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A Twisted Creature

A Twisted Creature


Within the ocean of blood and fire that is surrounding us now, there are seemingly isolated, detached islands, here and there. Here we are, sitting and talking about Torah, mitzvot and good deeds. On the one hand, it may be comforting to know that there are such islands of serenity within the confusion. But is it really right, at a time like this, to be within a kind of bubble of a world that is all good?

Maimonides (in his Laws of Teshuvah, Chapter 3, halachah 6) gives a list of people who do not have a share in the World to Come. This list includes apostates, skeptics, those who deny the Torah, etc. However, it also includes a type of person that usually is not overly noted: he who separates himself from the congregation. This person, says Maimonides, may be flawless in his faith and deeds. It may even be impossible to find any article in the code of law that he violates. However, he does not want to be part of the Congregation of Israel. He wants no share either in its troubles or in its joys. It is as if he says: Let me live alone! For that reason, this person has no share in the world to come. He is rejected forever. If we do not wish to be included in that category, we must remember that even the islands of quiet that exist, exist in a relationship and a struggle with the noise all around us. Therefore we must not live within the silence of isolation. Rather, we must feel that we are living within the currently existing reality, with its confusion, flames, danger, and spilt blood.

I do not want to speak about politics--not because politics is inherently loathsome; on the contrary, it is part and parcel of what we are all living within. In a place like ours, whoever wants to keep away from this is to be considered one who separates himself from the congregation. With all that, I choose to speak about a completely different issue. However, this issue is profoundly related to what is happening now.

I believe that the foundation of things is not always visible. Often it is to be found much deeper, and sometimes it seems totally abstract. So too, the topic about which I am going to speak may seem abstract. I think that it is deeply connected with our current reality. This connection is not a mystical one. Rather, it is a direct link between the blemishes of the mind, heart and consciousness, and what is happening to us now.

The subject I wish to discuss is sophistication. The only place in the Torah in which one may, perhaps, say that there is a term akin to that is in Genesis 3:1, which says: "The serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field." In contemporary terms I would translate it as "the serpent was more sophisticated." Indeed, this is what he was. He was neither wise nor clever, but he was sophisticated, the very first sophisticated being in the world.

Defining sophistication is not easy. I shall therefore not speak here about the very existence of this term, nor about the multiplicity of forms--from storming in to creeping in--whereby it enters into real life. I would like to focus upon one main point: sophistication forces the most basic things not only out of the discourse, but even out of the very process of thinking. Sophistication demolishes the possibility to conduct a simple conversation, make a simple statement, touch the fundamentals of existence.

The abundance of sophistication, the multitude of explanations--regardless of the method employed in them--makes us cease to know what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is a lie. We forget what simple words such as "I hate," "I love" mean. Instead, we get dragged into a heap of complex, convoluted talk that is completely detached from reality, from genuine experiences and emotions. In the aftermath of sophistication there is no longer a need to deny or ignore the basics. People have become so sophisticated, that they no longer believe in or understand anything anymore.

Consequently, what should have been most basic and simple not only ceases to be self-evident; it becomes totally incomprehensible. I am speaking about basic words, such as: "I believe," "I am afraid," "I am a Jew." One can explain these things at great length, with or without footnotes, in complicated sentences that no one understands--for this is part of what sophistication is about.

Unlike sophistry, sophistication is not an attempt to mislead the thought. Rather, it may be likened to the continuous activity of cutting down flowering, fruit-bearing trees, pulverizing them, turning them into paper and then replacing them with paper trees and flowers. The sophisticated person converts living things into much more complex, complicated, wiser surrogates--and in the process, loses touch with the basics.

The curse of sophistication today has occurred mainly among educated people, or those who want to be considered educated, throughout the world. Once, before the onset of sophistication, a person could go to an exhibition, see a painting, and say, "This is beautiful!" Today, one can no longer say such a thing, just as one can no longer say that something is horrid. Rather, one needs to explain precisely to which era this painting belongs, what genre is used, and whether it is outdated, modern or post-modern, how this painting relates to works of other painters, and whether the brush strokes go from right to left or from left to right. After all that, a person ceases to know if the thing itself is beautiful or ugly...

This applies also to religion, as well as to an increasing number of religious people. Today, religious people are becoming more and more sophisticated. They speak a highbrow language and write highbrow poetry and literature. They explain Judaism in a metaphysical way and in a kabbalistic way and in a poetic way and in a literary way. All these explanations brush aside the simple reality of speaking and thinking about basic concepts and of experiencing the most fundamental things.

