RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Integrity and Pride: We hang in the balance

    Posted on July 28th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Recently, stories about integrity pride have made headline quite frequently. This week Professor Alyssa Gray, Associate Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature on the New York campus of HUC-JIR puts into the context of rabbinic thinking on these two challenging human impulses. She reminds us that in thinking about these how to manage our sense of pride there are no simple answers.

    Professor Alyssa Gray

    We like to think that our world operates in this day and age on principles more elevated than “might makes right.” Think again. Plenty of people believe and act on the idea that might does make right. Taking “might” to mean something other than physical or military strength—power derived from great wealth, or even athletic skill and celebrity—we see that public figures ranging from Tiger Woods to some Goldman Sachs executives (not to mention Bernard Madoff and co.) acted arrogantly on the implicit belief that their power entitled them to do and have whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, at whatever cost. Given some of what we’ve seen, the Rambam’s advice (Hilkhot Deot 2:3) that we behave with extreme self-deprecation so as to avoid arrogant pride looks sound. But it’s more complicated (as Rambam surely knew too): the same sense of self that can deteriorate into a toxic brew of arrogance and overreaching can be, in a person of better character, a vital component of the healthy sense of self of an accomplished individual.

    Reflections on pride, arrogance, and overreaching fill our Judaic and Western traditions, sometimes with confusing results. Who doesn’t (just a tiny bit) admire John Milton’s proud Satan in Paradise Lost (“What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will. . . .” Book I)? And that’s just one small quote. The Tanakh is less subtle in its assessment of the arrogance of power, as well as the arrogant’s inevitable (to the Tanakh) fall. That fall may be spectacular (think of Pharaoh and his armies at the Reed Sea), and at other times drawn-out and tragic (David’s sin with Bathsheba changed the narrative arc of his reign from one success after another to a reign in which he never again enjoyed a moment’s peace until his death). Kohelet’s pessimism notwithstanding, the overreaching arrogant don’t fare well in the Tanakh.

    Yet pride, arrogance, and their deleterious impact on one’s integrity aren’t only for the Tiger Woods(es) of this (and the Biblical) world. Let’s consider the consequences of lashing out in response to wounded personal pride, a wound we all suffer at one time or another. In the rabbinic narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the chain of events culminating in the destruction is kicked off by the (not then famous) Bar Kamza’s false report to the Roman Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, which he made in order to get even with the rabbis for his public humiliation, which they witnessed but did not stop (BT Git. 56a). This is a cautionary tale in which Bar Kamza’s justifiably hurt pride led him to an ill-considered act with unforeseen consequences. In another cautionary tale, R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon, puffed up with pride because of all the Torah he had learned, thoughtlessly insulted a man by calling him “ugly” (BT Tan. 20a-b). Although he immediately regretted what came out of his mouth and begged forgiveness, the injured man stubbornly refused until R. Eleazar’s townspeople (=his “congregation”) intervened. R. Eleazar’s justifiable pride in his accomplishments turned him “ugly” while the man’s justifiable hurt turned him truly “ugly” when he unjustifiably refused to forgive. Careful response to wounded pride is also of halakhic concern. Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyyim 10:19) that one who refuses to take tzedakah even though he or she literally cannot live without it is a shedder of blood, liable for his or her own death. While Rambam sees the reluctance to accept help from others as admirable even if it means that one lives right at the edge, that pride becomes sin when it becomes an obstacle to continuing to live.

    Between the extremes of Rambam’s exhortation to self-deprecation and the arrogance of pride and power lies a healthy sense of self that includes an awareness of one’s abilities/status/good points, etc., and a true humility that keeps one from seeing those things as justifications for taking advantage of other people or for seeing oneself as superior to them. For (Talmudic) example: While a strong sense of self-confidence is vital to leadership, the rabbis saw humility as equally indispensable, inveighing against leaders who behave tyrannically toward their communities (e.g., BT Rosh Hashanah 17a), and teaching through stories of failed rabbinic leadership that the failure may have been due to a want of humility (e.g., Rabban Gamliel on BT Ber. 27b-28a). While taking pride in knowledge is found wherever there are teachers and students, humility is equally vital to doing that sacred work; to borrow a phrase from another context—if you don’t know something, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Kallah Rabbati 4:22) and, if you’re a teacher, recognize the truth that often one really does learn most from one’s students (BT Tan. 7a). (If you’re a student, recognize that you can learn from the teacher too! That’s on BT Tan. 7a as well.) There is no better advice for all of us—wealthy, powerful, and not so much—than the well-known words of the Hasidic R. Simcha Bunim of Pshiskhe: In one pocket carry the words “The world was created for me” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”


    3 responses to “Integrity and Pride: We hang in the balance”

    1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmJew HUC-LA and Hebrew Union College, Ruth Abusch-Magder. Ruth Abusch-Magder said: Questioning Rambam's wisdom when it come to pride [...]

    2. One challenge is that the line between pride and insecurity is so thin. Several years ago, I gave a sermon based on Simcha Bunim’s famous aphorism about a truth in each pocket. One of my congregants at the time was a poet and he wrote a poem in response, lamenting that he had such a difficult time knowing which truth to pull out at any given moment. You’d think that when one is acting with arrogance, s/he should take out “I am but dust and ashes” but that’s not necessarily the case. Oftentimes, the arrogance is just the expression overlying a very thin veneer of fear and insecurity–which calls for “the world was created for me.”

    3. Dan,
      What a wonderful observation. Thank you for pushing the conversation beyond the surface. It is critical to consider the inner truth that pushes us to act.

    Leave a reply