Parashat Va'et'hanan

Integrating Knowledge

Knowledge of God does not always translate into actions based on that knowledge.

Print this page Print this page

It is not sufficient merely to "know" it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire service of a Jew. There is as much distance between "knowing" [something] and "setting it upon your heart" as there is between knowledge and ignorance.
[Quoted in Hebrew in Itturei Torah; this translation modified from the English Wellsprings of Torah]

R. Salanter draws an important distinction here: what we know only intellectually may not actually influence our behavior; this must come from a more integrated "knowing" of mind, heart, and soul. We might think of somebody with a bad habit, for example, who knows with their brain that their habit is self-destructive, yet cannot stop until they have really emotionally internalized their desire to change. I think R. Salanter is making the same point regarding the spiritual life: we can know something purely abstractly or intellectually, yet the challenge is to act at all times out of our spiritual convictions.

That's a deeper, more holistic kind of spirituality; not merely believing something, but acting with great integrity, wherein one naturally behaves according to one's own ideals. The great American preacher and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way:

But we must remember that it's possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny [God's] existence with your life. The most dangerous kind of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism. And the world . . . is filled up with people who pay lip service to God but not life service. (A Knock at Midnight: the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, p.15)

I am especially moved by Dr. King's notion of "practical atheism;" this seems to me very close to what R.Salant is saying: while religious knowledge is a good thing, it's not the same as leading a truly religious life. There's a well known story, attributed in different places to different 19th century rabbis, about a man who boasts that he's been through the Talmud many times. "Fine," replies the rabbi--"but how many times has the Talmud been through you?"

Striving for a wholeness, an integration, of mind, heart and soul--this is the "entire service" of a Jew.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.