We Need to Get Over Ourselves

April 17, 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how people will fiercely defend their political party and attack the opposing party even when they do the exact same thing. For example, anyone in the public eye will misspeak on occasion. When their guy mangles a word, he’s a half-wit, but when our guy does it, he’s a brilliant wordsmith, coining new phrases. People stump for their own political allies in times of scandal while calling for the resignation and/or imprisonment of opponents implicated in identical circumstances.

Obviously, if we were objective, we would apply standards fairly and judge people based on their actions, not based on how much they agree with our own political views. Why can’t we be more objective?

Blame Adam and Eve.

Why blame Adam and Eve? Because they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. (Full name: The Tree of Knowledge between Good and Evil.) Once they ate the fruit, they discerned good and bad. One might think that’s a desirable thing but, as Maimonides explains in his Guide for the Perplexed, the “good versus evil” dichotomy supplanted man’s original way of seeing things, which was “true versus false.”
This is a problem because true and false are objective. Something either is or it isn’t. Good and bad, on the other hand, are matters of opinion. Classical music is good and rock is bad. That is, unless you’re a rock aficionado. Hamburgers are excellent–unless you’re a vegetarian, some of whom feel that eating meat is akin to murder. The good/bad thing colors every aspect of our lives. Once I’ve decided that a thing is “good,” I’m more likely to overlook its flaws. If I’ve deemed it “bad,” I will find fault no matter what.

This is the case in every political debate: health care, the environment, marriage rights, gun control, the Middle East, you name it – each side of any issue sees itself as “good” and the other as “bad.” There can only be one “true,” but everyone writes their own definition of what’s “good.”

This good/bad dichotomy raises its ugly head in matters of religion as well. “I can’t understand why God would want me to do such a thing,” one might say, “therefore I reject it.” There may be no logical reason we can see to hang a tiny scroll on our doorposts, but most people would not find that offensive so they do it. But what about when the Torah’s point of view conflicts with one’s own preconceived ideas of good and bad? “A loving God would never say that,” one argues, “so I’m taking that verse out of my Bible.” There are many people, of all religions, who quote scripture and verse in support of some positions while ignoring the same when it conflicts with other opinions.

This is all a matter of ego. We just can’t admit that our ideas may be incorrect and look at things objectively. What we need to accomplish is the hardest thing for a human being to do: we need to get over ourselves.

I can’t do calculus, though there are many who can. I recognize my mathematical shortcomings and I would certainly defer to a mathematician in matters of calculus. If I know I don’t understand calculus, how could I presume to understand the One Who created it?

If G-d is Omniscient (which He is), by definition I’m not going to be able to understand everything He says. If it would be arrogant for me to second-guess a mathematician in matters of calculus, how supremely arrogant would it be for me to second-guess G-d?

Sadly, though, our good/bad dichotomy blurs our vision and makes our judgment, well, “only human.” Even the best of us fall into this trap.

The Torah very rarely comes right out and tells us the reasons for mitzvot. In some rare examples, it does tell us why a king may not gather an excessive number of wives and horses. For the king to have too many wives would lead to idolatry, while having too many horses would cause the people to return to Egypt. King Solomon was the wisest of all men. He thought, “I can gather wives and horses without it being a problem.” As we see in the Book of Kings, Solomon married many women to cement treaties with other countries; they ended up erecting idols in his palace. Solomon maintained large stables; people moved to Egypt to engage in the horse trade. If the world’s smartest man, who was told the reasons for these mitzvot outright, could fall prey to this human frailty, how much more so are we in danger of doing so!

If it’s that easy to justify ignoring a Torah law, just think how easy it would be to overlook a rabbinic enactment – especially if you’re one of the rabbis of the Talmud who made such rules! The Sages instituted that one may not read by the light of an oil lamp on Shabbos. The reason for this is that the light might flicker, causing one to tilt the lamp in order to better draw its oil. Like King Solomon, Rabbi Yishmael figured, “I can read by the light of an oil lamp–I just won’t tilt it!” Unfortunately, one Shabbos he was so engrossed in his learning that when the light flickered, he instinctively reached out and adjusted it. When he realized what he had done, Rabbi Yishmael had to concede that his colleagues knew what they were talking about.

If so much discord is caused by ego, which prevents us from looking at things objectively, the cure is intellectual honesty. We see such intellectual honesty in the story of Nachman Ha’Amsuni. The Talmud in Kiddushin relates how Nachman Ha’Amsuni expounded every occurrence in the Torah of the word “es,” a particle that serves a grammatical purpose but has no meaning in and of itself. When he came to a particular verse, he realized that his premise for this style of interpretation was incorrect. Upon making this realization, he retracted all of his previous interpretations. His students pressed him not to retract since he said many good things. Nevertheless, Nachman Ha’Amsuni refused because he realized he had been building upon a faulty foundation. “Just as I was rewarded for expounding these verses when I thought I was correct,” he said, “so will I be rewarded for retracting my explanations now that I know I am wrong.”

Most people would justify “fudging the numbers” in such circumstances rather than throw out years of work, especially if the consensus was that they had done a “good” thing. Nachman Ha’Amsuni, however, had risen above the good/bad dichotomy. He was only interested in what was true. He knew that the real reward would be had for changing his mind in light of the facts, not for sticking to his guns.
That’s the challenge for us. Do we possess the flexibility and the intellectual honesty to rise above our preconceived blinders of good versus bad? If we can accomplish this, we will enjoy a truly enlightened way of looking at the world.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of four books, including The Tzniyus Book, available on Amazon. His fifth book, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press.

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