As an American I grew up with the concept that freedom of speech is an absolute right granted to all citizens living in a democracy. Regardless of one’s level of competency in any given subject matter, we are free to offer analysis and criticism, sometimes without regard for the potential implication of our words. If you pay attention to the media’s subjective reporting you will realize that opinions are often expressed prior to establishing, or even knowing, the truth.
Many may gleefully chastise Prime Minister Netanyahu for failing to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela without fully understanding his reasoning. Others may berate our President for shaking hands with Raul Castro, although he likely had little alternative. I am definitely not a fan of the current dictator of Cuba, whose hands are stained with the blood of political adversaries, but with the eyes of the whole world upon him, would our president really be representing his constituents by publicly humiliating his adversary?
Even though many are willing to acknowledge some biases in their personal life, a narrow scope seems to be endemic in our society and causes most of us to have predetermined attitudes on many global issues. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) opines that a capital case in which the judges unanimously concur upon the defendant’s guilt without due diligence or investigation would result in the case’s dismissal. In other words, if the court does not review the evidence in a manner that allows for conflicting views, then they have failed to honestly analyze all the relevant data and cannot ethically make a decision regarding the case.
In Parshat Vayechi the Torah indicates that prior to blessing his grandchildren; Yaakov placed his right hand on his grandson Ephraim and his left hand on Menashe. Yosef tried to change Yaakov’s hand by explaining that Menashe was the older child and thus should have Yaakov’s right hand on him. Yosef and Yaakov’s differing personal perspectives caused their misunderstanding. Yaakov saw that Ephraim was destined to be the greater of the two and thus treated him according to who he would eventually become. Yosef was unable to visualize the future and therefore based his understanding solely upon his limited perspective. Although Yosef analyzed the situation correctly according to the facts at his disposal, he was unable to broaden his perspective and grasp the validity of Yaakov’s viewpoint.
In my younger years I taught Gemara to high school students. In my first interaction with my students I would write four words on four separate lines on the blackboard.
I would then ask the students to read what I wrote. Invariably almost everyone would read the words as a sentence with the subject being the color of the shoes. What I tried to impress upon them is that since there is no punctuation, their subjective opinion is influencing their understanding of the words. They can’t prove whether it is a sentence or four individual words. It could be four words written by happenstance that could be formed into a sentence (something mirroring the big bang theory). And if it is true that punctuation was erroneously misplaced or erased, it need not be a period (full stop for the South Africans). It could be a question mark, or even an exclamation point!
Have you heard that the South Koreans have implemented the study of Talmud in their educational curriculum exactly for this reason? Talmudic study enables the individual to examine an issue from different perspectives with an understanding that all their assessments may be wrong.
After many years of study I thought I would be equipped to handle contradictory attitudes and representations. I imagined I had the tools to decipher the machinations and maneuverings of politicians. However, the ever confusing world we live in keeps getting a bit a more confusing. My brain is unable to decipher why people, especially in positions of power and authority, act in ways that in my humble opinion sends messages that run counter to their ultimate goals. If I were advising Netanyahu, I probably would have told him to attend the funeral and perhaps ingratiate his country in the midst of the lion’s den. On the other hand, could I find fault in not willingly entering the lion’s den? If I was advising our President I may have told him to be a good Christian (no, I don’t think he is a Muslim) and turn the other cheek. I would not be using the phrase metaphorically; I would have told him to literally turn his face and show Castro his other cheek, thereby feigning ignorance in his presence. However, he may have understood my idiom to mean something dramatically different than I intended. Yet in my estimation his handshake was a gracious portrayal to the world of the dignity of the American people. More so refraining from offering his hand would have been offensive to his hosts and may have created unnecessary enmity and hatred.
So I conclude by asking you all to become Talmudic scholars. (Our Gemara classes are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 4:15 pm.) Realize that no matter what opinion you take there is an equally good argument for the opposing position. Schools should teach debate as a hybrid program of the English and Talmud departments so that students learn the art of being able to take different perspectives and analyze from different angles. This form of debate may be the essential ingredient for coexistence in a rather confusing world.
Rabbi Jack Engel