Tempering Briliance with Kindess and Caring by Rabbi Eugene Korn

ImageRabbi Eugene Korn is American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and former editor of Meorot — A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.

Reprinted by permission from the New Jersey Jewish Standard



“When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once told a group of senior citizens.

He was not pandering to his audience but being open and truthful. After a number of life journeys, I believe today that Rabbi Heschel was right. I can’t say whether my conclusion stems from increased wisdom or approaching old age, but I am sure that he was correct.

Earlier in life I attended a traditional yeshiva suffused with the Lithuanian ethos of Talmud study and obedience to Jewish law, whatever it demands. It taught us that our highest ethical virtues were cognitive excellence and unflinching dedication. That educational experience was shaped by a narrative about R. Elijah of Vilna. We knew him simply as “the Gaon” — “the genius” — and as the embodiment of brilliance and single-mindedness.

Our teachers never tired of recounting to us that late in life the Gaon’s sister made the long difficult journey to see her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in more than ten years. When she arrived, the Gaon’s wife greeted her and told her that the Gaon was in the back room studying Talmud, as usual. He emerged a short while later, said hello, and asked his sister how she was. Then he excused himself, saying “It’s nice of you to come, but now I must return to my studies.” In fact there is no evidence this dialogue actually occurred, but its veracity is less important than the fact that my teachers wanted me to believe it and for it to mold my character.

We learned to revere the Gaon for his genius, and he became the model to which we all aspired.

All this focus on cognitive excellence led me to study philosophy — and naturally I took to the most outstanding rationalist philosophers. My heroes became Moses Maimonides and Immanuel Kant. The medievalist Maimonides developed the most sophisticated Jewish metaphysics ever, focusing on the nature of God and achieving human excellence through acquiring knowledge. His God was austerely rational, devoid of any trace of emotion. Maimonides even claimed that anyone who believed that God had anything like the human emotion of caring was a rank heretic. Ultimately, Maimonides’ God was a necessary postulate, the locus of all metaphysical truth. Godliness was all about knowing.

The greatest modern philosopher, Kant, was also a thoroughgoing rationalist. Kant’s moral philosophy taught that there was only one ethical rule that human beings should always follow: “Be rational.”

I could never hope to be as brilliant as these two philosophers, but I absorbed the lesson that the good life was all about striving for greater knowledge and rationality. Nothing else much matters.

There is an enormous difference between pure reason — analytical intelligence — and empathetic intelligence — the ability to feel what others feel, care about their pain and be moved to alleviate it. In fact, history is replete with people who have prodigious logical intelligence but are miserable human beings. Bernard Madoff is a prime example. He was an exceptional analyst but could feel none of his victims’ suffering.

I suspect that both Maimonides and Kant suffered from this imbalance too. Maimonides believed that people without philosophic wisdom were like beasts of the field with a human form, and Kant claimed that logical consistency was a greater virtue than saving a human life. He taught that it is better to let someone die rather than lie to a would-be murder about the future victim’s whereabouts. Both thinkers are proof that logical brilliance sometimes runs amok and crowds out human empathy.

On a lesser scale, I have seen my share of rabbis who are analytic geniuses yet issue rulings utterly lacking in concern for others because they believe their legal reasoning so dictates.

I no longer admire such people. I realize that it is the capacities to empathize and act compassionately toward others that define our humanness, not impersonal brainpower. Surely it is no virtue to be mindless, but brilliance not tempered with kindness and caring is no virtue.

This is the normative teaching of the Talmudic rabbis, despite their medieval philosophic disciples or some modern Talmudists who speak in their name. The God of the Talmud is a doer of kindnesses — chesed — for others (Sotah 14a). God clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, visits those who are sick, and comforts those who are grieving. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Ketubot 62b) tells us about Rabbi Rechumei, who was constantly studying at the great yeshivah of Mehoza and visited his wife only once a year, before Yom Kippur. Once he became so engrossed in studies that he forgot to come home. His wife longed for him that Yom Kippur eve, believing every moment that R. Rechumei would soon arrive.

When she finally realized that he was not coming, a warm tear rolled down her cheek. The episode ends tragically, when the roof on which R. Rechumei was studying collapses and causes his death.

This story is a remarkable self-critique by the Talmudic rabbis of their own behavior and the culture of study. The message is unmistakable: When study and intellectual endeavor become so paramount that they leave no room for caring, the result is death. Clearly it is no virtue to pursue such a skewed value system.

Did the Vilna Gaon’s sister shed a tear when her brother refused her more than five minutes of his time? Perhaps no wet tears rolled down her cheek, but surely her soul cried out at her brother’s insensitivity. When I teach today, I study the story of R. Rechumei with my students, not the story of the Gaon.

King David told us that “The world is built with chesed” (Psalms 89:3). According to tradition, he wrote this as a tender young shepherd, not in his old age. This set of values didn’t come from sentimentality or an irrational fear of approaching mortality, but from a clear understanding of the world and human virtue.

So if presented with a choice between a naturally kind but unlearned person and a brilliant rabbi or philosopher with little empathy for other people, I’d choose the former. Both King David and Abraham Heschel knew that he is the greater human being, the one who will make the world a better place.


11 Responses to Tempering Briliance with Kindess and Caring by Rabbi Eugene Korn

  1. Bonni Kraus says:

    This is just beautiful.  I wish I remembered who the great philosopher was who said something like, “Only three things matter in this world: kindness, kindness, and kindness.”


