The Problem with Perfect Heroes

 

In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men had any flaws. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism.

One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences. In other words, we lose the most important component of most good plots: how the hero overcomes his flaws and achieves redemption. So when we insist that our heroes were perfect, even when they were little children, then we make them so different from ourselves that we cannot relate to them in any way. Each of us, we would hope, are not the same person we were when we were children or teenagers.

Judaism, like any other belief system that has withstood the test of time, has not been immune to external forces. Some of those forces are openly recognized – and thus more easily rejected. But others are much more subtle, almost invisible. We think of Hellenism as an ancient idea, but many of the ideas of the Greeks (including concepts like Truth and Beauty and Perfection) have become core ideas of modern Western thought as well. Ancient Jews consciously and unconsciously adopted Greek ideas into our own worlds. It happened with language, and with philosophy, with culture and habit. And it certainly happened with Plato’s view of teaching that our heroes must be flawless.

Jews—and especially observant Jews—have a particular problem with thinking this way.  The influence of Plato runs deep in our tradition. Plato, of course, comes after the Torah is given at Sinai. Though his worldview on education is not found in the Torah itself, it certainly is part of Judaism today.

The text of the Torah itself does not sugarcoat our origins. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all. But even though the Torah itself does not suggest that our forefathers were flawless, and indeed, it wants us to read the text in a straightforward manner: “It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off,[1] normative Jewish tradition is to suggest that, because they are so far above our own level, we cannot actually learn very much of anything from our forefathers, except the vaguest notions such as being hospitable to guests. The text, if it conflicts with a Platonic interpretation, must be explained away.

But there is a way we can see the flaws of our forefathers without necessarily claiming that they were as flawed and limited as we are. My brother suggests what he calls “The Iceskater Analogy,” and it goes as follows: One may well be able to appreciate that a skater missed a jump or a landing without saying that we would do a better job. In other words, we can acknowledge when an historical or biblical figure makes a mistake without needing to also say that we would never have made such a mistake. Think, for example, of the countless missteps of generals in the heat of the moment when, years later and without any of the pressures of war, we can easily identify their errors. We may be right now, and they may have been wrong then – but that does not mean we would have been better generals had we been in their shoes.

So it is not widely accepted that Jews are even able to point out when the biblical skater has missed a landing, even when it seems quite clear that he has done so.  We have this peculiar situation: today’s traditional Jews would shy away, without explanation, from explicitly emulating our forefathers. Nobody would suggest that it is a good idea for me to save my own life by taking payment in exchange for handing over my own wife (as Avraham did), or deceive our father because Jacob deceived Isaac to steal his brother’s blessing. Instead, we are told that while the Torah tells us about these things, they are not actually meant to be understood the way the words present them! In other words, Hashem’s Holy Book cannot – and should not – be interpreted using its own words.

I would argue that since the Torah itself does not whitewash our forefathers, and indeed is clearly ambivalent about some of their actions, the ethical lessons of the Torah are meant to be learned the way they are described. Though we can explain away apparent errors with complex justifications, it is neither necessary nor, on the whole, beneficial to do so.

Let me give a single example: two years ago, I pointed out that we became slaves in Egypt because of something Avram did, when he arranged matters such that his wife would be taken in Pharoah’s harem:

Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?

This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.

If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should always be able to empathize with the downtrodden. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt teaches us the very same thing Sarai feels in that moment: sheer terror and despair.

It was only after I wrote the piece that I discovered that a major commentator, Nachmanides (Ramban), said the very same thing! In his commentary on Gen 12:10:

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. … It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.  In the place of justice, there is wickedness.

Which means that my piece was really not much more than explaining Ramban’s commentary in fuller form. Nevertheless, the crazy thing is that very, very few learned Jews are even aware of this Ramban citation, even though the Ramban is generally very well-read. The reason why is not hard to parse: the very concept that Avram might have done something wrong – especially something as wrong as trading his wife for payment – makes people very upset. I got hate mail!

