By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – A novel that I read recently made several references to a maxim “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” That saying shows up with considerable frequency in modern European writing. In the eighteenth century, J-J Rousseau invoked it to explain his success as a music teacher though lacking any notable talent: “‘Dans le royaume des aveugles les borgnes sont roi’- “I passed here for an excellent master, because all the rest were very bad ones.” H. G. Wells even published a story titled “The Country of the Blind” about a remote South American community whose members were all congenitally blind, and a sighted outsider wrongly deluded himself that he was their ruler.
The expression caught my attention because I was familiar with it from the midrashic compendium Genesis Rabbah where it appears in Aramaic, attached to a teaching by a second-century Galilean sage. The reading in the best manuscript goes “in the neighbourhood of the blind they call a one-eyed person ‘great one’. “Other texts have it as ‘…they call a one-eyed person ‘rich in light,’ and a small person ‘great one’.”
Indeed, the expression “rich in light” [sagi nehor] is used in the Talmud to designate blind persons, and in later usage it became the standard euphemism for, well, euphemisms.
The adage makes its appearance in the midrash in connection with an interpretation that is familiar to traditional Jewish readers from Rashi’s commentary to Genesis. Concerning the Torah’s statement that Noah was “perfect in his generations,” Rabbis Judah and Nehemiah disagree whether the phrase “in his generations” is intended to enhance the hero’s merits or to detract from them. (The same disagreement is brought in the Talmud in the names of Rabbis Simeon ben Lakish and Yohanan.)
Rabbi Nehemiah praised Noah for maintaining his virtue even in his wicked generation. On the other hand, Rabbi Judah argued that Noah appeared righteous only when compared to the wicked heathens of his time; however, if he had been a contemporary of the virtuous Israelites who flourished in the days of Moses or Samuel, then his moral stature would not have been particularly impressive. It was to illustrate this opinion that the midrash cited the proverb about one-eyed persons being perceived as “rich in light” in comparison to the fully sightless.
I doubt that the popularity of this adage in European languages can be ascribed to widespread familiarity with ancient rabbinic literature. Indeed, my searches for its origins generally linked it to a more recent source—the eminent Dutch theologian and humanistic scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 – 1536). Erasmus compiled a vast collection of Latin proverbs known as the “Adagia”. One of the sayings that appeared there was “Inter caecos regnat strabus” [among the blind, a person who squints will rule].
Did Erasmus know Hebrew or acquire familiarity with classic Jewish literature? To be sure, he attached great value to the study of ancient languages and was one of his generation’s foremost authorities on Greek text—but he himself never mastered Hebrew.
He was in general a champion of religious tolerance and was opposed to forcibly converting or persecuting Jews. When European theological circles were torn by the fierce “battle of the books” in which the distinguished Christian Hebraist Johann Reuchlin came to the defence of the Talmud and Kabbalah against accusations by the apostate Johannes Pfefferkorn, Erasmus sided with Reuchlin. However, that probably did not reflect any real sympathies toward rabbinic Judaism, but had more to do with his respect for an esteemed friend and colleague and his antipathy to the boorish Pfefferkorn.
Erasmus’s personal attitude to Hebrew literature was expressed in his admonishment to a Judaophile Hebrew scholar: “I see that nation filled with the most frigid fables, casting forth nothing but various smokes: Talmud, Kabbalah, Tetragrammaton, ‘Gates of Light,’ inane names… I am afraid that by this opportunity the head of the plague that was formerly stifled may rise up. And would that the church of the Christians did not give so much preference to the Old Testament!”
Elsewhere too, Erasmus voiced his trepidations that the respect that Christian Hebraists were extending to Jewish writings (especially the Kabbalah) might lead to a rebirth of that rejected nation. He found little attraction in the ritualistic “Old Testament” in comparison to sublime Christian spirituality.
In fact, Erasmus’s Latin adage most likely reached him, as did much of the material in his anthology, in a Greek version that he heard from his friend Arsenius Apostolius, a scholar from Crete who migrated to Italy when Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Greek proverb had previously been cited in an ancient commentary to Homer’s Iliad.
The proverb was even paraphrased in an English text that might have antedated Erasmus’s Adagia. The poet laureate John Skelton published a number of satirical broadsides denouncing his former ally Cardinal Wolsey, and in one of these works, titled “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?” (1522), he ridiculed Wolsey for claiming to be the equal of King Henry VIII. In that connection Skelton wrote: “Yet proudly he dare pretende \ How no man can him amende \ But haue ye nat harde this \ How an one-eyed man is \ Well-syghted \ when He is amonge blynde men.” That is to say, the cardinal’s inflated pretensions are only imaginable if he is comparing himself with his intellectual and social inferiors.
As Rabbi Jacob Reischer suggested, the midrashic appraisals of Noah are not necessarily contradictory. His uprightness was quite exemplary in the context of his depraved society, even though his spiritual stature would have benefited further from a community of spiritual mentors.
Most authors cite the half-blindness metaphor in a cynical sense, to belittle heroes and leaders who only appear admirable when compared to ones who are utterly inferior. As far as I know, Jewish tradition is unique in envisioning a more hopeful prospect—that persons whose achievements are blurred by the mediocrity of their times might yet rise to visionary clarity when supported by a more ennobling milieu.