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Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I read a report in the news that psychologists have identified four major human personality types. Do you advise that I try to find out what is my type? What would the benefits be?

Typified in Tenafly

Dear Typified,

Indeed, this is a timely hot question for many reasons. In the September 10, 2018 issue of the New Yorker there’s an article, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver: They’re a two-billion-dollar industry. But are assessments like the Myers-Briggs more self-help than science?”

Its author, Louis Menand, discusses the famous and popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which helps people identify which of 16 personality types they are. The MBTI, it turns out, is controversial in terms of reliability and validity, but it is immensely popular in business settings and in personal growth efforts.

The newer study that you refer to was published recently and shows statistical evidence for the existence of four high-level personality types that the researchers call average, reserved, self-centered, and role model. These groupings depend on how much people display of five traits, specifically neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

I have reservations about getting all gung-ho about this study, even though it is based on a lot of real data, namely 1.5 million responses to four different personality surveys from respondents of all ages worldwide, analyzed by algorithms to sort the data into distinct clusters.

My hesitation is that the types in this study seem too general and almost common-sensical. That makes me wonder what the value of these distinctions may be. I have similar reservations about the MBTI and other instruments for personality identification and classification.

But on the other hand, sure, for many reasons we all could benefit from knowing more about ourselves. And if type-studies do assist us, then let’s embrace them for what they are — helpful augmentations to our intuitive insights into personalities.

Overall, I can think of several main reasons for seeking more clarity about human personality types, and identifying your own, to see where you fit in.

First, and what I believe is your motive for asking, knowing what is your type can increase your own self-awareness. The more you understand about yourself, the more mature you can be in approaching your life-decisions, such as what career to choose, what kinds of friends or spouse to seek, and many other basic issues that we all confront. That is a practical application that can be beneficial to you as an individual.

Typology-making also can be helpful in performing broader cultural analysis. The influential psychologist Carl Jung advanced the notion of personality archetypes in his 20th century writings. His followers, including Myers and Briggs, sought to apply his ideas to various aspects of cultures and societies, some more serious and scholarly, and others more popular.

A wonderful memorable illustration of the latter is the book “Goddesses in Every Woman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives” by Jean Bolen. Though her work refers to classical mythical goddesses, her purpose was to help people attain a secular understanding of their own personality types and those of others they may know.

For Bolen, a woman may be able to see herself through the prism of the goddesses of the Greek pantheon and thereby more clearly find her inner personality archetypes.

Typology-making also has been used to do constructive religious theology, the goal of which is not necessarily to gain personal insights, but rather to explain and promote the advantages and explicate the meanings of a particular religious system.

I was exposed to a typological brand of theology through the teachings of my rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who wrote about a type that he invented and called “Halakhic Man” in a famous long essay with the same title.

In that exercise, Soloveitchik constructed an ideal religious Jew (“Halakhic Man”) and contrasted that with two other human types that he called Cognitive Man and Religious Man. Cognitive Man, he says, represents an abstraction of a scientist, like a theoretical physicist or mathematician, who comes to know the world by constructing intellectual models and analyzing the actual world in systemic ways.

Religious Man, as Soloveitchik sees it, seeks to master the capacity for spiritual experience, to transcend physical reality and experience God’s immanent presence in the world.

Soloveitchik surprisingly relates the Halakhic Man type to Cognitive Man. Both approach the world with their respective intellectual models. Halachic Man comes to the world armed with the two Torahs, written and oral, revealed by God at Mount Sinai. Cognitive Man may use a model based on his received mathematical or scientific criteria, and Halachic Man understands his world via classical Jewish legal categories.

I’ve done my own theological application of typologies, in a book that I published in 2011 called “God’s Favorite Prayers.” I displayed there my analysis of the classic Jewish prayers through the prism of six personality types of Jews at prayer that I developed.

I devised types that I labelled the scribe, the priest, the performer, the meditator, the mystic, and the celebrity monotheist, to help me characterize the contents of the individual prayers that make up the composite prayer book that Jews compiled over the centuries.

My thesis in my book in brief is that the Shema prayer represents the values and traits of a scribe. The Amidah embodies the values of a priest. The grace after meals is an expression of a meditator. The Kaddish is a supplication of a mystic. And the Alenu prayer is a declaration of a celebrity monotheist, a triumphalist.

While my goal was to explain and bring focus on the substance and character of each prayer, I do expect that by delineating individual character types, I help people gain insights into their own religious personalities as well. Still, I haven’t yet devised a questionnaire to determine which archetype of prayer a person most closely matches. Perhaps I should put that on my creative agenda.

To get back to your question, clearly you may want to know your type to obtain a deeper personal self-understanding, or you may seek a better sense of broader social and cultural insights. Keep in mind that others around you will want to know your personality type for decidedly practical, and perhaps for pecuniary purposes.

Officers in the armed forces will want to precisely as possible identify the personality of its recruits to put them in the best possible tactical roles. So too will business managers want to know a personality type to place an employee in the best suited position. The Myers-Briggs inventory is used widely in business contexts.

Dating services will want to clearly know the traits of its clients to perform the best possible matching with potential mates. And of course, a marketing entity will want to know as much as possible about its potential clienteles, to target its efforts and to maximize its sales. Personality typing can be a shortcut to that goal.

Personality information is valuable in many respects. Current reports in the news tell us of a café near Brown University that will serve its clients coffee for payments not in money, but in the credits of the personal data that they provide.

My answer to your inquiry is, then, yes. You will want at some point for your own benefit and perhaps to serve the purposes of others, to ascertain details of your own personality type. But there is no hurry to do this. This area of psychological and social analysis is changing rapidly. Artificial intelligence algorithms and machine learning models are being refined, developed, and introduced as we speak, and used in the areas of these inquiries.

I can foresee in the near future the emergence of advanced and more granular typologies that identify not four or 16 but hundreds or thousands of personality types by applying models and algorithms to massive amounts of data.

And yet even given the state of the field, I could point out to you that there are plenty of naysayers who question the validity of these kinds of studies, and others who oppose its invasiveness on ethical grounds. Humorously, I could say to you that there are two basic types of people in the world, those who believe that personality type studies are immensely useful, and those who do not like them at all. I am closer to the former type.

The recent study we alluded to has limitations, as does any similar past attempts at typology. Deciding on the boundaries of types is often arbitrary. And though major personality traits are fixed in an individual, age does play a factor, and people can change. Young people, for instance, tend to be self-centered. Older people often seek to be role models. And yes, people who self-report on tests or inventories may deliberately or inadvertently misrepresent their own traits and preferences.

And again, all those test outcome observations seem close to the common-sense insights that a sage cultural critic could advance without resorting to any sophisticated questionnaire or data mining.

In any case, the longer you wait to explore this area of research, the more sophisticated the results and insights will be. Do follow up if you are so inclined, but keep in mind all of the above caveats and limitations, and don’t be in any rush to become typified.

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has been a professor of Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies, and religious studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. His book “God’s Favorite Prayers” is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle format. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

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