Analyzing a Rabbinic Quip

I recently heard a quip attributed to a contemporary rabbi: “When people say the rabbis are sexist, what they really mean is God is sexist.”

I have heard similar words before; I think the trope deserves analysis.

On the one hand . . .

The overt message, what I think the speaker means to convey, what in Hebrew we call the nimshal, and in literary terms, the tenor, deserves respectful consideration.

Risk-aversive thinkers typically make this argument: please do not change the way we currently do things. We should curate the way we currently do things.  In religious terms, God commands our way; in secular terms, our way has evolved over centuries of changing cultures, or over millennia of human evolution, and, like a polished stone in a stream, our way has achieved a kind of perfection.  Changing our way, even if you decide to change for rational considerations, probably will lead to unforeseeable and negative unintended consequences.  Who knows what could happen if we make changes?

Risk-averse thinkers sometimes get it right. Changes often do lead to unforeseen consequences, sometimes with tragic results.

Risk-accepting thinkers respond with an argument that also commands respect. All human progress started with risky change. If we can see the obvious benefits of a change, we should try it. Probably it will improve the current situation in the way we hope.  If it does not, or if it does have those bad consequences, do not worry, we can always make further changes.

Risk-accepting thinkers sometimes get it right. Changes do lead to improvements, sometimes with enormous benefits. Risk-aversive thinkers, in spite of their self-image, do take risks. Sometimes we do need to change, and refusing to change then can lead to disaster.

We probably benefit from the tension between those risk-accepting and the risk-aversive thinkers. Even if the tension does not benefit us, we cannot escape from that tension which has deep roots in how humans make decisions.

In 1924, G. K. Chesterton rather cynically described that inevitable tension:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition.  (Illustrated London News).

On the other hand . . .

The literal surface meaning of the quip, in Hebrew, the mashal, in literary terms, the vehicle, what the speaker uses to convey his message — has its own meaning.

In literal terms, the speaker conveys his belief that someone who disagrees with “the rabbis,” himself included, on this issue actually disagrees with God. The speaker claims to know what the rabbis believe, and also what God does.  So the speaker speaks, not only for the rabbis, but also for God.  In doing so, the speaker in effect claims the role, not of wisdom, but of prophecy.

Of course the speaker does not mean for us to take this claim literally.  He knows that the Torah forbids claiming prophecy that one has not received (Deut. 18:20; Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, negative commandment #27; Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 5:8; Sefer HaHinnukh #517).  He says this only in jest, as a quip, to add rhetorical force to his sincere and heartfelt opposition to feminism.

Even so, I was taught that one does not attribute prophecy to someone even in jest.

Do I overstate the case? Perhaps the speaker claims, not by prophecy, but by his superior knowledge of Torah, that he knows the truth, and anyone who interprets the Torah differently has absolutely misconstrued the Torah.

A risk-aversive secular thinker could make the parallel claim, that he knows the scientific truth absolutely, and that anyone who interprets the evidence differently has absolutely misconstrued the evidence.

How can one respond to such sincere certitude?

Greater sincerity and greater conviction does not necessarily correlate with greater accuracy.  Scientific knowledge, Karl Popper taught us, remains contingent: theory that conforms to current experimental results counts as true, and remains true until we see conflicting results.  In Torah, we can posit that the Torah is truth; if so, our interpretation must be suspect.

Sometimes greater conviction can correlate with weaker cognitive insight, the failure to imagine that one might be wrong.

That is what I think.  But I might be wrong.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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