Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Ben Zoma asks and answers this question in the Talmud (Pirke Avot 3:1) Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it is said in Torah," from all my teachers I acquired understanding." (Ben Zoma goes on to define might, wealth, and honor in a similar vein.) This same question is asked, in different ways, throughout the Talmud and all of our sacred texts. What, exactly, is wisdom, and how does one acquire it? And how should one use it?
The Haftarah for parashat Miketz is one of the classic example of wisdom, or specifically, Solomonic wisdom, relating the well known exemplar of Solomonic wisdom: whose baby is it? Two unmarried women living together (most likely prostitutes) give birth within a few days of each other. One claims that the other rolled over on her baby and killed it, and then switched it with the other. Each claim the living child is theirs. Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon) orders that a sword be brought forth so that the living child might be divided in half. One mother says "it should be neither yours nor mine, so cut it in two." Of course, the true mother is the one who says to give the child to the other so it might live.
Shlomo relies on his understanding of a mother's connection with her own child. And when the people of Israel learned of his great wisdom, they accept him as their King. Just being a son of David was not enough to insure Solomon's acceptance as King by all the people.
It's a wonderful illustration of using wisdom to bring about justice. And it resonates well with the human experience. Would this Solomonic wisdom work in all situations? It seems logical that it would, yet we know that situations are not always as they appear. There are many in the world who employ great deceits, and weave tangled webs. Perhaps I've been watching too many episodes of Law and Order.
It does seem to be a little harder these days to be sure that one party to a dispute is telling the truth and one is lying. Multiple truths, partial truths, conspiratorial deceptions abound. Where does one get the wisdom to discern wisely? As Ben Zoma said, we get it by learning from everyone. Yet, even armed with such awareness, are we truly prepared to render justice wisely?
Let's take this to another level. In this day and time (though not entirely unique to our time) we Jews seem to question each other as to who the "true Jews" are. The differing sides each question whether the other hasn't rolled over on their own child and stolen theirs, metaphorically speaking.
I have heard it seriously suggested by those from both liberal and traditional camps that we ought to just sever the child that is living Judaism in twain, each becoming a separate (yet ultimately dead) religion.
And many liberal Jews, uncertain of the legitimacy of their own claims, seem perfectly willing to turn the baby and the bathwater over to the traditionalists so that it might live. (Or perhaps so that they might live as they choose, and alleviate their guilt by assuring that somewhere out there are people who are being "real Jews." Or perhaps acknowledging for themselves that they do not need the approval of the other side?)
We need to ask ourselves a few questions before we can even attempt to solve this dilemma with anything akin to Solomonic wisdom.
1. Is only one child alive? 2. Was there ever really two children? 3. If there were two, and one died, how did it die? 4. Can one child be shared between two mothers? 5. Is the Solomonic approach always the best choice? 7. Can a Solomonic approach help us determine truths in our own time? Could a Solomonic trick be used to ferret out truths about things like global warming, discrimination, misogyny, et al? 7. Who among us today is wise enough to apply a Solomonic test to determine facts and truths?
Back to our exemplar. What if neither mother had relented? Would Solomon have split the baby assunder? What other tests might Solomon have devised to determine which mother and child were connected? What if the woman who was not the child's true mother proved to be the better parent? Could shared custody have worked? Do the rights of a birth mother always take precedence? These issues play out in our own time with adoptions, surrogate pregnancies, genetic diseases, and more. The issues are much more of a challenge today. WWSD?
In the play whose stage-reading I recently directed, the playwright refers to the story, and later has Solomon musing that he hated having to wield the sword, and figured the entire event would be soon forgotten (which of course received a hearty laugh from the audience.) Solomon sought wisdom, and sought to employ it throughout his life. However, there's a timeline. We have the young, romantic Solomon of Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs, the practical father instructing his son in Mashlim/Proverbs, and the disappointed old man in Qohelet/Ecclesiastes (that is, if we choose to see all three works as a product of Solomon or his descendants/scribal school.) From the blazons of youthful poetry to the pithy aphorisms of parenthood to the jaded musings of an embittered old man. I suspect that Solomon might have had different thoughts and methodologies to employ in dispensing wisdom at different points throughout his life. That even in a time when societal and technological change crept along at a glacial pace compared to our Moore's Law-like reality. With our knowledge changing at a frenetic pace, our philosophy, ethics, and morality can barely keep up. If you think Solomon had troubles, just imagine trying to be wise today.
Just recently, a Chinese scientist announced that he had performed gene manipulation using Crispr-Cas9 on twin embryos to prevent the genetic father's HIV from being transferred to the embryos, and implanted them in the mother who has given live birth to the twins. In addition to all the ethical conisderations, and the protocols that were broken, some others are now claiming he didn't even give both embryos the same chance - deciding to change both genes on one twin, and only one of the two genes on the other. On yet another aspect of this controversy, one of the critics used the term "monstrous" in describing the experiment - but, as the NY Times pointed out, in this, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley's Frankenstein, such language could easily be though of as describing the two twin babies, branding them with for something over which they had no control.
In the leadership and politics arena, Solomon would find himself equally challenged. In a time when the very concept of objective truth is under siege, how is wisdom obtained? Is true wisdom the ability to discern and acknowledge that there is objective truth, or is true wisdom recognizing that in the observation of objective truth by individual humans, there is in each human an implicit bias on their experience and understanding of that truth? As uncomfortable as it makes me to say this, there is something to that notion. Additionally, is this borne out by Schroedinger's thought experiment and the notion that observation is part of the reality of quantum physics and mechanics?
What makes a leader wise? How do wise leaders act? Do wise leaders believe only they know what is best? Not according to Ben Zoma. Is Solomon the ultimate exemplar of a wise leader? Do wise leaders take on hundreds of wives and concubine? Do wise leaders kill to settle scores for their fathers? (I'm referring to Solomon here, but I suppose Dubya might be a candidate.) Do wise leaders let their wives and concubines build shrines to their alien gods in his house when he is ruler of a land given to his people by G"d who insists there be no idols? Do wise leaders spare the lives of opponents who have challenged them and might challenge them yet again?
Even the wisest of leaders have flaws and make mistakes. For all the good he did, George HW Bush also did some pretty awful things, too. Is it too much to hope that even the dumbest of leaders might wind up having some positive impact?
WWSD? What would Solomon have made of our current national and world situation? would Solomon simply be able to say "just test the DNA so we know for certain who the real mother of the child is?" Or does a wise ruler know that others factors besides biological parentage are worth weighing?
Have at it, my Solomonic friends. And remember that a good place to start is with Ben Zoma's wise words. Go and learn from everyone.
©2018 (portions ©2016 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester
Others Musings on this Parasha:
Miketz/Hanukkah 5778 - Yodim Atem Likhvod Mah?
Miketz 5777 - Eizeh Hu Adayin Khakham
Miketz 5776 - Coke or Pepsi? (Or...?)
Miketz 5775 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz 5774 - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Miketz 5773 - B'li Meilitz
Miketz 5772 - A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation