Values - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Values - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs


Our fathers required no volumes on the Humanism of the Bible. They felt themselves close-linked with its heroes; Patriarchs, Judges, Warriors, Kings, and Prophets were their kith and kin, not in blood, but in the nearer relationship of human experience. Saul, in his pride, his jealousy and desolate death, stood in warning beside them; David, pattern of faith and fortitude in adversity, was at their right hand, so that in their distresses men would take courage, remembering that David also had cried unto the Lord and been delivered. But the perspective of the years has ceased to be foreshortened, and between our generation and the old world of the Bible a great gulf now seems fixed.

Nevertheless our fathers were right, and we are wrong. Saul and David and the men of the Bible are not separated from us by 3,000 years, nor yet by one year, for difference of race and custom are trivialities compared with the fundamental conditions of life and the unalterable principles of character. Our predecessors may have made too light of the differences, but that is a small fault compared with the modern tendency to ignore the resemblances: not to ask “What do these men and these events say to us concerning the eternal things we share with them?” is to miss the one thing needful.

To illustrate the argument, recollect that skeleton of dates, William the Conqueror 1066 ... which not so long ago did duty in our schools for the record of the glory of England. What could have been more ineffective for revealing the soul of history? Now-a-days, the tale is better told but, even so, be the events narrated never so graphically, unless they are conceived in relation to ourselves we are little benefited. To use the famous simile of the prophet, bone may come to its bone, and sinews be upon them, and flesh come up and skin cover them above, until the very semblance of men rises before our eyes; but there will be no breath in them.

Only when it is realised how out of the living past has grown the living present, only then enters the breath of God into the men of old and they live and stand up upon their feet, an exceeding great army—to our aid in the shaping of what is to be. History is profitable in so far as its significance for the present is understood. Thus, with fine insight, the Jews perceived that even their majestic Law would be of no avail if it were heard only as the recital of words delivered long ago at Sinai, and accordingly the exhortation ascribed to Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy comes to its climax in this deep saying: The commandment is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say “Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it down unto us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?”... But the Word is very nigh thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

And so also in like manner this account of the history behind the Jewish proverbs has not been told in order to evoke for a brief moment nerveless phantoms of the Wise in ancient Israel, but with the hope that a voice would be heard saying even of this Word “It is very nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” What is the significance for us of these men and their experiences?

Consider some of the features of this Movement, if so precise a term may for convenience be applied to the easy, natural, teaching of Wisdom. In the first place observe the thorough and effective contact established by the teachers of Wisdom with the people they sought to reach. One of the main problems confronting Christianity is the severance of the potential influence of its Churches from the life of the people; verily Mahomet sits waiting for the mountain. What then? Ought the Churches to be abandoned, and men go a-worshipping in the market-place? “Impractical—at the best it would soon lose its effect—the experiment has been made, with sadly limited results”: a thousand valid objections! But the problem must not be dismissed so lightly with a bare consideration of its obvious difficulties, for the issues at stake are too serious; the bulk of the population live perilously free from the stimulus of any Ideal, whether self-sought or impressed from without by the teaching of others.

Seeing then that the Wise succeeded where we have missed the mark, their ways must at least deserve a scrutiny; here is a method by which the poor were preached to, and religion stood daily in the streets and morals in the market-place; here is idealism put in language the unlearned could both comprehend and recollect. Indeed the proverb was wonderfully suited to their needs, for even its riddles were easily solved, not darkening counsel but devised only to awaken curiosity and so assist the slow and simple mind. Of course a slavish imitation of the Wise-men’s procedure is out of the question in modern circumstances, but slavish imitation is not suggested.

Said Sir Joshua Reynolds when urging the students of the Royal Academy to the study of the Old Masters, “The more extensive your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention.” There is a force of idealism latent in almost all men, but it requires to be brought to the surface, examined, criticised and judiciously directed to the attainment of practical objects; otherwise the greater part of its potential energy will never be brought into action; and in this easy-going land of ours there is more than normal scope for increased discipline of the mind. We can afford to think much harder than we have ever yet done without losing the virtue of humorous, tolerant good-nature.

