(I Kings 5:26-6:13)
March 4, 2006
Solomon is described twice in chapter five of 1 Kings as being particularly wise. In a verse at the beginning of the chapter (preceding this week\’s haftarah), he is described in these words: \”And God endowed Solomon with wisdom and discernment in great measure, with understanding as vast as the sands on the seashore. Solomon\’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the Kedemites and than all the wisdom of the Egyptians. He was the wisest of all men: [wiser] than Ethan the Ezrahite and Heman, Chalkol, and Darda the son of Mahol…\” (1 Kings 5:9-11) Later in the chapter (in this week\’s haftarah), he is again described as wise: \”The Lord had given Solomon wisdom, as He had promised him. There was friendship between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them made a treaty.\” (verse 26)
These two descriptions depict two potentially different attitudes toward wisdom. The first portrayal can be seen to represent an exclusive attitude. Solomon might be thought of as a self-contained repository of wisdom. None was wiser than he and as a consequence there was no need to search elsewhere, since he embodied the totality of wisdom. Instead, others must come to him in search of wisdom. Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provance) assumed that Solomon\’s wisdom was so great that the kings of the world came to him to learn from his vast wisdom and transfer it home to their own local sages. This attitude is captured most definitively among East European sages like Rabbi Meir Malbim (19th century Poland) who reflected, in his interpretation, the attitude that Solomon\’s wisdom contained all the world\’s knowledge: \”[Solomon was knowledgeable in] all virtues, and all issues of good and evil. He knew how to discern whether things were true or false in all areas of knowledge.… He had knowledge of astronomy and the likes…knowledge of nature and the composition of things so that he was capable of doing magic with them….His knowledge was greater than that of all others because it was based in a prophetic message.\” (Abridged) This portrait of Solomon reflects an attitude toward Jewish wisdom which still exists among elements of the Jewish community to this day, namely, that there is no need to consult the outside world. All knowledge can be attained by consulting the Torah.
The other description of Solomon\’s wisdom might be taken to reflect a less parochial attitude. One might claim that Solomon\’s wisdom reposed in his ability to seek out wisdom wherever it might be found and in his willingness to appreciate when, and in what, he lacked expertise. This explains why he was willing to seek out the king of Tyre when it came time to carry out his great building projects, because he appreciated his own lack of expertise in these areas. (Uriel Simon, Bakesh Shalom v\’Rodfehu, pp. 254-5)
In the dialectic between these two positions, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. We must have an appreciation that great wisdom is to be found at home within our tradition, without blinding ourselves to the precious wisdom that the outside world might yield.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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