Sophistication is a deadly poison to Judaism, because it eradicates from it all those things that--even if somewhat primitive--are real. The sophisticated person no longer has children--he has state-of-the-art dolls (sometimes, living ones). He has no life--he has super-modern machinery. All this sophistication creates a complete structure, which I also often encounter in religious life. All those explanations, and attempts to be bigger and brighter, make us lose our most basic understandings.

This process occurs with our emotions and reactions, too. We can no longer say about anything: "How good it is," just as we can no longer exclaim: "Phooey!" Man has become captive of this style, this jargon. He has become so elaborate, ornate and refined, that nothing true remains.

These matters are now part of the public political discourse in Israel. Without referring to the Right or the Left, I can say only this: before we were sophisticated, we knew that there was something called the Land of Israel, whatever it may be. Now we are so sophisticated, that we are no longer aware of its existence. There was a time when we knew that there was something called enemy. Now, there is no longer enemy; instead, there is such a profusion of complex, refined words, that we no longer know what an enemy is and who is a friend. These things have their implications on life, and on the conclusions that we draw from it.

If we go back to the serpent, we can see that sophistication contains an element that is truly, fundamentally irrelevant. Let us examine the dialogue between the serpent and Eve. Even though the serpent is difficult to describe, he obviously was not a small, simple creature of the reptile family. He was extremely elegant, charming, very educated and sophisticated. And there was Eve who, as the Talmud attests, was a beauty, but apparently totally uncultured. Now, these two have a dialogue. The serpent offers Eve to eat of the fruit, and she replies, in the simplest of terms: "It's forbidden!" But a word such as "forbidden" is passé in sophisticated talk. Sophisticated people are no longer familiar with terms such as "forbidden" or "no." So now, instead of speaking about the issue itself, the serpent starts discussing the motivation of He who forbade: "Yea, has G‑d said you shall not eat--what was it that made Him say such a thing?"

Poor Eve! Prior to that encounter, she knew that some things were permitted and others, forbidden. Now, she no longer knows. True, the serpent does not tell her that everything is permitted, but he says to her: "Look, here is a world that is much more complicated, more sophisticated." And he tempts her to enter into this world: "Eat it!"

Indeed, if one looks at how a serpent moves, one can understand what sophistication is. The serpent does not walk in a straight line; it is incapable of that. Serpentine gait is one of the most beautiful things there are, something between a wave and a dance. But it is a serpent, and it kills. For the fruit--not the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but the fruit of the serpent--is death, a total annihilation of human relations, of understanding and feeling of the most basic things.

Once upon a time, everyone--simple and intelligent people alike--knew that one should awaken in the morning and recite the morning prayers. People may not have known why. Nobody provided them with subtle explanations about the vibrations and metaphysics of the thing, but they knew that they had to get up and get moving. Now, people no longer are aware of that, because they are sophisticated. And sophistication kills.

On the face of things, sophistication only seems to add structures of more refined thought. If so, why not build these rococo towers, with filigree of thought? It turns out, however, that these thought-towers destroy the basis from which they sprouted. They destroy the most basic concepts: no, yes, I am for, I am against--all those things that are simple, rudimentary, elementary, perhaps even somewhat foolish--but they are life.

The complex, wise book of Ecclesiastes puts this very succinctly: "A little folly is dearer than wisdom and honor" (10:1). There is grandeur in honor and splendor in wisdom, but both of these may freeze and die due to lack of inner vitality. A little folly of simple, naïve, innocent emotion--love, fatherliness, compassion--is what gives wisdom and honor the minute, yet so absolutely necessary, seed of life.

Indeed, what was it that prevented Adam from putting forth his hand and eating from the Tree of Life? I imagine that the Tree of Life was not more difficult to reach than the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, these two trees were adjacent to each other, in the midst of the Garden. But after having eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam was no longer capable of knowing where the Tree of Life was. The Tree of Life may very well have been right in front of him, but it just did not occur to him that that was it. He probably thought to himself: The Tree of Life cannot possibly be that wretched little shrub over here; it must be something a lot more splendid and sophisticated. He did not reach for the Tree of Life at that moment, because he was so sure that he had to do concentration and meditation exercises and read a lot of professional literature (that had not, as yet, been written). This is why man still is so far away from the Tree of Life.

As I have said before, I do not want to speak about politics, nor about the present. I want to speak about one thing only: the need to reconnect with the most basic things, with the points of truth that we can grasp, and which are the roots of existence. I mean the simplest things: "good," "bad," "beautiful," "ugly," "I love," "I hate," "this is my homeland," "this is my religion," "this is what should be done." I know that these concepts are not in fashion these days. Nevertheless, if we want to live--let us come, before the curse of the serpent befalls upon us; let us hold on to the Tree of Life.

Speech delivered by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz at the Annual Dinner, Jerusalem, 12 October 2000
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Steven W. Florida August 25, 2015

Sophistication: A race to an illusion that no one will ever win which leads to the deterioration of the mind hidden behind the mask of a label created by an illusion. The best friend of a title and the enemy of common sense. Reply

Anonymous new york August 16, 2013

Please sir, give us the derivation (etymology) of 'sophistication'. I believe the word 'sophistry' has similar roots. Sophis (gr) twisted.

I would worry that our learned Rabbi is ignoring certain issues (albeit lengthily, craftily and with sophistry) that are an attack on secular learning, science, and perhaps the discipline of Evolutionary Biology. Sincerely, I hope not. I am a religious Jew, Shomer Shabbus, a regular visit to the Holy Land. But it at that fault line of Berachit and what we now know of cosmology and the origin of species that I must depart from the orthodoxy of old. Its persistent insistence of notions such as intelligent design is, I truly believe . . . sophistry (sophistication).


Mark R Reston, VA December 23, 2010

I liked your article.

But here is a simple, unsophisticated reaction to one thing: Maimonides may have been a very wise and great man, and so on.
But how does he go off deciding who lives and who dies, may it be in this life or next?? Isn't this a little too much for a human being to decide?? No matter how wise, he is a human being, mortal just as the rest of us. He is not God! Why not let God decide who lives and who dies?

I guess this just makes me a bit annoyed in a straightforward unsophisticated kind of way :) Reply

Jereme Austin, TX August 29, 2009

A w e s o m e ! Reply

Evan Philadelphia, U.S. July 20, 2009

Sophistication in people may lead to negative consequences, but sophistication in other forms is a blessing to have. Indeed a person who behaves in a sophisticated manner is not to be respected. A pompous or arrogant individual isn't a good role for others to copy. Technology may have made life and people appear superficial, for instance my sister & her friend text on their cell phones 24/7 using code language, it makes them seem like they don't have time to interact with those around them. I know of other machinations that aid in the knowledge and health of others, these things are sophisticated yet prove beneficial to society. My grandpa teaches at the PCOM medical school in Philadelphia, he's told me they have a robot of a pregnant female, it serves as a study tool for students and prepares them for their future professions as surgeons. The Torah is sophisticated by nature, it's parables (Sodom, Job) can be interpreted many ways. Sophistication good sometimes. Reply

woodrow Hudson, OH February 1, 2008

! The splendor of TRUTH ! It rings out, peals like a bell in the quiet night. Bold, sonorous.

Brothers and Sisters--we need to get back to the basics. Love/hate, warmth/cold, before we wrap ourselves in the shroud of death called "sophistication." Reply

Reuven Bronx, NY September 12, 2007

The overall point presented here is extremely well taken. In a humble attempt to embellish upon it, allow me to introduce the logically and linguistically "catchy" alternative to such sophistication, that of "emulating the simpleton". Although, by "modern standards", one should be very much ashamed of labelling oneself in such a manner, I choose to openly declare it here and now! I AM A SIMPLETON AND I AM PROUD OF IT TOO! The yearning to call oneself sophisticated, has all of the features and trappings of a serious disease/mental disorder/derangement. It is unG-dly, profane and hubristic. To act to undo the effects of one's carrying the attitude of an ever increasing "need" for more sophistication is an antidote to this, otherwise known as Tikkun Olam!! Reply

Beverly Old Hickory, TN October 21, 2006

I agree 100%. That is one reason I love my "uneducated, uncultured, lower middle class" husband born of a Jewish womb so much. He is spontaneous, witty, about as unsophisticated and child-like as a person can get. And he makes a decent living too. And brings much joy to those around him. Incredibly unpretentious. I am one of the most blessed women on the face of the earth, throughout history.... Reply

Anonymous October 19, 2006

Very eloquently put! Reply