28 Jun 2018

Prime Principles: Pirke Abot 1:8a – A Case Against the Defense

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Prime Principles

Pirke Abot 1:8a

A Case Against the Defense

Yehuda ben Tabbai says: ‘Don’t be like the lawyers’.

More often than not, the job of a lawyer is not to defend the truth, but to plead a case. It is convenient when the truth also coincides with the case that the lawyer is presenting, but the lawyer’s primary job is to assert his or her side of the argument in the most plausible way[1].

Yehuda ben Tabbai warns that the need to plead the veracity of a certain situation or perspective is problematic[2]. If our argument is not in line with the truth, we are likely to seek all the proof we can to make it seem like it is.

Why? We don’t like to be wrong. We do everything we can to avoid it. When we discover we have erred in our assumptions, knowledge or judgement, strong conscious and subconscious emotions ensue. We feel embarrassed, disconnected and a loss of security. We feel that because we mis-understood reality we have lost or compromised our connection to the real world. We grow to believe that getting something wrong means that there is something wrong with us. When we sense that there might be something lacking with us, we are prone to discharge the discomfort of being wrong by blaming others.

In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error Kathryn Schulz identifies three stages most of us go through when we sense that we have a correct understanding of reality that others don’t. We think: ‘How am I going to communicate this to the hundreds of people who are wrong?’

First, we believe that they are ignorant — they have yet to learn the information that we know.

If they hear that information and persist in thinking differently than we do, we consider them to be idiots — they know and yet they continue in their flawed thinking.

If they don’t stop even after we point out to them their stupidity, they appear to us as evil. They have malevolent motives to live in lies. The irony is, that we will actually vilify others just to secure our own feelings of being correct — even when we are wrong.

But that is precisely what we are worried about — the feeling of being wrong, not actually being wrong.  There are few feelings worse for a human being than to feel that he or she does not belong. We only feel that way though, when we realise that we are incorrect. We can be wrong but feel great, simply because we don’t know it. All of us are often mistaken several times a day! — we just don’t mind until we discover it.

Being right is in the here and now

Of course, the other side of the coin is being right. And we love being right about as much as we hate being wrong. It is why ‘I told you so’ is so irresistible to say and so infuriating to hear. The problem is, we often mistakenly think we’re right when we are not.

Consider that our feelings of being right are usually in the present tense. We are ok with the fact that we’ve been wrong in the past, and we anticipate that we might be wrong in the future, but today, we’ve got it all quite clearly correct.

But what if we are wrong about being wrong? St Augustine said: fallo ergo sum – ‘I err, therefore I am’. It would seem that our basic penchant for error is part of who we are and what makes us human. Being wrong isn’t going away.

In fact, there is something we actually love about being wrong — that is, when the stakes are low and we are being wrong with everyone else. Take our thrill in plot twists and surprise endings, for example. None of us see them coming and we get a bit of a thrill when we are surprised to discover that the situation wasn’t as we had expected it to be. We also love optical illusions and brain teasers. We wonder at our astonishing wrongness! When we know that every brain does this, the threat is less and we can actually laugh and are amused at the human capacity for error. We can laugh about ourselves when we are laughing together.

Our ability to be wrong is at the core of our drive for discovery. When we admit we don’t know we open ourselves up to true learning and understanding. As the late, brilliant physicist Richard Feynman said: ‘I am smart enough to know that I don’t know’. Or, as King Solomon, the wisest of men, wrote: ‘I have said I shall gain wisdom, but [I find] it is far from me.’ (Ecclesiastes 7:23)

It is when we accept this notion and work through it that we find truth in our lives. The alternative however, is dangerous and a slippery slope into fantasy and mental instability. It is ironically when we are so fearful of being wrong that we negotiate ourselves into remaining wrong and calling it right. It is this issue that our mishna comes to address.

Don’t live a life of perpetual rationalisation

‘Don’t be like the lawyers’ says Yehuda ben Tabbai. Don’t aim at figuring out why you are right. If you are right let the evidence stand for itself. If it doesn’t, accept that you are wrong and recalibrate.

Yehuda ben Tabbai was keenly aware of the dire results possible when insisting on being right. He once killed a man because he was so sure that he was.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Tabbai said: I swear that I will not see the consolation of Israel if I did not kill a conspiring witness. (This means that Rabbi Yehuda ben Tabbai sentenced a conspiring witness to death), in order to counter the views of the Sadducees, who would say: Conspiring witnesses are not executed unless the sentenced one has been executed. (Their views opposed the traditional view, which maintains that conspiring witnesses are executed only if the one sentenced by their testimony has not yet been executed).

Shimon ben Shata said to him: I swear that I will not see the consolation of Israel if you did not shed innocent blood! As the Sages said: Conspiring witnesses are not executed unless they are both found to be conspirators; if only one is found to be a conspirator, he is not executed. And they are not flogged if they are liable to such a penalty, unless  they are both found to be conspirators. And if they testified falsely that someone owed money, they do not pay money unless they are both found to be conspirators. (Hagiga 16b)

In recognising this he made a commitment to step outside of the potential echo chamber of his own thinking and pledged to include his colleague, Shimon ben Shatah in his future decisions.

