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September 9, 2016 4:14 am

The Case Against Specialization and for General Knowledge

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Moses and Aaron Speak to the People, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.

Moses and Aaron Speak to the People, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.

We live in an age of ever-increasing specialization. Up until the early 20th century, interdisciplinary experts abounded. Charles Darwin was renowned as a geologist and an expert on fossils. He wrote his book On the Origins of Species as a side project — only for it to become the most important biology thesis of its time.

But it seems that things have changed. Just try and ask a tax lawyer about family law, or litigation, and he will almost certainly direct you elsewhere. General practitioners are not regarded as leaders of their professions; rather, they are believed to have superficial knowledge in multiple areas. The assumption is that anyone who devotes his entire intellectual focus to a particular branch of knowledge develops the greatest understanding of every nuance and detail pertaining to a chosen topic. The pursuit of other knowledge is thought to be a waste of time, distracting from a specialty, diluting superiority and diminishing expertise.

The 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset spotted this phenomenon, and was not impressed. There had been a time when humanity “could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant,” he wrote in 1932, “but your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories — he is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is ‘a scientist,’ and ‘knows’ very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus!”

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At first glance, this week’s portion seems to support the model of the learned ignoramus. Moshe informs the nation that there should be three types of Jewish leadership: priesthood, royalty and Torah. Power in Jewish life would be divided among three distinct groups: the priests, the kings and the prophets. Modern political thinking has embraced this concept of separation of powers. In the United States we have the legislative, executive and judicial branches, each with its own powers and responsibilities. All democracies have comparable systems separating powers of government. The idea behind power separation is to ensure that power is never concentrated in any single person or office. Each branch has expertise and responsibilities in its own field, and issues beyond its expertise and remit are left to those who are designated to preside over the other branches.

In ancient Israel, kings presided over the secular government, while the priests were religious leaders who supervised the Temple and made decisions in ritual matters. Prophets were expected to be critical of any corruption in the other two branches of power, and to remind the nation of its religious obligations in the event that they displayed laxity. This tripartite system meant that the king was not expected to bring Temple sacrifices, and the High Priest was not expected to be a military strategist. Consequently, the Talmud criticizes the Hasmoneans for assuming a secular leadership role after their successful military campaign against the Greeks, an error the Talmud says ultimately led to their downfall.

But the separation of powers in Jewish life, and the seeming separation of church and state, was never meant to be a division of expertise. This is evident from the passage defining the king’s role. Although the king was always going to be the most powerful temporal figure in Jewish life, he was expected to have knowledge well beyond the area of his responsibilities. As soon as he began his reign, the king would need to have a Torah written specifically for him, and that Torah would need to be with him at all times to read and study. The message is clear. How could a king successfully lead the nation if he was ignorant of the source of that nation’s strength and sacred character? The people of the book were all expected to know that book inside and out, and to study it constantly. Every Jew, whether king or pauper, priest or prophet, doctor or lawyer, was expected to be educated in and fluently conversant with the fount of knowledge and wisdom that is the written Torah and its accompanying explanations.

History has shown us that great leadership comes from those who have a depth and breadth of knowledge. The founding fathers of the United States were not simply revolutionaries who wished to secede from the British Empire. They were scientists, political theorists, linguists, successful businessmen, and legal experts — all of them accomplished in multiple fields of knowledge. The enduring success of the revolution certainly hinged on this dynamic.

Our own historic record is no different. The greatest king of the Jews was King Solomon. Yet he is not remembered principally for his military prowess or his unifying capabilities, nor for his great wealth or for having built the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jewish consciousness, he is predominantly recalled for his great wisdom and vast knowledge. The Talmud concludes that his success as king was solely due to his lifelong thirst for knowledge.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and embrace the New Year, we should absorb this message of venturing beyond our chosen fields of expertise so that we become polymaths and interdisciplinarians. Unlike other faiths and creeds, and the modern trend towards specialization, Judaism has always thrived on the democracy of knowledge, and the ubiquity of expertise. The trend towards specialization is not progress; it is a retrograde step that goes against the grain of Jewish tradition, in which even a king is expected to recognize that his success requires more than just political expertise.

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  • Jay Lavine

    Specializing in an area does not mean that one should not maintain one’s knowledge in all areas.

    From the Jewish Medicine web site:

    Jewish medicine is not a specialty area of medicine in the same sense that disciplines like cardiology or ophthalmology are. Contrary to the secular world in which physicians generally limit their practice to one esoteric area and may often be uninterested in and unknowledgeable about other specialty areas, the practice of Jewish medicine requires an encyclopedic and continuously updated knowledge base incorporating all of medicine. In light of this, how do we apply the pedagogical advice “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” which is akin to the medical aphorism “Uncommon presentations of common diseases are more common than common presentations of uncommon diseases”? Those who practice Jewish medicine, while taking the likelihood of various diagnoses into consideration, keep all diseases, whether of the horse or zebra variety, in mind so as not to miss anything. Uncommon diseases are often more common than is generally believed: they tend to be underdiagnosed because doctors are not thinking of and looking for them. Maintaining the broadest view of all of medicine allows one to become a rosh gadol, someone who incorporates a holistic, or biopsychosocial, approach to medicine in which all aspects of a patient’s health and being are considered simultaneously and in the context of each other (not to be confused with the contemporary use of the word “holistic,” which often denotes quackery). The concept of not confining oneself to one narrow area may fly in the face of strictures sometimes imposed on physicians by the narrow-minded roshim ketanim of governmental bodies or of insurance companies. Nevertheless, to paraphrase the old Hebrew National commercial, those who personify the values inherent in Judaism answer to (and are answered by) a higher authority: “From the narrow place I called out to God; God answered by expanding the confines of my being” (Psalms 118:5).

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