As Mr. Clutton Brock has said recently, “The fact that some thinking is bad is not a reason why we should not think at all. The Germans have been encouraged by their bad thinking to exercise certain virtues perversely and to bad ends, but still to exercise them in a manner which has astonished the world; while we have been little encouraged by thinking, good or bad, to exercise any virtues.” There is ample room for more outspoken interest in the ends and principles of human life, more earnest and stringent consideration of the problems of social organisation—provided our discussions be undertaken, not in the spirit of silly contention, mere bolstering up of unconsidered prejudice, but in a sincerity that will be both more critical and yet more humbly eager, for truth’s sake, to learn one from another. For it is not division of opinion, or even real conflict of interest that prevents and retards reform, so much as the dead weight of ignorance, of indifference and of paltry pride in argument—the very sins which in the past were the prime cause of the evils that call for remedy.

No less than the ancient Hebrews we moderns stand in need of the exhortation to let Wisdom enter into our hearts and knowledge be pleasant unto our souls (cp. Pr. 210). Neither with all our heart, nor even with all our mind, far less with all our soul, have we yet sought her whose ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace (Pr. 317); nor have we understood sufficiently that she is a tree of life to all that lay hold on her, and happy is every one that retaineth her (Pr. 318). Says a later Jewish proverb, Lackest thou Wisdom, what hast thou acquired? Hast acquired Wisdom, what lackest thou? (C. 93.)

Secondly, the constant intimate contact that the Wise maintained with the actualities of men’s ordinary experience was beneficial not only to the taught but to the teachers. It kept the Wise in touch with work-a-day problems (the most difficult of tasks for the idealistic thinker), and so helped to make their toil productive. It taught them how to bring Heavenly Wisdom down from the right hand of God that she might dwell with men, and make their homes pure and loving, and their business just, and their pleasures clean. And herein is a thought of no little encouragement for preachers and teachers in these days of not overcrowded Churches.

Somehow it seems that personal contact is invaluable in the moral and spiritual education of man. That is why the leading article, with its scores of thousands of readers, may sometimes have less effect than a good sermon heard by a few hundred. The Press addresses us from an Olympian but distant Fleet Street, thundering at us—but in cold print; whereas the parson and the teacher, if he is a true man, somewhere and to some few is a neighbour and a friend. However excellent the Manual of Ethics, it will not serve to influence the lives of many. The Son of Man, it seems, must come eating and drinking and teaching in our streets.

In the next place, this Movement is an interesting and important example of independent as opposed to systematic instruction, illustrating both the weaknesses as well as the strength of pronounced individualism, and supporting the opinion that, if only one safeguard be present, the advantages of individualism outweigh its dangers. Teachers less restricted than the Wise it is difficult to imagine. Each was free to develop his own opinions on the nature of life and the principles of success and failure, even to the point of open agnosticism. What prevents such licence from becoming chaos? The reply indicated by the Wisdom Movement is that freedom, even extreme freedom, of judgment in matters of conduct and faith will not result in chaos provided there is an underlying unity of aim.

All the Wise were lovers of Wisdom. They conceived their theme in different fashions, but they had all the same intention—to teach and to practise Wisdom and not Folly; hence, despite the diversity in their proverbs, the shifting standpoints, the variety of ethical standards, even the contradictions of advice, their teaching was ultimately effective. If we had had space to consider their work in relation to other movements in the intellectual life of that period, both in Palestine and also in the wider world, it would have been easy to show that the immaturities in the Wise-men’s thoughts, the uncertainties of their faith and ethic (the very points on which the cynical would pounce as evidence of failure) on a wider and wiser survey of the facts were in reality co-operating influences, clearing the way for a deeper, fuller, faith.

Truth is eternal, but men’s apprehension of it is progressive; and it should be insisted that, given the presence of one fundamental purpose so that an ultimate unity of spirit must necessarily exist, divergence of opinion, even on matters of high importance, does not indicate weakness or indecision or decay, but rather is a sign of vitality and hope. The reason for this is obvious. Final statements can be made only with regard to the conceptions of the abstract sciences, such as mathematics, or to the judgments we can sometimes pass on lost causes; and on the other hand power to perceive the imperfection of present attainment has ever been, and still is, the prime condition of human progress: “God,” said John Robinson, minister of the Pilgrim Fathers, “has yet more truth to break forth out of His Word.”

The bearing on modern Christianity is not far to seek. A doctor recently remarked to the present writer that one had only to enter the several Churches of a certain town to discover that Christians were now in hopeless confusion, ignorant as to what they did or did not believe, and that if the professed followers of the faith could not state their doctrine coherently, others might well be excused from attempting the task of ascertaining what Christianity now meant. The argument is not unusual, but it is profoundly mistaken. It might have been retorted that divergencies of medical opinion (and many patients will bear witness that they are neither slight nor few) are no indication whatever of the essential unsoundness of the science of medicine, but rather the guarantee of its advance into more accurate knowledge.

Moreover had the critic been in actual touch with the feeling and activities of the Churches in question, he would have recognised that the points of disagreement, though important, were not upon the vital question of faith in God and general attitude towards life; so that whilst he personally might still have been unable to accept Christian belief, he could not possibly have formulated such an indictment as appears above. The real peril of Christian theology has not been vagueness, but the Hellenic tendency to essay the definition of all things to the last iota. But from the perils inherent in that attitude Christianity has been delivered by the passionate instinct of mankind for truth, and by the reforming energy of great individuals; and will be delivered, so long as the Church has faith in the guiding Spirit of God.

There is value in the Wise-men’s witness to the intimate relation between faith and morality. The religion of Israel in its higher development is magnificent in its clear recognition that the claim of God upon man is absolute, complete and not partial—if there be one God, Creator of heaven and earth, then certainly He besets us behind and before and lays His hand upon us—and that the love of God and the love of our fellow-men must be indissolubly related, faith being the inspiration of morality, and moral action the necessary outcome of faith. With these sublime beliefs, proclaimed by Prophets and Psalmists, the Wise were in accord: they also in their more homely fashion recognised the universality of the Divine claim, and its operation in the realm of moral duty.

Perhaps those thoughts may seem to some readers only elementary and obvious ideas on spiritual things. But they ought to be regarded not as elementary (and therefore of small account) but as fundamental and vital conceptions. Every student of comparative religion would testify how great and terrible a gulf in human life was crossed when first a Hebrew Prophet conceived the thought that God desireth mercy and not sacrifice, not ceremonial worship but philanthropy (in the true sense of the word), and how glorious a hope for the future of religion then dawned upon our race. Moreover the fact remains that, even if to many these thoughts of God and the nature of His service may be no novelty, even if they have grasped the idea in its full significance and are conscious of its exact bearing on manifold contemporary affairs, there is still room for its reaffirmation.

Said a soldier in France, after a discussion about Christianity to which he had listened intently and with some surprise, “But, as I understand it, religion is all talk about heaven. What’s it got to do with morality?” Religion has got to do with morality, and morality, like the demand for truth and the instinct for the beautiful, penetrates life through and through to its least details. Christianity is not a bargain with the Deity entailing magical immunity from hardship in this life and special privileges in the next. It is such an attitude of the essential personality as should wholly determine our activities in each and every aspect life can present to us, both now and hereafter.

The scope of religion is as wide as our interests; and what could serve more happily to remind us of that fact than these Jewish proverbs which, beginning with the fear of God, range from kings to labourers, from merry men to broken hearts, from dreams of perfect justice to cynical observations on the uses and advantages of bribes? Wisdom is indeed ubiquitous: Divers weights and false balances are an abomination unto the Lord, say the Wise in the busy mart; and then in the hour of leisure and of plenty It is not good to eat much honey—and all this in the name of transcendent Wisdom, whose fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; Wisdom that was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.

Incidentally we have also to note how thoroughly these proverbs, by reason of the range of interest of which we have just been speaking, and by the sensible attitude they endeavour to preserve, illustrate the Humanism of the Bible; for surely the most ungenerous of critics would not accuse them of being unpractical or absorbed in supra-mundane matters. The point has already been emphasised, and therefore we will not dwell upon it again, except to remark its importance as one instance of a general principle: that Idealism to be effective must needs grow out of the soil of commonsense. There is a degree beyond which existing facts must not be disregarded. For example, men have not mastered the art of flight by ignoring gravitation, but by having studied its laws and conquered the difficulties they present.

In the admirable words of a friend of the writer, “Christian opinion is peculiarly liable to the danger of running counter to the average common sense in the midst of which it finds itself; that is a natural alternative to simply falling into line with current common sense views.... Thought that has its head in the clouds must have its feet planted firmly in sound common sense, if its heart is to be in the right place.... No one can think of Jesus as the devotee of a faddist cult. He entered whole-heartedly into the common joys and sorrows and into the common interests of the people: their wedding-feasts and their mourning for dead friends and their longing for freedom from the Roman yoke.... He entered by the open door of common sense, and led out the spirit of man into a larger life than it had ever conceived.” Omitting the superlative “ever,” these words in italics are wonderfully apposite in reference to the genius of the Wisdom Movement in Israel.

There is value for us in the confidence which the Wise-men showed in their attitude towards life. They, like ourselves, lived in an age when all things were being put to trial, and doubt and perplexity were rife. They were aware that even their instinctive fundamental ideas were under challenge, aware that the path they followed was unfinished; and yet, as the general tone of the proverbs indicates, they lived with firmness and decision, and therefore achieved much. They were wise indeed in that they perceived the issue between good and evil to be clear enough for a man to choose which of the twain he will pursue. Having chosen, these men did not content themselves with expressing a timorous hope that the moralistic view of life might ultimately be proved correct; they did battle for righteousness, valiantly and practically.

So with ourselves. Stringent and systematic application of the test of reason is a most necessary attitude to preserve, but it is not a whit less necessary, despite our uncertainty regarding ultimate problems of existence, early in life to form a definite idea whither we wish to direct our steps. To do so is the only highway to an effective life. Nor is it unreasonable to demand from men that much resolution, for Good and Evil do present themselves quite distinctly as alternative routes. Of course, all the coward in us and all the sluggard prompts a protest for delay: we see a hundred reasons for postponing judgment, or for arranging a compromise between the claimants; “our philosophy is unsettled; we have neither proved God to our complete satisfaction, nor has He clearly justified His ways to us: so that surely it is not reasonable to insist that we make choice (and therefore, we take it, the subsidiary matter of our unwillingness need not arise)—let us drift a little longer through these puzzling mists.

Nothing but a bold decision for Wisdom or for Folly ever clears those mists away. To shirk the challenge (as some do all their lives) is easy and at first may seem the natural course to adopt, but it entails a heavy penalty. It deprives us of any firm criterion of judgment, and we must needs go fumbling with the golden opportunities which come but return not. Take then the Wise for an example. Uncertainty they felt, but uncertainty did not paralyse their power, because they met perplexities in the open field of action. From us, as from them, many secrets of creation are concealed; but some things are certainly evil and some are pure and good. A blessing and a curse are set before us, and the difference between them is in no way obscure. We ought to choose the blessing; and then, in faith that the Good is really and ultimately the True, act vigorously in support of our belief. Wisdom we know and Folly we know; Christ we have seen and the fruits of wickedness: in the name of sanity how much clearer need the issue be?

Passing from the methods and manner of the Movement, it is encouraging to turn for a moment to the thought of its success. When we measure the might of the forces making against Wisdom, the numbers and influence of those bent on pleasure or on riches with scant regard, or none at all, for nobler possibilities in life, it is wonderful that the ideals of the Wise should have become known to vast numbers of men in alien lands, and that, enshrined in the Bible, their influence should still remain unexhausted. Had the memory of them continued in honour only for a century or two and been restricted to the limits of the Jewish communities, even that would have been a result exceeding what had once seemed probable. For Hellenism was a monstrous flood apparently capable of sweeping away far larger obstacles than all Judaism combined—priests, prophets, and Wise-men—could raise against its onset.

