As I have commented before, I can often tend to be a prickly person when it comes to my discourse with other people. Today a conversation I had on my goodreads page where I had a testy conversation with a Jew about the Talmud, and I was reminded as to why this was the case, and what precisely makes my interactions with others more fierce than probably needs to be the case. Given that the conversation started when the fellow had a rather unfriendly reaction to a somewhat fierce but not necessarily adverse review, and then progressed fiercely for some point until the other person realized the nature and origin of my ferocity on the subject of the legitimacy of the Talmud (or lack thereof), it forms an interesting case study of the sorts of online debates and arguments I find myself in, and at least can provide some insight onto the relationship of the Talmud and the porcupine and what it is that prompts my own strong reactions and then the strong reactions that other people have to those.
When responding to my review on a book about biblical history from the point of view of a conservative Jewish author, the person who replied to me thought that my hostility to the Talmud made me a borderline anti-Semite, something I tend to take rather personally. From the course of our testy conversation it was clear that he took offense both to my Christian beliefs that one had to believe in Jesus Christ and follow the New Testament in order to be fully pleasing to God (which is a pretty obvious aspect of my belief system) as well as to my belief that the Oral Talmud was lacking in any sort of authority and was fraudulent based on its false claims of Mosaic origin. Eventually, after having read my generally approving comments about the historical perspective of Jacob Zallel Lauterbach on the post-exilic origins of the Talmud in the desire on the part of upstart and illegitimate authorities (namely the Pharisees) to bolster their own credentials and to support non-biblical customs that they and the people wished to preserve that had been acquired by the Jewish people during the Hellenistic period, he realized that I was not hostile to the existence of the Talmud but rather to its claims of authority and historical antiquity, and at that point the conversation stopped because he had nothing else to criticize me for.
I’m not sure if the person I was talking with learned anything important from the dialogue but I must admit that it was a rather worthwhile one for me in that it reminded me that I have a particularly fierce rhetorical approach when it comes to claims of authority that I am hostile to. Given the continual issues I tend to have when it comes to writing about authority, it should come as little surprise that questions of authority and its legitimacy tend to be a major locus of conflict in my own personal life. This has been true whether I am writing in defense of authorities (as happened, say, during the tumultuous period from where this blog sprang), or whether I am writing in critique of human or textual authorities, as was the case when I wrote rather disparagingly about the Talmud. The general ferocity with which I write about authority, whether for or against it, tends to lead other people to think that I am questioning the legitimacy of their feelings or belief systems or the existence of them, since most people who are as fierce as I am about such matters tend to be rather bigoted souls whose respect for the opinions and thoughts and feelings of others is slim to nonexistent. Apparently, most people don’t realize that one can be quite content to concede the existence of other worldviews and the right of others to have them without having any desire to approve of them whatsoever. It is less surprising to me given my own personal history that I would be rather prickly when it comes to the authority claims of others, but also unsurprising that other people may not fully understand the source of that ferocious vehemence in the face of my generally polite and playful attitude when it comes to speculation.
Indeed, in looking at my own thoughts of authority and authority claims, there tends to be a rather sharp line that provokes a great deal of personal hostility. Speaking for myself, I am someone who tends to have a great deal of interest in understanding the authority that people claim to support their behavior or their opinions. I have a high degree of tolerance for speculation so long as people admit the speculative nature of their claims and do not seek to enforce their own views and opinions on me. But I have zero tolerance for people seeking to place burdens upon me that I have not chosen for myself, or interpretations from authorities that I do not recognize as legitimate. I tend to find that other people think it a small thing to heap burdens upon other people, and this is something I find intensely problematic. We have our own stakes to carry individually speaking, and those burdens are based on our own personalities and character and experiences. As someone who is very skittish when it comes to matters of tyranny and abuse, I tend to find myself fairly easily triggered by what others say in a casual way and often do not even think about. Without being a rebellious sort of person, I find that my fiercely autonomous views often create a sense of tension and awkwardness with others who do not know exactly what to do about them, and in those cultures or situations that require a high degree of deference for others, I find myself very ill at ease.
What it is about the Talmud that makes me such a porcupine is something that applies far beyond that limited case to a great many authorities. I tend to find myself hostile to human authorities who exaggerate their claims of authority and the grounds of those claims and make their authority seem more venerable than it actually is. I also find a great deal of irritation in people claiming the authority for something that they oppose me having the authority to do. In some cases the irritation has to do with framing, where something that is phrased one way can be bothersome but if phrased in a different way it is something that I consider an obvious truth. Obviously, such things are easy enough to work out in conversations, but there isn’t always the opportunity to talk with someone about what they meant and why they said things the way they said it. To be sure, people may often wonder the same thing about me, and in the absence of communication it is not always easy to determine if we are dealing with someone who is truly a bully, or merely someone who is far too prickly if not entirely unjust.