Gracie Allen, Talmudic Scholar

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Talmudic Scholar

Reporter: Where were you born?

Gracie: San Francisco.

Reporter: And were you the oldest?

Gracie: Oh, no! My parents were much older!

I’ve been enjoying a lot of Burns and Allen lately. George Burns was the straight man and his wife, Gracie Allen, got all the laughs. But while her high-pitched voice was real, her “dizzy dame” persona was not. In fact, she was quite brilliant. While George Burns’ career lasted decades beyond hers, Gracie retired in 1958, six years before her death, due to the stress of always having to be “on.” (Gracie always stayed in character when in public so as not to spoil the illusion.)

Harry Von Zell: After being with George for seven years, imagine him paying me that salary for the work I do. It’s disgraceful!

Gracie: Well, if you think your work is that disgraceful then you shouldn’t ask for a raise.

Contrary to popular conception, Gracie Allen’s character was not stupid, dumb, dizzy or airheaded. She was intelligent and insightful. This epiphany occasionally occurred to others. (In the words of Harry Morton, a character on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, “I have come to the conclusion that, addlepated as she is, Gracie is the smart one in the family!”) Gracie Allen demonstrated the capacity to take what others said and see it from another point of view. If we say something and don’t realize that it can be interpreted in two ways, that’s a limitation in us. Gracie had no such limits.

Blanche Morton: But she’s 20 years younger than he is!

Gracie: So what? They’re crazy about each other! They’re as much in love as Napoleon and Cleopatra!

Blanche: Napoleon and Cleopatra? They were at least 2,000 years apart!

Gracie: You see? If it worked for them, why should only 20 years matter to Harry and Vivian?

The ability to see things differently is a gift possessed by brilliant minds – how else do you explain a hip hop Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton? (Before it evolved into a full-blown show, Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda told then-President Barack Obama that he planned to write a rap about Alexander Hamilton. The president reportedly responded, “Well, good luck with that.”)

Despite what one may think, Steve Jobs did not invent the smartphone – not by a long shot! Smartphones had been available since 1994 (IBM’s Simon) but a decade later, the most popular phone was the Motorola Razr, largely because of how incredibly thin it was. If we had followed conventional thinking on phone technology, we would all be talking today on phones as thin as credit cards that only offered talk and text. Jobs was a visionary who saw the potential for the smartphone, which is why today we all have iPhones and Androids. (Apple’s motto “Think Different” drives me crazy – grammatically, it should be “Think Differently” – but I guess that’s just another example of their company ethos in action.)

This ability to “think different(ly)” is also valued in Judaism. Our most brilliant scholars were not masters of memorization and spitback, they were able to see layers of depth and nuance that were beyond most people. The Talmud tells us that no one in his generation was as brilliant as Rabbi Meir, who could offer convincing proofs that impure things were pure, or vice versa. The only reason the law does not generally follow Rabbi Meir’s opinions is because his thinking was so far beyond the grasp of his colleagues that they could not substantiate the arguments that he advanced (Eiruvin 13b).

Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:2) tells us that a judge was not qualified to open the argument for an accused’s person acquittal unless he could argue 100 reasons why a dead vermin is ritually pure and 100 reasons why it is ritually impure. Such an important task requires the ability to see beyond the box in which most people dwell.

A famous seeing-beyond-the-box story is told about the Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik). Shortly before Passover, a woman came and asked if she could use milk instead of wine for the four cups. He responded by giving her 20 rubles, far more than was necessary to purchase a bottle or two of merlot! When asked by his students why he had given the woman so much, the Beis HaLevi pointed out that she hadn’t asked about using water, she asked about using milk. From this he inferred that she also lacked meat and other necessities for the holiday.

Thinking outside the box keeps things interesting. An apocryphal tale, popularly but dubiously attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, involves a student asked how to determine the height of a skyscraper by using a barometer. The student described lowering the barometer from the roof with a rope and then measuring the rope, dropping the barometer off the building and timing its fall, measuring the length of the shadows cast by both the barometer and the building, and many other solutions – including saying to the janitor, “If you’ll tell me the height of this skyscraper, I’ll give you this barometer!” As an afterthought (and probably because he wanted to pass the exam), the student said, “If you want to be boring about it, you could always use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof and on the ground, converting the difference in millibars into feet.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how all of the student’s solutions are equally (albeit unconventionally) valid, how obvious smartphone popularity is, and how apparent the poor woman’s dilemma should have been. As with Gracie Allen’s brilliant insights, something always seems off to us at first – Why are you swinging that barometer like a pendulum? Why is your phone so thick? Why did you give that woman so much money? In all of these cases, however, it takes a visionary to point out the wisdom. These people don’t just think outside the box, they make the box bigger for all of us. As George Burns once said of his wife, “Once you understand Gracie’s logic, everything gets to be normal.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.