Tag Archives: Knowledge

Teaching Our Tongue to Say “I Don’t Know”

These were the words I shared on Yom Kippur morning at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. G’mar chatimah tovah!

In the spring of 2006, Stuart Firestein, who is now the chair of the Columbia University biology department, had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach, and he wanted to invite a few guest lecturers to come and speak. But he was a little worried about how his colleagues might respond. Why? Because this course was going to be called “Ignorance,” and as he said, it was going to be a little dicey trying to recruit a colleague by saying, “Hello, Albert, I’m running a course on ignorance, and I think you’d be perfect.” (Firestein, Ignorance, 5)

What Firestein discovered, though, was that his colleagues actually found it very exciting to talk about everything they didn’t know and all the open questions in their fields, such as: do animals have self-awareness? Where does consciousness from? Why is there something instead of nothing? Firestein was reminded that “[while k]nowledge is a big subject, [i]gnorance is bigger [a]nd it is [also] more interesting…” (Firestein, 10-11) Indeed, we often don’t realize the full value of not knowing.

Instead, we tend to crave knowledge and certainty, and it’s easy to see why. It is a complicated world and we lead complicated lives, and as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield teaches: “We long to be certain of how to live, to know that we have found the right thing to which to commit ourselves…” But, as Hirschfield continues, we also see how certainty blinds us to other perspectives, and why we then see “fundamentalists…die-hard Democrats or Republicans, liberals and conservatives shouting back and forth at each other, ranting secularists, [and] raving holy rollers…” (Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, 39-40) Ask any teacher who deals with students turning to the back of the book in order to pass a test, and they’ll tell you that “knowing” can be a big problem, because “knowing” prevents “learning.” And so perhaps that’s why the Rabbis urged us to do something very challenging – to “teach [our] tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’” (Berakhot 4a)

Why did the Rabbis urge us to embrace our ignorance? Because those three words can open up our souls, open up our hearts, and open up our minds. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our souls, we soon discover new ways to talk about and experience God, are reminded to have humility when we speak about the Infinite. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our hearts, we soon discover new ways to interact with others, meeting another person with a level of sincerity and depth that we hadn’t experienced before. And when we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our minds, we soon discover new insights and new wisdom, and we find the joy in expanding our horizons.

Let’s begin by seeing how the words “I don’t know” can nourish our souls, because the words “I don’t know” can help us find language to talk about God. One of my passions is examining the interaction of religion and science, and so I end up talking to a lot of atheists. They share with me how they see religious people ignoring science, and thus halting progress on issues such as climate change, gay rights, and reproductive freedom. Or they note that the Bible was a Bronze-Age text, and so we need to move beyond its creation myths and often-barbaric morality. Or they explain that while scientific knowledge can always potentially be overturned by new data, religion forces us to perform mental gymnastics in order to hold onto dogmatic beliefs.

These arguments in favor of science are absolutely valid, but their arguments against religion are less so, because they rail against a particular vision of religion. Religion is a human endeavor – it is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used or misused, depending on how it is applied. So the question becomes how use religion, and it arises from how talk about God. There is a difference between what I refer to as a “top-down theology” and a “bottom-up theology.” A “top-down” theology is an inherently arrogant one, because it begins with the premise, “I know with certainty what God is and what God wants.” This is the vision of religion that atheists – and probably most of us – resist, because it is the form of religion that holds back civil and human rights, ignores scientific fact, and tries desperately to maintain its own power.

But there is another way we can talk about God – one that has a recognition that we will never fully know what God may or may not be. It’s what I would call a “bottom-up” theology, because it begins with our own personal life experiences. The premise here is, “I can’t prove anything about God one way or another. But I do know that I am here on this earth, and that I have a responsibility to myself and to others. I have fears and I have hopes. And so maybe it’s not about ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ God, but about experiencing God, which happens when I search for meaning and purpose, and make a positive impact on others.” We all hold beliefs – about the world, about how we should behave, about who we are. These beliefs may or may not be provable, but that is less important than exploring how they influence our actions. As Rabbi David Wolpe taught: “Faith is not an idea but a way to live, not a logical proposition but an outcome of encountering a noble soul….I [am] less concerned with what God might be than with what faith in God might make of me.” (Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, 18-20, italics mine)

Without a doubt, religion continues to cause problems in our world. But it causes problems when its certainty leads arrogance, when it claims to “know” for sure who or what God is and what God wants from us. But if, instead, we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know” when we talk about God, we can focus on how we respond to the simple awe and mystery of living. We can talk about our search for connection and meaning, and how we will ensure that our lives will have value. We can realize that the process of grappling with these questions will strengthen our souls. And it will remind us, in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, that “all theology is [really] autobiography,” and that we are all on our own personal journey.

