Friday, December 23, 2016

Error Correction and Conscious Progress - Torah Portion Vayeshev

Judah accuses his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of having illicit relations after she's found to be pregnant. But of course Tamar turns the tables:
"By the man whom these [items] belong to, I became pregnant." (Gen 38:25)
She proceeds to bring out Judah's signet ring, his staff, etc. Judah recognizes them, and then says what is possibly my favorite line in the entire Torah:
"She is more right(eous) than I am."
Judah admits she's right - it was he who pledged to give her his son Shela in marriage and reneged. Tamar was left in the lurch, waiting around for years as a widow for a marriage that Judah never intended to make happen. Why is "she's right" among my favorite lines in the Torah? Because it's an admission of error. It's the willingness to engage in self-correction. And error correction is really the gateway to conscious progress.

Interesting that the English word "admit" has two connotations - to "concede" and to "allow in." When we admit we're wrong, what we're doing is allowing the possibility of absorbing a new idea, a correction over what we held previously. If we do not allow it, if our ego, pride and self-worth are tied up with having to be "right," or with a previously held position, if our resoluteness and iron will prevent us from self-reflection, we block the capacity for progress.

It should also be said that when a society and its institutions (and that includes Jewish ones) deem any idea or person unassailable, unquestionable, or beyond debate, this also impedes conscious progress, because it prevents the possibility of correction.

Judaism is, or should be, in part a celebration of error. Not error per se, but the awareness of it, and the desire to correct it - in order to move forward, morally and intellectually. That is the concept of teshuva, self-correction. In fact the word "Judaism" comes from Judah. The name Yehudah (Judah) is linked to the root yada - yielding, admitting, and acknowledging. (See Gen 29:35)

Judah's descendants become the kings, earn the mantle of leadership. And I would like to think that a part of Judah's "greatness" is linked to his willingness to engage in self-correction. His desire to learn from mistakes portends the humility needed for effective and virtuous leadership. Several hundred years later, David, a descendant of Judah, likewise has the tables turned on him by the prophet Natan, where the person David condemns turns out to be none other than himself. And he accepts Natan's rebuke. Admission of error, and the desire and commitment to make corrections - that is, in my estimation, the most noble and regal part of Jewish tradition.

But I think Tamar's greatness deserves a mention here too. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) praises Tamar for not coming out and chastising or embarrassing Judah, but instead presenting his belongings and giving him the chance to realize and admit his error. Natan uses a similar sort of technique.

Correction (improvement, betterment, progress) is the goal. And self-correction is better than correction by means of coercion, because it's more genuine, and because it stands a better chance of being implemented. It helps to want it. How do we help people want to self-correct? By engaging them respectfully rather than aggressively. Hostile confrontation generally puts people on the defensive and if anything makes them more likely to double-down on their position. And by giving people the experience of discovering their error for themselves. Not an easy trick to pull off, but one which we ought to learn how to do if we want to foster real teshuva, encourage conscious progress.


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