Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Wisdom Personified

November 24, 2015 by Susan Weinberg
Our session began with a task. Meryll asked us to try our hand at personifying wisdom either in words or image. I sat there stumped. My process is to circle around assignments until I find a way in. By the time I've found my entry, our time is usually up. Instead I decided to come at the assignment from a different direction. I began to describe my late mother, my model of wisdom, recounting the qualities that caused me to define her in this manner.

When we regrouped Meryll asked if our personification of wisdom had a gender. Many had in fact identified Wisdom as female, a natural lead-in to the Tanach which introduces us to Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 . We took a minute to read the passage and were asked to examine three aspects. What are the qualities of wisdom? Is there any theological issue that arises? Why a woman?

Wisdom is no shrinking violet. She stands at the gate of the city and shouts. She advocates for knowledge, uprightness, truth and offers words of fairness and clarity. Prudence is a companion to wisdom along with foresight. Resourcefulness, understanding and courage are counted among her attributes.

So why a woman? Hochma/Wisdom is in fact a feminine word in Hebrew. We noted verse 23 that talks of her in conjunction with the origin of the world, conjuring the idea of birth, echoed also in the word "fruit" in verse 19. Verse 30 intrigued us. Here Wisdom talks of her relationship with God. The word "Ahmon" can be translated in several ways, confidant, architect or a nurse who cares for a baby. Women were viewed as being on the border of civilization, on the edge, yet still within. Both exalted and vilified. One need only look to Proverb 7 and the Woman of Folly that it portrays, a bit of a hussy. Her counterpoint is presented as the Woman of Valour in Proverb 31.

We observed that many of the verses in Proverb 8 speak of wealth, perhaps metaphorically, but certainly this is not a wisdom that demands asceticism. Wisdom claims superiority over gold, silver and rubies and yet in verse 21 she speaks of filling the treasuries of those who love her. Her audience appreciated material goods which made this a meaningful metaphor. Wisdom knew her audience.
The origin of wisdom is ancient, the first of God's works of old (Proverbs 8:22). In Proverbs Wisdom claims existence prior to the earth, the heavens and the sea. Back to Genesis 1 where no mention is found. Yet another creation story has been introduced.

We sought insight by considering when this passage was written. Meryll reported that it dates back to the period after the destruction of the first Temple. This was a time of upheaval when structure collapsed along with the monarchy. Previously the priests and the Temple were the locus of sanctity, now that shifted to the family and the role of women took on more importance. It was not a coincidence that Wisdom was found at the crossroads and the gate to the city, for Wisdom is sought during times of change. Joel introduced a poem I Walked a Mile With Pleasure which considers how much more is learned from Sorrow than Pleasure. Wisdom comes out of transition and discomfort.

Having described Wisdom in words, we turned our attention to the visual
Sidduri Sabitu-Epic
imagery used to connote Wisdom. The Greeks had Athena, often associated with an owl. Mesopotamians had Sidduri Sabitu-Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptians had Maat whose form is reflected in the hieroglyphic for wisdom.

With that we shifted to our own visuals on wisdom. Lynda and Jay had asked us to bring magazines as source material and they now introduced us to a Visual Brainstorming exercise. We were offered a square template with which to frame images that we associated with wisdom. We then cut them out and pasted them into a square or oblong form composed of the squares we had selected. This was a very intuitive exercise and often quite visually pleasing. Some of us gravitated to certain colors, faces or line. I was surprised when one of my lab partners observed a theme of "holding" in my images, hands clasped around objects. Sometimes we are too close to our own creations to recognize the obvious.

And a postscript from Meryll on our discussion...
If you’re intrigued by the image of Lady Wisdom, there are two contemporary Biblical scholars who wrestle with the imagery.

• "Women and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9"
Carol A. Newsom in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Ed Peggy L. Day
• Women and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs
Claudia V. Camp
It is also recommended that you look at Lady Wisdom’s antithesis—Dame Folly—who appears in Proverbs chapter 7. You’ll notice the contrasting images such as Lady Wisdom appearing in public at the gate of the City, at the crossroads versus Dame Folly who emerges in the dusk of the evening and lurks at corners. Newsom labels the two portraits a diptych.
Proverbs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon. He is said to have written Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs in his middle years, and Koheleth(Ecclesiastes) in his later years. This tradition aligns with some of the comments made during the Lab about wisdom’s dynamic property.
If you scan a few chapters of Proverbs beginning with chapter 10, you’ll see the practical wisdom expressed in aphorisms that characterizes most of the book. Similar wisdom literature with practical advice existed in ancient Egypt (The Teaching of Amenemope, The Instruction of King Meri-ka-re) and in Babylonia (Counsels of Wisdom).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Wisdom Begins

We began our session singing a round of "Let's Start at the Very Beginning" and indeed that is where we began.

