Francis Nataf

For the sin of elitism

Being educated can lead to arrogance and the automatic discounting of those less knowledgeable
Illustrative (via iStock)
Illustrative (via iStock)

I have been meaning to write about elitism ever since the 2016 US elections. And I have been meaning to atone for my own elitism since then as well. But its difficulty keeps getting in the way. By difficulty, I don’t mean that it is something particularly hard to understand. Rather I find it a great personal challenge to deal with the reality that much of my own upbringing and identity is connected with this defect.

Like most weaknesses, elitism is easier to recognize in others than in oneself. And 2016 was far from the first time this issue came up and that I could have woken to it. It has actually been a recurring theme in the downward slide of the Labor Party in Israel ever since 1977. But the particularly contentious and bitter tones of the last American election made it something almost impossible to simply push away with the proverbial morning paper. More than anything else, the hurt and anger of a great many average Americans at being thought of as “deplorables” shocked me into realizing that the problem was not only with Hillary Clinton. The fact that someone as intelligent as Clinton could use a term that would so obviously be taken as an insult by so many (even if it was intended more narrowly) only shows how insidious this problem actually is. And that realization spurred me to think more seriously about the damage I myself might be inflicting with my own elitism.

Part of the difficulty is that I do not regret those things that make me a part of certain elites. Nor should I. Education is a good thing, and knowledge has tremendous potential to help others and to engender personal fulfillment. The problem is that it can also too easily lead to arrogance and the automatic discounting of those less knowledgeable. And not only is the latter common today, it is nearly ubiquitous. Whether it is in universities or even in the yeshivot, the “uneducated” are almost always seen as a legitimate target for derision and scorn.

But there is one thing that one does not need a great deal of education to know, and that is when one is summarily discounted. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama recently coined the term, isothymia, by which he means the powerful feeling of wanting “to be seen as just as good as everyone else.” Of course Aretha Franklin put that need much more simply, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

While most elites recognize that every individual has the right to the basic dignity that comes with being a human being, I don’t think that is enough. What is needed is a mechanism through which elites recognize that all men and women come with real and valuable strengths as well as weaknesses. That is to say that true respect for others only begins when one feels they have something important to contribute.

Does that mean that the educated need to pretend that ideas rooted in ignorance, prejudice or superstition deserve serious consideration? The answer to that is obviously no. But one must also recognize that erudition is not always the key to understanding, and that tradition and intuition can often be sources of great wisdom. Moreover, this is something that earlier more communally-minded elites often recognized.

Hence the great modern Jewish thinker, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, argued that ignoring the virtues of Jewish “ignoramuses” (amei ha’aretz) comes at a great cost to the Jewish elites and to the community as a whole. He writes that knowledge can actually get in the way of internalizing natural morality, and that – while the masses also have what to learn from scholarly elites – scholars must likewise seek to learn those virtues that are more easily understood by the masses. Voltaire’s Candide comes to much the same conclusion, when the young philosopher and his teachers are not able to find any wiser words than those they finally hear from a simple Turkish farmer. Though the latter knows little about philosophy and world affairs, he is still able to teach the others of the need to pursue work that would keep them away from boredom, vice and poverty.

The Jewish tradition generally frowns upon the public airing of sins. I am doing so nonetheless in the hope that it will help others become more aware of a problem that is steadily undermining society. Diverse nations and communities are kept together in spite of inequality of resources based on the notion that we are all somehow working together towards common ends. We desperately need that feeling to reassert itself.

Hence in the midst of this season of Jewish introspection, I welcome the company of others elitists to think more carefully about our attitudes and assumptions, and to take the first step in bringing our fractured society back together.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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