The Space Between: Information is cheap, but wisdom is priceless and costly

My father’s father, Zalman Schifrin, lived in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba — Hebrew for “grandfather’s village.” Magical storyteller that he was, my dad created a realm of wisdom out of that town, reminding me that “Zalman” was another way of saying “Solomon,” and describing how the famous king’s magic throne passed from the ancient palace to his father’s orange grove to the basement of our house in Los Altos.

At the age of 8, caught between the end of magical thinking and the beginning of truly independent thought, I wanted to believe in the insights of the saba from Kfar Saba, who somehow channeled the ancient king. Sitting in his Israeli garden over breakfast, Saba Zalman gave me a bite of complicated wisdom that has always stayed with me: “If you want to be happy, don’t read the newspaper.”

After two decades wandering around this pronouncement, I’ve finally settled into it — thanks to Steven Weitzman’s recent biography “Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom.”

In this book for the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Weitzman, the Daniel E. Koshland professor of Jewish culture and religion at Stanford University, offers a compelling narrative of the king’s life, despite stating at the outset that our knowledge of the historical Solomon recedes with every generation.

Weitzman’s deeper quest, however, is “an effort to illumine what it is that Solomon has come to symbolize in our culture — the desire to know, curiosity in its most intense form, the ambition to understand what the worlds seems to want to conceal.” His biography of Solomon, which is also a biography of the quest for wisdom, raises some interesting moral questions, namely: “Can one know too much about the world? Are certain kinds of knowledge too dangerous to pursue?”

Just as Weitzman reads the life of Solomon, in part, through the lens of his fascination with the limits of knowledge and curiosity, I read it through the prism of our deepening engagement with online information. More specifically, I wondered what a man for whom knowledge and wisdom were both infinite and conflated could teach us in an age when information is cheap, but wisdom is priceless — and increasingly devalued.

Weitzman explains that the young Solomon was about 14 when, in a dream, he asked God for wisdom and knowledge, which was granted in spades. This gift allowed Solomon to speak the languages of all the animals, to understand the laws of navigation and mathematics, even to comprehend the architecture of the heavens. But this knowledge came with a cost. First, Solomon made a deal with the demon Asmodeus to gain an extra magical edge. Then, at the end of his life, the king gave in to his curiosity and both married and prayed with women from surrounding pagan cultures, in clear defiance of Jewish practice.

The wisdom he had accrued was squandered, and tradition asks us to read the Book of Ecclesiastes as Solomon throwing in the towel. Knowledge — even allied with wisdom — leads one nowhere. In fact, the more one knows about the world, the more happiness disappears.

This brings me back to my grandfather. For a man who spent his life escaping and restarting his fortunes in Russia, China and Israel, the daily newspaper reminded him of everything that goes wrong with the world. I’ve had a luckier life, and lived in a luckier place and time. Still I find that I am often happier not reading the paper (or the Internet, which is now the proper comparison). This is not because the news is bad — which it usually is — but because there is so much of it. Solomon may have gone crazy from overhearing the conversations of every bug and bear on the planet. We go crazy from being potentially connected to every piece of data, at every waking moment.

Today’s 14-year-olds, while not conversant in the language of the celestial spheres, have access to every fact, conversation, event and idea every recorded. Without divine intervention, the space between all this data, and the wisdom to use it, seems impossibly vast.

I should, at this point, circle back to Proverbs or Ecclesiastes as I wonder if more knowledge leads to more wisdom in today’s world, and where we look for each one. Instead, I will point to a new series of iPhone commercials. Sitting in an elegant study, actor John Malkovich asks his device how he should live; the phone’s speech interface, Siri, answers with eloquent advice. At first I celebrated the creativity of this scene, and then I wanted to cry over its absurdity. When we sincerely ask our phone to tell us how to live wisely, all the data in the world won’t make that right. n

Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and co-hosts its podcast series, “The Space Between.”