We've all been there. We need to ask someone what to do or how something works, but we're too embarrassed. Asking might humiliate us. People will think we don't know what we're doing; maybe we don't really know what we're doing. The indignity of asking will simply confirm it. The fact that Einstein told us that it is OK to ask questions does nothing to ameliorate this gnawing sense of inadequacy: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."
For the next several weeks, between Passover and Shavout, we will be studying an aphorism from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, as is a customary practice in this season. Today's will focus on curiosity.
Asking questions is a manifestation of curiosity: the rapacious desire to know, the expansive capacity to stand in awe and wonder. It's fundamental to the holiday we just finished and to just about every aspect of a faith based on scholarship. It reveals our humanity and humility, and helps us be vigilant against the arrogance of certainty. Sa'adia Gaon, a great early medieval sage and communal leader, observed in his philosophical work, Emunot Ve'Daot (Beliefs and Opinions), that a person who fails to admit his or her own inabilities will "never fashion a ring." If you think you know everything, you will never learn anything. It's for this reason that one of the sages of the Talmud names the anxiety and the problem. "The embarrassed do not learn."
Learning involves vulnerability and letting go of the face-saving tendency to project mastery. Ask questions and stop worrying about the humiliation of not knowing, we are adjured. In one Talmudic passage, a student was ridiculed by other students for asking a question until the teacher scolded his disciples: "Even such an obvious question a person should submit to his teacher and not be content with silence" (BT Nidda 27a). The silent sit in confusion and misunderstanding. Those not embarrassed to ask will reap rich rewards in knowledge. Making fun of those who ask questions is not only the mark of the intellectual snob, it can also devolve into self-sustaining ignorance.
There is, however, a circumstance where asking a question that generates shame may be off-limits, as we find in yet another Talmudic case: "Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Shimon ben Elyakim, "Do you ask me publicly, in the study hall, about a matter for which earlier sages did not give a reason, in order to embarrass me?" (BT Bava Batra 81a). A student confronted a teacher in a public space. This question was asked in a beit midrash, a study hall, likely crammed with students. Perhaps all of them would have hushed their loud intellectual jousting to hear what Rabbi Shimon had to say. But that is not the way Rabbi Shimon heard the question. Since there is a textual tradition that the particular teaching in question was not accompanied by a reason, Rabbi Shimon regarded this as an inappropriate challenge to his authority. Perhaps these two scholars had a history together that made Rabbi Shimon wary.
A commentator on the Talmud, Menahem Meiri (1249-1306), learns from here that it is inappropriate for a student to ask his teacher a question if he knows that the matter was discussed by earlier authorities, and no answer was provided. Rabbi Shimon may have felt that he was not only protecting himself and his contemporaries from public humiliation but was also defending those who came before him.
The difference between these two Talmudic cases - namely the teacher who protects the student and the student who intimidates the teacher - surfaces the thin, invisible line between curiosity and hostility. Our tradition loves questions, but questioners should be careful to make sure that they are asking out of genuine curiosity and not to prove they are smarter than the teacher by belittling the person at the front of the room.
We've all been in enough classrooms to recognize this kind of student. We may even be this kind of student. We've been raised to question authority but not always to valorize it. Remember: once you cross the boundary of impropriety, it may be hard to recalibrate the relationship between teacher and student, even though we are all students.
I've always loved what Dorothy Parker wrote about curiosity: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." So go ahead. Ask. Please. Just ask nicely.