Commentary Magazine


The Wisdom of Israel, edited by Lewis Browne

Only Half the Story

The Wisdom Of Israel.
by Lewis Browne.
New York, Random House, 1945: 748 pp. $3.95.

Authors and the public love anthologies, and the market is flooded with them year in and year out. To put a lively variety of things together is easy and diverting, and it tempts one’s spirit of adventure. It’s pleasant and one can be rather irresponsible: you skim about in a wealth of material, and you lift out whatever tickles your fancy. You saunter around as if in an antique shop, picking up this and that and putting it back, and often you even acquire something to take home.

But it is not so easy either to read or to compile an anthology with a definite point and purpose: here consistent thinking is required of both editor and reader. The anthology at hand has a point of view and a purpose. It tries to follow a line; and the many beautiful things in it are not there simply by accident. In places the book is even excellent, and therefore one has to take it seriously and be cruel.

The book suffers from two evils fundamental to its plan—a false notion of what wisdom is and a want of human tact and discrimination.

Lewis Browne tries to extract from the body of Jewish literature that which is “earthly” and pragmatic and relates to people, that which contains a practical, rational morality. He prefers to exclude everything “meta-physical,” “mystical” and “other-worldly”—among which are all Messianic tendencies. Now’ it is true that all essentially Jewish wisdom looks to realization in this earthly world and is directed towards the individual and his relations with others. But the wisdom of the ancients—indeed all genuine wisdom—does not mean the same thing as “common sense,” and their “practicality” is not the same thing as ours. For them—for the Chinese no less than for the Jewish sages—“skill” had a different purport, a broader and deeper meaning than for us. Their “skill” could be shown in such “impractical” activities as “serving the Lord.” Or, to put it the other way around, things were then classed as practical that we today would never subsume under this concept: religious, psychic and even metaphysical and Messianic concerns. It is most characteristic of the old wisdom that it did not regard the difference between the practical and the impractical as a material one between two realms of human activity but as a formal difference between the right and wrong way of conduct toward the phenomena of the world. The fashion in which the cosmos was ordered was for the ancients very closely related to the ordering of human life. And the Kingdom of God that the Messiah was to bring for the Jews was, characteristically enough, not the “beyond” it became in the later Christian concept, but a kingdom of this world, the fulfillment of divine justice and human unity on earth.

Such eschatological hopes not only consoled and fortified the Jews in time of trouble; without these hopes Jewish universalism would be absolutely unthinkable, and they made possible the wonderful movement of the Essenes and even Christianity itself. They run through all the prophetic writings and are present, at least as a symbol, in all endeavors toward the perfecting of man. Therefore they belong inalienably to the essential wisdom of Israel.

From Mr. Browne’s modernistic and rationalistic conception of wisdom flows the principle by which he compiled his anthology, and hence it contains long stretches whose effect is too didactic and moralistic. Moral doctrine is separated from the living substance of the Biblical writings at the cost of the strong emotional flavor that belongs to the Bible and makes its ethics, even in the more insipid passages, so moving and compelling. The prophetic writings are much too scantily represented—only two small sections amounting to a quarter of a page are taken from Jeremiah; the most significant things in the Deutero-Isaiah are omitted, that is, chapters 49, 50, 52 and 53, which contain the germ of Christianity; Ezekiel and the touching Hosea, whose idea of God likewise anticipated the Christian one, are left out altogether. On the other hand the Book of Proverbs is given a disproportionate amount of space (twenty-three pages!); many trivial aphorisms—“a gracious woman wins respect; and diligent men win riches”; or “he who walks with wise men will become wise, but the companions of fools will smart for it”—could have been dispensed with at no great cost, or should at least not have re-appeared elsewhere in almost the same words. This also applies to the selections from the Talmud. Among much that is noble and profound such banalities crop up as: “there is no marriage settlement wherein there is no quarrel”; or “can a goat live in the same barn as a tiger? in the same fashion a daughter-in-law cannot live with her mother-in-law under the same roof.” Such sayings may creep into an enormous book like the Talmud, but why special attention should be called to them is inconceivable.

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And here we come to the second basic fault of the anthology: the absence of a considered judgment, of a nice discrimination and a feeling for differences of quality. While aphorisms such as those quoted above seem only superfluous, the presence of certain bits of contemporary Jewish humor in this collection is inexcusable. Certainly the Jewish humor of our time should not be banished from an anthology of Jewish wisdom. Among these products of sad self-irony are some that show flashes of deep insight, a most precise self-recognition and a marvellous knowledge of human conduct; they illuminate the tragedy of Jewish existence in a single word. An example of this sort of “humor” is given on page 623: “When a man tried to dissuade his (refugee) friend from going to Argentina, saying it was too far away, the wanderer sighed: ‘Too far away? from where?’” But the bits of humor that surround this very beautiful and serious joke are vulgar and shameful—as indeed is most of the humor in this book. They do not flow from wise Jewish self-irony but from that undignified self-mockery and self-contempt that unfortunately can also be found among the Jews. Humor of this sort is not something to lay stress upon; it confirms the truth of much for which we are justly reproached. In any event it has nothing to do with wisdom and does not belong in a book like this.

On the whole the selections from ancient and medieval writings are better than those from modem sources. From the latter many important and at the same time specifically Jewish thinkers and writers are missing—e. g. Moses Hess, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, Oskar Goldberg, Richard Beer-Hofmann. But for all its deficiencies this book does contain a great wealth of rare and characteristic pieces of Jewish wisdom, accompanied by some good and well-informed introductory notes.

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