In Theory

By: Rabbi Dr David Fox


“He likely fit into that class of philosophers who did not always practice what they preached.”


We were both busy working on our doctorates. I juggled the role of being a rabbi with that of being a graduate student, and he had sought asylum in America as a refugee from a totalitarian country. He had been a professor in one of the universities there but had fled as the new radical regime made intellectual freedom an act of treason. Our career paths overlapped, and we had begun to exchange perspectives. His were shaped by political philosophies and mine were influenced by theological perspectives. We had met during a course given by a world-famous scholar who lectured about his understanding of mental health and society, a topic which appealed to me as a clinician, and which appealed to my friend as a philosopher.

The professor lectured about the innate goodness of humanity, about altruism as a basic human value, and about how helping others should stem from one’s higher ethics, rather than for personal gain or ego. My friend had argued with him that trying to leave ego out of our motivations is self-deceptive and pretending that self-gain is unimportant was the cause for both communism and capitalism having failed at making people happier or better human beings. I, in turn, considered that people, albeit primarily among those who believe in a higher Source in identifying their values, can indeed upgrade their motivations and can act with purer devotion, making sacrifices of the self to serve others. My view reflected my own spiritual convictions. His view reflected his atheistic stance, never having been exposed to religious education or culture.

We gained a lot from this professor, although we found over the year that he was dogmatic and not particularly open to interacting with his students. He was learned, knew the literature in his field, and was able to speak about profound topics with clarity. Over time, I began to recognise that he was a person with personal conflicts and with some psychological demons, based on some of the revelations he had made about his life and the trauma which he had faced in times past. He was at once flamboyant and bold, yet narrow-minded, quick to dismiss other views. The tolerance of which he spoke was not always apparent in his reactions to those who questioned his opinions or who asked that he back up his positions with data.

I reasoned that whereas he was known as a superb clinician with his patients, and was a good lecturer, he likely fit into that class of philosophers who did not always practice what they preached. I accepted this, knowing that I needed to take his course, learn what I could, and not feel that he was my role model for my personal life. I reflected on how in the Talmud, a great Mishnaic scholar had had a mentor who was a veritable apostate, yet he continued to study with him, reporting that he could take this risk because he knew how to “savour the fruit” while “rejecting the shell”. I recalled how an American ethics philosopher, when confronted about his private immorality, had countered that “a professor of mathematics does not have to be a triangle and no one should demand that a professor of ethics be ethical”. He contended that one does not have to live up to the standards which he teaches others.

At the close of the year and after the final lecture, my friend and I were returning to our cars in a remote parking lot on campus. It began to rain heavily, and neither of us had an umbrella. We walked down the long road in the pouring rain when my friend said, “Now we will see the truth.” I asked him to explain, and he shared that our professor was being chauffeured in a stretch limousine which was slowly making its way down the road we were on. “Let’s both turn around and hitch and see if the altruist stops to pick us up in this pouring rain.”

We stood along the campus road, thumbs out, standing beneath a streetlamp in clear view. The rain continued. So did the limousine. We waved to our professor. He looked away. The car continued on its way past the parking lot and drove away in the dark. Drenched by this point, it was hard to speak. The wind had picked up and it was hard to hear. I retreated into the remote caverns of my mind and thought this through. I had met up with human inconsistency before. I was familiar with hypocrisy, something which we all struggle with. But that night crystallised for me the realisation that as a rabbi and as a clinician, I must indeed be tolerant, and that includes tolerating my own inconsistencies and conflicts, and being tolerant of those in conflict who turn to me for support and guidance. 

Related posts