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Wisdom and Character

Two central themes of Pirkei Avot are the importance of developing proper character traits and the centrality of Torah learning. In a series of statements, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, a sage known for his piety, directly connects these two themes, suggesting that there are characterological prerequisites to the successful attainment of Torah wisdom.

R. Chanina b. Dosa said: anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring, but anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom is not enduring.

He used to say: anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring, but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom is not enduring.

He used to say: one with whom men are pleased, God is pleased. But anyone from whom men are displeased, God is displeased.

First, wisdom cannot be achieved if not preceded by fear and avoidance of sin. Knowledge must be based on a strong moral and spiritual foundation. Rambam, channeling Aristotle, elaborates on the psychological mechanisms that require virtue to come before wisdom:

[H]abituation of the virtues - when it comes before [acquisition of] wisdom to the point that it is a strong possession, and he studies wisdom afterwards such that it will give him alacrity for those goods - will add joy and love to his wisdom and industriousness to increase upon it; since [wisdom] stimulates him to [do] that to which he is [already] accustomed.

When moral behavior precedes intellectual pursuits, there will be a positive feedback loop, wherein knowledge reinforces the embedded moral character. However, if a person does not have the proper character, he or she will not be able to learn wisdom since the pristine nature of intellectual content will be aversive to his or her vices, leading to the dismissal of the knowledge. Rambam elaborates on this theme in Guide for the Perplexed 1:34:

It has been proved that moral conduct is a preparation for intellectual progress, and that only a man whose character is pure, calm and steadfast, can attain to intellectual perfection: that is, acquire correct conceptions… It is impossible for a man to study it successfully without moral preparation; he must acquire the highest degree of uprightness and integrity.

The connection between character and intellect is borne out in the psychological literature as well. Research demonstrates that social-emotional and character education programs have shown to not only improve mental health and moral behavior but have also generated improved academic success amongst students (“A Meta-Analysis of The What Works in Character Education Research,” Johnson, Mcgrath, Bier, Brown and Berkowitz, 2022). Echoing Aristotle and Rambam’s point that moral virtues are instrumental in the attaining of intellectual virtues, better character leads to better academics.

Second, wisdom must be manifest through deed. It cannot be relegated to a purely intellectual exercise but must be supplemented with and evident through moral and spiritual action. When knowledge is rooted in life experience it can flourish. As is apparent from the psychological literature, there is little correlation between abstract moral reasoning and moral action (see Haidt, 2001). We can philosophize about proper behavior all day long, but the real barometer of morality is how one behaves. Morality is truly achieved through the training and habituation of proper moral emotion and behavior.

Finally, intra-spiritual attainment, whether through learning or piety, cannot come at the expense of interpersonal deficiencies. One must be of upstanding social character, good-natured, and beloved by all. It is through real-world social interactions that our fear of sin and good deeds are manifest. God does not want piety and wisdom fueled by disagreeableness. Conversely, being truly beloved by others is definitionally indicative of upstanding spiritual character.

In sum, for Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, there can be no bifurcation between character and wisdom, the spiritual self and humanity, God and morality. There needs to be a natural synergy of our intellectual, ethical, moral, and spiritual selves. The self, other, and God need to coalesce to form a composite holistic whole.

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