The (Jewish) Sixth Sense
By George E. Johnson
In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Marlon Brando writes at length about the transformative role Jews played in his personal development in the 1940s. At the conclusion of his tribute to Jews and Judaism, Brando tries to reduce what is special about Jews to a single word: sechel. “There’s a Yiddish word, seychel [sic], that provides a key explaining the most profound aspects of Jewish culture,” he says. “It means to pursue knowledge and to leave the world a better place than when you entered it… It must be this cultural tradition that accounts for their amazing success, along with Judaism, the one constant that survived while the Jews were dispersed around the world.” With these words, Brando tapped deep into the multi-layered meanings of the word sechel, a word that is as old as the Jewish people and plays a key role in the moral and cultural conceptions of Jewish life.
Sechel is both a Hebrew and a Yiddish word, the Hebrew meanings having been absorbed into Yiddish. Pronounced sekhel in Modern/Israeli Hebrew and seykhel in Yiddish, it can mean intelligence, smarts, brains, reason, common sense, cleverness or even wisdom. Sechel is defined in the authoritative Eben Shoshan Hebrew Dictionary as “the spiritual ability to think, to weigh, the strength to judge and to come to a resolution.” Michael Swirsky, an Israel-based educator and translator of Hebrew texts, distinguishes sechel from chochma, and other Hebrew words for wisdom, as “a trait, like IQ or good sense” that one is endowed with. “Chochma, binah and da’at,” Swirsky explains, “are skills, talents or traits that could take a lifetime to acquire.”
At home in many a Yiddish proverb, sechel is generally considered to be an enviable quality. A typical piece of advice: “With a horse you look at the teeth; with a person, you look at their sechel.” Another: “For money you get everything except sechel.” Or: “Ask advice from everyone, but act with your own sechel.” However, it often is used as a not-so-subtle negative jibe. In his 2008 book, Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion When English Just Won’t Do, Michael Wex notes with not a small touch of irony that “Yiddish is blessed with a wealth of expressions to describe anyone less intelligent than the speaker,” including such gems as “She has as many brains (saykhl) as a church has mezuzahs!”
Contemporary use of sechel, however, gives little hint of the more serious moral and ethical undercurrents of the word in religious texts. Sechel, and related forms of the term such as maskil and l’haskil, appear more than a hundred times in the Bible. Sechel first appears in the third chapter of Genesis, when Eve comments that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is “desirable as a means to wisdom [l’haskil].” Here the Bible introduces the moral lesson that wisdom can be used for good or for evil, a theme found in later Jewish texts as well. There are, however, numerous biblical references to sechel that foreshadow its contemporary use as “common sense” linked to action. When Jacob intentionally switches his right and left hands in order to give Ephraim, rather than Manasseh, the blessing of the first-born, the word describing this maneuver is seekhayl. In another example, Avigail, whose husband insults King David’s men, tries to appease the king with a bounty of gifts and is described in the text as a woman “of good understanding,” v’ha-isha tovat sechel.
Sechel is also the root of haskalah, the Hebrew word meaning enlightenment, and the name of the 18th- and 19th-century movement that introduced European Jewry to secular ideas and society. As a result, traditionalist religious leaders associated sechel and its derivatives with apostasy. To the maskilim, or enlightened ones, sechel meant ridding Jews of superstitions and stultifying old ways, according to Jack Kugelmass, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Florida. Kugelmass adds that sechel no longer carries these connotations—were he to use the word sechel in class today, his fourth- and fifth-generation students wouldn’t know what he is talking about.
Despite this, plenty of people continue to find sechel useful. It keeps popping up in some unexpected places. A rather curious example is Sechel: Logic Language and Tools to Manage Any Organization as a Network, an organizational management manual by a non-Jewish business strategist named Domenico Lepore. Lepore explains that intuitive insights derived from the study of Chabad Hasidism led him to identify various “faculties” of intellect to improve organization performance. “Only with an acquired sechel,” Lepore explains, “is it possible to manage successfully a conscious and connected organization, one that recognizes the systemic, network and project-like intrinsic nature of the work of any enterprise.”
Why hasn’t sechel entered the English lexicon, like many other commonly used Yiddish words, such as mensch or chutzpah? “Sechel has not been commonly used for several decades by Jews in their interactions with non-Jews,” says Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and creator of the online “Jewish English Lexicon,” which contains 855 words from Yiddish, Hebrew and other languages used by American Jews within English. One explanation may be that in contrast to words like mensch and chutzpah, which have no simple equivalent in English, the principal meanings of sechel—common sense and wisdom—are fully captured in English.
There are those who would say that the world is in desperate need of sechel, whatever language it is expressed in. Says Yiddish scholar and Harvard professor Ruth Wisse: “Three things always come too late—wisdom [sechel], regret and the fire brigade.”