Yet if we are willing to read the text itself, and to see Avram and his relationships as a story in growth and development, then we can see that Avram great as he was – and far greater than we are – still did not nail every figure-skating routine. And we would do well to learn from our forefathers, not merely make excuses for them.

Start at Avram’s beginning:  the text presents us with a man who hears G-d telling him to “Go out,” – and he listens.

Some of our sages argue that Avraham must have been a great intellect, a man who, at a young age, deduced the existence of a non-corporeal deity who created all the world, and so must have already had a full understanding of G-d by the time G-d spoke those first words to him.

On the other hand, others, like the Ibn Ezra, suggest that perhaps G-d talks to everyone. But unlike everyone else, Avram was receptive. In this reading, Avram did not necessarily know anything at all about G-d before he is told to “Go.” The Torah text itself has nothing on Avraham’s intellect or prior relationship with G-d.

In this plain reading, the text shows that G-d never introduces himself to Avraham, and never explains that he is the creator of the world. For all that “early” Avram has been told, G-d is merely one of countless tribal or familial deities. Which explains why Avram kept pushing G-d for “proof” that Avram would in fact be the father of many nations – after all, how could a familial deity make such grandiose promises?

It also explains why, when G-d tells an old Avram that he would still father a child with Sarai, Avram laughed – and, so too, did Sarai. In the ancient world, fertility had its own gods, separate from those representing other natural forces. There was no reason to think Avram’s deity could also make an old woman capable of conceiving and birthing a baby.

It even better explains why Avram felt he had no choice but to take payment for Sarai from Pharaoh: G-d had not yet disclosed that He was powerful even in the land of the Nile, powerful enough to plague Pharaoh and his household. Had Avram known this, he may have behaved quite differently – possibly praying for the famine to end so that he did not leave the land, to not being afraid that his wife would be taken from him by force.

When we read it the way the text presents it, then the actions of our forefathers are much easier to understand. If we do not assume that they knew then what we know now, then their actions make far more sense. But first, we have to accept the possibility that the text is able to stand on its own, free of Platonic requirements about the nature of our heroes.

[1]Deut: 30:11.

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  1. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences.

    And this is why the Star Wars sequels were terrible. Rey had to be a better pilot than Han Solo, a better force-user than Luke Skywalker, all without training or instruction because the idea that women can ever bad at anything or require training and practice to become good at things is patriarchal oppression.

    • #1
  2. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):

    And this is why the Star Wars sequels were terrible. Rey had to be a better pilot than Han Solo, a better force-user than Luke Skywalker, all without training or instruction because the idea that women can ever bad at anything or require training and practice to become good at things is patriarchal oppression.

    And this is why I love Ricochet comments. Never. Saw. It. Coming. 

    • #2
  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    iWe, thanks for this.  You have an interesting perspective.

    On one of your many points, I don’t think that I’ve previously encountered the hypothesis that the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was a consequence of Abraham’s action.  I don’t see this as being clearly stated in the text, but I find it to be a very plausible interpretation.  It is often amazing to discover how the Scriptures are woven together in complex ways that I may miss on my first reading, or even my tenth reading.

    I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.  Do you have any more information about this interpretation, like a link?  This one is so interesting that I’d like to follow up a bit further.

    • #3
  4. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Many (most?) Christians (including me) consider the clearly flawed nature of the heroes of Judaic (and even Christian) history as a very good thing. It gives me reason for hope that even flawed me might be of use to G-d. King David is often cited both for his enormous accomplishments but also for his enormous flaws. 

