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 made our egos and reputations more important to us than our desire for truth.
We feigned openness to evidence when really we had no intent of ever changing our minds.
We let groupthink and social pressures shape our beliefs and distort our reasoning.
We branded as heresy conclusions we disliked, impeding intellectual debate and open-ended inquiry.
We created ideological echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with homogeneous thinking to shield ourselves from dissenting ideas.
We jumped to conclusions, judged issues (and people) without hearing both sides or doing sufficient research.
We acted as know-it-alls, professing to have knowledge we did not, 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 winning debates and scoring points.
We engaged in magical thinking, positing cause-and-effect relationships without evidence.
We made ourselves naïve and dogmatic, neglecting to educate ourselves to think critically, especially concerning our own beliefs.
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 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 arguments.
We made straw man arguments, knocking down inaccurate and feeble versions our opponents’ positions.
We used trojan horse tactics, smuggling in wild speculation by surrounding it with well-established facts.
We were unyielding, refusing to acknowledge when a valid point was made by the other side.
We were needlessly verbose, using endless and complex verbiage in the attempt to exhaust our interlocutors.
We withheld knowledge from ourselves and our children in order to maintain our beliefs.
We misused our expertise, wielding our credentials to speak about areas we aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable in.
We made the “yarmulka defense,” rationalizing false and/or unethical statements because they were presented in the guise of religion.
We were so ideologically zealous that we became fundamentalists for our own positions.
Moreover, we took ourselves, our opinions, and our disagreements far too seriously, and forgot how to laugh 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, naivete 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. 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
May 3, 2020
David Bar-Cohn is a staff member at Project TABS and is completing graduate studies in Bible at Bar-Ilan University. His book, Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings (Urim, 2014), is a conceptual and linguistic analysis of the birkhot hashachar prayers, offering a rational, psychological approach to the terminology of Jewish mysticism. David also holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology, received semikha in Yoreh De’ah in 2008, and has written other pieces blending Torah and academic scholarship, which can be read on his Truth and Peace blog.
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