Talmudic inquiry: nothing is ever left as a final answer, a completed solution. The fruit of insight is inquiry; the result of inquiry is insight, in endless progression. The only road closed is the road back, to the unarticulated, the unconscious, and the unselfconscious. For once consciousness is achieved, a reason spelled out, one cannot again pretend there is no reason, and nothing has been articulated. For the Talmud the alternatives are not faith or nihilism, but reflection or dumb reflex, consciousness or animal instinct. Man, in God’s image, has the capacity to reflect and to criticize. All an animal can do is act and respond.
That is why energy, the will to act, has to be channeled and controlled by intellect: You are what you do. Therefore, deed without deliberation is not to be taken seriously. Examination of deeds takes priority over mere repetition of what works or what feels good. For this purpose, genius is insufficient; cleverness is irrelevant. What is preferred is systematic and orderly consideration, step by step, of the principles by which one acts. The human problem in the Judaic conception is not finding the motive force to do, but discovering the restraint to regulate that protean force. In the quest for restraint and self-control, the primal energies will insure one is not bored or lacking in purpose. For the Judaic mode of thought perceives a perpetual tension between energy and activity, on the one side, and reflection on the other. To act without thought comes naturally, is contrary, therefore, to the fact of revealed discipline. The drama of the private life consists in the struggle between will and intellect, action and reflection. If Judaism is on the side of the intellect and reflection, it is because the will and action require no allies. The outcome will be determined, ultimately, by force of character and intellect, these together. And the moot issue is not how to repress, but how to reshape the primal energy.
If then I have to summarize the purpose of the intellectual life in Judaism, it is that use of mind is the search for what is sacred. The Talmud, for its part, endures as a monument to intellectualism focused upon the application of practical rationality to society. It pays tribute, on every page, to the human potential to think morally, yet without lachrymose sentimentality, to reflect about fundamentals and basic principles, yet for concrete purposes and with ordinary society in mind. The good, well-regulated society will nurture disciplined, strong character. The mighty man—”one who overcomes his impulses”—will stand as a pillar of the good society. This is what I understand as the result of the intellectual activity of the moral intellect. Reason, criticism, restraint and rational exchange of ideas—these are the things Judaism requires of the mind.
Now for contemporary man Judaism presents formidable criticism, for by it the value, “follow your own impulse”—utter subjectivism in all things—is rejected. Judaism gives contrary advice. “Tame your impulse,” regulate, restrain, control energies through the self-imposition of the restraining rule of law. At the same time, Judaism demands that a person not do “his own thing” alone, but persuade others to make what is his own into what is to be shared by all. Judaism therefore subjects the individual to restraints on his pure individuality, while opening for individuality the possibility of moral suasion of the community at large. “Unrestrained” and “individualism” therefore are set over against “regulated” and “rationality.” For it is rationality which overcomes the isolation of the individual, connecting one mind to another through the mediating way of reason. Through the imposition of rational, freely adopted rules, one restrains those destructive elements of the personality which are potentially damaging for both the individual and the community.
What makes this theory of the intellect as an instrument of sanctification relevant to modern men and women is a trait of mind of contemporary people, which is, as I said, their pragmatism and willingness to cope with details and to take seriously the trivialities of ordinary life. Because of this very secularity, the seriousness about worldly things characteristic of our own day, we are able to understand the importance of Judaism’s lessons about the criticism and regulation of worldly things. What shall we say of a tradition of thought that lays greatest emphasis upon deed, upon a pattern of actions and a way of living, but that is pragmatic? What shall we say of a perspective upon the world that focuses on practical reason, but that is worldly? What shall we conclude of a religious language that calls honesty or charity a qiddush hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, but that is deeply secular? A legal system whose deepest concerns are for the detailed articulation of the this-worldly meaning of love for one’s fellow human beings here and now is one which long ago brought the Jews into the pragmatic, this-worldly framework of modernity. But with them the Jews brought their conception of religious ontology, which holds that the secular is susceptible to the sanctification to be effected by the human being. The ontology of modernity and that of pragmatic Jewry are hardly identical.
That is why Judaism and its Talmud not only relate to the contemporary world, but stand in judgment of it. And both the Judaic and the Mormon religions surely will judge a world willing to reduce man to part of himself, to impulses and energies. They will judge an age prepared to validate the unrestrained expression of those energies as the ultimate, legitimate adumbration of what is individual about the person, as though he had no mind, no strength of rational thought. They will condemn a world of enthusiasts who make an improvement and call it redemption, come up with a good idea and, without the test of skeptical analysis, pronounce salvation. Judaism shows a better way: It demonstrates that men have the capacity to assess the nonredemption of the world, to perceive the tentativeness of current solutions to enduring problems, and at the same time to hope for sanctification and to work for salvation. It is this unfulfilled yet very vivid evaluation of the world, the power to take the world so seriously as to ask searching questions about its certainties which, I think, explains the Jew’s capacity to love so much, and yet to doubt: to hold the world very near and close, with open arms. The Jew has been taught to engage realistically in the world’s tasks, to do so with a whole heart, yet without the need, or even the power, to regard completion of those tasks as the threshold of a final and completed fulfillment of history. Because of its mode of thinking, Judaism teaches men to take seriously the wide range of worldly problems without expecting that in solving them—provisionally, let alone finally—they might save the world.
But to serve the world through the intellect, we have to consider what makes our modes of thought more than merely an expression of practical reason, but rather, an expression of the transcendent which is in ourselves. The world cannot ask our respective religions to vindicate themselves by its standards. We have to bring to bear upon the world’s perceptions the sacred images of us imparted to us by our respective religions. Let me at the end say what the Judaic perspective is, what Judaism’s sacred image of us may be. To begin with, Judaism asks, What say you of the human condition? What is man, but that God is mindful of him? If all we are and ever shall be is here and now, if our minds are merely useful and if our capacity to think entirely a secular virtue, then the Judaic mode of intellect is unavailable to us. If through our strength of reason we pursue the profound rationality which underlies, gives unity, and imparts meaning to, existence, and if through our power of reflection we then undertake the reconstruction of reality, the interpretation of what is in terms of what can and should be, then we shall have already entered into the Judaic situation. But when we do, we shall thereby have undertaken all that Judaism knows as the discipline of the sacred. We shall, in other words, have renewed the experience of sanctification both through the intellect and of the intellect. That experience becomes consequential when the godly perceptions of life and interpretations of society come to possess us. I therefore speak, without shame, of religious experience, indeed of the turning toward God which the sages called teshuvah,insufficiently translated as repentance, but truly meaning turning. The way of Judaic piety and spirituality has been the path of saints—saints of former times and of these days—a path each chooses and may choose again, in full rationality, at life’s turning.