Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Black and White Problem

The charedi community has a tendency to extreme black-and-white thinking. Biblical figures are either holy righteous people whose spiritual level we cannot even begin to grasp, or utterly evil. Great Talmudic scholars are ipso facto also great theologians, great leaders, and possess moral perfection, while nothing of spiritual value can ever be learned from people outside of the Torah community. There is virtually no nuance.

Now, a lot of non-charedim look down on this way of thinking. But it is also prevalent among other Jews and non-Jews, especially in the USA as of the last few years.

People see everything in black-and-white, in extremes. The guy I like is a good guy, the guy I don't like is a bad guy. Bad people can't do anything good, good people can't do anything bad. People who do good things can't be bad people, and people who do bad things can't be good people.  

The Israel-UAE-Bahrain peace accords this week are a great example. While we were never seriously at war with these countries, and it's not great for them to get F-22s, the peace accords are certainly an enormously significant accomplishment - not least of which because, once again, entrenched beliefs of the global community about the Middle East have been shattered. And yet many people cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this tremendous success, because it was brought about by Trump. Conversely, because Trump brought about this success and has expressed great love for Israel, other people refuse to acknowledge any serious faults with him.

The same goes for pretty much every political topic. Many Republicans and Democrats heap scorn and disdain on absolutely everything done by the other side, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the problems on their own side. And this black-and-white extremist thinking is coupled with people exhibiting glee and triumphalism in pointing out every problem on the other side, even when it's something entirely insignificant, irrelevant, or a tragedy to be sad about rather than happy.

In a number of posts this year, whether regarding erasing women or mysticism or coronavirus, I've stressed the importance of understanding how other people view things. Aside from the tremendous value and benefit of maintaining some degree of societal unity, you can't effectively argue against a position if you don't understand why people take that position. And, by and large, people do have understandable reasons for the positions that they take, even if they are ultimately incorrect.

There are so many people who "just can't understand" how others could vote Republican/ Democrat. But is it really so hard to understand? With the differences covering so many areas, it's largely simply due to which things people choose to focus on, along with the fact that most people get their information on every topic from those who project a certain outlook upon it.

Unfortunately, as science has shown, people are biologically wired this way. Tribalism is genetic, part of how we evolved. We have an innate tendency to want to group everyone into those who are with us and those who are against us. And this is accompanied with a natural bias to see all the actions of those on our team as being good, and the actions of those on the other team as being bad.

But, as Judaism teaches us, our task is to rise above our natural, evolutionary instincts. And there are ways to do this. When you're confronted with a news story that confirms your personal good guy/ bad guy narrative, you need to be extra suspicious! Before sharing it with others, ask yourself if it's really true, and how you would feel about it if it was reversed. And if you can't understand how otherwise intelligent and good people feel about a topic, then try to understand it! And if you think that your team has everything correct and the other team has everything wrong, then it's time to re-assess. No single political/ religious worldview is perfect. Yes, some might be better than others, even extremely significantly so. But nobody is perfect.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy, successful, and intellectually nuanced new year! 


(The Biblical Museum of Natural History is closed for the lockdown, but we look forward to re-opening, and we will be returning with live online tours for people around the world after the chagim - perhaps also during Chol HaMoed, if there is sufficient interest. Please support our mission of inspiring and educating hundreds of thousands of people about Judaism and the natural world!)


  1. RNS
    The post is very informative however I am slightly confused as to why you had to bash the Haredim here again. This post is about being tolerant and not being judgemental. Why do you always seem to criticise Haredim and never MO. Does that not show a "black and white thinking". Is it not time we all start to try understand each other?

    1. Dude!
      Many of RNS' posts DO explain the other side. He then might argue with it, but he DOES do that.

      He has praised Trump, he has criticized Trump.

      He has argued with chareidim, but he has also explained the chareidi viewpoint and often acknowledged its appropriateness in a certain context.

      Here he is saying that the chareidi world does NOT do that.

      I suppose the post could be longer, trying to understand WHY the chareidi world is so black and white, discussing elements of defensiveness, superiority, etc, but that would be a little meta, I think...

  2. The Ramchal (I think in Derech Hashem) lays down a rule that that when a person is evil, Chazal darshan everything said about him as evil.

  3. Replies
    1. Really? No understanding even now?

      See my response to the first poster.

  4. If your teshuva for rosh hashanah consists of sectarian finger-pointing at what you perceive as the other side's sectarian finger-pointing, I would humbly submit that you haven't been doing it right.

    1. I refer you to your first sentence "The charedi community has a tendency to extreme black-and-white thinking" which, it seems to me, was itself a form of sectarian and extreme black-and-white thinking.

      Here is some reading which seems appropriate for our times

    2. Huh? I said that the charedi world has a tendency towards that, and then I said that it extends far beyond the charedi world.

    3. So let's go on.

      I don't think think the accusation that charedim have "virtually no nuance" had virtually any nuance.

      When it comes to your tribe, there is a failure to identify it by name with tribal thinking that you criticise. But the crux of your problem is when you note that your own tribal identity "might be better than others, even extremely significantly so". This is tribalism and ipso facto wrong.

      You will semantically define every single Charedi by the actions of extremists and figureheads, ignore the culpable moral failures of your tribe's extremists and figureheads, and in the end reduce a whole section of society, whose aspirations this Rosh Hashana for themselves and their loved ones are materially identical to your own, and fail to acknowledge their common humanity, their equality of esteem, with anyone else. You dehumanise them.

      I anticipate you will reply that your strictures were aimed at the communal structures, the polity, the ideology of Charedim. To which I pithily reply that they were not. You made a tribal value judgement about a 'team.' But there are no intrinsically good or bad tribal identities.

      It is not better to be Sephardi or Ashenazi, Yemenite, or Russian, Emirati or Israeli.

  5. slifkin if youre so concerned about certain videos igniting the flames of jew haters, why do you proudly post them for more people to see it just goes to show what your true motives are moron

  6. Tribalism is genetic because it offers a survival advantage. No, we shouldn't be undermining it. A group benefits from tribalism. For 1% of the people, who think and understand, the world isn't black and white, but the rest: your country, your nation - benefit from tribalism, within reason obviously.


    1. I don't think tribalism does confer any survival advantage in a world with nuclear weapons. Cf Isaiah 2:4

      וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת--לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

      Kesiva v'chasima l'tovah


    2. Absolutely it does for the survival of a nation, a tribe or a group. European Union is bringing a destruction onto its member nations with mandatory non-european immigration. More tribal people like Hungarians, Poles and Chechs resist it and so far successfully. A homogeneous and disciplined nation like China, Korea or Japan can handle Covid-19 better then diverse and chaotic societies like USA, Brasil or Israel.

      There is a tribe on the Andaman Islands that kills all strangers and it's still around, whereas other tribes had gone extinct.

      Shana Tova, mates.


    3. Yes, every human has a sense of tribal identity because we all come from tribes. And it is true that homogeneous countries like Japan fair better.

    4. @The Hat
      Nuclear weapons can hardly be associated with the verses describing the messianic age. The following verse is more appropriate, I think:

      כֹּ֤תּוּ אִתֵּיכֶם֙ לַֽחֲרָב֔וֹת וּמַזְמְרֹֽתֵיכֶ֖ם לִרְמָחִ֑ים הַֽחַלָּ֔שׁ יֹאמַ֖ר
      פסוק י) גִּבּ֥וֹר אָֽנִי (יואל פרק ד).

      Kindness to strangers and helping the poor is genetic and evolutionary beneficial to that particular tribe. A tribe possessing these qualities wouldn't survive otherwise.

      Haredim not working is peculiar to the Iaraeli situation. Not serving in the army is an act of self-preservation on their part. If the draft were to be abolished for the haredim, the majority would join the workforce openly.


    5. Yeah, I was going to mention that for someone who believes in the theory of evolution (as I do), R' Slifkin seems to be very unwilling here to accept that perhaps it made the right call in this case as well.

  7. Yakov,

    There is a tribe originating in the Ancient Near East which shows kindness to strangers and helps the poor. They're still around, whereas other warlike nations who have attempted to erase them have vanished.

    Let's learn the right lessons in 5781.

    Shana Tova

  8. Yakov,

    Unfortunately kindness to strangers and helping the poor are about the only good qualities that merit being mentioned about that tribe. Lacking are chareidim working to support their families and sharing the burden to defend their country with the rest of their citizens. So there’s really not too much to defend about the “tribe”.

  9. F-35s, not F-22s.

    Very well put. Joe Biden, of all people, once told a lovely story about how he learned this lesson in relation to his fellow senator, Jesse Helms. It's not a story many of his followers would appreciate today- and perhaps not even one he would tell.

  10. Fine article, but two points are worth noting.

    1. RNS has a tendency to engage in the same black and white thinking of which he accuses charedim. The very first sentence is a perfect illustration, in fact. Or does he really think ALL Charedim think this way?

    2. Despite frequent lapses himself into such simplistic thinking, RNS says he understands nuance, and thus recognizes that there is both good and bad in various groups, parties, etc. That is undoubtedly true, as his many blog posts show. But why does he think himself the only one capable of understanding nuance? Not everyone has a blog, you know, in which they can elaborate at length upon their opinions. Ultimately your opinions must be expressed in action, and you can only choose one school or candidate. People in my circles (cant speak about others) readily admit that our shuls, schools, candidates, etc aren't perfect. Obviously not all this is discussed in public, bc real life is not a blog. We don't have to discuss their shortcomings publicly any more than we need discuss our spouses' and childrens'. But for someone to believe his selected institutions are all "perfect", and everyone else's are all "terrible" - these are cartoon caricatures, not real people.

    In short, while our *choices* of necessity must be reduced to black and white, very few people actually *think* this way. If RNS doesn't understand this - well, then, he's lacking nuance.

    1. "RNS has a tendency to engage in the same black and white thinking of which he accuses charedim. The very first sentence is a perfect illustration, in fact. Or does he really think ALL Charedim think this way?"

      Good grief.
      Try reading the first sentence again.
      Note the word "TENDENCY." I.e. not ALL charedim think this way.

    2. I also used the word TENDENCY, i.e., not ALL your posts reflect black and white thinking...

    3. RNS Do you think it reasonable that many accuse you of bias against charedim or is it just paranoia?

      I for one have no issue with the particular criticism you issue. It would just seem to an objective bystander that you have an ax to grind.

    4. It seems intellectually lazy to even use the term Chareidim when describing a type of behavior. There is such a wide range of people that identify as Chareidi, to use the term so broadly is actually insulting. I consider myself Chareidi and I would like to think that I appreciate nuance. My chareidi friends also appreciate nuance.
      So why start a post insulting a group of people? Why not just discuss the trait that you are identifying without degrading a group of people? What was added?
      I wonder if you will ever appreciate this point

    5. Of course he has an ax to grind, he has been at war with chareidi society for most of his adult life. But not entirely his fault. The book banners and kefirah-finders just picked the wrong target.

  11. Yes, humans like to avoid nuance. They like things to be simple or black-and-white. The charedi community is a good example. But of course, not all of them are like this. I like how RNS mentioned Trump's achievements in the "Deal of the Century" and the official recognition of the State of Israel when he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem. This is what Republicans have brought you. Democrats only brought death and destruction with Antifa burning cities and forests. I can understand why they are doing this, tho. They feel that they are being oppressed by the police. So I understand why someone would vote for the Dems. But I don't agree with them at all.

    Point notwithstanding, I once told a charedi person that the biblical figures sinned. King David made quite a few of them. He would not believe me and pointed to the Talmud which said that David did no sin. But the Bible itself confess that David DID sin. Nobody is perfect. But this is good since it makes King David a human whom you could relate to. Even the patriarchs were human. David, like all humans, made mistakes. He exhibited both good and bad traits. This also lends credibility to the Bible, that it is willing to record the wrongs and misdeeds of Israel. And this is better than fairytales about Prince Florian.

  12. The progression of this post seems to be that the Charedim started it, but now it spread to other parts of society.
    I don't think it is any more true about other parts of society than it is about Charedim. From the outside, it may look like that. But like everything, the news does not accurately reflect the mindset. Charedim are not monolithic, just like many other sub-groups of Judaism.

    And the height of irony is when a post claims that others are missing the point that the post itself misses, from the beginning.

    Jason from Jersey

  13. Christopher Reeves is Superman in that Photo. He spoke very highly of Israel. Now for an amazing miracle. I was watching a Christopher Reeves movie over several days during which RNS posted this Photo. ACJA

  14. "There are so many people who "just can't understand" how others could vote Republican/ Democrat. But is it really so hard to understand?"

    Only someone living in an ivory tower outside of the US and unaware of US history, could make a statement like this.

    The Democrat Party's origins were as violent racists in the South. The Democrat Party continues its true agenda now as a violent mob of hard left , virulently anti-religious, anti-white, anti-Jewish, and anti Israel racists.

    Only extreme secularist and leftist Jews would continue voting for them at this point, at least on the national level.

    Some things are actually black and white.


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