And that leads to the way that teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know” can open our hearts, because it teaches us how to truly listen to one another’s life story. Too often, we make assumptions about other people. We hear that someone is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, an evangelical Christian or an atheist, and we think that those labels tell us all we need to know about them. But one of the tenets of Judaism is that each individual person is created in the image of God, and each individual person is unique. “A human king stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike,” the Mishnah says, “but God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) Yes, we all experience hopes and fears, but what gives us hope and what frightens us will be different from person to person. And the only way to truly connect with others is to seek to understand what we don’t yet know about them.

One of my friends and colleagues, Joshua Stanton, is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and he has had the opportunity to work closely with one of the giants in the interfaith world, a man named Eboo Patel. Patel is an Indian Muslim who believes that religion can do great things, but in order for that to happen, we all need to learn how to be both grounded in our own religious tradition and open to other perspectives. So Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, in the hopes of inspiring young people to strengthen their knowledge, attitudes and relationships among different faiths. Patel was on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and has spoken about the need for stronger interfaith work at a TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and even the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

I asked my friend Josh what he has learned from Patel, and he shared with me this story:

About a year ago, Eboo decided to take a group of [us]…out to dinner. He chose a casual (but delicious!) pizza place on the Upper West Side… Just that month he had gone to meet with the President [and] shared the podium with countless national and international leaders…In all of these areas, he had been…speaking, sharing his ideas, and persuading others with words to engage in important deeds.

But that night, he was quiet. Very quiet, in fact. Sitting with [us], he asked “What are you doing that means most to you?”… Then, he went around listening to all of our responses…
It felt strange being in the presence of a world-class leader, who was more interested in hearing about our lives than in teaching us about his own…

So I ask[ed] him why it was that he was being so taciturn. He responded: “Every day, people ask me to talk. Every day, I have to express my ideas. But I learn most when listening…If we are to have real engagement of young people in the interfaith movement, then I first need to stop and listen.”

In essence, Eboo was saying that he needed to learn before he could teach; that we were the focus of his work, not merely another target audience for his words; that we were the experts of our own lives, and that he needed to stop and listen, because he didn’t know about our lives and the world in which we lived quite like we did. In order to foster the next generation of religious leaders, he first had to respond to his understanding that he didn’t know – at least not as well as he might, after listening to each of our stories. (personal correspondence with Joshua Stanton)

There is far too much talking and far too little listening in our world today. Whether that’s on 24-hour news shows, Facebook feeds, or even in our relationships with each other, we tend to be much more interested in sharing our own perspective than in hearing another’s. But real people are not caricatures – real people are complex, challenging, and multi-faceted. So if we can step back and say, “I don’t know you as well as I perhaps should,” then we open our hearts, and create deeper and more meaningful relationships.

There is a third and final way we can find value in teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know,” and that is how it opens our minds. When we do a Google search or peruse on Wikipedia and see just how much we don’t know, then our natural curiosity can drive us to learn something new. While we often think of education and learning as occurring when we’re young, the truth is, we are constantly learning – and we can never stop. Our world is changing so rapidly, and as Alvin Toffler, a man whose expertise is on what the future will bring, argues, “In the future, illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” (quoted in Thomas Friedman, “New Rules,” 9/9/12)

That outlook is actually a very Jewish one, because more than Judaism has celebrated knowledge, it has truly honored learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches:

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life. Mistakenly viewing learning as a form of conquest leads to the gradual loss of competence in a given field – that is why so many professions require continuing education to be able to remain active…Knowledge and wisdom do not merely grow stale; they dissipate if not freshened every day. (The Bedside Torah, 238)

Judaism is not a religion that proclaims it has the answers. Instead, Judaism is a religion that strives to help us ask good questions, because it is questions and not answers that truly expand our learning.

And so this year, under the guidance of our adult education committee, chaired by Maxine Olson, we have sought to expand the learning here at Temple Beth El. Downstairs in the Great Hall, you will find our program book for our new Campus of Living Judaism, which has the details on all the ways we can learn together. If you want, you can learn with clergy over breakfast on Sunday mornings with our “Food for Thought” classes. In the fall, we will be asking, “Should Religion Influence Politics?”, in the winter we will be exploring, “Can You Be Jewish Without God?” and in the spring, we will be examining what it would mean to have “An Ethical Economy.” Or, if you’d like, you can have private dinners with several well-known and up-and-coming authors. Or, if you prefer, you can hear about the state of the world from experts like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren through our 92nd St. Y simulcasts.

