Stereotypes and Perceptions – in the Talmud

Evidence of racial profiling is all around us.  While there is healthy room for debate when it comes to profiling for airport security, there is little doubt that the video below ought to act as a wake-up call, that our cultural assumptions need to change — no small undertaking, given how ingrained they are, and how many years it takes to change or form those impressions.

Is there a positive side to this issue?  I think that there is, and to see it we need to look beyond the ‘mere’ fact that we are hard-wired for this kind of categorization as humans, and look at why we have evolved that way.  The obvious advantage that sifting through immense amounts of data (or stimuli) quickly has, is that it can help us avoid fast-approaching harms.  Categorizing the advancing creature as a lion, and therefore a predator, rather than as a cat, and therefore a pet, is a matter of life and death.  Does this human tendency to brush over more fine-grained differences in order to find patterns assist us in cases that do not evoke the fight-or-flight response?

The rabbis of the Gemarah were concerned about this issue, rather indirectly, when they discussed the matter of what kinds of activities or professions would render one ineligible to be a witness or a judge (Sanhedrin 25b).  Shepherds and tax-collectors are listed under those professions that make you ineligible, because they (often) lead to some sort of theft; shepherds willingly allow their cattle to graze in other people’s fields, and tax-collectors hike taxes for personal benefit.  However, not all the rabbis were comfortable with these stereotypes, given the importance of being a witness or a judge: “Rabbi Yehudah said: we may assume that shepherds are ineligible, whereas we cannot assume that a tax-collector is ineligible” (translation mine).

Rashi explains this somewhat more nuanced position by saying that, when it comes to a given shepherd, we do not need to wait for that particular shepherd to let their cattle graze in other people’s fields, as that will happen inevitably.  Tax-collectors, on the other hand, do not of necessity over-tax, and therefore, for a tax-collector to be ineligible as a witness or judge, we need to see each specific person behave immorally.

A problem arises with Rabbi Yehudah’s model when looking at the fuller context of the Talmudic discussion.  Rabbi Yehudah (or the redactor of the Gemarah) supports his claim about tax-collectors by citing the story of one righteous tax-collector, which nullifies the stereotype that all tax-collectors are greedy.  This begs the question: what if Rabbi Yehudah had also known a shepherd who was meticulous about whose fields his cattle grazed on?  This points to the need to diversify the messages that we are propagating about groups of people — if our only source of knowledge about an Other is members of our own in-group, chances are high that we are not getting the nuanced, charitable picture that we need, and that they deserve.

Can we nevertheless use Rabbi Yehudah’s model as an appropriate middle-ground?  This would mean that, in cases where a categorization implies, necessarily, that a given action, opinion, or preference will follow, we can rest assured that the categorization does more good than harm.  If, however, no specific action follows from a categorization, then the categorization must be re-examined.  As in the video above, the category ‘white’ does not imply anything about the likelihood that a person who appears to be stealing a bike actually is stealing the bike.  Anyone seen to be stealing a bike should be treated the same way, by alerting authorities.  Conversely, toddlers and seniors are — I would argue — categorically less likely to be carrying a bomb onto an airplane.

I think that there is a productive place in our interactions with each other for broad generalizations like those explored in the modern and Talmudic examples.  The Rabbis were aware that people who engage in deceit in their day-to-day lives would make terrible judges and witnesses, especially when a life hangs in the balance and they are being called upon to swear in God’s name that they are telling the truth.  The problematic cases, however, point to a need to be scrupulous in refining those generalizations.  This is what the Talmud aimed to do, and what we must emulate if we are to avoid harmful, and blatantly racist, generalizations of our fellow humans.

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