The Black Swan and the Jews

The Black Swan and the Jews   Rabbi Michael Graetz

There is an old joke about three students who are assigned to write a class essay about elephants, a French man, an American, and an Israeli. The Frenchman writes about courtship and love among elephants, the American writes about economic opportunities which arise from raising elephants, and the Israeli writes about the elephant and the Jews. Has the Israeli sunk to such a level of egotism and narrowmindedness that every subject in the world interests him only in the context of Jewish existence?

During the recent conference on the life and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel, comments were made about Heschel’s involvement in the struggle of American blacks for civil rights. Several times it was said that three years or so after the struggle violent anti-Jewish sentiments broke out in the black population. The implication was that participation in the struggle was fruitless in terms of the context of Jewish existence.

Heschel would respond, I believe, that his activities have no connection to the black response. As a Jew, if I see another person is suffering even if that person hates me or is my enemy, God has commanded me not to ignore their plight but rather to help them alleviate their suffering. This command has no connection whatsoever to do with that individuals hatred, rather God commands us to help a person who suffers. It is for the benefit of my soul, the Jewish soul which is supposed to seek out every opportunity for compassion to the other, that I am obligated to help this person without any consideration of that person’s feelings toward me. [cf. Ex. 23, 4-5 4When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. 5When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raisingb it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.; Proverbs 25, 21-22] 21If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

22You will be containing the burning coals of hatred in his head, And the Lord will reward you.[following Radak Sefer ha-Shorashim “het tav hei”.]

One important approach to analysis of events in the physical universe and in human society in recent times is known as the black swan theory or theory of black swan events. Black swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

Among other phenomena, the black swan theorists study the psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

This theory is important in the scientific study of rare occurrences in the physical world whose effect on everything that comes after they occur is very great. One major observation of this approach is that life itself exists primarily due to such rare events. The central intellectual figure in this school of thought is professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Dean’s Professor of the Sciences of Uncertainty, yes there is such a thing, at the University of Massachusetts. Taleb writes that we must research the rare events in order to understand regular events. One who does NOT take into account the worse possible occurrence, even something which seems illogical or impossible, will not be able to cope with reality when this event occurs.

The name of this theory is a metaphor taken from the science of ornithology, the study of birds. Every scientist in the field of ornithology, indeed every human being at the time, knew with certainty that every swan in the world was white. However, when Capt. Cook arrived in Australia in the year 1770 suddenly ornithologists found black swans. The scientific world experienced a great shock. Taleb called his field of research by this name and wrote that the shock was that a well-known and accepted narrative was proven wrong, and the scientific world was forced to come up with a new narrative. He writes that metaphors and stories have great force and power, much more, to his regret, then ideas. Ideas come and go but stories remain. If I need to challenge an existing narrative the best weapon would be another narrative.

I believe that an example of creating a new narrative in order to cope with a black swan event is found in rabbinic literature in the Talmud in the phrase “because they judged strictly by the judgments of Biblical law.”[BM 30b]. This is how the rabbis reacted to the extreme disaster of the destruction of the second Temple. The first Temple had been destroyed, but no one thought that the second temple would also be destroyed. It was for the Jews at the time a black swan event. As such, it had to be explained, but even more importantly a new narrative needed to be created that word help prevent such an occurrence in the future.

Here is the Talmudic passage which contains this phrase: ” ‘That they shall do — this means [acts] beyond the requirements of the law.’ For R. Johanan said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with Biblical law. Were they then to have judged in accordance with untrained arbitrators? — But say thus: because they based their judgments [strictly] upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the requirements of the law.”

