May 18th, 2023

Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905–1972) was an esteemed American political scientist, who left an indelible mark as a distinguished professor at Columbia University. He was also renowned for his expertise in New York City politics.

But truthfully, he is best remembered as the originator of the eponymous Sayres Law – “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, precisely because the stakes are so low.”

The English writer and savant, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) – remembered for having compiled the first comprehensive English dictionary, and also for the account of his life penned by his faithful companion James Boswell (1740-1795) – wrote in a similar vein about controversies between scholars: “Whether it be that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politics against those whom he is hired to defame.”

And this phenomenon is not some fantasy dreamed up by troublemakers looking to poke fun at intellectuals. On the contrary – there have been countless examples of long-term associations and even friendships being dissolved as a result of disagreements over topics that very few people understand, or care about.

One famous instance is the bitter polemic between Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the renowned physicist and mathematician, and his collaborator, scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703), over the invention of calculus and the nature of light.

The feud began after Hooke criticized Newton’s theory of light and his claims about the inverse square law of gravitation, and soon turned very personal, with Newton referring to Hooke as a “contemptible fellow” in a letter to the Royal Society. The dispute eventually escalated to the point where Newton removed any mention of Hooke from subsequent editions of his works.

Another example of gratuitous intellectual squabbling was the notorious public spat between the two twentieth-century science giants, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and German physicist and Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard (1862-1947).

Lenard became a fierce proponent of what he termed “Aryan physics”, and he referred to Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish physics” – by which he meant that it lacked scientific merit. Ultimately, the dispute had nothing whatsoever to do with science; it was merely an expression of Lennard’s bigoted views, most probably the result of his deeply rooted resentment at Einstein’s meteoric ascendancy within the scientific world and beyond.

One might have thought that these kinds of disputes between advanced intellectuals exist only in an arena devoid of God. But nothing could be further from the truth. I have previously written regarding the dispute between two rabbinic giants of the eighteenth century, R. Yaakov Emden (1797-1776) and his bête-noir, R. Yonason Eibeschutz (1690-1764), whom R. Emden accused of heresy and scandalous behavior.

Both rabbis were devout and learned, and their rabbinic writings continue to be considered as sources of faith inspiration to this day. And yet, the dispute between them ravaged Jewish communities in Europe for years, even after they died.

The most egregious example of a rabbinic row in Jewish history is the unbridled hostility displayed towards Maimonides by a number of his colleagues, both during and after his lifetime, in what became known as the Maimonidean Controversy.

One of Maimonides’ key critics was R. Solomon ben Abraham of Montpelier (“Rashba”; d.1315), a French rabbinic leader and scholar, who took exception to Maimonides’ introduction of philosophy into mainstream Jewish thought, including his halakhic works. Shockingly, he denounced Maimonides’ books to the Dominicans, claiming that they contained dangerous heresies for both Christianity and Judaism.

The surprised monks happily agreed with him, and held public ceremonies where they burned Maimonides’ books – in Montpelier in 1234, and in Paris in 1242. No one doubts the faith integrity of either Maimonides or Rashba, and their works are equally revered by Jewish scholars – and yet, Maimonides did provoke a firestorm of controversy, and Rashba was an eager and proactive participant.

Even believing in God and being true to one’s faith cannot protect a person from descending into petty disputes and destructive arguments. In fact, it can even seem as if the more faithful one is to God, the more prone one is to fall into a trap of bitter quarrels and pointless hatred. The stakes couldn’t possibly be smaller, and yet the repercussions are often so devastating to all those involved, and to many others who aren’t.

And if you’re thinking that this phenomenon is a representation of our own contemporary faith weakness, the Midrash informs us that even the great generation that accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai was potentially vulnerable to petty squabbles.

According to the Midrash, during the giving of the Torah, the Israelites witnessed angels descending in a precise formation, organized in defined groups, and identified with flags. Inspired by this sight, the Israelites desired a similar arrangement for themselves, as described in Parshat Bamidbar.

But Moses was concerned that the arrangement wouldn’t work, and told God that it would inevitably result in one or another of the tribes getting offended at where they had been placed. God reassured Moses, telling him that the tribes already knew their designated positions; when Jacob’s coffin was carried out of Egypt, each of his sons stood around the coffin in a particular formation – and their placement at Jacob’s funeral was the precedent that indicated their future arrangement in the wilderness.

The Mussar pioneers of the nineteenth century see this Midrashic narrative as an illustration of the paradoxical nature of human beings. The Israelites aspired to be like angels, but Moses understood that their tendency to argue and bicker would ultimately undermine their good intentions.

The Midrash highlights the dualism within us – although we are capable of reaching great heights, we are also plagued by base desires and temptations. Despite our intellectual achievements and lofty ambitions, we are all still bound to our human nature – and, in fact, the higher we climb, and the more lofty we become, the more vulnerable we are to rowing and fighting.

Although, the conclusion of the Midrash presents us with an interesting dilemma. Why should the arrangement of the tribes at Jacob’s funeral, which was a unique event, have meant that all would be okay in the wilderness hundreds of years later? After all, the funeral was a unique event, and it is a stretch to suggest that the arrangement at Jacob’s funeral would naturally occur in the future.

The simplest answer, and the one that can give us all hope, is that once a precedent has been set, even if it happens under extraordinary circumstances, that precedent is hard to break. The precedent becomes the norm. Which means that if we want to avoid bickering over nonsense, we all need to create patterns of behavior that protect us when something happens which might lead to a fight. Because, even when the stakes are low, the price of fighting is always unbearable.

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