Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Tragedy of Talmudic Compartmentalization

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 at 5:47 am

David Brooks, in today’s New York Times complains about what a singularly unreflective society we have become. Where once the mental toughness of self examination was expected as part of what was commonly called ‘character’, nowadays such reflection is condemned as being weak.  Nuance is a code word for lack of conviction. When President Obama makes a general statement about freedom of religion and its place in this country and then qualifies it by saying that he was not telling New York where the mosque should be (for other reasons then freedom of religion), he is ‘backtracking’.  There is no room for qualifying statements.  Everything must pass through the crucible of ideological purity. Here’s Brooks.

In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.

But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.

The Talmudic tradition is one where reflection and nuance are compulsory.  The craft of refining an argument, only to find a flaw, and then refine it again is the essential stuff of Jewish learning.  The most adept practitioners of this discipline, are often among the least integrated of thinkers when the tome is closed and is then replaced by the pressing issues of the day.  That same intellectual, and dare I say, spiritual thinking, is replaced by group-think that is as nuanced as the wasteland of cable TV news.  The discourse, the process of learning is replaced by the convenience of the “code” that only teaches one what to do, and does not bother to engage him in the process of how we come to know.

This is why the Shulchan Arukh was eschewed by some thinkers at the time.  Better communal practices be a little chaotic than possibly having the hordes mindlessly practicing in lockstep.   The Maharal imagined that people may stop learning, but that’s not what happened.  People continue to learn, but learning is a theoretical enterprise, a mitzvah, that has no applicability to the world. The following popular Talmudic passage requires more scrutiny than it is often given.

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: Three years the Beit Shammai disagreed with the Beit Hillel. One group said: The Law is the way we see it.

The other group said: The Law is the way we see it.

A came forth and said: These and these are the words of the living God! And the Law is the way the Beit Hillel sees it!

Since “These and these are the words of the living God”, why did the Beit Hillel deserve to have the Law go as they saw it? Because they were gracious and humble, and would teach their opinion and the opinion of Beit Shammai, not only that, but they would always teach Beit Shammai’s version first before they taught their version. (Eruvin 13b)

It is not, as often understood, that Beit Hillel‘s position was preferred because they were nicer guys.  The consequence of that understanding would undermine the intellectual rigor of the process.  Instead, it was the humility and graciousness of Hillel that allowed them to engage, consider, and reflect upon the opinion of Beit Shammai.  Beit Hillel understood that considering the other opinion, responding to its challenges and possibly modifying their position, authenticated their quest for truth.  Quoting Shammai first was not only a token of respect, it was a reminder that Beit Shammai’s point of view was taken into account when they formulated their opinion.  It wasn’t that they were merely warmer and fuzzier, it was that humility and graciousness also can, and should make one more nuanced, more thoughtful, and truer to the essential nature of the Talmudic process.

It would seem that true rabbinic leadership would model this training in its approach to the political and halachic challenges of our time. Well, don’t hold your breath.

  1. I seem to be the only one who comments here, but keep going, this is great stuff. I was reading the book Navaradock and was struck by just how much self reflection and teasing out the truth about your own biases was once a major departure point for effective Jewish practice. Yes, we have tried to insulate ourselves from the general culture but in the world of critical thinking we have adopted every standard of the lowest end of global culture.

  2. @David. I always am looking for a new essay from Avi. I suppose I’m guilty of lurking rather than commenting, but I often link to this blog for other people to see, and sometimes copy them and send them via email. Just saying so, because I agree its great stuff. The thinking and the quality of the writing both shine

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