One recent morning I found myself reading, sequentially, columns by Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, and Michael Gerson, and nodding my head in agreement. When I realized the identities of the authors, I felt a particular kind of satisfaction, one which I suspect is a familiar feeling for many of us.
The reassurance came from this: all three writers are either members of, or former members of, a political party other than the one I usually identify with. It was an almost self-satisfied puffed-up feeling, a kind of “see, even they agree with me.” As if that, in and of itself, proved the point.
But when I took a hard look at this kind of… smug… reaction on my part, I realized that something problematic was going on. And then Alan Dershowitz went the rounds on TV (all the networks, as far as I could tell, covering all biases with equal enthusiasm on camera), and gave this feeling I was having a name.
In American law, apparently, this is called a statement, or declaration, or “admission against interest.” It is the idea that if a party says something which is not in their apparent interest, that statement should be given extra credibility.
Now, let’s look at this idea. And let’s put politics aside; I think what we are dealing with here is a human reaction, a psychological impulse equally shared across all partisan perspectives. In an argument, when we make a point, and someone who is overall aligned against us, or opposed to us, agrees with or concedes the point, we feel… validated. It is a kind of extra dose of reassurance.
My discomfort in being aware of this, though, is the inherent bias against bias. There is an assumption that our interests will taint our thinking, our orientation or disposition will corrupt our process.
But why? Why can’t a passionate advocate for a cause also be one who thinks clearly?
Some scientists are actually starting to answer that question, or trying to. Apparently there are actual differences in the brains of those who are conservative and those who are liberal. Our orientation and inclination does affect the way we see and process information.
But from a moral point of view – and a spiritual one – I find something deeply disturbing here. As a moral human being, and as a Jew, I am committed to the idea that it is possible to be an advocate with integrity. I believe with all my heart that you can, at the same time, love fiercely, and see clearly.
Jewish tradition teaches that prophecy ceased long ago. (As a historical footnote and tangent here, Jewish tradition believes that prophecy ended with Malachi, who wrote in the fifth century BCE. Because the book of Daniel was written more than two centuries later than Malachi – even though it claims to have been written 150 years earlier – that is why Jews do not consider Daniel a prophet, and place his book in the Writings, the third part of the Hebrew Bible, not the Prophets. As I understand it, many Christians do consider Daniel a prophet on equal footing with Isaiah and Jeremiah, and therefore take his proto-messianic visions more seriously.)
For me, though, the relevant question now is not when was prophecy, but what made a prophet? For it is not, in fact, accurately predicting the future. There are, indeed, preserved predictions by each of the major prophets in the Hebrew Bible which did not come to be.
No, the goal of the prophets was to influence behavior, and shape the future. So if someone actually heeded their warnings, and changed their behavior, well… that was good! Even if it meant leaving in writing, for all to see, a prediction that did not come about.
What distinguished a prophet was not accurate predictions, but emotional positions. It fell on the prophet to stand in the breach – to argue for God in front of the people, and to be an advocate for the people before God. No wonder they were unpopular!
But on the other hand, this… this is a deep and fierce love. And prophecy may have ceased, but it is a love available to any of us.
What is a healthy love? Or the best advocate? Or a partisan in the purist sense, pure being a moral category not a superlative amplifying divisiveness. It is a patriotism of internal protest, an advocate who is aspirational.
I started out referring to politics, and parties. But this issue of who and how we find reassurance about ourselves echoes deeply for me, in issues of spiritual identity. After all, I have, can, and probably will give support over time to different political parties. For me, being Jewish is really a core part of who I am.
I do cherish positive praise for Jews and Judaism coming from those who are not Jewish. We all would. So there is… something… understandable… about the “admission against interest.” A sense of support from a source who is, at best, otherwise neutral or disinclined to be supportive.
But in our lives, our positions, and our core sense of who we are, we should not need external confirmation, or validation from others. If… If we know that within our “camp,” our “group,” our “tribe” are those who seek and speak truth, who have vision and values, who are able to see us how we are, say what must be said, and love us anyway.