Hearing this, Yehuda ben Tabbai immediately accepted upon himself not to rule on any matter of law unless he was in the presence of Shimon ben Shata, as he realized he could not rely on his own judgment. (ibid.)

Why do we find being wrong so difficult?

The 17th century French playwright, Molière said: ‘It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.’ The need to be right is primal and deep. It comes from the basic drive for survival and protection. If, for example, during our hunter-gatherer days we were walking in the fields and heard some rustling of leaves and were unsure whether it was a dangerous predator or just a harmless breeze, erring on the side of caution could be the difference between life and death. It paid to believe that we were right about the predator. Certainty protected us.  Uncertainty, or not knowing what was correct could be dangerous and life-threatening. But in a world where, for most of us, life does not hang in the balance of whether we will be a predator’s next meal, we have more time to focus on longevity and living lives of meaning and virtue. To do so, we must primarily seek truth, rather than security.

Still, even today, when we are running on brains that were designed for our ancestors who lived in very different circumstances than we do, being wrong continues to be a modern psychological source of pain and difficulty. When we are wrong, it signals to us that we are out of touch with reality, and brings us face to face with the fact that we do not naturally think in truth. Truth must be discovered, and often, its discovery requires a great deal of work and focus.

When we do not wish to do the work, many of us, rather than admit to the possibility of not knowing, tend not to admit our errors and instead rationalise our thinking. We present our case as best we can so that it sounds right to others and ourselves.

Yehuda ben Tabbai warns us against doing this because the danger in doing so is exactly what we fear about being wrong. In a life of rationalisations, we really are disconnected, lost and out of control. We choose to live detached from the real world in order to secure our own thoughts and feelings rather than our own lives. We cannot judge truth based on how it feels to us but on whether it is a reality. Being ‘comfortable’ with an idea has nothing to do with being correct.

This issue was the very difference between the fall and failure of one king of Israel and the rise and success another.

King Saul lost his seat upon the throne of Israel because he could not admit that he was wrong. He was told to wait for Samuel the prophet for seven days before offering sacrifices on behalf of the people in Gilgal. Saul did not wait. But when he was confronted by Samuel about it, he denied and rationalised it:

Samuel said to Saul: You are to go down ahead of me, to Gilgal, and here, I will be going down to you to offer up offerings and to sacrifice sacrifices of shalom.

 For seven days you are to tarry, until I come to you;
then I will make known to you what you are to do…
Now Saul was still in Gilgal…
And he waited for seven days, for the appointed-time that Samuel had [set],
but Samuel did not come to Gilgal,
and the people began to scatter from him.
So Saul said:
‘Bring close to me the offerings and the shalom-offerings!’
And he offered up the sacrifices.

 But then it was,
when he had finished offering up the offering,
that here: Samuel came.
Saul went out to meet him, to bless him [in greeting].

 But Samuel said:
What have you done?
Saul said:

When I saw that the fighting-people were scattering from me,
—and you, you did not come within the appointed days—
and the Philistines were gathering at Mikhmas,
I said [to myself]:
Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal,
yet God’s face I have not soothed!
So I forced myself,
and offered up the offering.
Samuel said to Saul:
You have acted-foolishly!
If you had kept the command of God your Lord which he commanded you,
indeed now, God would have established your kingship over Israel for the ages.
But now, your kingship will not stand!
God seeks for himself a man after his own heart,
so that God may commission him as leader over his people,
for you have not kept what God commanded you!”

Saul does this not once, but twice[3]. He found it quite difficult to admit to his errors.

The man that God sought ‘after His own heart’ turned out to be David. It was this trait that was starkly different between the two kings. When David was faced with his own wrong by the prophet Natan, he did not rationalise or defend his position. He simply said: ‘I have sinned’[4].

The commitment to truth in Torah is what makes the difference between a connection with God and a life of fantasy. We all struggle with our own illusions and assumptions — it is part of the human condition. But the Tanna here tells us, when we have inklings and evidence that we are wrong, we must do our best to own and admit it. In doing so, we step out of a world of illusion and into one of truth and connection to God.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] Although this mishna does present the work of lawyers in a less than virtuous light, many of the commentators maintain that when in court it is essential to have one’s case properly prepared and presented. An average person likely is not aware of all the legal details and circumstances that are at hand in one’s case. (See Gittin 37b: When they would come before Rav with a case where a creditor who did not have a prosbol was demanding payment of a debt after the Sabbatical Year, he would say to the creditor: Did you have any prosbol and it was lost? The Gemara explains that this is a case where the directive of the verse: “Open your mouth for the mute” (Proverbs 31:8) is applicable; this is not considered an intervention on behalf of one party, as it is only providing assistance for someone who was unaware of a claim that he should make. See also Mishne Torah, Sanhedrin, 21:11.)

[2] See Hida, Petah Enayim, ad loc. s.v. יהודה

[3] I Samuel 15

[4] II Samuel 12