In memory of Professor Heinrich Guggenheimer

On March 4, my Talmud teacher of thirty years passed away.  He was 97 years old, but between bouts of Fentanyl-aided pain reduction, he continued to answer questions others could not — until two weeks before his passing. The earth and all its inhabitants should have collapsed in inconsolable grief, but we did not.  In just the same way people would continue on with their lives if the Mona Lisa burned to a crisp or the Hubble telescope fell into the sun, the passing of Professor Heinrich Guggenheimer would not be given its proper importance.

Prof. G. was a genius.  That word is overused to describe people of excellence in a particular area.  However, Professor Guggenheimer was accomplished in all areas he cared to visit and would be better described as a polymath.

He made his living as a professor of mathematics with a specialty in topography, making him extremely valuable to military and intelligence services.  He was, as well, a historian, grammarian, and linguist, reading at least thirty languages.

I once made the mistake of assuming his ignorance.  We frequently used an Accadic dictionary when comparing a Hebrew word to its cognate equivalents.  When I challenged him about using a translation of the original Accadian pictorial script, he indicated that he felt that the dictionary was adequate, given his comparison of the original Accadian and the dictionary's renderings.  In other words, he could read and understand Accadian in its original form.  That just blew me away!

Prof. G. had a photographic memory.  Such people are different from the rest of us.  There is so much material to learn.  With knowledge doubling every few years, no one can keep up.  So we specialize.

Professor Guggenheimer, however, did not have to specialize.  If he touched it, he knew it.  I would frequently ask him about difficulties in the Talmud's text.  He knew the material so well that he could immediately (I mean instantly) tell me on what page the argument occurred and how other scholars dealt with the issue at hand.  He then synthesized their opinions in his answer to the question.

One night many years ago, while walking home from the synagogue at the end of Shabbat, my eight-year-old asked the professor a seemingly simple question: "Why was Esau mentioned in the Hagaddah?"

The professor spent the next fifteen minutes fleshing out both the question and its answer:  My son, smart enough (he is a lawyer today), was overwhelmed and deeply impressed, but as you can imagine, he never asked him anything ever again.

Pure intelligence is so scary, especially when allied with a deep ethical sense, because when we finally encounter it, we are overwhelmed, humbled, and afraid of seeming the fool in such a bright light.  From my personal perspective, Professor Guggenheimer's abilities were a hint of how we might begin to envision an all-knowing God.  It took me many years to accept my personal intellectual limitations so I could speak freely to him without fear of constantly revealing my complete and utter ignorance.

The professor would always describe himself as average in intelligence.  I insisted that such a designation could not be accurate.  To this, one day, he finally replied that he thought of himself as average among the gifted.

In this era that attempts to level all abilities and eschews any form of excellence in the general population, we would do well to know what we are giving up.  By mentally subtracting what each of us can learn and do over a lifetime from what Prof. G. could, and did, accomplish, every day, the vast difference between the two helps us envision what humanity's future could yet be.

Let us think about a world where everyone knows everything they want to know and then compare it to today's world, one in which we can no longer even read the college textbooks from just a generation ago.  I think it is safe to assume that poverty of knowledge correlates highly with economic poverty!  What kind of America will we have created when a decreasing number of people can major in math, physics, chemistry, and history?

Those on the left who are pushing hard toward ignorance for all are themselves ignorant of the damage they are doing to humanity.  Let us hope they will become enlightened and change their ways.  Otherwise, the future will be taken from our hands, and we will become manipulable objects instead of actors on our own behalf.

Image: Two books reflecting the range of Prof. Guggenheimer's intellect.

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