The Enlightened Man's Burden

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Many converts to an ideology are so taken by their newfound beliefs that they feel a need to convince others. Not only the newly religious but even those who have recently become universally skeptical (i.e. non-religious) are susceptible to this temptation. While many such proselytizers are overly and unduly confident in their new faith, they also mistakenly believe that those who are wrong must be advised of the truth.

Sometimes people are happier living with their false beliefs. If they suffer no harm, and maybe even benefit from their comfortable untruths, then those who wish to enlighten them may even be harming them. Sometimes it is best to let people continue happily in their ignorant lives.

The following Bloom County comic, whose message the cartoonist seems to have forgotten over time, demonstrates the counterproductive nature of the obssessive enlightener. Unable to distinguish between minor and important matters, he wastes his time and goodwill objecting to every untruth he encounters. Oh, how many such obssessive and overly confident people I have “met” online.

Bloom County: The Complete Library, volume four 1986-1987, p. 110 (click on image to enlarge):

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. So nice of you to acknowledge that taking up permanent residence in la la land is more a matter of preference than conviction.

  2. It’s nice to see you can laugh at yourself, Gil…

  3. Shachar Ha'amim

    Actually what you describe is very common amongst haredi baalei teshuva. Oh how many times during the last 20 years I have met freshly minted BT’s (especially from Ohr Sameach and their affiliates) who could barely read a Hebrew sentence or understand a halacha in the Yad Chazaka, but had a big black yarmulke and could expound for hours on why the Mizrachi is satan incarnate and modern orthodox Jews are hypocrites and other such blather and falsehood.
    That being said, eventually some (many?) of them “calm down” and see the “real” world as it is.

  4. Reuven Spolter

    I’m not really sure that I understand what you’re getting at here. It seems that you’re saying that if I have a truth, and that sharing it with you makes you unhappy, then I should keep my truth to myself. What if my truth is Torah and yours is secular life, and you’re happy the way that you are? Should I just let you remain happy, in your blissful ignorance of Judaism, Torah and mitzvot? Of the first three comments, one understood that your truth was living in Eretz Yisrael, another the hashkafic differences between chareidi and mizrachi Orthodoxy. Is that really what you meant?
    “If they suffer no harm”…how do you define harmless ignorance? Of what knowledge? Perhaps better not to blog at all. After all, why “bother” us with your “truths”?

  5. Reuven: This is a universal observation that applies in many different contexts. Yes, the definition of “harm” is vague. Reasonable people will disagree about what that means. But in general, the need to sometimes keep quiet should be obvious. When to do so is a good question.

  6. Shachar Ha'amim

    Most religious Jews conclude that teaching and spreading torah generally doesn’t cause harm and therefore it is ok to seek to teach torah to people and try and convince them to adopt a religious lifestyle. I think that is legitimate. Since Mitzvat Yishuva Haaretz and the yearning for the return to Zion are normative parts of Torah and religious observance it is also legitimate to perform “kiruv rechokim” with respect to this aspect of torah judaism to all those who rachmana litzlan hashem yeracheym either do not seek to partake of this aspect of Jewish life or worse – no longer even yearn for it. This includes kirub rechikim to so-called orthodox Jews in chutz laaretz
    what is illegitimate is denigrating others in the process and saying “his form of torah/performing the mitzvah/ideology is crooked” in order to win over converts. Frankly people who become religious based on those arguments perhaps shouldn’t be targeted.

  7. Rabbi Spolter,

    Have you never found in your rabbinic career that bonking someone over the head with The Truth can be counterproductive and that projecting supreme confidence in one’s own superior apprehension of The Truth can be off-putting, to say the least? Is intellectual humility not a quality that communal leaders ought to instantiate?

    Further, if your truth is Torah and mine is secular life, and I’m actually happy, then what are you going to tell me that will make me unhappy? That you have The Truth? At best you’ll make me angry.

    This quote from Yehuda Mirksy on the thought of R. Kook gets to the heart of the issue:

    “No relativist or conventional liberal, Rav Kook believed that there is such a thing as The Truth, but that it is multi-faceted and practically beyond human comprehension. All the various factions, parties and ideologies express the internal complexity of God’s manifestations in the world, and all must come to self-expression if the world is to be redeemed in the end. In other words, you must be true to yourself and your convictions, as must your opponents, since no human being has a monopoly on truth. That last recognition makes for the humility that brakes the inherent violence of ultimate conviction.”

    http://www.forward.com/articles/129355/

  8. “If they suffer no harm, and maybe even benefit from their comfortable untruths, then those who wish to enlighten them may even be harming them.”

    R. Natan Slifkin recently wrote along similar lines as a preface to dealing with people who come to him for advice about dealing with crises of faith:

    “… But my reasons for asking these questions are simple: Chanoch lena’ar al pi darko. There are many people, whether Charedi or Modern Orthodox or atheist, who are so obsessed with what they see as the Truth that they want to impose it upon everyone. But I think that this can be thoughtless and narcissistic. A person is not necessarily helping others by attempting to force his own idea of the truth on them…”

    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/06/dealing-with-crises-of-faith.html

  9. MJ wrote:

    “Have you never found in your rabbinic career that bonking someone over the head with The Truth can be counterproductive and that projecting supreme confidence in one’s own superior apprehension of The Truth can be off-putting, to say the least? Is intellectual humility not a quality that communal leaders ought to instantiate?

    Further, if your truth is Torah and mine is secular life, and I’m actually happy, then what are you going to tell me that will make me unhappy? That you have The Truth? At best you’ll make me angry”

    Who said anything about bonking anyone, “projecting supreme confidence in one’s own superior apprehension over the head” or a lack of “intellectual humility”? WADR, your response is tantamount to saying that rabbanim should not work on enhancing the role of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim in every Jew’s life, regardless of his or her POV that the secular world constitutes “truth” or posit that the Torah has a legitimate and profound message for all Jews.

  10. Most of the time when someone claims that saying x is tantamount to saying y you can be pretty sure that there is a clear distinction between x and y that the claim is trying to elide. Case in point.

  11. All those who question the subtle wisdom of Bloom County, are unlikely to ever arrive at the Truth! 🙂

  12. No, though Bloom County leads to Wisdom, only Calvin and Hobbes leads to Truth.

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