Monday, July 20, 2009

The Unwashed Masses

Among the intelligentsia there is often found the attitude that the general public, “the masses,” are ignorant and incapable of understanding the intricacies of many, if not most, issues. This seems to be the attitude that chazal take towards the average Jew. They assume that he is ignorant, narrow-minded, and not overly bright. To counterbalance the ignorance of the masses they instituted hundreds of laws to protect the biblical commandments.*

My knee-jerk reaction this condescending view of “the masses” is one of disgust and denial. Individually, most people are reasonably intelligent, and while some may willfully ignore whatever they don’t like, surely something they considered important (like mitzvos) they would be capable of understanding and learning enough about to avoid serious transgressions.

Yet I find that public forums on the internet seem to support the attitude that the masses are ignorant, narrow minded, and not overly bright. Any thread read and commented on by large numbers of people (such as news articles, YouTube, etc.) is inevitably is full of ignorant, baseless opinions and often degenerates into racism and conspiracy theories.

The question is, are the commenters on these threads representative of the general public? Or do these types of forums self-select the left side of the bell curve?

If the former is true, I may be forced to admit that chazal had a point.







*I don’t really understand how this is helpful. There is a perception that violating a midirabanan is less stringent than violating a midioraisa. Yet we have a mitzvah dioraisah to listen to the rabonim, which means that violating a mitzvah dirabanan is really a violation of a dioraisah. Now we have the rabonim who come along and prohibit hundreds (thousands? millions?) of things that are muttar midioraisah. If we violate one of the rabbinic prohibitions, we're oiver the mitzvah dioraisah of listening to the rabonim. All the rabonim have done is to give us many, many more opportunities to transgress. How is this helpful?

6 comments:

  1. I have gone over this subject a little bit.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/05/eternal-torah.html

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  2. "Yet we have a mitzvah dioraisah to listen to the rabonim..."

    Not really. This idea is derived from Deuteronomy 17:8-11. In reality, the pesukim are referring to the priests and judges who settled disputes, but the pesukim are vague enough that they were interpreted by the rabbanan...as a command to obey the rabbanan.
    Kinda like when they told you in yeshiva that TV is assur because of Numbers 15:39. ;)

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  3. >Not really. This idea is derived from Deuteronomy 17:8-11. In reality, the pesukim are referring to the priests and judges who settled disputes, but the pesukim are vague enough that they were interpreted by the rabbanan...as a command to obey the rabbanan.

    So you would rather something like karaism?

    G3

    I don't like the whole elitism vs masses that is found in our literature. But then I try to remember that back then, people outside the club WERE ignorant.

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  4. Happy, interesting, but I was anyway speaking from the rabonim's point of view. If they beleive, as they seem to, that following the rabonim is a mitzvah dioraisah, the problem stands.

    HH, yeah, I know, but I'm not sure that justifies it. And it cenrtainly doesn't justify the attitude today. Its a recurring theme everywhere, though, not just Judaism, and probably has something to do with people's natural tendency to group ourselves into "us" and "them," with "us" usually superior.

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  5. Rather than see the rabbinic intervention as condescension, I tend to see it as acknowledgement that the Torah cannot stand on its own, given the nature of the laws themselves and changes that have occured. On occasion you will see a denigrating Talmudic reference to ignorant people but more commonly the rabbis feared human nature and psychology-- the effects of a slippery slope or erosion that occurs when societies evolve.
    When the rabbis admonished people to follow rabbinic laws as thought they were torah laws, it was just a scare tactic.

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  6. In general, the vast majority of the population is both stupid and ignorant. To see this one needs only look at the many studies showing how little basic knowledge people have about all sorts of subjects. Moreover, the Dunning-Kruger effect means that people often don't even realize when they don't know what they are talking about.

    In regard to halachah, I've met people who are nominally frum and have the most ignorant and stupid ideas possibles about how halachah functions. For example, I recently interacted with someone who thought that chicken was originally always kosher until the Rabbis said otherwise. I think the person somewhere either garbled in their mind or heard a garbled version of how birds were originally not considered meat.
    This is but one example. And often these beliefs impact what they think is actually assur and what is mutar.

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