A man holds a sign reading "NYC hearts Muslims" as two other people hold signs reading "Back the Ban" and "Keep Syrians Out" at protests against and for President Donald Trump's limited travel ban. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Wisdom vs. compassion


Why is there no “Good Son” in the Passover haggadah?

As most Jews know, there are “Four Sons” in the Passover liturgy: the Wise Son, the Bad Son, the Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask, and the Simple Son.

But there is no Good Son. Why not?

There would appear to be one likely answer: The rabbis considered the opposite of “bad” to be “wise.”

And they were brilliant in doing so.

Why? Because without wisdom, goodness is impossible.

This may be the great unappreciated lesson of our time. Beginning with the baby boomers, America’s most arrogant and foolish generation — the children, ironically, of what became known as the “Greatest Generation” — wisdom, which is first and foremost the idea that you learn from those who came before you, has been utterly discredited. It started in the 1960s, when the boomers entered their college years and coined their infamous slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” which perfectly encapsulates the rejection of wisdom.

Contempt for wisdom is one of the reasons religion has played less and less of a role in American life, especially American-Jewish life. After all, the Torah, for example, is well over 30 years old. Why take it seriously?

But what shall substitute for religion, the wisdom it has conveyed through millennia of generations? The answer is: compassion.

Compassion has taken over for wisdom. Is there anything more beautiful than compassion? And the beauty of being compassionate rather than wise, is that, not only is it effortless, it feels good.

The wisdom/compassion divide is at the center of the left/right divide.

No one can deny that the left uses the word “compassion” far more than the right. In fact, just the word alone silences opposition. How could it not? To oppose the left is to oppose compassion — and who wants to be accused of that?

On almost any issue, you can identify the compassion-wisdom divide, and thereby identify the left-right divide.

Should Europe take in a million refugees from the Muslim Middle East? Compassion says, of course. Wisdom says, of course not. Europe is already in a potential death spiral in large measure due to its millions of Muslim immigrants, many of whom, and many of whose children, do not share European values.

The same compassion-wisdom divide holds true regarding whether the United States should accept tens of millions more immigrants from South and Central America or hundreds of thousands from the Middle East.

Compassion demands open borders. Erecting any form of barrier, physical or legal, to the poor of the world lacks compassion. On the other hand, wisdom says that a country with open borders ceases to be a sovereign country, and loses its cultural identity.

Minimum wage is another example. Compassion demands ever and ever higher minimum wages. Wisdom asks how many young people will never be hired as a result of small businesses — such as restaurants — being unable to afford to hire new workers at such wages. 

The transgender issue provides yet another example of compassion versus wisdom.

Compassion demands that people who have gender dysphoria — a conflict between their gender identity and their biological sex/gender — always have their self-perceived identity honored. Wisdom asks what price society will pay for always honoring gender identity rather than gender:

Is it good for children that teachers in elementary schools across America are now told not to address their students as “boys and girls”? Is it fair that women’s track teams lose to other female track teams that have biological male competitors on their team? And, most important, should compassion or wisdom dictate how parents treat a child who says he or she isn’t a he or she? Compassion would seem to say that parents should do whatever possible in order to accommodate their child’s transgender identity. But wisdom notes that the overwhelming majority of young people who identify with their non-biological sex eventually fully identify with their biological sex.

Indeed, Dr. Michelle Cretella, the president of the American College of Pediatricians, says parents who place children on puberty blockers around age 11 or 12, and the doctors who support this, are engaging in “child abuse.” 

And perhaps the most obvious area of the compassion-wisdom divide is government benefits. Compassion demands that society give more and more benefits to more and more people. Wisdom asserts that those people who cannot take care of themselves be taken care of, but those who can take care of themselves should not receive unearned benefits. Benefits can hook people just like heroin does, undermine the individual’s character, and ultimately drive a government to bankruptcy. The $22 trillion our government has spent fighting the War on Poverty since the 1960s is nearly equal to the $20 trillion national debt, while the poverty rate over the same period has remained fixed at about 15 percent.

Society needs compassionate people. But compassion without wisdom leads to societal suicide. That’s why the Good Son is called the Wise Son. There is no good without wisdom.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard weekdays in
Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).