Where does wisdom begin? we were asked. In the Jewish Bible there is no word for "religious". Instead we speak of "Yira haShem", fear/awe of Adonai. There is not a good translation of "yira" thus the slash between fear and awe, a subject for much discussion. Psalm 111:10 speaks of "yira" as the beginning of wisdom and the foundation for understanding. Mishle 1:7 speaks of "yira of Adonai" as the beginning of knowledge and further references those who scorn wisdom and discipline as fools.

The phrase first appears in the story of Abraham in Genesis 20:11 when he notes that there is no fear of God here and thus fears for his life. It also arises in Exodus 1:17 when the midwives fail to kill the male Hebrew newborns as ordered. In this context there is an awareness that certain behaviors are unconditionally wrong.

What does fear/awe mean? Some suggested humility. The wise person appreciates the fact that he doesn't know all. We are only wise if we start from that premise. Wisdom is about a relationship, something outside of ourselves. The self-centered person lacks wisdom. The wise person learns from others.

Fear is a heightened state of awareness, it opens us up. It is a beautiful fear, not the fear we so often speak of, but something different.

Some focused on word construction - awe and awful, an interesting juxtaposition. Is too much awe frightening? Perhaps more than we can comprehend? It was suggested that fear and awe have a yin/yang relationship. When we learn something we realize how much more there is beyond this small portion that we now grasp. Perhaps it is fear of the enormity.

Awe as a state of wonder was proffered. Knowledge is fostered by curiosity, wisdom is fostered by awe. When we fear we want to run from something, when we feel awe, we want to approach. As we concluded this discussion it was suggested that reverence is perhaps a better word to embrace both awe and fear.

With the ground set, we turned to others who have contemplated this question. (see handout-Beginning of Wisdom)

Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote God in Search of Man notes that "the meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal."
The Pirki Avot 3:17 links wisdom and yira, neither can exist in the absence of the other and the Midrash Shmuel tells us that we have to use our wisdom for it to matter. Torah learning does not necessarily accompany wisdom.

One of the most interesting passages came from Menachem Meiri from the 13th century. While he speaks in support of the need for the commandments of the Torah, he also notes a natural inclination as necessary to perfect ethical behavior. Then he offers a sentence which seemed particularly modern - "For the commandments put a man in the right path only in a general way, they are unable to provide for subtle and new problems which constantly require the guidance of morality and ethics." It struck me as appropriate guidance for a judge.

We then turned our attention to Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The first is public praise regarding God. The second addresses the experience of the man who has yire hashem. Within Psalm 111 we highlighted the phrase- "The works of the Lord are great, within reach of all who desire them." This phrase speaks to connection. It is offered and can be accepted if desired.

Our discussion then wandered into the growth of wisdom and how it can deepen with age, older and wiser we say and can only hope we gain the latter. Awe and fear grow as we face the enormity of the unknown. It was noted that death forces a focus, the "exquisitely beautiful frustration of being human" (Paula Pergament). The metaphor of the ocean was suggested, creating awe and also fear as we realize its power, both good and bad, as we stand at its edge.

We moved to our first participant-led section as Tuvia took us into the question of how wisdom relates to the arts. As an example of wisdom he told us the story of the noted Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein and read her poem Meeting. Next to her grave is a metal box containing her poems that visitors can read. Tuvia shared a number of texts and images ranging from a Hassidic tale to the poem Desiderata. He noted that just because an artist may be accomplished in their particular discipline, doesn't make them a wise person, offering the example of Amiri Baraka, a poet laureate who made the outlandish claim that Israel knew about the World Trade Center bombing in advance. He left us with a question to consider - how we as artists can contribute to the wisdom and beauty in the world.

In our first meeting we had each brought something that we associated with wisdom and with our much enlarged group we still had several introductions to go. Jon shared a work by Simen Johan, a photographer whose work is a synthesis of sorts, not necessarily what it appears to be at first glance. Sandra recounted her journey from Mexico City to Florence to Minneapolis and shared an ornate mirror from her grandmother who left Russia. She noted that she sought her grandmother's presence when she looked into the mirror. A connection with ancestors seems to be an important theme in our search for wisdom.

David brought a Siddur and shared the first bracha which is a prayer for knowledge and intelligence, noting that was a basis for all subsequent prayer.

Aimee noted several connections to wisdom from an early recollection of observing a tree and sensing that its pattern could help to decode the universe. She also shared a photo of her daughter as an infant with Aimee's father near death, an inter-generational microcosm.

Rani tied it all together with a nautilus shell which reflects the Fibonacci Sequence which is found throughout nature. In the nautilus, the organism outgrows its chamber and walls it off and moves on, each step connected with what came before. Trees branch in a similar fashion.

I found myself thinking back to the quote from Heschel which talks of sensing in small things the beginning of infinite significance as well as one from Yosef ben Yehuda ibn Aknin from the 12th century. He writes "I have come to understand the wisdom that went into the forming of the limbs of my body and the power of my soul. Now then, if one can perceive the nature of God from a microcosm, how much more from a knowledge of all things created, the heavens and the earth and what is between them."

photo credit: Illuminated Nautilus via photopin (license)