But Wisdom and Law and Prophets survived the deluge, quite unharmed and indeed strengthened by the trial they had undergone. Why was it so? How comes it to pass that the Wise after all do not toil in vain; that the Crucified conquers; that St. Paul, who in his lifetime can establish no more than a few struggling Churches, eventually commands the intellect of Greece and subdues the power of Rome? Surely because, in the words of yet another great passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, Elisha’s vision in beleaguered Dothan was no mirage in the eyes of a famine-haunted man, but truth of truth, and the mountains of Reality which compass the City of Human Faith are full of the chariots of the Lord of Hosts. Christianity is not dying, nor is the Church doomed, nor is the work of idealists in this generation of no avail. Rather he is blind that imagines so, blind to the armies that in the soul of Man do battle for the one eternal God.

Such are some of the reflections prompted by the history of the Wisdom Movement. We come now to what those unacquainted with the events we have been describing may have imagined to be the only, as it is the most obvious and perhaps the most important, gift the Jewish Sages have left for our inheriting—the proverbs themselves, considered apart from their origin or use in relation to any particular historical events. Not all the sayings are of value in themselves, for some are trivial and some are obsolete, some have been said better, and a few were better left unsaid. But there remain many having permanent interest, and many that speak deep and undying truth, truth which we, no less than our fathers, have need to learn, and which those who come after us will have to learn or suffer loss.

Had we chosen to use such proverbs as texts whereon to build discussion, illustration or enforcement of their thoughts and counsels, they are enough to fill not one but many volumes of this size. For stirring subjects would open up on every side. How shrewd, for example, are these Jewish maxims in their insistence that principle should precede practice, that success in life is won not by experiment unguided by fixed purpose but by the early adoption of certain great principles which our experiences will continually test and interpret, clarify and confirm! How sensible in their demand for the use of unsparing criticism—both the discipline of self-imposed criticism, and the humility that will receive, and, if necessary, assent to the reproof of others!

How true the instinct which taught them to feel that real Wisdom is not merely an intellectual affair; so that they bid men seek not learning but rather the power to use it for right purposes, not knowledge of fact so much as the understanding mind. It is of profound importance in life this distinction between intelligence and knowledge. As the late Lord Cromer remarked to one of his friends soon after the outbreak of the European war, “I believe that Germany will live in history as the supreme example of the failure to distinguish Wisdom from Learning.” It is Wisdom that the Jewish Sages preached. And how wise they were in the emphasis they lay on the necessity of application in the difficult task of awakening and cultivating the dormant powers of the mind.

Above all, how more than wise, how humane, are they in depicting Wisdom in lovely colours, not as cold and repellent, but as warm and welcoming, an infinitely desirable, compassionate Friend of Humanity! How much we have still to learn from them in that respect, we who are not yet wholly delivered from an age that of set purpose hid the fascinating light of knowledge under a bushel of dull and unimaginative discipline, making education seem a thing to be endured;—till we grew up—and depicting Morality as an All-seeing Eye, unblinkingly on the watch for our misdemeanours, a sort of inescapable Super-Spy! And again, treating the proverbs from this general point of view, what inexhaustible variety of themes would be at our disposal—education, commerce, responsibility, virtue and vice, hardships, luxury, marriage and friendship, idleness and diligence; in fact we might talk “of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings”; an embarras de richesses.

The remaining pages of this volume will be given to a review of certain of the Jewish proverbs, grouped under several topics. The principle on which these topics and the proverbs used in their illustration have been selected is chiefly the avoidance of repetition, so far as has proved reasonably convenient. Obviously, many most suitable subjects, such as the personal virtues, and many sayings that might fittingly be quoted in exposition of the themes actually chosen for the following pages, have already been utilised in our account of the Wisdom Movement.

These then, with a few exceptions, will not be reproduced again, partly because there is little need to draw upon them, the stock of Jewish proverbs being far from exhausted, but mainly because it is to be hoped that their wit and wisdom for ourselves and for all men did not pass unnoticed and unconsidered in the historical setting. The sins of omission of which the following pages are guilty are patent even to the author. If they rouse the reader into making a better selection for himself, good and again good.

To preserve a thread of connection with what precedes, we may commence by reviewing first Nature and then Humour in the Jewish sayings, both of which subjects have not only a certain general interest, but will help further to show how the proverbs can contribute to our realisation of the Humanism of the Bible.

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie