Ask the Rabbis // Arrogance
Are there aspects of Judaism that encourage arrogance—or that help guard against it?
One of my favorite books is the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay collection Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. I think the title sums it up. Judaism stands for, is founded upon and thrives from its in-your-face arrogance, which has preserved it since Abraham first took a daring step outside the boundaries laid down for him by voices other than his own. Even the Voice of God responded in kind and—unlike in the prevalent translations—did not tell him to “Get thee forth” but, more literally, to “Go to thyself.”
Every culture throughout history that attempted to swallow us failed and ended up behind glass in our local museums. We are like cockroaches. You cannot get rid of us or destroy our ways. It is precisely because of this innate arrogance that God chose the Jews to be the keepers of the Torah. There is no better candidate for the eternal preservation of this embodiment of Divine Revelation than a motley rabble of stubborn, arrogant, obnoxious and argumentative clans who refuse to be like everyone else, choose torture and death over conversion and relentlessly challenge the dictates of authorities, even their own. And no religion has produced so much religious literature in which we admonish ourselves for those very traits, urging us to direct the audacity that characterizes us toward maintaining and fostering the moral grandeur that defines us.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
The best, though unfortunate, example of Jewish arrogance is our perennial bragging about the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish—a practice that encourages an attitude of Jewish intellectual and genetic superiority. The real source of this kind of smug Jewish self-congratulation is God’s unabashed favoritism in singling out the Jews as the “chosen people.” This appointment to be the “light unto the nations,” thankfully rejected by most contemporary Jews, historically gave permission for racial narcissism, Jewish chauvinism and an assertion of aristocracy. Of course, such grandiosity is also undoubtedly a form of psychological compensation for being oppressed and powerless. At least, we could claim, we’re smarter than our persecutors, though it’s unclear how much balm and comfort that really provides.
The antidote to this smugness is humility, grounded in the biblical notion that all humans share a common origin, the dust of the earth, or, in terms of today’s knowledge, the stardust of billions of years ago. And the corollary: We will eventually return to that same dust. Beauty is vain (Proverbs 31:30), the hope of mortals is worms (Avot 4:4), and, said Hillel (Leviticus R 1), “humility is my exaltation.”
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
The Hebrew word for arrogance, y’hirut, comes from a root meaning “to exceed limits.” To be arrogant is to exceed healthy boundaries in relation to self and other. In Mussar (ethical) literature, arrogance and humility are matters of great spiritual concern. To be humble is not to become a doormat but to know how much room to take up: to know when it is appropriate to be “big,” to let your talents shine, and when to make a tzimtzum, a contraction, to make room for others to shine. The lack of awareness of tzimtzum is the essence of arrogance. Even the Holy One made a tzimtzum so all things could come into being! Humility is realizing that every human being is created in the image of the divine. Let everything be your teacher: Nothing we build or attain is done through our virtue alone. At the same time, our historical self-understanding of chosenness, embodied in the Aleinu prayer, can lead to a sense of separation from other peoples, even a kind of tribal arrogance. The literature of Jewish ethics balances this chosenness with the awareness that we, the human family, are intimately interconnected.
Rabbi Chava Bahle
OHALAH: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal
Suttons Bay, MI
Our history, key values and sacred texts all insist on humility, not arrogance. Arrogance brings down the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11), kings and nations, including ours (Deuteronomy 8). In daily liturgy, we confess our sins and name our smallness. Hubris hurt Israel in 1973, and neither Israel nor America is immune today. Abraham’s tweetable “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27) should be printed on slips of paper, fortune cookie-style, and pulled from our pockets to return us to our place whenever our arrogance arises—or so suggested Reb Simcha Bunim two centuries ago.
But the other pocket, Bunim added, needs the opposite message: “For my sake was the world created.” When we’re down, we pull out that verse, bringing ourselves up. Calling ourselves to account from the place of our strength is a middah, or value, we must develop. Societies, too, should be strong enough to name their faults and address them. Today the whole world must walk this tightrope: The hubris of our single species now drives countless others to extinction, and our carbon-spewing generation threatens all who follow us. To flourish, let’s be strong enough to practice humility.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Pride and arrogance are opposite sides of the same coin. As Jews, we should be proud of and uphold our heritage, traditions and values. Yet under what conditions does that pride transform itself into arrogance? Consider the story of Abraham arguing with God (Genesis 18). God had declared the destruction of Sodom because of the Sodomites’ pervasive wicked behavior. Abraham humbly challenged God to save the town should he find even only 10 righteous men there. One might say that this is the quintessential example of arrogance, yet tradition upholds Abraham’s behavior as that of a righteous and holy man who proudly stood by his belief in the value of human life. Or consider the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). Aaron, in the absence of Moses, in response to the people’s doubts and, some might say, in hope of becoming the leader of the Israelites, arrogantly misleads the community by permitting and orchestrating the creation of the Golden Calf. Aaron’s arrogance leads both God and Moses to punish the Israelites.
Judaism upholds humility and righteousness and scorns arrogance. Our challenging task is to know when doing right and feeling pride become overshadowed by the egocentrism and desire for self-promotion that are the symptoms of arrogance.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
The concept of a Chosen People can be misunderstood and encourage arrogance. Without an understanding that we are a covenanted people expected to embrace the Torah and its teachings, it is easy to assume we are chosen because we are better. Isaiah says: “I the Lord in My grace have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you.” (42:6) The prophet Amos, on the other hand, anticipated the possibility that this idea could be seen as promoting arrogance and chauvinism. He reminds the Israelites that, by being chosen, they will be held to a higher standard: “You alone have I singled out, of all the families of the earth; that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities.”(3:2)
Amos teaches that we are not chosen because we are better. Rather, because we are chosen, God will demand we take responsibility for our sins. Later in Amos, God tells the Israelites, “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians…True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” (9:7) When we understand that chosenness means we are held accountable to a Torah-mandated standard of behavior, we guard against assuming an attitude of arrogance.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Judaism teaches monotheism. There is one universal God/Creator who cares deeply for humans and communicates revelation and instruction. The emphasis on the Universal One lends itself to a potential abuse: Spokesmen and teachers may present their message not as interpretive guidance but as definitive, literal divine instruction. That can imply the right to delegitimize other views—or even coerce other people to do it exactly their way.
This unconscious arrogance is sometimes encouraged by the classic teaching that a human being is an image of God. The human mind is godlike, and people are encouraged to develop their mind and other capacities to become even more godlike. It is not a big jump from that to think of themselves as all-knowing and unimpeachable. Terrible injustices have been inflicted—sometimes even killing of others has been justified—because of this wrong extension of the idea of God’s centrality.
The corrective for this tendency is the constant Jewish teaching that you are not God; you are a finite, flawed image of God. The rabbis in the Talmud developed the method of machloket—debate, argumentation and multiple approaches to the text and the law to establish the best interpretation. But each side acknowledges the legitimacy of disagreement and multiple analyses. “Both these and those [School of Hillel and School of Shammai] are the words of the living God.” Though not foolproof, this method keeps people aware of their own limitations and checks, even contradicts, the tendency to arrogance.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Both, of course. If we believed half of the things our admirers and critics say about us—that we control world markets, that we have all the Nobel laureates, that we clannishly stick together to protect our interests—it would certainly create room for arrogance. Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that the idea of chosenness never really got Jews in trouble during hundreds of years of persecution. People didn’t mind the claim to specialness when it just meant God had picked us to have brit milah, to not eat things, to get up early and put funny straps on our arms. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) said something similar. In Jewish tradition, no personality trait is all good or all bad—for instance, anger has a place—but the one exception is ga’ava, pride. Rav Kook disputed that and said there can be “ga’ava d’kedusha”—holy pride. Ga’ava usually tells a person he or she is different and better; it’s pride in what one has that others haven’t. But when the ga’ava comes from something given to you by God, it doesn’t lead to arrogance, because you share that with everyone else. And that’s what so much of Jewish tradition keeps telling us. So, you have 20 IQ points more than your neighbor? Don’t be arrogant; that’s just a genetic inheritance, a gift. Your hedge fund is doing well? Another gift. I’m probably not as humble as I should be, but I find that daily involvement with Jewish texts, particularly Gemara, on a deep level, keeps you humble. The text is so complex that every time you look at it for more than five minutes, it cuts you down.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, says the Rabbi of Kotzk, can be made larger but still retain their identity—except the small letter called “Yud,” a word that in Yiddish also means “Jew.” If it is made larger, Yud becomes another letter, “Vav.” So it is with the Jew when he becomes bigheaded: His identity, his Jewishness, vanishes. To me, that aphorism perfectly describes Judaism’s conception of arrogance. Pride is a spiritual cannibal, devouring empathy, gratitude and love and pitting person against person and G-d.
How do we combat this danger? Judaism brought to the world the idea of one all-powerful Creator. And that concept is the antidote against arrogance. In G-d, you come up against a being who is, in every respect, infinitely superior to yourself. Therefore, you are humbled in comparison. As long as you remain egotistical, you have not encountered G-d.
The humility that an awareness of G-d brings us is not incompatible with greatness. The greater the person, the more humble he is likely to be. Moses, the greatest hero of Jewish tradition, is described as “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Humility does not mean undervaluing oneself. It means valuing others. It means the “I” is quiet so that I can hear the “you,” the voice of another that calls me to relieve its loneliness with love.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rohr Chabad House, Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA