Conceding conceit

Conceding conceit

There comes a point in the life of columnists – who by their nature write, and even speak, in absolute terms, as if they are the only ones who see the truth, the only ones who know what is right and what is wrong – when they must face up to that conceit and acknowledge that arrogance.

And then to set aside the pen, at least until they can master some humility.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the dayThe truth is, I for one do not know the truth. I was raised in a tradition that accepted many truths, that allowed for a variety of opinions, often contradictory, but all for the sake of heaven.

I should have remembered that, cherished it, nurtured it in myself and others. I hope I do that when I teach. I did no such thing when I wrote.

The midrash tells of the frustration felt by the sages of blessed memory at how unresolvable were the decisions handed down by the Schools of Shammai and Hillel. If one said black, the other almost certainly would say white. Which one was correct? If the Oral Law truly was handed down at Sinai, then who spoke for the God of Sinai?

The sages finally decided to lock the great minds of both academies into a single room, charging them to remain there until such time as they could produce one law that all could follow. Three years went by, and yet if the one said black, the other said white. Nothing had changed.

Totally defeated, the sages looked to heaven for help. “You resolve this for us,” they cried. “You tell us which one of these two speak for You? Which one of these two teaches Your proper law?”

Suddenly, a voice came from heaven: “Elu v’elu divrei elohim chaim.” This one and this one are both the words of the living God.”

There is no one truth. There is no one path. There is no one correct answer. To insist that there is rejects everything that Judaism ever stood for.

I led a very interesting and very varied life. I accomplished some good in this world. Often, over the years, I saw myself as the Jewish Standard’s profile of me put it, as something of the Lone Ranger, the man in the mask, out to right the wrongs of society, but never quite revealing myself, perhaps not even to myself.

At the age of 23, I helped to craft groundbreaking legislation that protected the jobs of Sabbath-observant public employees.

After years of work, with the help of some very wonderful people, I was part of an effort that brought about the first and only criminal prosecution of a major manufacturer for what amounted to corporate murder. The case involved the Ford Motor Company and its Pinto, with its exploding gas tank, and a courageous prosecutor in Elkhart, Indiana. The prosecutor lost, but the public won. Ford agreed to fix the Pinto.

When evidence came forth that women were dying because of a medical device manufactured by a major drug company, and that the drug company knew of the dangers, Robert J. Wagman, who was my writing partner at the time, and I pursued it. In this case, all the credit for resolving the problem must go to a federal judge by the name of Miles Lord. Yet we played a role in that, especially in helping to focus attention on an insidious economic calculation used by corporations, called the “benefit-to-risk ratio.” Essentially, an estimate is made of how many people will be harmed by a product, or killed, and how much money would have to be expended in compensation and legal fees. If the product still would show a large profit, the risk would be worth the benefit.

I wish I could say that the benefit-to-risk ratio was no more, but it is still a staple of corporate planning. I can say, however, that at the very least more consideration today is given to potential victims than had been in the past.

What is my point? It is not to go over history, or to pat myself on the shoulder. Rather, it is a way of trying to explain whence comes the arrogance and the certainty of correctness of which I am guilty. I saw a world that needed changing and became convinced by a heady series of small successes that were not even entirely my own that I alone knew how to change it.

I forgot that “Elu v’elu divrei elohim chaim; this one and this one are both the words of the living God.”

I was reminded of that very recently in an all too painful way.

I do believe I have things to say, I do believe I have much to offer, but never again may I do it as if my words themselves come from Sinai.

Over the years, in this space, I have angered people, I have hurt them, perhaps inadvertently I even maligned some of them. I chose to close my eyes to their truths, to their certainties. I chose only to see “the right way,” which meant my way.

I have paid a heavy price for that. In many respects, I am a lightning rod for controversy, when what I should be is a teacher of Torah who opens doors for others to find their own truths.

I could apologize to all who have felt the sting of my pen, but apologies cannot make up for the hurt that was caused, the grief that was felt, the pain that was endured. Solomon ben Joseph Ibn Gabirol perhaps put it best when he wrote, “As long as a word remains unspoken, you are its master. Once you utter it [or publish it], you are its slave.”

I am a slave to my past words. I am a slave to their arrogance and to the certainty with which I expressed them, privately as well as publicly. Not everything I ever wrote was wrong, not every opinion I ever held was incorrect. But I can no longer act as though there is a “Torat Shammai” and all the rest simply is mistaken commentary.

If I can learn to write without the columnist’s conceit, and if people still believe there is some value in what I have to say, perhaps I will return to this space some day.

Allow me, meanwhile, one more public conceit: I pray for a community that recognizes the words of that heavenly voice and acts upon it for the good of us all. “Elu v’elu divrei elohim chaim.” This one and this one are both the words of the living God.

We are one. I say with no arrogance but with uncompromising certainty that it is time we acted like it.