Rethinking the Category and Boundaries of ”Wisdom”

by Elisa Uusimäki

I have spent a fascinating autumn here in Jerusalem, filled with research at the Hebrew University and explorations of this beautiful, debated city. There are many stories to be told, but since Miika Tucker recently wrote a comprehensive blog post about his experiences in the same place last year, I feel like sharing with you other recent news of my journey.

I was invited to attend the colloquium ”Rethinking the Boundaries of Sapiential Traditions in Ancient Judaism: Third International Symposium on Jewish and Christian Literature from the Hellenistic and Roman Period”, which took place at Université de Lorraine in late October. The organisers, Professors Jean-Sébastien Rey (Université de Lorraine), Hindy Najman (Yale University), and Eibert Tigchelaar (KU Leuven) had gathered a group of people to consider the category of ”wisdom” and its relationship to other traditions of ancient Judaism. It was particularly delightful that so many generations of scholars and scholars-to-be were present; the participants included most senior experts (Professors Maurice Gilbert and James Kugel), a number of innovative professors, some of us postdocs, and doctoral students.

In the description of the symposium, the organisers invited us to approach the extant sources with fresh minds: ”Instead of asking how a text fits into a presupposed category, or what parts of the text are Wisdom or non-Wisdom, we will invite contributors to respond to a set of questions: What is a sage? Where is wisdom found? Who can acquire wisdom and who is denied wisdom? Can wisdom be taught? Who teaches wisdom? What are the manifestations of wisdom? What is the path to the good life? What is perfection?”

Most of these questions, as well as many others, were explored during the three days when nearly twenty rigorous papers, which covered a myriad of topics from the ANE to the rabbinic material, were read. The presentations demonstrated that wisdom is far from a static category, and challenged us to reconsider the extent, vitality, variations, and transformations of wisdom tradition in Jewish antiquity. Stuart Week even addressed the overall usefulness of the category of ”wisdom literature”, and reminded us of the need to critically review the use of the concept. New contributions were made through papers that approached the question of wisdom from a new angle; Ari Mermelstein (Yeshiva University) spoke about the emotions of the sage and Judith Newman (University of Toronto) addressed the construction of the ideal sage through liturgical performance in the Hodayot, to mention but a few intriguing examples.

I gave a presentation related to my new project ”Wisdom and Paideia: A Study on Hellenistic Jewish Sages”, and talked about the role of spiritual formation in Jewish wisdom teaching from the late Second Temple period. In particular, I asked how this largely neglected aspect affects our understanding of these texts and their functions as a type of ”formation documents” against the cultural backdrop of Hellenism (including Greek notions of paideia and even philosophy). The discussion was vivid, encouraging, and helpful; the shared insights help me articulate better both my research questions and the ways in which I attempt to answer them. I also drew much that is relevant for my study from the other papers. In addition to those already mentioned, I would like to highlight the papers of Benjamin Wright on Ben Sira and Greek literature, Sam Adams on Ben Sira and prophecy, and Arjen Bakker on the sages’ continuous study and transformation in the Scrolls.

I warmly thank the organisers for the invitation to present my work and learn from others; I cannot overestimate the value of an academic interchange such as that in Metz. In particular, many thanks are due to Jean-Sébastien Rey who provided us with the setting for such an inspiring meeting and made sure that we got more than our share of the delicious French menu. Finally, to let you know that the good news and contributions of the symposium will be distributed to the wider academic community along with the publication of the conference volume in 2015, something to look forward to.