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The Profound Danger Of Obviousness

Peshitta!

La, tzrikha…

Mahu d’teima.

This is no mystical incantation, a magical abracadabra hocus-pocus charm akin to that of the witches in Macbeth. It is the Aramaic rendering of the technical shorthand for a common logical argument found in the Talmud:

This is obvious!

No, it needs to be said,

For you might have said that…

We have before us one of the most deceptively simple logical arguments found in the discussions of the Talmud, the vast compendium of Jewish law, legend, and life wisdom. The three-step argument generally follows a mishnah, a passage of the oral law tradition that accompanies and expands the written Torah (the five books of Moses). It comes to correct the erroneous thinking of a person reading the passage who assumes that something in it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be stated in the first place.

Laid out in layperson’s terms, this is how the argument works:

“What we just read in our mishnah passage seems obvious, and didn’t need to be stated, given that these passages of tradition are generally quite sparing in their language, shunning superfluous words. But in fact, what you the reader assumed is obvious is not obvious at all. No, in fact, we need these words in our teaching. Why?  Without them, you might have incorrectly assumed x,y, or z.  Therefore, the mishnah needed to teach explicitly what you thought was obvious.”

An excellent example of this “argument-against-the-obvious” is found in Tractate Megillah, the Talmudic discussion of the laws of Torah reading and of the Purim holiday. There, a mishnah passage teaches that the community reads the creation story of Genesis in public and translates it so that everyone can understand it. (Aramaic translation of each verse of the Torah read in public was our ancestors’ version of the dual language Bible.) The Talmud asks, “pshitta!” Isn’t it obvious that we when read this passage in public we translate it? After all, it is the very first reading of the annual Torah reading cycle, and one of the most majestic testimonies to God’s creative power. Why teach this procedural rule at all? The Talmud then answers its own rhetorical question, “la, tzrikha!” No, it is necessary for the mishnah to teach this rule, despite its seeming obviousness. Why? “Mahu d’teima”: without this teaching, you and I might assume that Jewish law would censor the public translation of the creation to prevent congregants listening to it from understanding it, then engaging in dangerous, heretical speculation about the mysteries of creation, based upon its words. Therefore, the mishnah had to make clear that the creation story is translated when read in public.  (Megillah 25a)

I suggest that this specific teaching and the peshitta argument it employs are connected at a deeper level. The logic of this argument gently but persistently harangues me to sharpen my critical thinking and commitment to honesty:  just because something – or something about someone – appears obvious does not mean that it is. For the vast majority of what I encounter in my life, I should not assume something is obvious; I should not necessarily assume anything. I should take a closer look, ask closer questions, discover the complex truth/s possibly lying close – or far- beneath the appearances, the obviousness. Assuming and/or dismissing the seemingly obvious is often a prescription for sloppy thinking, insufferable self-righteousness, and the usual nasty bigotries that flow from them.

Our mishnah teaching above provides us with a good example of this dangerous scenario. In ancient times, there were likely well-respected religious leaders who would have happily denied access to the story of creation to the “Jews in the pews” of their day. These rabbis had their own version of peshitta logic: “the common folk are too stupid or too gullible to be empowered with knowledge of ‘heavenly matters’ that could cause them to speculate, or God forbid, to arrive at conclusions at variance with the establishment’s teaching. Why challenge them to think? It is too hard and too risky. Better to censor the translation of that majestic narrative than to trust the Jew on the street to be able to think for him or herself about its spiritual meaning and its ramifications for faith.” Elitism dressed shabbily as comforting religious protectiveness. You and I would have had our own peshitta moment, encountering the mishnah: “is it not obvious that everyone should know what scripture is saying, that our religious institutions are obligated to make sure not to raise ignoramuses?” Sadly, because not everyone would have consented to such popular empowerment, the mishnah had to make clear: translate our most holy words in public, render them accessible and intelligible to everyone, thereby challenging them to ask great questions, to force themselves to look beyond assumptions of the obvious, beyond dogmas, to get into “good trouble” intellectually, morally, spiritually and politically.

Admittedly, the truth of some assertions is obvious, and to insist upon arguing both sides of a debate about these kinds of assertions often invites not clarity but confusion. This is especially the case when ideologues or dogmatists across the religious, political and cultural spectrum elevate their own opinions to the status of their own facts. Yet I cannot shake my growing terror that our contemporary dialogues about so many other diverse matters, so many opinions so passionately held by such a diversity of human beings are degenerating to a point of no return, whereby our facile assumptions replace thoughtful courage, curiosity and compassion. Siloing ourselves into dogmatic communities of convenient conviction, we feed on the comfort food of sloppy, often bigoted assumptions about people and politics. Our handlers, the power elites who wish us uninformed, unquestioning, unchallenging, are happy to stuff us full of “complacent obviousness”. Yet as any cow feeding off silage from the silo learns too late, not moving from the happy feedbox of complacency only makes it easier to be led to the slaughter.

The Talmud’s peshitta argument is not a grand solution for this dangerous state of human affairs. It is a subtle yet profound demand that we think for ourselves, question widely and deeply beyond the simplistic dogmas passing for religious, political, and moral truth, read what makes us uncomfortable, enter conversations with people we find strange or threatening, reject assumptions about what seems evident.

Peshitta! What appears so obvious today, so unnecessary to be reiterated, might well be the wakeup call I need to become a better person building a better society. Without it, I might have assumed that which is untrue, that which, without correction, could chip away at truth and at the search for truth. At least this much I know to be obvious.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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