Smart is Good

Two important voices who preached the importance of knowledge left us within hours of each other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom died on November 7 and Alex Trebek, the host of the TV game show Jeopardy!, passed away on November 8. At first glance they had little in common – one was Jewish, the other not – but they both championed intelligence in an increasingly anti-intellectual age.

I grew up watching Jeopardy! almost every evening. I loved challenging myself to get as many answers (phrased in the form of a question) right as possible. I wasn’t the best at sports, but I killed it in Jeopardy! and enjoyed impressing anyone who might watch with me, from my grandmother to my future wife, who to this day still says “You should go on Jeopardy!” any time I answer trivia correctly.

Trebek presided over the show with a cool, but encouraging demeanor. He was the king of nerds, but demonstrated that one could be well-dressed, smooth, and confident as well as smart. He was even popular with the ladies of a certain age. My Bratislava-born grandmother always said, with a twinkle in her eye, that he was “so simpatico”.

Rabbi Sacks demonstrated the other end of the knowledge spectrum. While he was certainly a brilliant mind, his intellectual persona did not derive from the recitation of facts and trivia. Instead he looked to the deep wells of wisdom from the Jewish and secular traditions to help make civilization more humane. While many of his fellow religious leaders moved toward zealotry and extremism, Rabbi Sacks argued for pluralism and common ground.

During rabbinical school I read his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations for a class in Jewish ethics. The book was written after the attacks on September 11, 2001 and represent Rabbi Sack’s argument for the possibility that the various religions of the world can live in peace under shared values. While his argument may not have been original, the fact that an Orthodox rabbinic leader was willing to embrace pluralism was especially important in an increasing intolerant world.

Rabbi Sacks has come to be known not just for his publications, but also for the Torah that he taught online. His thoughts and questions on the weekly portion are popular because he was not afraid to tackle difficult issues in an intellectually honest way. He invited you on a quest for knowledge – one that might end up taking you throughout the Jewish tradition, but the ultimate destination was into the depths of your soul.

Trebek and Sacks showed that you don’t need to be pigeonholed by a high IQ. Indeed it can be cool to be good at trivia, and Jewish knowledge can, and in fact should, be shared with the world. These two men, at different points in my life, were inspirations, and our world is a little less smart without them.

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