Friday, December 10, 2021

Trying To Overlook For the Sake Of...?

I have to credit Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks with showing me how Talmud works, that the comments boxing the scripture are part of a discussion, so there is no contradiction when they contradict each other. I wrote about "What is wealth?" a dozen years ago, based heavily on Rabbi Sacks teaching on the matter. I am grateful to him and credit him with being wiser than I.

There is is set of podcasts of his teaching that I tried out, as I am running my current batch into the ground. I am torn. In the course of one talk, he

1. Fell for the usual over-interpretation of Solomon Asch's conformity experiment, not recognising its limitations.

2. Recited the conventional wisdom about nationalism as the chief cause of international evil.

3. Repeated the CW on Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment without qualifiers, as if it illustrated a great truth. (It doesn't.)

4. Misunderstood Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" in the usual way, as a paean to nonconformity. Frost intended a near-opposite, that we could not see the future and it didn't much matter which we chose, but we would all believe in retrospect our choice had been significant.

5. Attributed the outsized influence of Jews to their nonconformity rather than ability. I don't mind this one as much, as there is something to it.  Just not enough to make it quite true.

All this in a 9 minute podcast.  It's hard to listen to things like this stacked on top of each other like that.  Sacks is reciting what is the standard line believed by liberal intellectuals, particularly Jews, from 1970-2020. While that's understandable and not especially terrible or evil in a man who was a Jewish intellectual 1970-2020, it is distressing when his main message is nonconformity.  He actually displays entire conformity.

Yet all this was embedded in a lesson about Noah, who the Torah declares to be a righteous man, ultimately not being as worthy as Abraham, whose faults are catalogued in Scripture. Noah was personally righteous but did not stand up for anyone but himself.  He and his family were saved, but he deteriorates throughout the story and is ultimately an embarrassment.  Abraham, on the other hand, intervenes to resolve conflict with Lot's servants and his own without regard to his own advantage; he then defends Lot even when he doesn't need to; and finally intervenes even with God Himself for Sodom's fate for the sake of the righteous, and grows in stature throughout the story. Sacks uses this to show that this is the importance of the Jews in every age, to not conform and to stand up for justice.

It's an interesting interpretation and I am still chewing on it.  But I don't know how much I can take, even in 9-minute bits.


JMSmith said...

Nonconformity is a virtue only when the standards to which one is not conforming are bad standards. I don't suppose Sacks sees anything admirable in nonconforming motorists or mathematicians. There is, moreover, a strong hint of egotism in nonconformity, since the nonconformist assumes, normally without evidence, that he or she is gifted with moral insights most other humans lack. This doesn't mean the majority is always right, only that the burden of proof is on the nonconformist and not the conformist.

We are all of us peculiar in one way or another, and most of these peculiarities are morally neutral. They cease to be morally neutral when they become a source or pride or shame. I'm not at all sure that pride in peculiarities isn't worse than shame. It is certainly more ridiculous.

I agree with your assessment of Sacks, although I know him only from quotations. The Liberal Mind has to think of itself as David fighting Goliath, although the Liberal mind has been Goliath for many, many years.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"...the burden of proof is on the nonconformist and not the conformist." Yes. Cliches got that way for a reason. They aren't always right, but sometimes it's better to be Burkean and say "Maybe 1000 years of trial and erro0r was actually worth something."

james said...

It's hard to say much about Noah. We get lots of incidents involving Abraham, but only a few for Noah, and only one where he's interacting with other people--and that one is a bit obscure.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think that is Talmud, trying to squeeze every drop from the Torah, sometimes into the implausible.