Inconsistencies Part One
In honor of my brother-in-law, Miguel Banet, who works so hard to keep me consistent: In his “Memoirs,” Andrei Sakaharov cites the great Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote, “Inconsistency is simply a secret awareness of the contradictions of the world, a permanent feeling of possible personal error, or if not that, then the possibility that one’s antagonist is right.” Sakharov agrees with this limitation to belief, but adds “my only quarrel is with the word ‘inconsistency,’ which I would replace with one that conveys my belief that intellectual growth and social awareness should combine dynamic self-criticisms and a set of stable values.”
Kolakowski believes that awareness of possible error leads to inconsistency. I guess that you can’t possibly write, “Towards a Marxist Humanism,” without being aware that you are inconsistent.
Life experience has proven Kolakowski’s definition of inconsistency. Talmud study supports Sakharov:
It’s not difficult to meet people who are absolutely convinced of the truth of their beliefs. Religious leaders of all faiths are quick to condemn those who disagree. I once spoke before a gathering of rabbis and quoted a Midrash which made them slightly uncomfortable. Expecting a negative reaction, I brought a copy of the text with me.
As I returned to my seat, one rabbi yelled out, “There is no such Midrash!” I offered to show the text to him and he refused to look. “It doesn’t exist.” The Midrash clearly contradicted one of his most closely held beliefs, indicated that he was in error, or at least that his antagonist, me, was right. He could not look. He, a wonderful and usually quite reasonable fellow, faced the world relying on his rock solid beliefs. He waged a fierce war against anything inconsistent with his convictions, and, I suspect, feared internal inconsistency.
I must say that I found the entire story to be ironic: This rabbi is an “expert” in the laws of interpersonal relationships, and yet his fear of inconsistency caused him to behave in a manner totally inconsistent with his teachings!
I heard a “prominent” rabbi speak at the funeral of a 40 year old man, known for his generosity, religious commitment, and incredible hours of study. He said to the man’s orphans, “Your father’s life proves that God protects people who are charitable, observant and study Torah. If you emulate him, God will grant you a long life.” I was shocked: His words directly contradicted the facts of the funeral at which he spoke. The man died at a very young age. God did not grant him a long life.
The children were dumbfounded. They were confused. The audience, however, loved it. It seemed that everyone was so fearful of any contradiction or inconsistency in their beliefs that they were incapable of thinking through what the rabbi had said.
As I said, my life experiences have proven Kolakowski’s definition of inconsistency. The Talmud is an adventure in dynamic self-criticism and respect for the opinions of those who disagree combined with stable values. The Sages of the Mishna and Talmud are unconcerned that their willingness to listen to their antagonists will lead to inconsistency. Contradictions are meant to be resolved, not feared. A different view is an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective, and will always lead to the refinement of ideas and ideals. The Mishna and Talmud are never inconsistent. They laugh at the suggestion that an honest look in the mirror may lead to inconsistency.
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