Additionally, on the right-hand panel of your service insert, you will see these and other adult learning opportunities. As we do on Rosh Hashanah, I’d ask you to notch off any topics that might spark your interest. Maybe it’s a subject that excites you, or maybe it’s an issue that you’d like to learn a new perspective on, or maybe it’s a refresher on something that didn’t totally stick from Hebrew school. You’ll be doing it anonymously, and so at the end of the service, I’d ask you to place your notched service inserts into the boxes at the back of the sanctuary. We hope you’ll find these opportunities inspiring and thought-provoking – and if there’s something we’re missing that you want to see, be sure to let us know!

Because ultimately, we are all simply struggling with the questions of life: how do we act? How do we strengthen our relationships? How do we find joy and fulfillment in our lives? How do we repair our world? We have to remember that we can’t be looking to “know the answer” to those questions, because those questions aren’t ones where we can simply look in the back of the textbook. Instead, if we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know,” then we can find humility, and openness, and curiosity. We can remember that it’s not about “knowing the answers,” but about “creating our responses” – to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – we live in a world with many unanswered questions. And while we may desire the ease of simple answers, of certainty, of knowing, remind us of the value of teaching our tongue to say those three crucial words: “I don’t know.” Because those words can open up our minds, leading us to strive to continue learning. Those words can up open our hearts, leading us to deeply connect with others. And most of all, those words can open up our souls, leading us to grow in goodness, in holiness and in wholeness and peace.

Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

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IBM’s Watson and “Jeopardy!” — “Intelligence” versus “Wisdom”

First of all, some exciting news — you will now be able to find some of these blogposts on the The Huffington Post’s “Religion” section! My last post has gotten quite a buzz, with over 400 comments, and you can see it here.

But I’m sure this is what you really came to learn about:

I’ve been a fan of “Jeopardy!” since I was in middle school, and I took (and even passed) the test to be on “College Jeopardy!” when I was a senior. So I’ve been very excited and interested to see what happens with IBM’s Watson this week, as it battles Ken Jennings (he of the 74-game winning streak) and Brad Rutter (he of the highest prize winnings on the show).

Watson’s big test has been to see if computers can become “intelligent.” Humans (and even most animals) can be seen as “intelligent” in some form– they gain new knowledge, they learn from mistakes, and they experiment with trial and error. The question surrounding Watson is — can a computer be seen as intelligent?

That’s actually much harder than it looks. As human beings, part of our intelligence is our ability to understand statements without much context — “Hey, did you get my e-mail?” is often perfectly understandable, because we know the reference point. But computers don’t have context, and often tell us things that are totally unrelated to what we are looking for:

And that’s why Watson’s challenge has been to see if it can win on “Jeopardy!” — it’s a show where the clues are often ambiguous (if not downright misleading), and so if Watson can get those types of answers right, it will be a big step towards an “intelligent” computer.

But to me, Watson’s “Jeopardy!” challenge leads to a deeper question — is “intelligence” the same thing as “wisdom”? Or, to phrase it another way, if computers can become “intelligent,” is there any way they could become “wise”?

And here, I would say “no.” Wisdom, in my mind, entails knowing what questions to ask in the first place. Watson may be able to get all the answers right — but only humans know how to ask the right questions.

That’s something that Judaism has had a long history with. Ever since the time of the Rabbis, Jewish tradition has tried to come up with the kinds of questions that would challenge us to look at things more closely, to see what we can learn from them, and to examine topics from multiple perspectives.

My favorite example comes from the story of Noah, who is described in the book of Genesis as being righteous “in his generation.” It’s actually a totally unnecessary phrase, but rather than ignoring it, the Rabbis focused on it, and asked, “Why is it even in there in the first place? What does it mean that he was righteous ‘in his generation’?”

Well, we know the generation of the flood was pretty bad (they were all killed). So maybe Noah was simply the best of a bad lot. But on the other hand, we also know how hard it is to be a decent person when everyone around us is behaving badly (I live in New York, so I can tell you some great subway-shoving stories). So maybe Noah was incredibly righteous — after all, he was able to be righteous even in his generation. (Genesis Rabbah)

Which is it? Was Noah righteous, or wasn’t he? Well, it all depends on how we read the text — and so there’s no clear, single, correct answer. And that’s the real hallmark of wisdom — to know what questions to ask in the first place, and then to recognize that there may be a multitude of responses to them.

Indeed, the biggest and most important questions we face for us and our world are ones that don’t have a simple, correct answer, the way a “Jeopardy!” question does: “How can we most effectively address global poverty?” “What’s the appropriate role for government?” “How should we respond to the new reality in the Middle East?” Those are questions where information and intelligence are necessary — but they are not sufficient. Instead, it takes wisdom to know what questions to ask in the first place, in order to make a difference for ourselves and our world. And only human beings know how to do that.

So yes, Watson is crushing the carbon-based competition, and may even be showing that computers can become “intelligent.” But we can feel comforted by the fact that one of the uniquely human gifts we have is our ability to pose the kinds of questions that make things like Watson even possible.

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