    We do assume that the early Hebrews knew as much about G-d and His nature as we do today, but as I read through the the early books of the Christian Bible (which I think is largely the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) G-d does not seem to reveal Himself or even many of His characteristics all at once. One that fascinates me Abraham’s negotiation with G-d over the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-33). Christians today take for granted that G-d is patient and willing to hear complaints and appeals from us. But that’s not typical of the gods popular in Abraham’s time. Gods were generally considered arbitrary, capricious, and potentially vindictive. It seems to me Abraham took an enormous risk by undertaking an impertinent activity like trying to negotiate with G-d. But from that we begin to see G-d’s patience with His people. 

    • #4
  5. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    iWe: One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives.

    More like, they have to end their lives having achieved . . . well, if not perfection, at least some level of achievement in the area of life for which they’re deemed heroic. Which is to say, of course they can have a growth journey. They just have to eventually arrive.

    • #5
  6. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.  Do you have any more information about this interpretation, like a link?  This one is so interesting that I’d like to follow up a bit further.

    https://www.sefaria.org/Ramban_on_Genesis.12.10.1?lang=bi

     

    and my own:

     

    https://creativejudaism.org/2021/10/18/learning-the-hard-way/

     

     

     

    • #6
  7. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    As the bountiful Tabby noted in #4, David is the poster child for the imperfect hero. But we can go back to Moses, who despite his great faith was denied entrance to the Promised Land for what seems a small lapse.

    Since I view the Judeo-Christian texts as a mix of tradition and instruction, rather than revelation, I think it’s beneficial that its heroes are drawn from the ranks of real people. That seems hopeful.

    • #7
  8. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    iWe: The text of the Torah itself does not sugarcoat our origins. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all.

    Yep.

    Happens to all of us mere mortals.

    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    iWe:

    In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men had any flaws. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism.

    One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives.

    Plutarch’s very response to Plato in How a Young Man Should Study Poetry!

    (Unless he thinks that’s not what Plato actually said. It’s what Plato has Socrates say in his philosophical novel. It’s a perspective he thought worth considering, but Plato did not necessarily believe it himself. Plutarch may or may not have thought he did.)

    Works for Augustine nicely too! Used Plutarch and Augustine to explain some scandalous sci-fi in the funnest philosophy article I ever wrote.

    • #9
  10. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    As the bountiful Tabby noted in #4, David is the poster child for the imperfect hero. But we can go back to Moses, who despite his great faith was denied entrance to the Promised Land for what seems a small lapse.

    Since I view the Judeo-Christian texts as a mix of tradition and instruction, rather than revelation, I think it’s beneficial that its heroes are drawn from the ranks of real people. That seems hopeful.

    Hank, I thought of David, one of the other great heroes of the Old Testament.  I agree with what you say about David being an imperfect hero.

    I didn’t immediately raise it, but I’m not sure if David fits iWe’s thesis.  That would be OK, as it’s not necessary for every character to teach every lesson.  In David’s case, he’s presented as being exceptionally righteous, for most of his life.  His first terrible sin is the adultery with Bathsheba, which leads to the concealed murder of her husband Uriah.  There’s a later episode when David calls for a census of the fighting men, and this turns out to be a grievous sin — fundamentally the sin of pride, I think.

    Other than that, I think that David is portrayed as a paragon.  So his particular life seems to exemplify moral decline, not growth.  Though in fairness, he does repent, setting another good example for us.

    • #10
  11. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe: The text of the Torah itself does not sugarcoat our origins. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all.

    Yep.

    Happens to all of us mere mortals.

    iWe, this is another good point.  I initially started to respond that I found this to be a reason to believe the Biblical accounts, as a fictional story would leave out the warty parts.  But it occurred to me that Homer had done the same thing.  All of Homer’s heroes had tragic flaws, too.  At least, all of those that I can think of.

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe:

    In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men had any flaws. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism.

    One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives.

    Plutarch’s very response to Plato in How a Young Man Should Study Poetry!

    (Unless he thinks that’s not what Plato actually said. It’s what Plato has Socrates say in his philosophical novel. It’s a perspective he thought worth considering, but Plato did not necessarily believe it himself. Plutarch may or may not have thought he did.)

