A Cognitive Confession (Vidui) for Yom Kippur
Critical Thinking: A Spiritual Discipline
We are naturally inclined—perhaps evolutionarily hard-wired—to jump to conclusions and rush to judgment, rather than pause and think critically or take the time to verify a claim. Even when we do make the effort to reflect and analyze, a myriad of cognitive biases can cloud our judgment. Furthermore, when our egos, social standing, and religious or political identities are linked to our opinions, it is difficult for us to change our minds even when the data point decidedly to such a change.
The cognitive minefield is vast. Yet if we consider our pursuit of truth and knowledge to be a sacred undertaking, as implied in the phrase torat emet (“Torah of truth”), we ought to treat critical thinking as a spiritual discipline. We need to be religious in our commitment to open-ended inquiry, self-critique, and be willing to transform our views in accordance with the evidence—even when it comes at a personal cost.
While truth seekers of all stripes strive to live up to these standards, human bias inevitably seeps in. We make mistakes. The challenge is not to hide from our errors but to recognize them and do teshuva, strive to be better.
In the spirit of the Yom Kippur vidui, “confession,” which lists a variety of sins in an alphabetic acrostic, the following is an intellectual confession. It may be partly tongue-in-cheek, but it is also a sincere prayer, a call for cheshbon ha-sechel, an “intellectual accounting.” We strike our chests (or alternatively, facepalm) at our own cognitive foibles, in the service of self-correction. We recommit ourselves to the disciplines and character traits that will aid us in the sacred project of adding light and knowledge to the world.
The Vidui Confession: An A-Z Acrostic
On our holiest days, including Yom Kippur, we implore:
וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת.
Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.
We allege ourselves to be seekers of truth and knowledge, yet we are not so brazen-faced and stiff-necked to say that we have been sufficiently rigorous, unbiased, and self-critical in our thinking. Rather, we have strayed from the path of sound reasoning and openness to evidence, and we have led others astray.
We appealed to authority, arguing based on the support of a respected authority rather than allowing our ideas to stand on their own.
We harbored bias blind spots, assuming the conclusions of others to be the product of bias, while ignoring the impact of bias on our own judgment.
We cherry-picked evidence that supported our thesis and ignored contradictory evidence.
We created double standards, holding the beliefs and claims of others to a higher level of critical scrutiny than our own.
We allowed our egos and reputations to overshadow our desire for truth.
We feigned openness to evidence when really we had no intent of ever contemplating another viewpoint.
We let groupthink and social pressures shape our beliefs and distort our reasoning.
We branded as heresy conclusions that did not fit within our belief system, exempting ourselves from engaging intellectually with them.
We created ideological echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with homogeneous thinking to shield ourselves from dissenting ideas.
We jumped to conclusions, judging issues (and people) without hearing both sides or doing sufficient research.
We acted as know-it-alls, speaking with authority outside our area of expertise, and having too much pride to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
We lost our curiosity, stopped listening to others, and became focused instead on scoring points to buttress our cherished viewpoints.
We moved the goalposts, asking for certain evidence in order to accept a claim and, when it is furnished, demanding further evidence.
We neglected ongoing education and research, clinging instead to prior conclusions.
We ostracized dissenters in our in-group who pointed out our errors or who acknowledged valid points on the other side.
We conflated possibility with probability, deeming “possible” explanations on equal footing with explanations backed by the weight of evidence.
We were quasi-scientific, employing jargon in order to impress and confound listeners, but failing to apply the methods or rigor of science.
We ridiculed and leveled ad hominem attacks at people as a substitute for addressing their points.
We made straw man arguments, knocking down inaccurate and feeble versions of others’ positions.
We used trojan horse tactics, smuggling in wild speculation by surrounding it with well-established facts.
We were unrelenting, refusing to acknowledge when a valid point was made on the other side of the argument.
We were aggressively verbose, using endless and complex verbiage in the attempt to exhaust others and prevent them from leveling a coherent retort.
We withheld knowledge from ourselves and others in the attempt to protect our sacred beliefs.
We had exaggerated expectations, making extreme predictions, and refusing to acknowledge when they fail to materialize.
We refused to yield in the face of counterevidence or superior arguments.
We were so ideologically zealous that we became fundamentalists for our own positions.
Moreover, we took ourselves, our opinions, and our disagreements too seriously, and forgot how to laugh at ourselves and appreciate one another’s humanity.
For the intellectual transgressions we committed knowingly, and those we committed because we did not research. For those we have confessed today, and those we have not.
For all these, we stand here today shame-faced, vessels of confirmation bias and half-truths. We commit to educating ourselves and our communities to be more discriminating consumers of knowledge, to cast off credulousness, naïveté and self-deception.
We pledge to redouble our efforts to be self-critical, to gird our loins against our own intellectual blind spots, and to enter conversations with genuine curiosity and good faith. Our desire is not to ceaselessly opine and dig in our heels, but rather to learn from others, and indeed to be shown wrong, as we understand error to be the gateway to intellectual growth and the advancement of ideas.
May our sincere quest for truth serve as a force for peace, even when we differ, as the Sages (b. Yevamot 14b) recall of the schools of Hillel and Shammai:
שחיבה וריעות נוהגים זה בזה לקיים מה שנאמר: האמת והשלום אהבו (זכריה ח:יט).
They practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).
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September 16, 2018
October 26, 2023
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David Bar-Cohn is Manager of Operations at TheTorah.com. He holds an M.A. in Bible (magna cum laude) from Bar-Ilan University; his thesis is titled, Rites of Replenishment: Observations on Priestly Purification (Bar-Ilan, 2022). He is the author of the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings (Urim, 2014), an analysis of the birkhot hashachar prayers. David also holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and received semikha in Yoreh De’ah.
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