Intelligence, Wisdom, Torah and Humility

Nov 26, 2014

The connection between humility and Torah is very well developed in the teachings of Chazal and later rabbinic literature. The nature of this connection, though, demands some elaboration.

Being highly intelligent and bright does not, unfortunately, preclude being arrogant. Sometimes it even seems that a high intelligence level feeds an arrogant person’s bloated self-image. Nevertheless, the Baraita Kinyan Torah (Avot 6:7) lists humility among the 48 necessary elements for aquiring Torah. If intelligence can coexist with arrogance, why cannot Torah? Shouldn’t even an arrogant person be able to apply his innate, G-d-given intelligence to the texts of the Torah and achieve scholastic results?

First of all, we must distinguish between innate intelligence and its application, what one does with it. Someone might be born intelligent, yet arrogance might hamper the natural development and cultivation of his intelligence. For example, someone who does not listen to criticism and is not open to questioning might be stuck with his own incorrect conclusions. On the other hand, another person might be afraid to sound silly or unintelligent and not ask the question that might bring him to a greater and richer understanding. Someone else overly concerned with self-image might prefer a complicated or intelligent sounding idea or approach over that which is simple but true. Furthermore, self-centeredness can drive people to the pursuit of activities not conducive to developing understanding and wisdom. The self-centered drive for pleasure or excessive leisure drags one away from serious study and intense reflection. Someone intelligent might never acquire wisdom.

These are only, however, examples of the natural connection between humility and intellectual pursuits in general. A number of sources seem to point to a special connection between Torah and humility. It also seems to extend beyond the realm of the practical-pragmatic naturalistic connection we described above. There seems to be an essential inner connection between Torah and humility.

Moshe Rabbeinu was both the most humble man that ever lived — “The man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.” (Bemidbar 12:3) — and the greatest prophet that ever lived — “No other prophet rose any more in Israel like Moshe, who knew G-d face to face. “(Devarim 34:10). The height of Torah is prophecy, and Torah, like prophecy, is a Divine gift. It is significant that that gift was given to Israel through its humblest leader.

Understanding the Torah-humility connection is aided by clarifying the definitions of both Torah and humility. Torah is essentially Divine revelation, and learning Torah is a way of encountering G-dliness. Humility can be defined as a correct apprehension of one’s place in the world. Because the world was created by and is constantly and totally dependent on an infinite and all-powerful G-d, humility demands a high level of G-d consciousness. Therefore the Torah and the humble person are the perfect match. The one most G-d conscious — the humble man who senses his own total dependency on G-d — will be the one most open to G-d’s revelation, to prophecy and Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu was that person.

The Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Hatorah, Chapter 2) writes that humility is a character trait that fits the Torah. He explains a striking comment by the Sages. On the verse, “It (the Torah) is not in Heaven,” (Devarim 30:12) they comment (Eiruvin 55a), “You will not find the Torah among arrogant people (‘gasei haruach’).” Arrogant people are limited, because they see themselves as being at a certain level of greatness. The humble person is without limits, boundless, because he does not see himself as anything at all. He is therefore fitting to be the one to be the recipient of the boundless Torah. Just as the Torah is able to spread out, so can the humble person. Just as the Torah is open to and connected to all people, so the humble person is open to and connected to all people. The two are therefore fitting.

The theory fits the historical reality. Our greatest sages were always exceedingly humble. One anecdote follows:

When Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was a young boy of eleven he had already learned all the tractates in Nashim and Nezikin (about 1300 pages of Talmud). Once his uncle, a great talmid chakham, was visiting his father and the two were talking in Rav Moshe’s father’s study. The eleven year old Rav Moshe walked in the room and the his uncle stood up for him, saying, “For a boy who knows two sedarim (orders) one must stand up.” Rav Moshe’s father immediately told Rav Moshe to leave the room and shut the door. Rav Moshe later said he could hear his father speaking to his uncle with much emotion — “What are you doing? Are you trying to kill my boy? You’ll turn him into a baal gaavah (arrogant person)!”

Rav Moshe himself writes (Derash Moshe, Ki Tissa), “It seems that the Torah wants a person to do mitzvot and learn Torah with a consciousness that this is the way a person should be. It should not cause arrogance, and one should not think that he is doing something specially great — and therefore hide himself out of humility. Rather, it should be done because it is a necessity. One should neither pursue honor nor should one hide so that he should not receive honor. This is what Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai meant when he said, ‘If you learned a lot of Torah do not give yourself credit, because for this you were created.’” (story and quote from the introduction to the 8th volume of Igrot Moshe, p. 9, in the biography written by Rav Moshe’s grandchildren, translation ours)

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