    Works for Augustine nicely too! Used Plutarch and Augustine to explain some scandalous sci-fi in the funnest philosophy article I ever wrote.

    Maybe this is why I prefer Homer to Plato.  :)  

    • #11
  12. KCVolunteer Lincoln
    KCVolunteer
    @KCVolunteer

    Not to take away anything from your OP, I appreciate your insights so much.

    Joseph also is sold into slavery, by his brothers. It was better than their first thought, which was to kill him.

    In the end, slavery was best for everyone. Joseph and his brothers.

    • #12
  13. davenr321 Coolidge
    davenr321
    @davenr321

    My hero of the Old Testament is Elijah: lonely, depressed, yet strong, brave, honest, and right. Plus he got to ride a chariot of fire. Truth to power, man!

    • #13
  14. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    davenr321 (View Comment):

    My hero of the Old Testament is Elijah: lonely, depressed, yet strong, brave, honest, and right. Plus he got to ride a chariot of fire. Truth to power, man!

    And relived half the Torah.

    • #14
  15. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    KCVolunteer (View Comment):

    Not to take away anything from your OP, I appreciate your insights so much.

    Joseph also is sold into slavery, by his brothers. It was better than their first thought, which was to kill him.

    In the end, slavery was best for everyone. Joseph and his brothers.

    Great point.  What was Joseph’s line when he was reconciled with his brothers?  Something like: you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.  Joseph being sold into slavery saved the family from the famine.  The slavery imposed on their descendants set the stage for their miraculous deliverance, and a new level of intimacy with God.

    I think that this greater understanding is shown in the names used.  If you look in Genesis and Exodus carefully, at the most important moments of their lives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai.  Moses knew God as YHWH.  

    This is explicit in Exodus 6:2-3:

    God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD [YHWH].  I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the LORD [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.

    • #15
  16. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    iWe:

    One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences. In other words, we lose the most important component of most good plots: how the hero overcomes his flaws and achieves redemption. So when we insist that our heroes were perfect, even when they were little children, then we make them so different from ourselves that we cannot relate to them in any way. Each of us, we would hope, are not the same person we were when we were children or teenagers.

    Is it possible to be perfect and yet still grow? I’m thinking of when people say “what a perfect little baby.” Even if the baby is perfect, the nature of a baby is to grow, so the perfect baby will grow into an adult, even if flawless as a baby. He will still encounter physical, intellectual and moral challenges. It’s the encounter with those challenges, the same challenges that we all face, that allows us to identify with him, isn’t it? 

     

     

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    iWe:

    One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences. In other words, we lose the most important component of most good plots: how the hero overcomes his flaws and achieves redemption. So when we insist that our heroes were perfect, even when they were little children, then we make them so different from ourselves that we cannot relate to them in any way. Each of us, we would hope, are not the same person we were when we were children or teenagers.

    Is it possible to be perfect and yet still grow? I’m thinking of when people say “what a perfect little baby.” Even if the baby is perfect, the nature of a baby is to grow, so the perfect baby will grow into an adult, even if flawless as a baby. He will still encounter physical, intellectual and moral challenges. It’s the encounter with those challenges, the same challenges that we all face, that allows us to identify with him, isn’t it?

    To be flawless and still grow, yes.

    To be perfect and grow, maybe not. Yes if perfect means flawless. No if perfect means complete.

    • #17
  18. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    George Washington was so virtuous, perfect, that a lie about Him and a cherry tree had to be concocted just to make Him human.

    • #18
  19. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I think that this greater understanding is shown in the names used.  If you look in Genesis and Exodus carefully, at the most important moments of their lives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God as El Shaddai.  Moses knew God as YHWH.  

    This is explicit in Exodus 6:2-3:

    God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD [YHWH].  I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the LORD [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.

    Actually, the later quote is hard to explain, because the forefathers DID call G-d by the YKVK. See here.

     

     

    • #19