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Thursday, November 19, 2009


An American proverb teaches, “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.” We all know the type. They come with an attitude of superiority and an air of haughtiness. They are overbearing and filled with pride. In their own eyes, they can do no wrong. The order of the world is up-ended; as George Eliot wrote, “He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.”

The Hebrew term for such arrogance is gasut ruach, someone with an inflated spirit. Beginning on B. Sotah 4a ff. we find the Talmudic catalog on arrogance. It is not a pretty picture.

The catalog begins with this statement. R. Hiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yohanan teaches, “Whoever is arrogant will eventually stumble by committing adultery with a married woman.” (Sotah 4b) Note that it is not adultery that leads to his arrogance. Long before he approached the woman, this man believed he could seduce her and get away with it. It all begins with his attitude, and this is only the first step down a slippery slope.

This Talmudic presentation moves through several different stages. The first stage details where the attitude of arrogance will lead. The second considers the consequences. A third reflects on the inner psychology of the arrogant person. A fourth flips the scales to suggest that students may require a small touch of arrogance to succeed. In presenting the breadth of this catalog I have skipped most proof-texts and some other material that accompanies these brief descriptions. Nonetheless, this review gives the flavor of the section.

Rabbi Yohanan first says in the name of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai, "Whoever is arrogant is as if he worships idolatry." He then speaks in his own name to add that it is as if "he denied the core principle [of the world]." And Ulla extends that to say “It is as if he built a high place.”

Where is the boundary of arrogance? If you can lord it over your neighbor's wife, can't you also lord it over other people? If you can break the rules in one realm, why not another? Where will it end? Rabbi Yohanan suggests that it won't end until you deny the very foundations of the universe. Ulla goes further; you won't stop until you make the world over in your own image. Beyond worshiping idols, you will become one yourself.

In a sense Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching follows smoothly on the heels of Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla. He focuses on what will happen to one who is so full of themselves. He teaches on B. Sotah 5a, “Whoever is arrogant is worthy of being cut down like an asherah [a tree that is worshiped].” Arrogance has consequences. One who believes he is a god deserves to be treated as an idol and cut down.

Rabbi Eleazar teaches that the effects reach beyond one’s death. “Whoever is arrogant — his dust will not be stirred up [when the dead are resurrected],” meaning that they will not be resurrected in the time-to-come and no dust will stir over their grave-site. The arrogant person forfeits their place in the world-to-come. As a result he notes that “the Shekhina laments for whoever is arrogant.” While every soul is precious, not every soul merits life in the world-to-come, and the Shekhina grieves for every lost soul.

Rabbi Alexandri shifts the focus to consider the inner psychology of the arrogant person. “Whoever is arrogant — even the slightest breeze shakes him, “as it is said, ‘But the wicked are like the troubled sea [which cannot rest, whose waters toss up mire and mud. There is no safety, said my God, for the wicked]’ (Isaiah 57:20-21).” They may appear as over-bearing brutes, but on the inside they are quite insecure – even the slightest breeze shakes them. Rabbi Alexandri offers a striking image. The sea is huge and powerful, but let a wind blow across the surface of the water and you see the water quiver. The strength of the sea is an illusion. The same is true of the arrogant. They may seem strong, but ultimately they cannot stand up in the face of a breeze. Their insecurity shows through.

Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, citing Rab offers a surprising reflection. “A disciple of a sage should have one eighth of an eighth [of pride].” Said Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Joshua, “And it serves as his crown, like the fan of a grain.” An eighth of an eighth, one sixty-fourth, is a very small measure. Perhaps it is just enough to stir a reluctant student to offer a new insight, to take pride in his work or to challenge his fellow students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text. But it is a delicate and precarious balance. Said Raba, “He is subject to excommunication if there is [arrogance] in him, and he is subject to excommunication if there is no [arrogance] in him.” It reminds me of homeopathic cures; small doses of substances, often poisons, that induce effects similar to the symptoms one suffers as a way to counteract disease. A little arrogance may stimulate the student while inoculating him against greater arrogance in the future.

The last word goes to Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac who disagrees strongly with those who find even an iota of redeeming virtue in arrogance. He teaches “[A student should have] no part of it [arrogance], nor even of part of part of it. Is it a small thing that it is written in connection [with arrogance], ‘Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord [assuredly he will not go unpunished]’ (Proverbs 16: 5)?” His proof text asserts that there is no measure small enough to be safe or helpful. He points back to the opening teachings by Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla – arrogance is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead one astray.

In all the Talmud this is the longest discussion of the concept of gasut ruach, arrogance. I believe our ancient sages could easily agree with our American proverb: “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.”

© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009

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