Monday, July 13, 2015


[Links to my books on the historical, Jewish Jesus are at the right.]

As I won’t have access to the Internet for about a month, I probably won’t be able to post again until the end of August.  In the meantime, I want to make one additional comment on the post below. As I said there, the Talmud (actually, all of rabbinic lit) is usually presented as a dry, pedantic debate over rules and rituals, while its poetic glories are ignored. There are scholarly tomes that do this, and that creates one kind of harm. But equally harmful, in my view, are the tossed off comments about the Talmud we find in popular writing. It may be mentioned only in passing, but sure enough, it is always the stereotypical Talmud we get. It becomes the accepted and acceptable assumption that no one wants to challenge.
Why is that the prevailing view and why is it so hard to break free from it? I think Agnes Arber gave the best answer and she wasn’t even writing about the Talmud. Arber was a British botanist, in the 1930’s and 40s, I believe. After a lifetime of experiments in plant morphology, she spent her later years as a philosopher of science. At one point, she had this to say:
“[T]he general intellectual atmosphere of any given moment has an effect upon this history [of science] which is compulsive to a humiliating degree. In every period certain classes of beliefs and ideas have been actively distasteful, and even workers of some independence of mind are found to have shrunk from them as if they were tabooed.” But it isn't only in the history of science. The general intellectual atmosphere in any field is compulsive to a humiliating degree.
She went on to say that anyone who glimpsed a fresh point of view has “too often proceeded to turn his back upon it, reverting to the familiar beaten paths, where he could absorb confidence from the reassuring society of his fellow-workers.” We are, she said, “too much bedazzled” by the pressure, or the Zeitgeist, of contemporary scholarship.
She got it so right. The general intellectual atmosphere is compulsive, everybody wants to fit in and belong to the prevailing stream, but only an Agnes Arber would point out that this is so humiliating for anyone who strives for fresh insights. University education is an exercise in humiliation—an exercise in restraining yourself from doing the right thing—and if you accept it and kowtow, you will be honored. But deep inside, you will be ashamed of yourself for abandoning the search for truth.

The humiliation comes from the facts that you have censored yourself, you have agreed to censor yourself, and all this without a gun being pointed to your head. You have succumbed to a system of hidden signals and unspoken commands which created an atmosphere of self-censorship. They got you to do it to yourself, and so more brutal means did not have to be employed. Self-censorship is the most effective form of censorship in the world. It is humiliating to realize that you helped it along and that it led to a more comfortable life.

I remember a guy I once knew who worked in theatrical make-up. I used to ask him a lot questions. One day, he saw me coming and told me, “I hate you. I hate it whenever you come around.” Why?, I asked. He answered, “Because you make me think and I hate thinking.” I wasn’t trying to make him feel bad. I asked questions because I was just curious. Then he smiled, and said maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. We got along somehow. Maybe what made him so mad was that I reminded him he was restricting his own thinking and no one had forced him to do that, not overtly anyway.

In academia, it is worse. They really hate thinking about the evidence. It is easier to just repeat what everyone knows. To give a fresh look at the evidence can really be such a headache. Why do it, when it is so much easier to give in and stop thinking? Humiliation is not that hard to bear after all. You get used to it.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer

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