Too Smart for your Own Good

There’s a famous discussion at the end of Eiruvin 13b about the futility of human existence:

… Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These [Shammai] say: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those [Hillel] said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created. Ultimately, they were counted and concluded: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created.

The commentary explains that the “they” that were counted is the mitzvot, and the conclusion is based on the fact that there are more negative rules (“don’t do X”) than positive ones (“do X”). As a result, there are more opportunities in life to get things wrong than there are to do things of value, so life, on balance, is a bad idea.

There’s a lot to be said about this argument, but one thing that’s interesting to me is that, in context, it seems to be implied that this is maybe a bad argument.

The discussion that that passage caps off begins with a discussion of Rabbi Meir (who is apparently the tanna I am most like, though in all humility, because of what I’m about to say about him, I will point out is a result of my personality and not my intelligence). Rabbi Meir is said to be one of the smartest Sages of his generation, and yet halakha is generally not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara asks: why the heck not?

The problem with Rabbi Meir is that he’s too smart. Sure, he can make excellent arguments and discover deep truths. But he can also make excellent (or at least excellent-seeming) arguments for the wrong conclusions. It’s similar to Plato’s worries about the sophists, who twisted logic to make weaker arguments seem stronger.

The paradigm example given is one of Meir’s students, who could make a very plausible argument for how creeping animals – which the Torah explicitly states are ritually impure – are pure. The argument itself is kind of neat, if obviously sophistical. Consider a venomous snake, Ravina says, reconstructing this disciple’s (lost?) argument. Snakes kill people and animals, creating corpses, which are primary sources of ritual impurity, and can transmit impurity to other things. So a snake is a tremendous generator of ritual impurity, though it is not impure itself. All the more so, a creeping animal, which does not generate more impurity in the world, should be considered pure.

The fact that Meir is so smart makes it even worse – he’s so smart that even other smart Sages can’t out-argue him, which means no one can assess just on the strength of his argument whether he’s giving you insight, or trolling, or playing devil’s advocate. I would imagine this is a special problem with an oral tradition like the one the Talmud is grappling with, where teachings are often passed down in partial form, or it’s unsure whether something has been distorted in transmission. For example, in context it’s clear that Ravina is giving an example of an incorrect-but-plausible argument. But it would be very easy to imagine that story having its context dropped in transmission, so that people would think Ravina was making the argument seriously. How terrible would it be if some argument Rabbi Meir meant as a joke or illustration got passed down as a serious argument!

So, what are we to do?

The Gemara makes an interesting pivot, which is to start talking about Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. And it starts its discussion by telling a story that makes clear that the general ruling in favor of Beit Hillel is not based on the logical strength of their arguments. G!d Themself (“a Divine Voice”) starts out the discussion by saying “both these and those are the words of a living God!” The statement is difficult to interpret – the commentary mentions a midrash to the effect that G!d gave Moses the same number of arguments for and against various interpretations of ritual purity – but at least seems to mean that neither interpretation is “right” in the sense of demanded by the text and logic. But then G!d says that, nonetheless, the halakha should be ruled in accord with Hillel.

The reason why rulings are generally in accord with the views of Hillel isn’t that they’re more logical or better-argued, but because, essentially, they’re good people. The story that’s told isn’t about Hillel’s subtlety of argument, but rather about the fact that they are always humble in their argumentation – they make sure to state the opinions of Shammai as well as their own, and even defer to Shammai by mentioning their views first.

This ultimately brings us to the argument about the value of human life. This is a bad argument – you can’t resolve it just by counting. For example, who is to say that all the mitzvot are of equal weight, or equal likelihood? Is the positive rule to honor your parents no more important than the negative rule not to plant other plants in a vineyard? I have many opportunities to honor my parents, but the rule against touching lizards comes up in my life only rarely.

In context, though, I wonder if the point is about whether we can dunk on this argument at all, though. If that was the point, then the Gemara could have ended with the fact that it points out that Ravina’s snake argument is, in fact, not a very solid one. Instead, it ends on character – if you can’t figure out the argument from pure logic, look at who the person is who’s making it.

In both Plato and the Talmud, ultimately the foundation of knowledge is moral. Sophists are known by their character, not by their logic, and the imperative to followers of Socrates and Plato isn’t “be smarter than the sophists,” it’s “don’t use your mastery of argumentation for evil.” (Aristotle takes this even further, by embracing ethical use even of non-rational elements or rhetoric).

This brings us back to the snake argument. Out of context, sure, the argument that if a snake isn’t impure a creeping animal shouldn’t be impure makes sense. What it leaves out is that the Torah says creeping animals are impure. Does that mean that the Torah is illogical? Maybe – we could have gotten a long discussion of snakes and thorns and what could be derived from each, etc. But that would be besides the point – ultimately, the Rabbis trust the Torah. And trust supersedes argument.

You can also hear an echo of the snake argument in the discussion about the value of human life. Sure, there’s an argument that humanity ought not to have been created. But, regardless, G!d did create humans. So maybe implicitly the point is, look, trust that it was a good idea even if it doesn’t seem to have been. And the conclusion of the discussion is that, well, we’re here, so let’s try to make our lives as valuable as possible by doing the right thing – let our trust make us act as if it were a good idea, even if we can’t quite understand why.

That’s a profound, I think, statement about the nature of knowledge. It also dovetails with the Talmud’s insistence that you need a community to study Torah. It’s not just about how smart you are, or how good an argument is, it’s about getting to know people and learning who to trust. And it’s about the fact that none of us – not even Rabbi Meir – are so smart that we can understand everything all on our own.

Image: Tiny Snake (in the sun) by Tony Alter CC-BY 2.0 I bet that cute little snek would never impart ritual impurity!