wisdom and insightAbraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.

I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.

Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:

“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).

For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are

“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).

Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail

“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).

Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)

6 thoughts on “WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 3 of 3

    • Nice to hear from you, Beth, and welcome to the neighborhood. Thank you for the kudos. Your’s is a great “insight” itself, about wisdom as an art form. Your on to something here. I would go so far as to say that wisdom, due to its inimitable role in creation, at the beginning, with the Creator, affirms this, no question, in an archetypal way. I hinted around at this in some of the posts back in February. See especially: https://wagingwisdom.com/2014/02/17/human-mutuality-part-4-of-5/ and others around there, and read between the lines. 🙂 Wisdom explicitly as art, but in the hands of human agency, is evident in those Exodus narratives about the men and women who were endowed with wisdom and who built the moving, wilderness tabernacle. Elsewhere I have argued that the wisdom norm of skill is vital to diplomacy practiced as an art. Thanks for triggering these thoughts. I’d better shush myself now, for my keyboard is ever the pen of a ready writer. : ) Hope to see you back here sometime with more good thoughts.


      • Charles, i, too, am enjoying and benefiting from these compelling essays. One of the theme verses of my com and media department is taken from Proverbs 4:7. I’m trying to get my students to mentally assert the prioritizing commitment to wisdom every day.

        I’m also looking forward to delving into some older posts. p


      • Yep. Proverbs 4, through v. 12 especially, is vital. I’m jazzed to hear that your try to get your students to commit to wisdom. Love hearing that. Thx for sharing it. You could also consider challenging them to find contrasting metaphors in a single verse in proverbs. It’s easy to find these, especially starting with Cpt 10. Then ask 3-4 of the students to talk over, together, _why_ that contrast. They can’t be in a hurry, and they’ll probably need to throw out initial cliches the come immediately to mind. But if they take time with the contrast, puzzle it out, it should yield a secret to them in a way that wisdom emerges right then and there, so to speak, to them. I don’t know quite how to put this, but it’s the offer of a gem when it takes place. It’s the wisdom “in between” the contrasts that the sages have hidden for us to find, I think. Let me know sometime if your students try it.


  1. Thanks, Charles. I’m going to write up an assignment based on the things you’re suggesting. Many of my students read a chapter from Proverbs every day, associated with the calendar date–this the 7th of June, so the 7th chapter of Proverbs. Several have kept it up long after the semester ends! I’ll also have them read your three posts on “Wisdom and Insight.”


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