  2. Ben says:

    R’ Korn, I think if you would read the Rambam’s iggeros (shmad, rav ovadiah ha-ger, and many others), you may get a different picture of him. In these he shows tremendous empathy and kindness to the people he is corresponding with. I don’t think it’s fair to portray the Rambam only through his philosophical work and to ignore his day to day interactions with regular people.

    • Eugene Korn says:

      Dear Ben,

      You are correct that in his non-philosophic writings, Rambam frequently waxed eloquent about kindness and hesed. See the last halakhah of Hil. Avadim in Mishneh Torah for a beautiful articulation of the importance of hesed in religious life.

      My characterization was of Rambam’s formal philosophy as expounded in Moreh Nevukhim. I am hard pressed to
      find even one reference to hesed as a moral or emotional category in that work. In fact, it is worse than merely overlooking hesed or emotion. One example among many appears in I:54, where Rambam says that emotions are evil, that people who stand in the way of philosophic truth should be killed, and that even the great grandchildren of idolators in ir ha-nidachat should be put to death for this reason. This was the Rambam I was referring to.
      This exclusively rational model is one we need to avoid.

      Eugene Korn

    • Yitzchak Sprung says:

      I have to echo this point. Rambam of the MN is also the Rambam of the MT. Not to mention that his conclusion in the Moreh reflects his emphasis on the moral perfection that comes with intellectual perfection.

      • Eugene Korn says:


        When Rambam refers to hesed at end of MN III:54, it is not a moral or emotional category. It is an ontological or intellectual quality. It means ontological overflow, not caring or empathy.
        This is most apparent from his hierarchy of values earlier in III:54, in which moral virtues precede intellectual virtues, as well as from I:54 where Rambam makes very clear that God can have no emotion or anything similar to human hesed.

        Eugene Korn

  3. […] Tempering Briliance with Kindess and Caring by Rabbi Eugene Korn […]

  4. Ben says:

    Ironically, Heschel actually wrote in one of his books (I can’t remember which one) when discussing Maimonides’ letter to Ibn Tibon in which he describes his daily schedule, that Maimonides is the paradigmatic example of someone who took his intellectual capabilities and knowledge and translated it into a life dedicated to serving and helping others.

  5. While this is an excellent piece one has to ask certain things.
    Yes, David HaMelech, a”h, said the world is built with kindness. He also said that God is enthroned on the praises of Israel and that closeness to God is the ultimate good. Which takes priority?
    Consider another perspective on the Vilna Gaon’s sister. If she saw that his learning was the most important thing he could be doing because of the spiritual benefits he brought to the world with it would she not have been happy to only have 5 minutes?
    Then there is the practical: if I have to have major surgery, I want the guy with the best skills. I don’t care about bedside manner in such a case. So when we are dealing with our spiritual needs and a wrong opinion could cause us metaphysical damage is the guy with the better “bedside manner” always the superior choice?
    The medical school I went to emphasized knowledge and skill acquisition. Personal skills were, at best, a secondary priority. The school in the next town over did the opposite but too often we heard the phrase “I have no idea what’s wrong with you but I feel really bad that you’re so sick”.

  6. Steve Wagner says:

    I believe that the end of the MN discusses that the goal of all intellectual perfection is lovingkindness. The Gaon was also known as Hachasid, attesting not to his intellectual greatness but his acts of kindness, as was recognized by those who lived in his time. I do not believe that the story with the sister occurred. There is no documentation that I know of. The stories of R. Chaim giving up his bed to the poor or homeless were told by eyewitnesses. So while I believe that Rabbi Korn is correct that the ideal is chesed, use of the Rambam and Gaon as “counterpoints” is erronious.

    • Eugene Korn says:

      Dear Steve,

      See my earlier comment to Yitchak regarding what Rambam means when he defines hesed in MN III:54. It is not what you and I mean as an emotional or ethical idea, but his is strictly philosophical or ontological.

      Please understand that I have no animus regarding the GRA. I am limited to historical fact. Have you read Elihayu Stern’s new study on the life and personality of the GRA, which documents how he was singularly disinterested in people–even his children and grandchildren? According to the GRA’s children, he suspended everything for the value of Torah study. If you cannot get Stern’s book, find on the web the GRA’s letter to his wife telling her he is leaving to make aliyah and that she should take care of the children.
      If he was known as “hachasid” it must have been in the sense of his extraordinary devotion to Torah, not because of his kindness to other people. (I’d love to be wrong about this, and would gladly revise my opinions in light of evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, all reliable evidence I am aware of support this conclusion. If I am unaware of other evidence, please send it to me.


  7. saneguy says:

    I agree with every word written here, and it would be nice if other rabbis started thinking this way.

    While I personally give the Vilna Gaon the benefit of the doubt, by assuming that this is one of those stories that never really happened, the bottom line is that his behavior in the story is not extraordinary in terms of how traditional Judaism has viewed Torah scholars.

    From Shammai through Rabbeinu Tam to Rav Ovadiah Yossef in our days, traditional Judaism has revered scholars even when it was clear that they were not exactly finalists for the “middos” award at their schools.

    The idea of considering kindness as a pre-requisite for earning respect in the world of Orthodox Jewry would be a welcome, yet revolutionary, idea.

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