Smart and Correct, an Ethical Conflict
By Eliezer Cohen
Being smart and being correct are two concepts that we live with on a daily basis. Each of us, in our own way, try to live in a manner that reflects both intellectual soundness and virtuous behavior. Many believe that intellectual prowess breeds correct action, and indeed, logically the intelligent individual has the opportunity to assess his actions to ascertain that the outcome is correct.
But can it be that intellectual prowess is the basis of correct action? What of those who are not blessed with quick minds? Are dull people doomed to being the "wicked" of our generation?
On this topic there is a famous Jewish parable which illustrates clearly the relationship between intelligence and righteousness.
Once two Torah scholars were sitting and discussing various topics in the Torah. Their host brought each of the distinguished scholars a cup of tea. Then the host came back with one plate upon which there were two tasty cookies, one for each of the men.
One cookie was obviously larger than the second, and the smaller one was a bit squashed. Each scholar looked at the plate and noticed this inequality. The rules of etiquette require that the person who takes first, being a refined gentleman, must take the smaller cookie, leaving the larger cookie for his friend, thereby showing consideration and esteem for his friend. Not only that, but it was also customary to let the bigger scholar take first. However it certainly was not proper to declare oneself a greater scholar, for that would betray the facade of humility that each scholar maintained about himself.
Each wanted the larger cookie, and therefore neither would take first.
Both scholars waited patiently for the other to take first. Neither stretched forth his hand to take.
"Reb Yankel, please, you are a most distinguished scholar, please take first."
"No, my dear Reb Schmendel, I am like dust upon your boots. You must take first."
And so it went on, each trying to convince the other to take first.
Then they sat for a few moments in silence. Finally one of the scholars put forth his hand and snatched the larger cookie.
As he brought it to his mouth, the other exclaimed, "I don't believe you have committed such an improper act! You a true Torah scholar from such a distinguished family, how could you have committed such an obviously degrading act of taking the larger cookie?!?"
"Why, my dear friend, what would you have done?"
"I?? If I had taken first, I would of course have taken the smaller cookie." Explained his friend.
"Hmm," retorted the first, "if that be so, then why do you complain? Did you not receive the smaller cookie?"
We live by various rules and customs. The difference between simple folk and smart men is that the simple folk have not the rationale to justify their trespass. A smart person can make his err appear not to be an error, and a very smart individual can convince us that not only was it not a trespass, but rather, it was a righteous deed. And an exceptionally intelligent person can convince us, that not only was no wrongdoing committed, and not only is he a righteous man, but that it was done only for our own benefit.
During the Spanish inquisition, many of the intelligencia converted to Christianity, whilst the simple people gave their lives to sanctify God's holy name, dying horrible deaths, and proclaiming "Shema Yisrael" as their soul's left their pained bodies. Those intelligent people convinced themselves that it was better to convert than to die, that their conversion was only a facade. The simpler folk could not persuade themselves of this - conversion was strictly forbidden.
Obviously, God created men with their various intellectual abilities. He expects us all, whether intellectually sharp or dull, to act in a righteous manner. Whether an individual can justify his act to us, or convince us that he is truly righteous is of no matter to us.
Our task is not to be taken in by crafty people who purport that their improper actions are truly righteous. And even more, it is the task of the truly brilliant people not to let themselves be convinced by their own intelligence that they are always correct. A spade is a spade and a sin is a sin.
from the December 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine