When The Righteous Err
The Sin of the Spies Between Epistemology and Ethics
So Moses, by the Lord’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all of them being people (anashim) who were heads of the the children of Israel (roshei b’nei yisrael)…(Numbers 13:3)
Everywhere the Torah says people (anashim) it refers to righteous people…Hence you can say that they were righteous in the eyes of Israel and in the eyes of Moses. In addition Moses did not want to send them until he had consulted with the Holy One over each and every one. When he had said for each one “So-and-so from such-and-such tribe,” the Holy One said to him: They are acceptable. (Midrash Tanchuma)
While Tamar was in labor, one of them put out a hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first (ze yatza rishona). But just then it drew back its hand, and out came its brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Peretz.” (Genesis 38:28)
The Hebrew word rosh can refer to the physical head of the body or the symbolic head of the body politic—the leader. Mountains and rivers, and even towers, can have heads, as when, in Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel is described as having its “head in the heavens.” The first word of the Torah B’reishit, “In the beginning,” contains the word “head” in it, for a beginning is, as it were, the “head of time.” To come out first is to be ahead, a concept that might refer to winning a running race, perhaps most originally the race between twins to emerge from the womb.
The Torah plays on the irony that what appears to be first in the chronological sense isn’t always what is actually first in the moral or ontological sense. Esau is the firstborn, with Jacob taking his heel, but Jacob becomes the head in that he ends up inheriting the covenantal legacy of Abraham. Peretz, Tamar’s son, does not put his hand out first, but nonetheless overtakes his twin brother. The Torah, in short, celebrates the head, but also turns our esteem on its head. Sometimes, the true head is best discovered not by looking at what is first, but by looking at what “stands in the breach.” For a nation of underdogs that worships an underdog god our associations with heads and firsts must be complicated.
It is in this context that this week’s Torah reading, Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41), teaches of Moses’s appointment of spies, meraglim, to survey and report on the land of Canaan, which the Israelites are intended to conquer. Moses appoints tribal chiefs, heads. Yet, excepting two of them, Joshua and Caleb, they fail. The heads fail to provide the message of optimism and faith and inspiration for which they are charged. They fail to frame their experience in a way that is honest and self-aware, using their authority instead to “spin” the data to conform to their bias. On a plain read, the text is ironic—the heads have got it upside down. What was the point of sending in the experts?
The Midrash intensifies the point when it suggests that these leaders weren’t simply selected for their power, but for their character and general legitimacy. These were anashim, righteous people, people who enjoyed the trifecta of support from God, Moses, and Israel. Which raises the question: how could such great, righteous people fail? Many classic answers focus on either their psychology and/or their sociology. Psychologically, they must have feared entry into the land, feared not failure, but success. Sociologically, we know that groupthink is a powerful force and that the spies’ fear, however motivated, became intoxicating.
Modern thinkers like Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Kuhn, or Michel Foucault might offer yet a different perspective altogether. The problem is not to be found in the minds and hearts of the spies, but in their network. Experts fail when concentrated power and bad incentives insulate them from accountability and falsifiability. Distributed, decentralized groups often know better—so the argument goes—than “command and control” type decision-makers. To put it anachronistically and economically, the sin of the spies is what happens when government constrains supply and subsidizes demand. That is, the people are told that they need a report on the land—but do they, actually need one at all? And they are also told that only a tribal chieftain has a permit to go on the expedition and bring back information. In a world in which everyone has a camera phone and can post about their perception of the land, the spies have less power. Whether this loss of power is a good or bad thing depends upon whether you think that concentrated power inherently corrupts and distorts, whether you think that some decisions require expertise and should not be up for popular opinion, or whether you think that when the stakes are high experts need to be sheltered from the whims of the public.
Jonathan Rauch argues in The Constitution of Knowledge that those who seek to contribute to the expansion and maintenance of “the republic of knowledge” need to play by certain rules to earn a seat at the discussion table. Those who seek to politicize questions of fact should be rejected out of hand (this sentiment is currently a source of major debate in newsrooms across the country, as described by Maggie Sullivan in her new memoir, Newsroom Confidential). For Rauch, we need to know what happened first and only then can we decide what to do about it. He points to Wikipedia as a successful example of an institution that filters out trolls and bad faith actors while still maintaining a democratic spirit—it’s democratic in that anyone can contribute, but there’s still a high standard in that only those who observe basic protocols are allowed to contribute. (Incidentally, a large percentage of Wikipedia posts are written and edited by a relative small group of people).
But is the task of the spies a task akin to journalism or scientific method, or is it a task closer to building a company or inventing a new technology? The former endeavor rests squarely within the descriptive, while latter requires belief in what is not yet. Logicians can say whether S is P or not P. But religious actors cannot rest here. For them, as someone recently joked on Twitter about the Jewish philosopher of hope, Ernst Bloch, S is not yet P. How do you know in advance whether your idea is good if it hasn’t yet been realized or tested? How do you argue for or against taking action when it involves risks, known and unknown? In a tie between pessimism and optimism, says William James, be an optimist, since your belief itself can change the reality. But the rub is in knowing when optimism is reckless, and the odds are against 100:1. Did the spies simply misunderstand their odds?
The spies bring back a correct report, they don’t lie about what they see. Their error is in the conflation of “is” and “ought” or in the assumption that knowing what is is enough to make one a moral authority. And of course, there is either little cost-benefit analysis, or else, the cost-benefit analysis has not adequately factored in that the land has been promised to them by the very same God who took them out of Egypt, revealed the Torah to them, and took care of them in the wilderness.
When contending with the sin of the spies one finds oneself going in time-loops, captivated by the paradox of free will and destiny. The sins are free to report on whatever they see, but on another level, we know they will fail, and have to fail, because on a macro-level, for structural reasons, the generation that enters the land cannot be the generation that leaves Egypt. In fact, a Midrash points to the oddity of the time-travel paradox when it says that God hastened the travel of the spies so that their punishment would be commensurately lessened. That is, the spies travel for forty days and so their generation only has to wander in the desert for 40 years. Had their expedition taken a normal length of time, it would have lasted for 160 days, requiring 160 years of subsequent odyssey. So God seems to know they are going to mess up.
Can we distinguish is and ought, fact and value? This question itself is one that divides postmodernists and pragmatists—who say “no”— and the old school 19th century positivists who say “yes.” The laws of basic mathematics do not change simply because their outcomes are inconvenient. But what about a field like probability theory? Or statistics? Or any field that seeks to explain effects in terms of causes? We take bets we often should not and do not take bets simply because rationality tells us to do so. Is that a function of emotional weakness, only, or do we intuitively understand that our models don’t always tell the whole story?
The sin of the spies presents us with a twofold problem: the problem of knowledge (epistemology) and the problem of action (ethics). Depending on which of these two fields you emphasize you get a different moral—this is itself an epistemological and ethical problem. If you say that the spies were righteous, but made a calculative error, then what you’re saying is that being of good character is not as important as being a good calculator, and moral character is a kind of distraction. What we need are simply better trained technocrats. If you say that the spies had the calculation basically right, but were too risk averse, then what you might be saying is that the very caution that allowed them to be good leaders in context a made them bad leaders in context b. This is sort of a Machiavellian point—just because a leader passes a character test in the eyes of God, Moses, and the people—doesn’t mean he will pass a governance test in a situation of crisis. It is a cliche in management theory to distinguish between “war time CEOs” and “peace time CEOs” but the dichotomy may fit our tale. The spies were good leaders most of the time, but failed in the one moment where they were sent out of their comfort zone and their familiar know-how couldn’t help.
The lessons I take from the failure of the righteous is one of a) humility b) pluralism and c) faith . People have different strengths, some better suited for normal situations, others for intense and extreme ones. It’s hard to find both in the same person, which means we need to be humble about our limitations. People of good character can get it wrong, both analytically and morally. And groups of experts may think they are part of a republic of knowledge when really they are in a bubble, spinning out epicycles to defend a geocentric model of the universe. The consequence of admitting our shortcomings is the need for pluralism, being open to competing and multiple points of view both of what is and what ought to be. Finally, it is tempting to want to settle all questions as a matter of empirics, for that would make right and wrong easier to distinguish, but the future exists in a peculiar way, and we can evaluate our relationship to it only after the fact, when it is too late. Those who make history tend not to be trend forecasters, but flawed people and groups who take a chance that those on the analytic sidelines might call irrational. Is “God” in our story a stand-in for this passionate irrationality, or the ultimate rationality? Both readings are possible—and the history of religion can be written as a history of the conflict between the view that God is knowable by reason and the view that God is not knowable by reason, but one must believe anyways.
Zohar Atkins @ Etz Hasadeh
P.S. — I’ve started a new series of fictive philosophy roundtable discussions, featuring historic thinkers on cultural issues of the day.