Wisdom vs Kindness: Which is Greater?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Chaim: Last week’s Haftorah concludes with familiar words recite while tying the Tefillin strap three times on our finger, “And I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, and in kindness and in mercy; and I will betroth you to Me in trust, and you will know God.” I wish to know “Who is betrothing who?” Is God betrothing the Jews to Him, or the reverse, is a Jew betrothing God to himself? The confusion arises due to our act of tying Tefillin simultaneously with the recitation of these two verses: we are doing the act of tying, so we feel that we too are the ones doing the act of betrothing.



Moshe Ben-Chaim: The words mean that God is betrothing the Jews to Him. Let’s review the context.


“And it will be on that day says God, you will call me “My close one”, and you will cease calling Me “My Master”. And I will remove the name of idols from your mouths, and you will never again mention their names. And I will cut for a treaty on that day with the wild beasts of the field, and with the birds of heaven, and the creeping ones of the land; and the bow and swords and war I will remove from the land, and I will cause you to dwell in tranquility. And I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and statutes, and in kindness and in mercy. And I will betroth you to Me in trust, and you will know God.” (Hosea, 2:18-22)


This last statement, “you will know God” must be referring to God’s address of man. It cannot be man’s address to God, for God already knows Himself. Therefore, when we tie the Tefillin straps, we are reiterating what God already said in Hosea regarding His ultimate plan to create a bond between Him and us.


God’s sentiment is that He will first create a relationship between man and Himself where we are more closely related; we will not refer to God as “master”, but as “a close one”. (Rashi)  Meaning, we will serve God from love and not fear (i.e., not because He is our Master). He will also, eventually, remove idolatry from our vocabulary, to the point that we never again mention the idols’ names. He will remove all strife, caused by beast, by man (war), and we will arrive at a most tranquil state of peace. God then says He will betroth us to Him, 1) forever, 2) in righteousness and justice, in kindness and mercy, and then He concludes, 3) I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know God.


The first betrothal defines our relationship with God as an absolute good: absolute means it is eternal. (That which is absolutely good, God perpetuates.) Thus, He promises to betroth us to Him “forever”. But what is the nature of this betrothal? It spans areas of equality (righteousness and justice), and also beyond this, where those involved are not ‘equals’, but where one is benevolent to another in need, with acts of kindness and mercy. As a Rabbi once explained regarding charity and mercy, we seek to emulate God’s character of not prohibiting a creation from functioning properly. So too with those less fortunate; they were not made to subsist meagerly, so we copy God, and attempt to raise their level of existence to one which is inline with their true level of function.


God thereby teaches that our betrothal to “Him” is in fact measured through our relationships with our fellow man: are we fair to our equals; sensitive to those in need; do we act as a Rebecca, seeking how thoroughly we may respond to the needs of others; and, are we merciful and kind. Cleary, God teaches that we betroth ourselves to Him when we act in accordance with Torah principles of correct justice, and sensitivity to others. Rabbi Reuven Mann added that we see that justice must precede kindness. The reason being, that our sense of kindness and mercy must be based on God’s just truths. For if we simply follow our subjective feelings of mercy, we might repeat the fatal mercy shown to Agag king of the Amalekites, through which his stay of execution enabled the wicked Haman to come to be. Had King Saul killed Agag when he was commanded, and had not been merciful, Haman would have never existed. Thus, man’s sense of mercy and kindness must be guided by God’s definitions of what is just.


On this point, that only through kindness, justice and righteousness is how God accepts our betrothed relationship with Him, Maimonides talks. He states the following in his last two paragraphs in the “Guide for the Perplexed.”  But I will first quote the two verses from Jeremiah on which Maimonides speaks:


Jeremiah, 9:22-23

“Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.”



The Guide for the Perplexed

“The prophet does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection: for if this only had been his intention, he would have said, “But in this let him who glorieth glory, that he understandeth and knoweth me”, and would have stopped there. Or he would have said, “that he understandeth and knoweth me that I am One,” or, “that I have not any likeness,” or, “that there is none like me,” or a similar phrase. He says, however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown (Part 1. liv.) in expounding the passage, “Show me now thy ways” (Exod. xxxviii. 13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, “chesed” (loving-kindness) “mishpat” (judgment) and “zedakah” (righteousness.)”


Maimonides is clear: the prophet did not conclude his description if man’s perfection with “wisdom” as man’s final objective. Maimonides shows how the prophet continued, describing man’s ultimate perfection as one who adheres to “kindness, justice and righteousness”.


But we must ask: why is it that “kindness, justice and righteousness”, is that which God praises as man’s true perfection? Why is it that only through these does God say we are betrothed to Him? Why is it not when we study Torah? After all, Torah study is stated by the Talmud to be the greatest mitzvah. Even this very prophet Jeremiah stated, “Understand and know Me” as citing man’s ultimate performance. Maimonides also expresses this very point, quoting the words of the King Solomon who says there cannot be anything greater than wisdom. Yet, our prophet openly states that ethical perfections are in fact what God bases His betrothal. Maimonides’ himself compounds this question by stating the following, in this very chapter: “the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it.” Maimonides also classifies man’s various perfections, i.e., monetary, bodily, ethical and intellectual, each one ascending in importance. Again, wisdom is defined as man’s ultimate perfection. So our dilemma could not be greater. What is superior: wisdom, or character perfections?



Resolving the Contradiction

A Rabbi once lectured on this very conflict. He stated that it is true: in the Torah lifestyle, nothing compares to wisdom. However, wisdom alone without man’s subsequent action, displays a blatant deficiency in his knowledge of, and appreciation for these truths. In matters like math, man may apprehend a truth, with no effect on his soul. He may admit of an equation, and be completely convinced. And such a conviction requires no other response. Math is divorced from man’s values, from man’s soul. However, in areas of the soul, in metaphysics, man’s realizations of new truths cannot be separated from his soul’s yearning to express such convictions, and movement towards God. Man is designed in such a manner, that his realization of a truth about God and His will for mankind, must move man to action, he must “live” in accord with this new realization. In fact, a person truly convinced of metaphysical truths will feel stifled until he does act in accord with his soul. Abraham expressed this par excellence


So when on the one hand we say that character perfection precedes intellectual perfection, this is in terms of preparing one uninitiated with wisdom, to render his soul capable of hearing truths. One, whose values are still immersed in lusts, cannot subjugate his mind to ideas which conflict with his strong urges. In such a deviant soul, all energies are not devoted to wisdom and therefore, the soul’s apprehension of wisdom cannot take place. This describes the function of “refining” one’s character, the beginning of the road towards perfection.


But when we discuss the end if this road, the truly perfected man, we do not discuss the process of refining one’s character in a ‘preparatory’ sense, but rather, we refer to man after having studied for years, and now acting in line with righteousness, charity, kindness and justice: but not as a means, rather, as an end. Here, man is moved to act justly as he sees the undeniable truth and beauty in God’s will. If he does not see this beauty, if he is not convinced, then his learning was sorely deficient. For man is designed that he will be greatly moved by his recognition and conviction in God’s will.


So when we say that Jeremiah did not conclude his description of man’s perfection with the attainment of wisdom, but with his moral perfection, we do not usurp the throne from wisdom. Wisdom, intellectual perfection and conviction in Torah truths still remain the undeniable goals of Torah life. But the barometer of how convinced one is in these truths is his character perfections. This is how the Rabbi removed the apparent contradiction.



Hosea’s Final Betrothal

God concludes that we are betrothed to Him in “trust”, and that we will know God. What does this mean? I believe it refers to from “where” comes our attachment to kindness, justice and righteousness. For if it is merely an emotional response; it is not perfection. Rather, our kindness and sense of justice must be in God’s terms, on a recognition that all morality and judgment of truth and justice emanates from He who created man. For without conviction in God’s existence, there is no objectivity in justice, kindness, or any morality. Only from He who created man and governs him, can come the absolute, authoritative morality. So when God says “I will betroth you to Me in trust, and you will know God”, God now defines the “source” of our attachment to justice and kindness: it is our conviction in His existence and exclusive role as mankind’s Creator and Governor. Thus, this last verse ends with “And you shall know God.” Meaning, our entire relationship with God, must be based on “knowledge” of His existence. Only through engaging our intellects, do we relate to God…do we know Him. And with this ultimate act of Torah study, we must eventuate in true perfection, when we express our conviction in proper values with our very actions. We must not only understand, but also agree with God’s values of kindness, justice and righteousness. The principle of “Ma hu, af atah”, “Just as He is, so are you [to mimic God]”, teaches that we must realize God’s perfections and embody these truths via our own intellectual conviction, and subsequent performance.


Therefore, we may categorize these three betrothals as: 1) the “nature” of this betrothal as absolute, it is forever; 2) God betroths us to Him only when our knowledge results in true human perfection; kindness, justice and righteousness, and 3) this attachment to kindness, justice and righteousness must based on knowledge of God.


Wisdom certainly surpasses all perfections. However, one is only attached to his wisdom in as much as he follows through in his actions. Only then has his wisdom touched his soul. Only then has he truly learned.