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Second Naïveté

This week's Torah portion, Lekh Lekhah, includes the following verse (Genesis 17:1):

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be tamim'.

In modern Hebrew the word tamim means naive or innocent. In Biblical Hebrew, it carries similar connotations, but can also mean complete or perfect. The command to "be tamim" therefore seems somewhat problematic to me, for two reasons: First, can one command a person to be tamim? Second, if so, is it realistic to make such a demand of an elderly man of 99? This is someone who has already seen the world. Either he's remained innocent or he's become cynical. But how could he change and suddenly become tamim? In the Talmud (Hagiga12a), the sage Resh Lakish offers an interpretation to a different part of the same verse:

Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, "I am El Shaddai"? The Holy One Blessed Be He said, I am the One who said to the world, 'Enough' [she-dai].

God seems to be saying to Abram: I created the world incomplete. I did not allow it to be perfect. Your role, Abraham, is to walk before Me and be tamim. In other words, it is your responsibility to perfect what is imperfect. This perhaps explains what God's command to Abram was. But still, how can a person be commanded to be tamim? And at age 99?! I would like to propose an interpretation based on a concept developed - apparently independently of one another - by two twentieth century thinkers: the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and the German-Israeli philosopher Akiba Ernst Simon. The concept is "second naivete". Ricoeur discussed second naivete in the context of the phenomenology of religion, and Simon discussed it in the context of bible interpretation. I'd like to borrow their idea and apply it to the context of educational leadership. What is second naivete? It is the innocence that some people recover after learning to be critical. It is a more complex, richer kind of empathy, to which they return after critique. For example, after being exposed to higher biblical criticism or social-scientific accounts of religion, it is difficult to continue to believe and to behave as a religious person. Second naivete appears when a person discovers the limits of critique, and seeks a way back to the pre-critical experience – not in a way that nullifies the critique, but in a way that respects it and reconciles with it. Education is similar. Education is a profession for the naive. If you do not have a basic belief in human perfectibility, you are simply in the wrong business. And yet, if we, as educators, remain with our "first naivete", harsh reality will simply eat us alive. Take, for example, the teacher who persists in believing, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that everyone in class has read the assigned article, done the homework, and is following the lesson. I think God's command to Abraham means the following: Be discerning, use your experience, face reality head-on, look at the world through critical eyes that will make life complicated and make your work harder; but at the same time don’t cease striving for perfection – not at 40, nor at 60, nor even at 99.Educational leaders must view the world critically and appreciate its complexity, while also retaining faith in its perfectibility. They must constantly re-articulate and clarify their visions so that they remain viable, even in the face of criticism and in the cold light of harsh reality.

Picasso’s (1947) “Pigeon” above is another example of second naïveté – an attempt to rediscover the immediacy of primitive artnor at 60, nor even at 99.

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