Curiosity

Curiosity

The embarrassed do not learn.
— Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6

 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.

Shabbat Shalom

Is Doubt Good for You?

A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty.
— BT Nedarim 61b

This past week in the daily Talmud study cycle, we find a statement related to vows that gets to the heart of personal dissonance. More than a statement, it's an argument. Rabbi Meir believed that, " A person puts himself in a position of uncertainty," knowing that with every commitment comes a degree of risk that we understand. We invite some degree of uncertainty into our lives. We cannot always reside in unwavering certainty; to move forward and advance in virtually all arenas in life, we need to anticipate that risk will live near us and with us. Rabbi Yosei takes a more conservative position designed to maximize self-protection: "A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty." No one willingly likes to lose control, thinks Rabbi Yossi, and puts himself or herself into a situation of doubt and ambivalence.

According to medieval interpreters of this passage of Talmud, the context of this debate is specifically targeted to a person who takes a vow - makes a commitment - and cannot remember exactly what he vowed. Alternatively, he may not have made his intention abundantly clear when making the commitment in the first place. In this case, we take his word literally because we have nothing more to go on other than what he said rather than what he may have meant. Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that people do put themselves in positions of uncertainty, meaning that when reflecting on a vow, the person who made it wants to avoid the most narrow understanding of his or her words.                         

In essence, the debate is about whether or not people opt for ambiguity as a desideratum or whether the fear of doubt is so great that human beings will go out of their way to avoid ambivalence. In fact, we have a rabbinic expression that cements Rabbi Yossi's understanding of human nature: "There is no happiness like the resolution of doubt." Living with uncertainty has many psychic costs. Relieving oneself of uncertainty is a source of comfort and, ultimately, of joy.

But sometimes we opt for certainty for all the wrong reasons. Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethics at NYU, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, contends that it's almost in our DNA to gravitate to groups that smother individuality and prize conformity. Living in relatively homogeneous clusters is a way that we validate our own decisions and choices. In many instances, we think we are making decisions, but in reality we are swept up in group think or group behaviors that are highly predictable. It makes life simpler, like that classic line from The Onion, "Stereotyping makes life easy."

In Haidt's words, "...when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say." Haidt challenges a fundamental assumption many of us make: human beings are mostly wired and driven by reason. "If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you'll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you." 

Haidt's solution to inviting greater subtlety and ambiguity into our lives? "...if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system." This, he believes, explains why it is so important to have "intellectual and ideological diversity" within groups.  It is this diversity that will ultimately produce good public policy.

Personally, I think the comedian Gilda Radner summed up what we're aiming for perfectly. "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity." As we get closer to our season of Jewish introspection, now is a good time to welcome and honor different understandings of the world that just might - if we're lucky - shake up our own.

Shabbat Shalom

Curiosity Conversations

For 35 years, the movie producer Brian Grazer - who produced films like Apollo 13, Splash and A Beautiful Mind - has conducted what he calls curiosity conversations. Originally, he sought out people in the entertainment industry for one-hour conversations simply to learn the business from people who were different from him. Then he realized that in order to really grow, learn and enhance his understanding of the world, he needed to speak to people outside his industry. He wants to disrupt his point of view and get completely out of the world he lives in.

To that end, Grazer has spoken to Jonas Salk, Isaac Asimov, CIA directors, and the world’s richest person, simply to understand what life is like in someone else’s very different shoes. He often spent more than a year trying to arrange such meetings and then eventually hired someone called his cultural attaché whose only job was to set up these meetings. In A Curious Mind, he writes: “My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick: I want to see if I can connect a person’s attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments.” 

There is something profoundly spiritual in Grazer’s quest - the desire to know the other. We all know people who haven’t the slightest curiosity about the other; other people are just a platform for getting back to oneself in a complete narcissistic sweep. If you’re frustrated by this dynamic, practice a few curiosity questions on strangers and relatives - moving the spotlight from you to the other:

Why did you...?

What interests you about...?

How did you come to...?

 In Hebrew, the word for curiosity - that natural inquisitiveness that mines, explores and discovers - is “sakranut.” We have some wonderful examples of curiosity conversations in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature. Moses turned during his work day as a shepherd to see a wondrous site: a burning bush whose flames did not consume it. He couldn’t stop looking. And when God saw Moses seeing, God realized that this was the leader he was looking for - a person who paused to wonder. Moses, in effect, had a curiosity conversation with God.

In the Talmud, we read a few wonderful stories of curiosity.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana stated: Once we were traveling on board a ship and saw a fish whose back was covered with sand out of which grew grass. Thinking it was dry land we went up and baked, and cooked, upon its back. When, however, its back was heated it turned, and had not the ship been nearby we should have been drowned...
Rabbah b. Bar Hana further stated: ‘I saw a frog the size of the Fort of Hagronia. (What is the size of the Fort of Hagronia? - Sixty houses.) There came a snake and swallowed the frog. Then came a raven and swallowed the snake, and perched on a tree. Imagine how strong was the tree. R. Papa b. Samuel said: Had I not been there I would not have believed it” [BT Bava Batra 73a-b].

Scholars whose heads were usually in books turned to the natural world in what Rabbi A. J. Heschel called, ‘radical amazement.”

Perhaps one of the great lyrical reflections on curiosity comes from a psalm of David in his marvel at the cosmos. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8).

Whether you are amazed by the complexity of another person or the intricacies of nature, the summer is a great time to amplify your curiosity. The pace is slower. We spend more time outdoors, exposed to the wonders of nature, and we often spend more time relaxing with friends. Try a curiosity conversation this Shabbat with people you know well: your kids, your parents, your closest friends. A few curiosity questions later, a new and improved person may very well emerge before you. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”

Shabbat Shalom