This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Views from the Top*

Our civilization is characterized by its obsession with new, improved versions. Arguably, the entire capitalist ethos is founded on the premise of planned obsolescence. For the commercial infrastructure to remain in operation, people must constantly be exchanging and upgrading their current possessions for a more recent model that is faster and more efficient.

These modern values permeate our thinking to such a degree that it requires a conscious effort to appreciate that, until quite recently, most societies saw matters quite differently. They assumed that the wisdom of the ancients was immeasurably greater than that of later eras, and civilization has been on a downhill course since the golden ages of the past. Therefore, any innovation was suspect; and all departures from traditional authority had to be justified.

Jewish tradition has generally shared this outlook. The acme of enlightenment was reached in the days of Moses. As we moved farther away from that era, the truth became progressively dimmer, and it became increasingly difficult to comprehend what had been so clear to the ancients. Each generation studied the works of its predecessors in hope of grasping a portion of the profound insights contained therein.

Even in traditional religious settings, this view of history sometimes felt constricting. After all, humans are endowed with intelligence, and we are capable of arriving at our own judgments and opinions. And even if we concede that the ancients possessed a deeper understanding of spirituality and values, it is hard to deny that our scientific and technological knowledge exceeds that of our ancestors.

The encouragement of independent critical thought is essential to rabbinic culture. The pages of the Talmud are packed with scholarly debates, in which scholars subject the statements of earlier sages to uncompromising scrutiny, designed to test whether those statements are consistent with the evidence, logically coherent, or whether the facts can be interpreted in other ways.

The Mishnah reports that in the deliberations of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish high court, the junior scholars were instructed to speak first, before the more senior sages. This was done in order to insure that they would not be swayed by the words of their elders.

In the bewildering world of talmudic debate, every rabbi and commentator is ultimately expected to come to their own decisions from among those proposed by earlier authorities. Sometimes, they might even offer novel explanations of the relevant texts.

And yet, so powerful is the force of traditional thinking that some justification was felt necessary for disagreeing with the revered scholars of the past.

Rabbi Isaiah diTrani, the noted Italian Talmudist (died c. 1250), offered one of the most popular validations for later rabbis to argue with earlier ones, in spite of the fact that the ancients were wiser. To resolve the paradox, he cited a parable ascribed to a great philosopher:

Who can see farther, a dwarf or a giant? Of course, it is the giant, whose eyes are much higher than the dwarf's. But if you seat the dwarf so that he rides on the giant's neck, then who can see farther? Of course, it is the dwarf whose eyes are now higher than the giant's eyes. In this way, we are dwarfs riding on the necks of giants, because we have seen their wisdom, and we go beyond it.

The parable that Rabbi Isaiah heard from the philosophers was a popular one in the Christian world of his time. The earliest known version is brought by John of Salsbury in his Metalogicon. John attributed it to his teacher St. Bernard of Chartres, one of the foremost scholastics of medieval Europe. The Latin maxim stated Nani gigantum humeris insidentes.

Bernard and Rabbi Isaiah both lived during a period of intellectual excitement that historians designate the twelfth-century renaissance, a time when the medieval religious communities were being invigorated by their encounters with the philosophy and literature of ancient Greece. The metaphor of the dwarf and the giant aptly expressed the confidence people were feeling about their ability to extend the vistas of contemporary science and culture to unprecedented frontiers.

Rabbi diTrani's parable became a staple of Hebrew writing after it was incorporated by his disciple Rabbi Zedekiah Anav into his popular liturgical guide Shibbolei Halleqet, where it was ascribed to the wise among the gentiles.

As the twelfth-century renaissance quieted down in Europe, so apparently did the appeals to the dwarf and giant parable, which disappeared from Hebrew literature for some two centuries. It resurfaced during the great European Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as a way of defending the ideology of progress that was making strong inroads into the nascent modern mindset. Scholars and scientists were asserting their right--most considered it a duty--to take a critical stance vis à vis earlier authorities; and our parable was most appropriate for that purpose.

A number of Jewish authors who lived around the time of the Spanish expulsion now quoted the parable with an interesting change of imagery: no longer was it a dwarf who was sitting on top, but a child. This subtle change served to enhance the humility of the later writers, whose scholarly and scientific advances could not be ascribed even partially to their own intelligence.

Thus, Rabbi Abraham Bibago observed that the lapse of time will bring about the discovery of the truth, just as a small child seated on the shoulders of a giant will view everything that the giant sees, and more. Similar formulations appear in the writings of Rabbis Isaac Arama, Joseph Hayon, Joseph Ibn Shraga and Solomon Almoli. The last-mentioned scholar, author of an uncompleted encyclopedia of Jewish learning, hints at the source of the altered imagery. He introduces the parable with the following words: Thus did the scholar Hegido bring this parable in his medical treatise.

The odd word Hegido, we may be certain, is a corruption of Guy de, alluding to the fourteenth-century surgeon Guy de Chauliac, author of a widely read textbook Chirurgia Magna. De Chauliac did, indeed, quote the parable with the substitution of child for dwarf. The fact that Jewish writers were tacitly using the revised version, rather than the older one that had become established in Hebrew literature, confirms that they were making use of gentile sources.

In those earlier texts, the main use of the dwarf-giant parable was to validate original and critical thinking in the face of a rigid traditionalism. In our society, it would be better to read it from the opposite perspective, as a reminder that the scientific achievements of our age are not evidence of our greater wisdom or intellectual superiority.

For all our technological sophistication, we are puny creatures in comparison with the enormous spiritual values and insights that are preserved in our venerable tradition.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: