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The Problem with Perfect Heroes

In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men had any flaws. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism.

One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences. In other words, we lose the most important component of most good plots: how the hero overcomes his flaws and achieves redemption. So when we insist that our heroes were perfect, even when they were little children, then we make them so different from ourselves than we cannot relate to them in any way. Each of us, we would hope, are not the same person we were when we were children or teenagers.

Judaism, like any other belief system that has withstood the test of time, has not been immune to external forces. Some of those forces are openly recognized – and thus more easily rejected. But others are much more subtle, almost invisible. We think of Hellenism as an ancient idea, but many of the ideas of the Greeks (including concepts like Truth and Beauty and Perfection) have become core ideas of modern Western thought as well. Ancient Jews consciously and unconsciously adopted Greek ideas into our own worlds. It happened with language, and with philosophy, with culture and habit. And it certainly happened with Plato’s view of teaching that our heroes must be flawless.

Jews—and especially observant Jews—have a particular problem with thinking this way. The influence of Plato runs deep in our tradition. Plato, of course, comes after the Torah is given at Sinai. Though his worldview on education is not found in the Torah itself, it certainly is part of Judaism today.

The text of the Torah itself does not sugarcoat our origins. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all. But even though the Torah itself does not suggest that our forefathers were flawless, and indeed, it wants us to read the text in a straightforward manner: “It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off,[1] normative Jewish tradition is to suggest that, because they are so far above our own level, we cannot actually learn very much of anything from our forefathers, except the vaguest notions such as being hospitable to guests. The text, if it conflicts with a Platonic interpretation, must be explained away.

But there is a way we can see the flaws of our forefathers without necessarily claiming that they were as flawed and limited as we are. My brother suggests what he calls “The Iceskater Analogy,” and it goes as follows: One may well be able to appreciate that a skater missed a jump or a landing without saying that we would do a better job. In other words, we can acknowledge when an historical or biblical figure makes a mistake without needing to also say that we would never have made such a mistake. Think, for example, of the countless missteps of generals in the heat of the moment when, years later and without any of the pressures of war, we can easily identify their errors. We may be right now, and they have been wrong then – but that does not mean we would have been better generals had we been in their shoes.

So it is not widely accepted that Jews are even able to point out when the biblical skater has missed a landing, even when it seems quite clear that he has done so. We have this peculiar situation: today’s traditional Jews would shy away, without explanation, from explicitly emulating our forefathers. Nobody would suggest that it is a good idea for me to save my own life by taking payment in exchange for handing over my own wife (as Avraham did), or deceive our father because Jacob deceived Isaac to steal his brother’s blessing. Instead, we are told that while the Torah tells us about these things, they are not actually meant to be understood the way the words present them! In other words, Hashem’s Holy Book cannot – and should not – be interpreted using its own words.

I would argue that since the Torah itself does not whitewash our forefathers, and indeed is clearly ambivalent about some of their actions, the ethical lessons of the Torah are meant to be learned the way they are described. Though we can explain away apparent errors with complex justifications, it is neither necessary nor, on the whole, beneficial to do so.

Let me give a single example: two years ago, I pointed out that we became slaves in Egypt because of something Avram did, when he arranged matters such that his wife would be taken in Pharoah’s harem:

Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?

This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.

If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should always be able to empathize with the downtrodden. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt teaches us the very same thing Sarai feels in that moment: sheer terror and despair.

It was only after I wrote the piece that I discovered that a major commentator, Nachmanides (Ramban), said the very same thing! In his commentary on Gen 12:10:

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. … It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children. In the place of justice, there is wickedness.

Which means that my piece was really not much more than explaining Ramban’s commentary in fuller form. Nevertheless, the crazy thing is that very, very few learned Jews are even aware of this Ramban citation, even though the Ramban is generally very well read. The reason why is not hard to parse: the very concept that Avram might have done something wrong – especially something as wrong as trading his wife for payment – makes people very upset. I got hate mail!

Yet if we are willing to read the text itself, and to see Avram and his relationships as a story in growth and development, then we can see that Avram great as he was – and far greater than we are – still did not nail every figure-skating routine. And we would do well to learn from our forefathers, not merely make excuses for them.

Start at Avram’s beginning: the text presents us with a man who hears G-d telling him to “Go out,” – and he listens.

Some of our sages argue that Avraham must have been a great intellect, a man who, at a young age, deduced the existence of a non-corporeal deity who created all the world, and so must have already had a full understanding of G-d by the time G-d spoke those first words to him.

On the other hand, others, like the Ibn Ezra, suggest that perhaps G-d talks to everyone. But unlike everyone else, Avram was receptive. In this reading, Avram did not necessarily know anything at all about G-d before he is told to “Go.” The Torah text itself has nothing on Avraham’s intellect or prior relationship with G-d.

In this plain reading, the text shows that G-d never introduces himself to Avraham, and never explains that he is the creator of the world. For all that “early” Avram has been told, G-d is merely one of countless tribal or familial deities. Which explains why Avram kept pushing G-d for “proof” that Avram would in fact be the father of many nations – after all, how could a familial deity make such grandiose promises?

It also explains why, when G-d tells an old Avram that he would still father a child with Sarai, Avram laughed – and, so too, did Sarai. In the ancient world, fertility had its own gods, separate from those representing other natural forces. There was no reason to think the Avram’s deity could also make an old woman capable of conceiving and birthing a baby.

It even better explains why Avram felt he had no choice but to take payment for Sarai from Pharaoh: G-d had not yet disclosed that He was powerful even in the land of the Nile, powerful enough to plague Pharaoh and his household. Had Avram known this, he may have behaved quite differently – possibly praying for the famine to end so that he did not leave the land, to not being afraid that his wife would be taken from him by force.

When we read it the way the text presents it, then the actions of our forefathers are much easier to understand. If we do not assume that they knew then what we know now, then their actions make far more sense. But first we have to accept the possibility that the text is able to stand on its own, free of Platonic requirements about the nature of our heroes.

  1. Devarim: 30:11.

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