Sunday, May 16, 2010


[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

Some musings on Genius as we prepare to receive the Torah again at Sinai.

In yeshiva, we often identified certain guys as Geniuses. But what does that mean? The term seems like a double-edged sword to me.

Of course, calling someone a genius can be sincere praise, a way to express admiration for someone else’s acumen or to explain why we trust his assessment/prescription for a given situation. “I’ll side with him, he’s the genius on this.” “She’s just an absolute genius.” And so on.

But there’s another use of this compliment, with an added layer of meaning. Sometimes we call people geniuses – natural talents, blessed with special abilities, gifted, whatever – in order to absolve ourselves of any responsibility to match their accomplishments.

I do this. Sometimes I ask myself, “Why haven’t I accomplished X?”
• Why has that teenager been able to publish a novel?
• Why is he so adept at understanding Rav Chaim Brisker? Why can he cite Rav Tzaddok so smoothly?
• Why can she play the piano so well?
And the unspoken ending of each of these questions is, “and not me?”

And my answer is, “Well, they’re geniuses/prodigies/idiots savant…”

In those cases, “Genius” is not a compliment, but a cop-out. I say, “Well, they’re geniuses,” rather than face the fact that they put in more time than I did, that they attacked their goals with greater focus and energy, that they earned their special abilities with real sweat while I directed my own attention elsewhere.

I’ve long liked to think that my childhood aptitude tests showed I was of normal or substandard IQ. Part of that is because I love the Rocky Balboa narrative of coming from behind and toughing it out, but part of it is because it absolves me of responsibility. “What do you want from me? I’m no genius.”

But, really, that’s a road to nowhere.

The message of מתן תורה, of the Creator coming to give us the Torah, is that we can do it, we can fulfill it, and no special genius is required.

And the message of our נעשה ונשמע acceptance, that Sinaitic commitment of, “We will fulfill it, and we will learn it,” is the hubris of one who is willing to try, who doesn’t write off Avraham and Sarah as untouchable geniuses but instead is willing to go for the goal.

Maybe those other people, the Avraham and Sarah of my day, are geniuses? Maybe their accomplishments are not replicable? Could be. But it won’t hurt for me to try.

Better for me not to write off others’ accomplishments as irrelevant, but rather to draw inspiration from their accomplishments, and use them as a spur for my own.


  1. Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a heaven for?
    Robert Browning

    but if the goal is so unreasonable (objectively) it can lead to yeiush - i'd go with the subjective "be all you can be"
    Joel Rich

  2. Are you familiar with Gardiner's "Multiple Intelligences?" There are so many different sorts of talents.

  3. Joel-
    How many goals are that objectively unreasonable?

    Yes, I'm a big fan of Gardner's work. At one point I thought I would write a book showing how we can use the method informally, at home, to teach our kids about the parshah...