A Malnourishment of Modesty

letter-447577_1280

In one of his wonderful collections of essays (The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher), the late physician Lewis Thomas tells of a highly successful doctor (a senior citizen back when Dr. Thomas’ father was an intern) in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital who was trained before the medical profession understood how disease spreads.

The elder doctor was renowned for his remarkable ability to diagnose typhoid fever, a common disease at that time and place. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. His ward rounds, the younger Dr. Thomas recounts, “were essentially tongue rounds.” Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease “in its earliest stages over and over again” and turn out, “a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone’s amazement.”

The essayist wryly concludes: “He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary.”

I was reminded of the account by another, more recent, example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a report that New York’s elected officials want to revoke the “Rockefeller Laws.” Enacted in 1973 as a popular response to the societal plague of narcotics use at the time, those statutes, championed by New York’s then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. Similar laws were soon adopted elsewhere.

Over ensuing decades, though, the laws in other states were revoked, and now New York’s governor and legislative leaders have announced their intention to repeal many of the original “Rockefeller Laws,” giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders for treatment instead of to prison.

What provoked the abandonment of those drug laws was that in the wake of their enactment both New York’s prison population and its percentage of incarcerated drug offenders more than tripled. The attendant costs were not only financial but human: minorities and women were disproportionately affected, and recreational drug users who entered the prison system left it as hardened criminals.

It is sobering to consider that our best laid plans, even when born of sincere concern and seeming logic, can turn against us. The sobriety should impart, if nothing else, a modicum of modesty, a reluctance to feel as certain as we so often do that the paths we choose will lead where we want.

There are, of course, certainties in life, deep convictions that we rightly embrace without reservation. Religious Jews, for instance, affirm that Creation has a purpose and that the goals of their own lives are defined by G-d’s will as communicated through the Torah. We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they doctors, lawyers or religious leaders. But to proclaim our own independent, personal certitude about a political or social position, to assume that any of us can know without question that a particular political philosophy, foreign policy, government official or piece of legislation is good (or bad) is, always, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

To be sure, we have every right to make our personal analyses and to take positions on such people and things, to advocate what we think is wise and to make the cases for our opinions. But as we do, it is beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our brights and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their minds.” For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Unfortunately, newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery. And contrary to the claims of some of its enthusiasts, such “free speech” does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; it suffocates them.

Contemporary society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty. It is evident not only in the realm of the physical – in contemporary dress and mores – but in attitudes toward issues as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so certain are so many of so much.

And so, suffused with self-assurance, the cavalier march forward, their points of view extended before them like bayonet tips. Confident of the infallibility of their judgment, the righteousness of their causes and the dire threat posed by others’ perspectives, they generously share not only their conclusions but their ill will, every bit as effectively as a doctor at a New York hospital once propagated a different disease.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Albie says:

    Reb Yid: I think you’re right. And I suggest CC readers check out the Jewish Week op-eds on the subject, one from a proponent of the bill and one from Agudah’s Rabbi Zwiebel against it. But I think that the tone and content of the two pieces support Rabbi Shafran’s point.

    The pro-bill writer is accusatory and doesn’t concede the possibility that the opponents have any valid point. The anti-bill writer (Zwiebel) defends his position very well but doesn’t personalize it at all, and states clearly that he understands why those in the other camp feel like they do.

    And, in general, the anti-Markey (the bill’s called that) crowd is all over the place (especially on Jewish radio in New York)calling anyone who disagrees with them uncaring about children (and even nastier things). The anti-Markey groups — Agudah and Torah Umesora are two of them — have never (at least from all that I’ve read)called the other side’s sincerity into question or insinuated that they don’t like yeshivos.

    Izgad: “Brash judgments”? “Infallible”? I think you’re overreacting. Some rabbis have simply rendered their own opinion on a subject that you feel strongly about. Has anyone eally said you aren’t a “legitimate frum Jew” because you go to university? Or even because you “believe” in evolution (I think what you mean is that you judge the evidence for it compelling)? I know a few rabbis who feel very strongly about the issue and would consider your view on it wrong. But they would never consider you anything less than a mistaken Jew.

  2. Noah Katz says:

    “We know the laws of destructive speech, but we can only practice them ourselves, not propagate them in the public sphere? Or can we? Is there a way to educate the public in this regard, even the non-Jewish or non-religious public?”

    In my personal experience, practicing does lead to propagation in the public sphere. At multiple workplaces, others have adjusted their tone, style, and (unfortunate) choice of words because – and they’ve told it straight to my face – they ‘know it makes me uncomfortable to hear.’ This is of course with non-Jews looking at, and reacting to my actions and behavior; regrettably it doesn’t seem to affect the people ‘attending’ shul in the row ahead of me while I’m davening.

    Look around and see if any improvement in other people’s behavior is happening, due to your example of just acting and talking and behaving properly. If you see that improvement, then you are making an impact on the world.

    It isn’t a failure if everyone you meet doesn’t change for the better; it is a success if anyone you meet does change for the better.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    A Guide To The Perplexed

    For those who are wondering what the author is driving at, my hunch is you’ll find the answer by Googling “Child Victims Act of New York”. It’s a current piece of legislation up for consideration.

    Of note is that Avi Shafran’s Agudah has come out against this bill. Needless to say, that position has been controversial, even within the Orthodox community.

    This week’s Forward and Jewish Week have some articles and Opinion pieces about this matter.

  4. Izgad says:

    And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their minds.” For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

    I can think of a group of people who sit around a make brash judgments based on the assumption that they are infallible and that everyone else must be illogical or downright satanic. They are the ones who declared that I was not a legitimate frum Jew because I believe in evolution and go to a secular university. As a blogger I wish to have it acknowledged that a war has been declared. I would also wish for it to be acknowledged that war was declared on us and not the other way around. Now that would be a sign of respect.

  5. Baruch Pelta says:

    I don’t get it. Rabbi Shafran writes about the value of modesty and considering that we may be incorrect about a variety of issues, using a doctor’s error as an example. But then he writes, “We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they *doctors*, lawyers or religious leaders.” Why is the moral of the story only that people (such as this elder doctor) should not think their *own* judgement is certain? Should the patients have been trustworthy of the doctor? Whom should one trust when doctors quarrel, when lawyers quarrel, and when religious leaders quarrel?

    The truth is that I would go further than Rabbi Shafran: choosing which specialists to believe is *also* a matter of opinion which requires humility and man realizing he could be wrong in whom he is placing his trust; he should realize that if he is being mevatel his daas, he may be mevateling it to the wrong people and he *still* may “possibly…be…wrong.” In other words, choosing whom to believe is “almost close to certain” — especially in matters that are disputed by the experts — is another issue which requires a certain degree of humility. That being said, one can be “almost close to certain” (read: certain) that some people — such as quack doctors, charlatans, and others — are either wrong or simply use illogical reasons for their beliefs.

    But I am very pleased that Rabbi Shafran has stated that we should not be so dogmatic, but instead we should consider the opinions of others. I am also pleased that in a recently Jewish Week op-ed (an article I very much disagreed with), Rabbi Zweibel noted that in regeards to the Markey Bill, reasonable people can disagree. Indeed, that message is important: reasonable people can disagree.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    So what do you advocate, Rabbi Shafran, the limitation of free speech? If so, with what parameters? Or is there something positive we can do to improve the culture of public discourse? We know the laws of destructive speech, but we can only practice them ourselves, not propagate them in the public sphere? Or can we? Is there a way to educate the public in this regard, even the non-Jewish or non-religious public? Please give us a better idea what you are driving at?