Humility In The Midst of Argument

In recent weeks, I’ve participated in internet discussions where people have accused me of not being humble.   I never claimed to be the most humble guy in the world, but they said I was arrogant.  I was not consciously trying to be arrogant, but it made me look over my posts to see why people might take my words for arrogance.  It came down to this:

Because I have firmly held convictions and was not willing to acquiesce to viewpoints I knew to be wrong, I was accused of being arrogant and branded “not humble.”  If you know the sky is blue, and people insist it’s green, should you give in to what people claim, or stick with what you know to be true?  Humility doesn’t mean abandoning what you know to be right.  It means however, to not treat people as inferior to you because they hold views other than your own.

Jewish people tend to argue.  We argue about all kinds of things, and express varying opinions.  People who are not aware of this aspect of Jewish culture mistake the clash of opinions for fighting; and they may well appear to be fighting, but it is actually a way to examine different sides of an issue.  When all is said and done, people can part as friends and may even go out to eat together.

It was in just such a discussion I was having with people one internet evening, when a non-Jewish woman watching our discussion came to the conclusion was that I am not humble, and in fact, was arrogant.  I pointed out to her that her judgment of me was itself arrogant, and she accused me of not showing “love” to the person I was arguing with.  To her, “love” apparently meant mutual agreement.   The irony of it all was that after she accused me of spreading discord among brethren and accused me of being a lousy teacher because I didn’t play according to her way of discussion, the guy who she said I was creating discord with, friended me on facebook.  Apparently, he didn’t think I was spreading discord, only her.  In all fairness to the woman, she apparently was unfamiliar with Jewish styles of discussion.  She was just trying to be a peacemaker.

Once again, what are the rules for humility?  Can we disagree with people and still be humble?  I think we can.  Does holding to your view make you arrogant?  I think not.  You can still argue with someone and not treat them less than yourself.  Respect is earned on the battlefield of disagreement.  If a person makes a good case for his view, I will respect him more because of it.

I have long made it a point to respect people based on how they treat others, and not on whether or not they agree with me.  Some of the people I like most are people I strongly disagree with, and some of the people I like least, are people who hold views similar to my own.  Humility means treating people with kindness and as fellow travelers in this world.  It does not mean pretending we agree with everyone, or playing “nice.”  As long as we don’t disrespect people, we should be able to disagree with them.   It is okay to disagree as long as you don’t think an opinion makes you a better person.  It is actions that make us better or worse..  and not better or worse than others, but better or worse versions of ourselves.   There is no place for arrogance if you are only comparing yourself to yourself.


6 thoughts on “Humility In The Midst of Argument

  1. Excellent post. As someone with a strong personality like yourself (and the red hair that reflects it), I’ve been accused of being self-righteous and egotistical, two things that people who actually know me know that I am not. At this ripe age (let’s just say over 50) I refuse to spend the rest of my life bowing to other peoples’ opinions of me, which I care more about when I was younger. As a very successful ad agency exec and radio personality friend of mine said years ago, when a woman complained about his radio station, “If you don’t like it, change the dial”. On that note, Good Shabbes.

  2. Sorry for the typo in my previous post. And one more thing, learn the well-known phrase, “Je suis humble et j’en suis fiere” – For my non-French-speaking friends, “I’m humble and I’m proud of it”. LOL. Have a Good Shabbes anyway.

  3. You said, “I was not consciously trying to be arrogant.” That made me wonder… does anyone ever?

    I don’t think arrogance is a function of conscious intent to display it; rather, it’s an attitude; a mind-set – an “amplified” estimation of one’s own ability, position, authority, etc. (or disregard of others’) – that permeates one’s mind and thereby flavors one’s behavior & interactions. I think arrogance is a snare to which the genuinely talented, learned, etc. are particularly vulnerable. That you would make the time to re-read your posts trying to see how others may perceive them suggests you take reasonable precautions against such a mindset 🙂 Conversely, there are those who in disagreement with someone of greater ability or learning than their own hastily employ charges of arrogance or elitism as defense for their own sense of inferiority and accompanying vulnerability.

    Thank you for the caveat on false forms of humility; it’s timely ‘food for thought’ for me. I once heard a consideration on humility that I found helpful; something to the effect that true humility comes from a right estimation of how one is esteemed by God, and an honest estimation of where one falls on any given spectrum of ability, worth, etc.

    Thank you also for the reminder that culture-specific norms can be misinterpreted by ‘outsiders,’ and for the observation that respect can be earned on the “battlefield of disagreement.”


  4. Humility is, in my opinion, an inward trait, not necessarily recognizable by others. In the years I’ve known you, Rabbi, I’ve NEVER heard a word come out of your mouth that was aught but humble. You have an incisive sense of humor, and you have been heard to speak in your native language now and then, but NEVER without humility.

    Humility is a form of self-judgement. If I think I am better or smarter than you, it is guaranteed to come out in my speech. If, on the other hand, I do not believe that, I may still not sound humble, but one who sets himself as my judge may himself be the problem.

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