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)


Twin Towers smokingWisdom and insight go together like soup and water. Here’s what I mean. Everyone remembers those terrible images on television of the Twin Towers smoldering and collapsing in clouds of dust. We gaped not just because of the shock but because we did not know why that extraordinary thing had happened. We all wanted to know why. Of course we gape at all sorts of dramatic events, as, for instance, when seeing a bad car wreck or a capsized ferry or special police units surrounding a high school campus. We gape. But we also ask why.

When I was working in Massachusetts many years ago near an old warehouse district, I stood transfixed watching a massive four-story warehouse – it covered nearly an entire square block – become engulfed in flames and burn to the ground. I had never seen such a huge, out-of-control fire, and neither had the dozens of other gawkers who were watching it burn. But we we not just gaping at the sight. We were also trying to find out why it was burning. We even asked the cops and some fire personnel. We wanted to know.

It was many years before I understood what is really going on in us at such times. We ask questions about the experience because we want to know about it in a special way. That is, we want insight. And insight comes from asking questions about an experience, especially one that is new to us or exceptional. Insight is what we want when we hear that a friend has divorced or that the stock market has plunged or that our CEO is under federal investigation. We want insight, so we ask why.

Insight is what everyone one in America wanted on September 11, 2001, everyone from the president on down. No one knew why two passenger jets full of human beings and plenty of fuel had disappeared with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never came out. Why?

The president, his staff, and his political and military advisers, of course, were asking questions, questions, and still more questions, because they needed to arrive at clear judgments in order to make decisions – official decisions that would have far-reaching ramifications for the country.

Further, clear judgments, especially for responding to complex exceptional events or experiences, are not possible without gaining insights into insight, so to speak. And to get those you must ask questions about the initial insights. As David Ford once explained to me, you’re checking out your initial insight with more questions leading to additional insight in order to arrive at a wise judgment for making a decision. And wisdom is precisely the point. You need wisdom, and wisdom emerges with insight.

All of this is by way of introducing what I want us to consider next. In the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. In the next post, then, we will begin looking at this fifth norm of wisdom, the norm of insight. So far on this blog many posts have discussed and illustrated four other wisdom norms, what I call the norms of peaceableness, relations, mutuality, and skill. The wisdom norm of insight is the final one we will consider. All five norms are vital to the foundation I am attempting to lay about (1) the ancient sages wisdom-based way of reasoning and (2) its relevance for international relations and foreign policy decision making today. I hope to finish (1) soon because I am psyched to post about (2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Globovision (Permission via Creative Commons)