Monday, January 13, 2020

Skeptic’s Day: Or is It?

Happy “Skeptics Day,” is the annual opportunity to acknowledge those who need absolute evidence before believing anything.

What does Jewish wisdom teach about skepticism?

In a Jewish court, verifiable evidence is certainly needed to convict. Two witnesses, who must comport to high standards, must testify to having seen the alleged crime committed first-hand. Circumstantial evidence is not tolerated. Establishing courts of law to adjudicate cases is not only a Jewish mandate, but considered to be obligatory upon all of humanity, Jew and non-Jew alike. Jews understand that human courts may not be the source of ultimate justice: the heavenly courtroom of the Almighty is. So, if a human court is unable to convict due to a lack of witnessed facts, it is assumed that God will ultimately mete out judgment.

But, in life outside the courtroom, a balance is needed between fairness and avoiding naiveté. A story is told (Derech Eretz Rabbah chapter 5) about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah who invited a man to his home and fed him. As his guest climbed to the loft to go to sleep, Rabbi Joshua removed the ladder. Alas, in the middle of the night, the guest robbed the host of many of his valuables and wrapped them in his coat. He sought to make his getaway, but when he attempted to climb down, he fell and broke his collarbone. When Rabbi Joshua arose the next morning and saw his guest sprawled on the floor, he told him that while he suspected him of being dishonest, he still treated him respectfully. In the end, the Mishnah states, citing Rabbi Joshua, “One should always view people as thieves, but honor them like the leader of the Jews.” Many centuries later, the phrase kabdeihu v’chash’deihu, was born, which means to simultaneously show esteem but maintain skepticism.

A verse in Jeremiah (41:9) attributes to Gedaliah, to some degree, the murder of 80 men, and the disposal of their remains into a pit. The Talmud (Nidah 61a) asks why Gedaliah would be responsible for such a mass murder. After all, the crime was committed by Yishmael the son of Netanyah, who had assassinated Gedaliah the previous day? The Talmud answers that Gedaliah was warned by Yochanan the son of Kar’ei’ach that the king of Ammon was sending Yishmael to murder him. Not only did Gedaliah refuse to believe the information, but he invited Yishmael to dinner, where Yishmael killed him. Because he refused to accept credible information, he is considered somewhat responsible, for all the deaths that resulted from his assassination.

The Talmud concludes, that although one should not fully accept negative speech (lashon hara) as fact, one should be mindful of it.

Happy Skeptic’s Day.

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