David Brooks’ New Humanism and Organic Torah

I was happy to see David Brooks’ column yesterday, March 8, in which he brought together themes he has been writing on for a while: the power of emotions, our connectedness and essentially social nature. Themes that are dear to my heart and central to Organic Torah.  Here’s the link to his article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/opinion/08brooks.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

I had actually just written him an email because I heard him interviewed on NPR about his new book The Social Animal.  I had been meaning to write him for a while because I love most of what he writes in this direction of what he’s calling the New Humanism, a new view of human nature that counters the Enlightenment view of the rational, isolated individual. (The fact that he’s a conservative thinker seems to only accentuate the fact that we are dealing with a new paradigm that crosses lines between “conservative” and “liberal.” I find that on the very same NY Times Op Ed page, Paul Krugman and Thomas Freidman often write along the lines of this new paradigm.) What I wrote to him was that I had read a few months back that he had written about the importance of the emotions and less reliance on the purely rational — but he listed the Talmud as one counter-example of the mistaken. overly rational approaches to human nature.  Many people, even Talmudists, think of the Talmud that way, but as I’ve been arguing in this blog and in my teaching and writing for years, the Talmud and much of Jewish traditional literature are actually prime examples of an organic view of human nature in which the emotions are integrated with rationality, and the individual is deeply embedded in social connections.

Here’s one small example: Brooks mentions in his article that we have mistakenly emphasized IQ as a measure of a person’s potential success. Now we are discovering that it is the ways that a person connects to others, empathy, the ability to read other’s feelings and communicate, etc, which are more important indicators of success.  This, by the way, very much dovetails with things that Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers. Gladwell is another thought leader who is introducing the public to this new paradigm, beyond Enlightenment rationality.  But traditional Talmudic Judaism has always emphasized this social dimension.  Starting with the Talmudic statement “o chavruta o matuta” “either social connections or death” and going to the bubbling, interactive nature of the beit midrash, the traditional house of study, to the anonymous, group authorship of much of the foundational literature such as the Talmud and Midrash, and the importance of connecting one’s statements to chains of traditition b’shem omro, Jewish learning is social through and through.  In this way it is a pre-cursor to the findings of the psychologists and social scientists that Brooks and Gladwell are popularizing.     Its great that they are getting the word out to a large audience. I hope that Judaism’s contribution to this “New-Old Humanism” can reach as wide an audience.

1 reply
  1. Rachel Pollack says:

    Wonderful blog, Natan. Thank you for doing it.
    When I read Brooks’s column I had the same reaction. To me, Talmud is not based on hyper-rationality but rather arguments that are passionate, experimental, and exploratory. we humans seem fixated on zero sum truths. For my beliefs to be true, all others must be wrong, even if they differ in small ways. I see this in the esoteric fields that I study, the desire for a “scientific” truth, in which, say, the patterns on the Tree of Life are akin to the Periodic Table of the Elements. You cannot argue that you think hydrogen would work better as element 2 on the table rather than one, it makes no sense, it’s based on physical facts. But the place of say, Aleph on the Tree is not absolute in the same way. From the little I know of the Talmud it seems that it opens up the idea of explorative discussion. the question is, do Talmudic studies honor that, or do they create a rigid system? A friend who has a yeshiva background says that the rabbis opened a door to a place where they could challenge all that had come before, even turn things around. But then they closed that door to later generations. But I wonder if perhaps the later generations closed the door themselves, not wanting to enter such a place beyond rationality and rules.

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