The word chachma appears in the Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, part of the Sephirot. The word Chabad is actually an acronym of chachma (wisdom), binah (comprehension), and da’at (knowledge). Its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writes in the Tanya that chachma consists of two Hebrew words: ko’ach mah, meaning “potential,” an idea waiting to happen.
Today someone might say, “Let me share this teaching; it has such chachma,” i.e. such deep insight. But the late chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, embraced its usage in a different way. Looking at the Yeshiva University motto “Torah and madda,” which integrates Torah and secular knowledge, he suggested an alternate expression – of Torah and chachma, Torah and general wisdom.
As Dr. Erica Brown explained, Rabbi Sacks “tried to present an integrated worldview not about what to study, but about how to live an integrated life, especially given modernity’s confrontation with tradition… Where ‘madda’ implies the realm of science, or more generally, secular disciplines, [chachma] encompasses all forms of wisdom that can benefit from the Torah’s enduring relevance.”
All of us have a daily opportunity to model lives filled with Yiddishkeit together with integrating secular wisdom and modernity. Yet we need to heed Rabbi Sacks’s caution that Torah and chachma “are not equal in their significance to Jews – Torah is holy in a way chachma cannot be – yet both are significant, for if we are to apply Torah to the world, we must understand the world to which it applies.”
The challenge for us is to have the chachma to figure it all out.