Sunday, December 26, 2004

Wise Fools

The New York Times has an interesting editorial up about Isaac Bashevis Singer's story, Gimpel the Fool. It raises a good question about rationality, but more significantly, about authority, and what power it really has.

Moral authority, in particular. If we seek moral authority, the power to condemn others for doing what we would not do, do we understand we are wielding power? And are we capable of wielding such power wisely? And what does wisdom look like, after all?

Is Gimpel a fool? Or the wisest of the wise? Moral authority had meaning within limited communities, once. Israel was such a community. All communities need their morality, of course, their ethics, their expected behaviours and the rules to govern them. But moral authority presumes power, and the ability to wield it well. In the story, the community uses their power to torment Gimpel. But is there power without resistance? Is Gimpel foolish, because he doesn't resist? Or wise, because he doesn't resist?

Israel was a community, once, with laws applicable to all, accepted by all. Now, even among Jews, such moral authority is largely an individual matter, although the community is intimately connected in the decisions of what is moral, what is not. But seeking power, even moral power: is that wisdom? Or foolishness? And how do we tell the difference?

In this season that celebrates a god coming as a peasant child, these are entirely relevant questions.

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