What is ancient Jewish wisdom?

June 12th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 16 comments

I read your books and listen to many of your on-line teachings very often. My question is: What is “Ancient Jewish Wisdom”?  Is it something like common sense for a Jew or a way of thinking  based on discussions among Jewish teachers or is it actual books that you are referencing. The reason for my question is to explain your teachings to others in my circle. How do I reference this source, if my main tool is the Bible.

Shami M.

Dear Shami,

We mention ancient Jewish wisdom so often that our first instinct was to go to the FAQ (frequently asked question) section on our website and then direct you there. We were a bit shocked to find that we don’t have an answer posted. You can be sure that most of this letter will find its way to that location.

We coined the term ancient Jewish wisdom to describe the oral tradition that has accompanied the written Bible since the time of Moses. God dictated the Bible to Moses during the daylight hours on Mount Sinai and during the nights he drilled the great teacher of Israel on the hidden meanings and multi-layers found in every letter and word.  Throughout the Bible there are “hooks” that remind us to look to the oral tradition. These include words that seem to be misspelled, contradictions, unusually shaped letters and unusual words, numerical values of words and so much more.

All that material was taught to the Israelites during the forty years in the desert, history’s longest graduate school program.  From them it was handed down, parent to child and teacher to disciple. About two thousand years ago it began to be written down in an extremely abbreviated shorthand form for fear of it becoming forgotten. It is studied and taught in traditional Torah-oriented Bible seminaries till today.

Obviously, there are challenges, such as technological ones that did not exist generations ago. In her book, Daniel Deronda, author George Eliot refers to the rabbis as “the great Transmitters,” a phrase that we treasure. One very valid way to judge the degree to which a rabbi is a reliable source of knowledge is to ascertain how faithful his ‘transmission’ is to the past, and who his link to that transmission is. Examples and delivery can be updated and modernized, but not the essence of the teaching itself. Anything valid must conform to knowledge that is based on God’s transmission to Moses.

Originality, defined as completely new ways of thinking, is not prized in ancient Jewish wisdom; faithfulness and fidelity are.  Delivery and application of ideas can be updated, but not the basic source of the wisdom. One of the most important questions to ask a rabbi is, “Who is your rabbi?”.  In this system, a teacher (or rabbi) is seen as a window into ancient Jewish wisdom.  He should barely be seen; only the view beyond the window should stand out in 3D multicolor clarity.  If the window can be seen, it means that window is not completely clean.

A surprising amount of ancient Jewish wisdom disseminated into the Christian community and became part of what we call the Western world. One could literally spend a lifetime studying and not absorb the entire blueprint of existence that flows from the Torah. Without knowledge of Hebrew and without a link to someone in the chain of transmission, it is not knowledge that one can intuit or reach by means of reasoning or common sense. Often the truth is counter-intuitive and in contradiction to current thinking.

There are excellent resources and, unfortunately, terrible ones out in the greater world. At Lifecodex Publishing and at the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, our mission is to share important parts of this transmission and to arm those who are faithful to God with a deeper understanding of His wishes and His guidance to us.

We appreciate your joining us on this journey.

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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16 comments

David Altschuler says:

If the rabbinic-transmitter “window” is totally clear, doesn’t that imply that the soul of that “window” is without individuality? How can we understand the interplay between awe and humility for Divinely sourced wisdom from the past on one hand, and innovation and adaptability to face History’s surprises on the other hand?

Brian Tucker says:

I know you’ve deduced this from my previous comments, but I can’t repeat it enough. Through AJW, Thought Tools and Susan’s Musings, I have so much of a clearer understanding of what God wants me to know and “How the world REALLY WORKS”.I still have a lot more to learn that’s why I still watch and listen. My advise to Shami would simply be too keep on watching, listening and learning. You’ll not be the loser.
With all due love and respect,
Brian😔

Joyce R. says:

I love your explanation. I also love that you point out how much ancient Jewish wisdom permeates the Western world, transmitted through Christianity. Of course, what we call Christianity was for its first couple of centuries, primarily a Jewish movement and even after the destruction of the Temple, in 70 C.E., both subgroups continued to share knowledge and traditions, including transmission of halachah. As I have delved more and more into the beauty inherent in the Jewish roots of my faith, I am more and more thankful for the input I receive from the two of you. You both are a blessing helping to connect many of us back to the Jewish olive tree from which our faith comes. Thank you.

James says:

Thanks for crafting such an elegant Mission Statement in defining Ancient Jewish Wisdom. How lucky we are for the zeal and dedication of you and your late Father and his ancestors to maintain this tradition over centuries!

The area where I live is often called the Bible Belt (affectionately or un-) for the reason that it is / was populated with so-called ‘Bible-thumpers.’ These inhabitants would invoke Holy Scripture in every context, social or moral, without fail. And they would shoot down any practice not explicitly justified by Scripture. It was a member of London’s nonconformist Baptist Church who revealed to me the reason why certain Protestants over-Scripturalize everything. He said to me: ‘Don’t you see? They overemphasize Scripture because they have an inferiority complex. Deep down inside, they know that their Protestant church was not founded upon the rock of apostolic succession. Scripture is the only leg they have to stand upon.’

In this connection I have great admiration for the Orthodox Church, who recognize not only Holy Scripture, but also respect a wealth of Holy Tradition not formally codified in writing. In honoring unwritten tradition and in many other aspects they stand and operate much closer to the ancestral Hebrew tradition. I find myself wondering how much they know about Ancient Jewish Wisdom….

Heather says:

Rabbi:
Thank you for the explanation. My family has learned so much from your podcasts and newsletters, and we are grateful for your and Mrs. Lapin’s willingness to share this invaluable information.
One question though, if the information was transferred orally over time, how do you know it wasn’t degraded or modified? Was it transferred like what we learned in Alex Haley’s book, “Roots” where the tribe elder or scribe memorized the information and passed down the memorized information to the next generation?

James:
I’m not sure I understood the tie between “Protestants having an inferiority complex” and the Orthodox church supplementing information with church traditions. But that being said, my question to Rabbi Lapin about the integrity of the information being passed down orally applies to the Orthodox church traditions too.
(Sadly, you can’t hear my tone through this black and white type, but these questions are asked honestly with the goal of learning more from others.)

Timothy Mauch says:

Your writing brings to mind an interesting historical note. Joesph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, before he was assassinated, spent a lot of time studying with a Rabbi. In addition to learning Hebrew, I can only assume that he was learning Ancient Jewish Wisdom.

I keep that in mind whenever I listen to and read your and Suzan’s material.

Thank you so much, for everything you have been doing.

Susan Lapin says:

That’s so interesting, Timothy. I haven’t read anything about that. Can you guide us to a resource on that?

Mark Laymon says:

Thank you rabbi & Susan for answering this. I was curious about this as well. I started researching the Oral Torah just a couple weeks ago and found this same answer: you can only learn the Oral Torah orally. So, when are you both coming to Oregon? I have been greatly blessed by your teachings.

I do have a question regarding the Oral Torah. I was talking with a midwife and (if I remember correctly) she said that her brother was named after the boy who found baby Moses in the basket in the river. I said that I have read through these books multiple times and do not remember reading about that. Is something like this in the oral teachings? Does the Oral Torah have more insight into the story of Moses, the exodus and the 40 years? I greatly appreciate you sharing your knowledge of this.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Mark–
We’ll come to Oregon just as soon as we are invited. Thanks for writing. I fear your midwife friend has it wrong. It wasn’t a boy but a girl, a princess, daughter of Pharaoh who drew Moses from the Nile where his mother had placed him. This is clearly laid out in early Exodus.
Cordially
RDL

Mark Laymon says:

It is an honor to have a response from you. Thank you again.

Andrew & Gisel says:

Thank you for your explanation, I am a new listener and had this same question. Being a Christian, what this tells me is that Jesus really does fit into the lineage of Ancient Jewish Wisdom as he was revered and called as Rabbi by all who followed him. Beyond that, he gives a perfect window into the heart and nature of God due to the fact that he is God. As the letter to the Hebrews states about him:

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, – Hebrews 1:3

This now is made even more clear with the understanding of rabbinical oral tradition and how Jesus fitted himself into it.

Thank you Rabbi and Susan for what you do, my wife and I have really been enjoying listening to your show. I can tell you that God speaks through you and your insights into his word.

Although I already have a chief rabbi in Jesus, we consider you our earthly rabbi now. Keep up the great work!

Andrew

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Andrew and Gisel–
Thank you for being a new listener and reader of our work and thanks for writing. You will hardly ever hear me talking or writing of theology. Let me tell you why: If we were to use the electron microscope they have in the physics department at your local university, which can peer into the inner core of the atom and you used this device to try and probe my soul for an interest in theology, it would discover—absolutely nothing! Theology is what men think about God. I could hardly be less interested. The Torah, both written and inseparable oral, teach what God thinks about men. Now that topic has totally preoccupied my life and I am as bewitched by it today as I was when I first understood it half a century ago.
We cherish both of your friendship and do stay in touch.
Cordially
RDL

Andrew & Gisel says:

Rabbi,

Thank you for your reply, what an honor! Great point, thank you for sharing that with me.

All the best,
Andrew

Reminds me of some other ancient Jewish wisdom: If there are 10 rabbis in a room you’ll get eleven opinions.

Shalom
Bruce

Susan Lapin says:

The reason for that, Bruce, is the complexity of humanity. Each ‘opinion,’ assuming they are valid ancient Jewish wisdom rather than emanating from the emotions and ideas of the individual, represents part of a truth. When it comes to action, we need a decision of what will be the overriding consideration. But the other ‘opinions’ are needed so that we don’t lose sight of the bigger, truer, picture.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Well, Bruce,
I’m not sure I’d agree that ancient Jewish wisdom is synonymous with Borscht Belt humor. But to get complete agreement on anything more complex than “lumpy-cereal-is-annoying” among any ten thoughtful people would be unusual.
Cordially
RDL

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