Parashat Pinchas, 5771, Jonathan Berk

Parashat Pinchas
July 16, 2011 / 14 Tamuz 5771
Jonathan Berk

Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

After looking at this week’s Parsha it became clear to me that relating it to anything relevant to our lives was going to be a stretch.  Lets be honest here.  It isn’t relevant.  Which spurred me to question why I was doing this --- not volunteering to do a drash, but why I was looking to the Torah for insight.

I teach a course (I am embarrassed to have to admit in the middle of Berkeley) at Stanford called “Critical Analytical Thinking.”   It was introduced a few years ago as one of the cornerstone courses of the now not so new MBA curriculum because the faculty felt that MBA students lacked critical thinking skills.   It is frightening how right they were, and unfortunately, still are.

The Graduate School of Business at Stanford is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, profession school in the world to get into.   One would think that any student who made the cut would be able to think critically.   But the unfortunate truth is that many cannot.   Worse still, there is a minority of students who not only come into the class lacking these skills, but leave the class no better off.   It is not just that they don’t know how to think, but that they don’t even know that they don’t know how to think.

The ability to think critically (or out of the box, to put this concept in today’s vernacular) is one of the most valued skills in our economy.  Why then do so many top students reach graduate school without these skills?   I believe the answer to this question lies in our primary education system.

Primary education in most of the world is about the communication of knowledge.   Teachers communicate knowledge to students and students communicate this knowledge back to teachers.  Lectures and tests.  It is vary rarely about the creation of knowledge.  Which is odd when you take a step back and think about whether we benefit from all this knowledge acquisition.  How much of your high school knowledge have you retained?  Speaking for myself, very little.   The only knowledge that I retained is the knowledge I use.

The way we educated in our schools is really an historical accident.  It dates from a time when people believed that there was no new knowledge to create.  What I will call the Golden Age idea: that a long time ago a golden age of knowledge creation existed and that our job today is simply to learn this knowledge.  Of course, today most of us would regard this idea as silly, but ironically the idea of education as solely the acquisition of existing knowledge is still ubiquitous.

What has this to do with the Torah and today’s parsha?  Well surely the idea that God handed the Torah to Moses is just another example of a throwback to the Golden Age idea.  By looking to the Torah for insight, aren’t we really just doing what earlier generations did --- simply accepting prior knowledge.

The Torah is one of the oldest books in existence. The fact is that old knowledge tends to be wrong and the older the knowledge the more wrong it is.   Not because the creators of the old knowledge were not as smart as us, but because they did not have the benefit of prior knowledge to build on.   Even the Principia, written by Isaac Newton, perhaps the smartest human being who has ever lived, was wrong.    A long winded way of saying the Torah it is far more often wrong than it is right.

As Jews, how do we deal with this reality?  Different people handle it differently.  Orthodox people (of all religions) simply deny the reality and blindly follow the written word.

We like to think of ourselves as being more enlightened.  We “reinterpret the words” to fit the modern world.   But really what we are doing is clinging to the fiction that the Torah is not wrong, that there are no mistakes.   And in doing this I believe we miss the most important lesson we can learn from studying the Torah.

Let me illustrate with a concrete example. It seems to me that a key part of today’s parsha is the decision to allow the daughters of Tzelafchad to inherit his land.   We can look at this and explain it in two ways.  We can interpret the words in a modern context and say that what this act really means is that the Torah says that all people regardless of their sex should be treated the same.  Or we can recognize the truth --- women do not have the same rights as men in the Torah.  The way we learn is to ask the question: why was it that if Tzelafchad had had sons, those sons would have inherited the land ahead of his daughters?

Surely, the lesson we learn from studying an ancient text like the Torah is what it teaches us about the process of knowledge creation.  By understanding how we came to supplant the Torah with a better system, we learn how to use knowledge to create new knowledge.  We learn how to think.  By pretending that the writers of the Torah really did understand all we know today, and that as a result the teachings in the Torah are as relevant now as they were when it was written, I think we miss the whole point of why it makes sense to read it.