The lack of a clear and consistent policy to avoid strict interpretation of the law and to always look “beyond the requirements of the law” [lifnim me-shurat ha-din] is proposed as the cause of the destruction. It was caused by rabbinic indifference to the plight of people in favor of strict law. Since, according to the Shulhan Arukh a rabbinic court may not force going beyond the requirements of the law on anyone, even if they believe that such action is necessary, and this fits with the second saying that explains the destruction, namely that it was destroyed because of baseless hatred. One person involved in the case was motivated by his hatred of the correspondent in the case to not go beyond the law, and the rabbis did not reprove him. [Torat Hayyim on BM 30b]

In my opinion this comment could also reprove the rabbis for not forcing such behavior on people as a matter of course. They should have created a system intended to convince people to ‘do the right or compassionate thing’. Such a system could be based upon Rabbinic Aggadah rather than halakha, for the Aggadic system is meant to be a system of study of and education towards social agreement. Aggadah was meant to inspire people to generally behave beyond the requirements of the law. Heschel spells this out in his book Torah min Ha-Shamayim as a system in which halakha and aggadah work together in a holistic way.

The “black swan theory” refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.

Taleb writes: “Living on our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination than we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others. Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according our current knowledge)— and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated. this implies the need to use the extreme event as a starting point and not treat it as an exception to be pushed under the rug. In spite of our progress and the growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable, while both human nature and social “science” seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.”

The main idea in Taleb’s book is not to attempt to predict black swan events, but to build robustness against negative ones that occur and be able to exploit positive ones. Leaders need to create new narratives to cope with the existing narrative, and the new narrative must take into account all black swan events that could possibly occur within the framework of the present narrative. One must purposefully consider the most rare and extreme occurrences.  This, as Taleb points out, is extremely difficult for most people because of a human predilection to resist exposure of the self to such thoughts, however, in order to revolutionize one must create another narrative which takes the possible black swans into account and suggests several ways to prevent these from happening, or at least to slow down and soften the potential impacts of such events.

*what are black swan scenerios for Israel? 1, nuclear holocaust by Iran or overrun by bloodthirsty ISIS arabs a second holocaust [ruins the axiom that Israel is here so “never again”, reliance on tanks and airplanes and nuclear bombs.

  1. genocide of arab population of Israel and west bank by Israeli Jews, perhaps with government sanction. As late as 20 years ago to even mention this was to be vilified, and no one thought it even remotely possible. This, in Heschel’s terms, would amount to a destruction of the Jewish ‘soul’ which is meant to seek out compassion for others. Today it is a black swan that floats by my eyes all the time.

Another aspect of this same black swan, a destructive force towards the Jewish soul, is an extreme ideology against “assimilation” which demands destruction of Jews who are not “faithful” to being Jewish in an extreme religious way. The organization Lehava is an example. This rhetoric is based on the anti-idolatry approach of the Torah.  It is put into its present form in the Maccabean period namely the civil war between the ‘pure’ Jews and the Hellenist, assimilationist, Jews.

A third possible black swan event of this same destructive force which ignores Jewish tradition about the soul, would be the dissolution of democracy in Israel. The overriding prevalence of  bribery and corruption among politicians and leaders with the power of hegemony could lead to some kind of autocratic rule. One rather harsh joke circulating in Israel today is the quip that in the next term the legislative sessions of the Knesset will take place in prison.

Which one is worse? To me the second black swan is worse, because if Israel is wiped out, and I say this even though that would include me and my family as well, that would be awful, but at least I would not continue to suffer over it. But, if the second black swan comes to pass, the Jewish soul would be driven out of history, and all that we did would be dishonored. It is even possible that the Bible and/or the 10 commandments would be disgraced, and I would have to live with this shame and suffer it.

[Cf. File How should we relate to texts of terror in the Torah Nahum Bloom.docx]

What can we do? Taleb shows a way, a new narrative. It must be revolutionary, and work to counteract the possible black swan events. You need leaders, you need teachers, you need master story tellers and poets, and one person who fits this description is Heschel. His revolutionary narrative of the Bible and prophets and, in my mind, of halakha and placing emphasis on aggada is one fruitful way to go. It must be disseminated, if this were in place black swan 2 would be far less likely that it is today. And for that I would praise with dayyenu.