Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Common Sense

There is a great story attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. A young man once came to him in order to receive semicha (rabbinical ordination). Since semicha is typically given after the applicant is tested on their knowledge of the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Rabbi Soloveitchik began by asking the student to name its five volumes. Figuring this was a trick question, the young man answered, "But there are only four volumes." The rabbi responded, "No. There is a fifth, unwritten volume. It's called seichel (common sense), and unless you know this volume, the other four volumes will not help you at all." The lesson he was teaching this young man can also be applied to anyone engaged in any other area of life: without common sense, a person can have a great deal of knowledge and still be a fool.

The Talmud (Tamid 32a) echoes this sentiment when it states, "Who is wise? One who foresees the consequences of his actions." This is not some sort of mystical explanation; it's actually quite logical. If we desire to become wise, we must understand the effects our actions will have on other people. Consequently, we should not follow the letter of the law if it will lead to the opposite of its intent. For example, the Torah states that it is forbidden to strike one's parents (Exodus 21:15), and it becomes a serious offense if blood is drawn. This might lead someone without common sense to believe that a child can never draw blood from a parent - even to save their life. However, Jewish law permits a child to cause a parent to bleed during a surgical procedure, for example. The Sages base their provision on the verse, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Just as you would want your parent to improve your health even though it involves drawing blood, you must do the same for them if the circumstances ever arise.

A different but related example comes by way of the controversial mosque and Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero. Obviously, the planners have the constitutional right to do so, but just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Or to put another way, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Often, the only way of deciding whether or not to engage in a specific action is by utilizing common sense. In this case, it would be best if those defending the site (many of whom may even have good intentions) would actually practice what they preach. They claim this proposed mosque is all about reconciliation and tolerance, but all they have caused is division among the American public and intolerance toward those who pose legitimate concerns. Thus, common sense would dictate that they back away from a plan that has already led to the opposite of its stated intent.

It's unfortunate that people tend to overlook the importance of common sense. Human beings desperately need it for their own sake as well as for the sake of others. As the term itself implies, if this character trait would be more common in people, there would be more sense in the world.

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