September 27, 2004

Simply Yourself

Some years back a friend of mine casually remarked that most Americans were anti-intellectual. When I said, “I’m anti-intellectual too,” she was shocked. “Why?” she asked, incredulously. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that I wasn’t satisfied with it. I wasn’t taking a principled stand; rather it was a gut reaction. It was just how I felt.

Over the years I’ve returned to the question from time to time, never really coming up with a satisfactory answer. Something just rubs me the wrong way about people who call themselves intellectuals. Here is one reason:

לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה

Lo’ hamidrash `iqar ele’ hama`ase

It is not the telling that is most important, but the doing

Pirqey Avot 1:17

I’m hardly ever satisfied with my translations, there are usually myriad possibilities, and I have to decide how far I’m willing to go from a literal translation, and how much poetry I’m willing to forsake for substance. But in this case, those myriad translations are directly relevant to the point I want to make. Specifically, midrash means variously seeking, learning, telling, and is also what we call the traditional stories that are recorded in the Talmud and other sources (you might call it Jewish folklore – but like the folklore of all traditional societies it is taken seriously). A beyt midrash is a house of study, a midrasha is a college (yes, cognate to Arabic madrassa), darash means seek. Stick in any of these words, and the saying is valid, and goes a long way toward explaining my anti-intellectualism. But there’s something better:

תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך

Tamim tihye `im a-donay eloheykha

Simple you will be with the Lord your God

Deuteronomy 18:13

This translation also requires some explanation for me to get my point across. Tamim doesn’t just mean simple, it also means honest, innocent, perfect, complete, finished, upright. Not as separate concepts, but all together – a whole worldview in one word. And everything the most intellectuals are not. What it means to me: Be who you are. Not an easy thing, I’ve had to work at it. But let me tell you, being who you are simplifies a lot of things. It also makes you more honest, perfect, complete, finished, upright, and oddest of all: more innocent. I mean this in both its meanings: not guilty and childlike. People have a sixth sense for t’mimut (tamim-ness), we instinctively find such people likeable. The mistake people make: to assume they are also fools.

That is my big problem with most intellectuals: they want to be complex when they should be striving to be simple.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 27, 2004 11:09 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

I agree with you about the desire of people to be considered complex. I think that some of this stems from a desire to be important, to be heard, to be accepted.

And I agree that simplicity is important. Off the top of my head I would think of the Dalai Lama as an example of this.

But there is power in simplicity. And it is a power that I'd like to grab a hold of and hang onto.

Posted by: Jack at September 28, 2004 08:01 AM Permalink

Now I'm thinking of all the criticisms of President Bush's simplisme...

Flippant, but appropriate, no?

Posted by: Dominic at September 28, 2004 02:37 PM Permalink


I was thinking of that too.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at September 28, 2004 04:29 PM Permalink

Just discovered your blog and I like it esp the smatterings of hebrew. I am learning hebrew and its very tasty with the transliterations and the english translation. Keep up the good work.

Chag Samech,

dave j

Posted by: Dave at September 28, 2004 06:04 PM Permalink

Many of our soldier students have trouble relating to our more "intellectual" professors, you know, like the ones who rave about the virtues of communism and try to get the soldiers to write about socio-economic factors when they don't even have a clue what the word "socio-economic" means. The soldiers just don't get these profs at all and think they can never please them. It would be funny to watch if people's grades weren't on the line. I hate to watch these students be brainwashed out of their direct, no-nonsense style into multi-cultural, PC garbage.

Posted by: Sarah at September 29, 2004 04:43 PM Permalink

× Network: