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Intelligence or Character?

Throughout the 20th century, the predominant view in psychology was that the most essential factor for success in school was intellectual ability. Starting in the 1990’s this idea was challenged, with many arguing that other factors, such as emotional intelligence, personality traits, and motivation play a predominant role in school achievement. This is a fairly contentious issue and the field is far from reaching a consensus regarding which factor is more important (see Stankov, 2023, for a recent review).

As mentioned in the previous Psyched for Avot, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai praises his five students with a specific trait that encapsulates their strength. Two of the students are praised for intelligence: Rabbi Eliezer for having a superb memory and Rabbi Elazar for his analytic abilities. Three are commended for outstanding character: Rabbi Yose for his piety and Rabbi Shimon for his fear of sin. Regarding Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yochanan says “happy is the woman that gave birth to him.” While we will analyze this cryptic statement below, for now, let us assume like Rambam, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is praising Rabbi Yehoshua for having virtuous character.

Later, the Mishna compares the students with other sages:

He [Rabbi Yohanan] used to say: if all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other scale, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: if all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus also with them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the other scale, he would outweigh them all.

There are two views concerning who Rabbi Yochanan considered greater. One version assumes it is Rabbi Eliezer, the other Rabbi Elazar. Many commentaries link this debate to another found in the Talmud (Berachot 64a) as to whether it is better to appoint a “Sinai” (someone with a vast knowledge of content) or “an uprooter of mountains” (someone with powerful analytic reasoning) as the head of the yeshiva (see Sforno for an analysis). Psychologists similarly distinguish between two types of intelligence: crystalized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence, most connected to “Sinai,” refers to accumulated knowledge; fluid intelligence, related to “uprooter of mountains,” is the ability to solve novel reasoning problems. There is likewise a debate as to which of these types of intelligences is more beneficial for achievement (see Postlethwaite, 2011).

Without resolving the question, Rabbi Avraham Farissol (15th century, Italy) highlights the fact that the other three students are not even entertained as a possibility of being greater. The debate revolves precisely around the two students who are praised for their intelligence, demonstrating that intellectual traits related to Torah study are of greater importance than the other character-related personality traits. Abarbanel disagrees with Rabbi Farissol’s reading. Rather, he suggests, that the discussion as to which student is greater is a limited debate within the realm of intelligence. However, Rabbi Yochanan never meant to compare students when it comes to character, nor was he resolving that intelligence is more important than character.

It is unclear if these debates will ever be fully resolved. I would argue, though, that the polemical nature of the discussion has the potential to overlook and perhaps even undermine the most important educational takeaway. Instead of framing the question in terms of which one is superior (intelligence versus character, fluid intelligence versus crystallized intelligence), the goal should be to strive for a balancing of these values.

As mentioned in the previous Psyched for Avot, both students that Rabbi Yochanan praises with superior intelligence subsequently suffer tragic consequences. Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated, and Rabbi Elazar forgets all his learning. Two other students, praised for their character—Rabbi Yose HaKohen and Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel—are barely mentioned in the rest of the Talmud. The most well-known and successful of these five students is Rabbi Yehoshua.

As noted above, Rabbi Yehoshua is praised with the enigmatic comment “happy is the woman that gave birth to him.” Rambam and Rabbi Farissol assume that this refers to Rabbi Yehoshua’s pristine character. However, other commentaries point to other strengths of Rabbi Yehoshua alluded to in this statement. Rabbeinu Yonah, for instance, suggests that Rabbi Yehoshua was praiseworthy in all traits, including greatness in wisdom and refinement of character, which led to general success in his endeavors. Rashi writes that he was well-versed in Torah knowledge and that he developed close relationships with the government. This latter fact, writes Rashbatz, reflects Rabbi Yehoshua’s pristine personality, because without good character, he would not have been able to succeed in political activism.

Joseph ibn Aknin (12th century, Spain) points to a parallel source in Avot DeRebbe Natan (14) that says that Rabbi Yochanan praised Rabbi Yehoshua as a paradigm of the verse in Kohelet (4:12) “but a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” This indicates that Rabbi Yehoshua had three important traits. According to ibn Aknin, these included knowledge of the Divine, virtuous character traits, and the ability to teach others wisdom and character. Interestingly, Meiri also refers to Rabbi Yehoshua representing the “threefold cord,” but assumes that all three of these qualities reflect intellectual capabilities: quickness of understanding, memory, and analytic abilities.

Putting these sources together, Rabbi Yehoshua serves as an example that helps us reframe the debate. Which is a better intellectual trait, good memory or novel thinking? Which is more important for success, intelligence or character? Rabbi Yehoshua reminds us that these are the wrong questions. Both memory and analysis are essential. Both intelligence and character are vital. The ideal is to be a “threefold cord” student that doesn’t just excel in one area but strives to achieve balance and become well-rounded in multiple areas.


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