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  • Unanimity

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on July 8th, 2018 (All posts by )

    I read years ago that medieval rabbis (or perhaps earlier), when debating a point, would throw out anything when they had universal agreement and start over.  They thought unanimity was too likely to be evidence of everyone jumping to a conclusion and following a fashion. I have never been able to locate a source for this,* and it may not be true, but I have found it to be excellent, though not foolproof advice. Unanimous decisions are often rushed, not thought out, not waiting to see if different angles emerge. We recently had a church decision to call a new pastor that was overwhelming, but not unanimous. Unanimous would have worried me. It fairly screams “unrealistic expectations.”  There was a motion to report the vote as unanimous to the candidate.  I had heard of such a thing when I was a Lutheran 40 years ago, and the explanation was that it was an expression of unity going forward. I believe it was moving some designated money from one purpose to another and the vote was 63-3 or something. Those who had voted against were now agreeing not to be passively, even unintentionally undermining the decision. The change was made and was reflected as a unanimous vote in the minutes, which struck me as weird, and not quite honest.

    Unanimous decisions in department meetings or on psychiatric teams have gone bad for this reason, in my experience. They usually happen because there are one or more powerful figures that the others too easily agree with, or at least don’t want to put in the energy to oppose. It is one of those Chestertonian paradoxes, that unanimity is often a sign of contention rather than unity, because of silent disagreement. Consider also the rigged elections of tyrants.

    There is something similar that happens throughout the Bible.  Knowledge of God and experience of God come from discussion. In a purely mechanistic Christianity, Jesus could have left a one-page document saying “Do this.  Now I’m going to go die as an atonement for your sins, so you’re good on that score,” and then goodbye. He didn’t do that.  Wherever two or three are gathered. That’s less than the minyan (10) required by Jews for morning prayers, but it’s still not just one. There are councils and consultations right from the start, and these persist even in the very hierarchical Christian groups.  Jesus chose twelve, not one. Notice that the prophets are not also rulers. The prophets bring a word, but it is for the elders, and ultimately the people, to work this out. I give an example of this from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writing about Wealth and Poverty over 30 years ago. Understanding Jewish Thought. Four rabbis give their opinion on “What is wealth?” and it is the interaction which is illuminating, rather than the comments of any one man.

    (Sacks’s full essay, which is excellent, is over at the Social Affairs Unit.)

    Humorous diversion. It bothers me that I cannot remember where I read this, and have never seen it anywhere again. My guess is that it is from James Michener’s The Source, which would be a reasonable but not authoritative reservoir of information about Medieval Jews.  He did much research on everything he wrote, but cannot be relied on to see which were the main currents and which were backwaters. I had shared this observation about unanimity with a Jewish friend in the 1980’s, who marveled “How do you know these things about my people that I, a Jew from New York, don’t know?” (This had been a theme of our relationship, with me explaining to him why his Cohen uncles would not go into a cemetery or that the Jesus three-days-in-the-tomb was because of the Jewish reckoning, having died on a Friday afternoon – first day – and been hastily buried before Sabbath started. Saturday – Second day.  Early Sunday morning – third day. “You know Judaism.  What I know is Delancy Street,” he would say.) I answered that I had always had many Jewish friends, being in AP classes, and after my renewal of Christian faith in 1975 I had also started reading a lot about Judaic roots. “I read Michener pretty soon after that.”

    He looked startled. “What did you read?”

    The Source.”

    “I don’t know if that’s the source, exactly.  Torah would be the source.”

    It was my turn to look puzzled. We quickly worked out that he thought I had said Mishnah. “A gentile, interpreting oral law – I was impressed.” He laughed.  It was too bad I couldn’t have kept up that image.  Having read a popular novel is much less impressive.

    *My commenter jaed at AVI thought I may have gotten the idea from the tradition of the Sanhedrin that a unanimous vote in capital cases does not convict, according to Maimonides. That seems very likely to me and frankly, I should have just submitted “Maimonides unanimous” to Duckduckgo and found it immediately. Facepalm.

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    7 Responses to “Unanimity”

    1. Philip Says:

      Hello. I’ve not had a chance to keep up with the blog for some time, but this is the first entry I’ve read since being back in action, so to speak, and I find it quite interesting. Thanks, AVI!

    2. Vincent Says:

      I like your point that unanimity can be a cloak for coercion, and the way that you’ve argued it. But I think you’ve given it a generality that it can’t support, when you say that “Knowledge of God and experience of God come from discussion.”
      This sounds fine as a refutation of fundamentalism. And for all I know it may supported by a history of theology.
      My own understanding of Judaism and Christianity is illumined by Martin Buber, who considered we cannot know anything about God, as a set of attributes for example, or God’s view of anything.
      Buber’s most valuable tool for understanding is his distinction between I-It and I-You. When we discuss God as an It, we are doing so to further our own ends (e.g. to bind our religion together). But the knowing of God is only achieved through the relation I-You.
      In relation to a discussion of Jewish and Christian thought, I’d be interested to know where you’d place Buber.

    3. Philip Says:

      On the reference to Michener, it becomes necessary for me to remark that I’ve been reading his Iberia of late, which has been my introduction to him. I find it fascinating beyond measure. I have just reached a paragraph in which he passingly alludes to “Jewish materials” through which he was working at the time, which probably refers to the background material that you mention.

    4. pouncer Says:

      Via Larry Niven, IIRC, I believe one faction of ancient Greeks refused to carry out any plans made while sober until they had also considered the question thoroughly, while drunk.

      The process of getting the experts all drunk may have been part of the “Symposium”.

    5. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      @ Pouncer – it is true, but it was the Babylonians.

      @ Vincent – as Tevye might say, you are also right!

    6. TMLutas Says:

      If such a proposal to report falsely was forwarded in a Catholic venue, the body would require absolution. You can change your mind and ask them to reopen your vote to register that change, but if you’re in dissent, you’re in dissent and on non-dogmatic issues, it’s a perfectly permissible, even honorable place to be.

    7. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      It is good for me to revisit that Lutheran incident, as I think I am understanding some things about it that I did not at the time. First, I wonder if the desire to get to unanimity is a Northern European, especially Scandinavian thing. While there may be tribes all over who also strongly desire unanimity, it seems characteristic of what else we know about Swedes.

      Secondly, I recall there were people in that congregation who would be very conscious, even a bit obsessive about truth, who would not have approved at all of a false report. I had every impression at the time that it was the nay votes who held the cards on this. “Can we get you to change your vote, or just sorta go along Gunnar, so that we’re all together in this?” may have been the implication without resorting to a whole new set of paper ballots. Had someone been recalcitrant and spoken up and said “No, I won’t,” I feel sure it would have been honored. It seemed rather a social pressure encouragement rather than an order or overruling. It was a question, not an action by the majority. I still don’t like that much. It may be based on a long tradition of the few folding their cards and saying “I will fight no more,*” yet it’s still a sloppy treatment of the truth.

      So I think upon further review, TMLutas, that they were informally reopening the vote – so technical honesty was preserved – but making it harder for the opposition to continue. It was a secret ballot – one would now have to go public. (OTOH, the Swedes in a Covenant congregation might be all too glad to go public. “Var star det skrivet?” Where stands it written was shouted from the back row of many a meeting.) As I said, I don’t like it. But I think it is a different, subtler sin than the one I originally thought.