Let My People Know

"Did you ask a good question today?"

In contrast to all of the do’s and don’ts of Pesach, the next major holy day on our calendar, Shavuot, by comparison, has little in the way of laws, customs and rituals. But it does have the one thing I admit I love most about Jewish tradition–study!

In the essay I am posting today, Rabbi Steinsaltz focuses on just that eternal Jewish activity: studying and learning–its importance in Jewish life, its uniqueness among humans, and its connection to Shavuot…

“Did You Ask a Good Question Today?”

For most, the act of studying stops abruptly at the end of formal schooling, whether after elementary school, high school, or college.

Not that they don’t have many experiences, and hopefully learn something from them. If they live in a good-sized city, they may have lectures to choose from, and perhaps go and listen, and even go again, if the subject interests them. But few adults sit down and study in a continuous, disciplined way; they find no compelling need or motivation.

Curiosity is a characteristic of youth. Many educational systems don’t understand this. They try to make every subject of study “relevant,” and that’s a mistake. Teachers, and sometimes parents, think that this enhances the desire and inclination to learn, but they are actually destroying curiosity, which is what is most important.

The idea of being interested in irrelevant things –that have no immediate relevance to our existence – is part of our uniqueness as humans.

In the preface to his book on popular physics, Leopold Infeld describes the earliest experiments with electricity. You can do them yourself. You take a piece of glass and rub it with silk, and you get electricity. Or, you take a piece of amber and rub it with flannel. You get electricity, this way, too, but it is a different kind: One is positive, and one is negative.

Now, what would most people do if they had those things? They’d take the piece of glass and use it as a paperweight. They’d place the amber on a shelf as an ornament. They’d use the flannel to clean their shoes, and use the silk to wipe their nose.

So how did we go from static electricity to computers – from the Greek philosopher Thales (the first to describe creating static electricity by rubbing glass with silk 2,500 years ago) to Steve Jobs tinkering in his parents’ garage? These people were curious. They had some time on their hands and they had some stuff to play with. They played in order to satisfy their curiosity. They tried this and that, and then found something interesting.

When a school tries to make everything relevant and utilitarian, it may kill curiosity. In some realms of knowledge, it is fine to ask what the good of something is, to see if it gives a practical answer to a practical problem. But sometimes, I want to find out about what it is. One may say that it is the lack of continuous curiosity that slows human advancement.

Jews are obligated to be involved in studying Torah simply to study Torah. As a religious activity, this is unusual. Most religions have expectations about belief and about doing the right things, but they don’t obligate you to study. Jews, however, study Torah as an independent activity that is not directly connected with belief or action. In fact, the most studied books in Jewish life, like the Talmud, have little practical use.

So why are people studying the laws of things that happened in remote times – and were rare even then – or things that the Talmud says never happened and never will happen?

We devote time to it because what we are doing is going after knowledge for itself, not as something to be used. Not everyone has the same level of active curiosity, but study is encouraged and done as an obligation. The number of classes and lectures available in a Jewish community can’t be compared to anything that happens in any other place.

Why does God want us to study? Theologically, it is a way to commune with Him. The ability to study for the sake of study is what I call a true human trait in which we are, in a way, higher than angels. Angels don’t seem to have curiosity; they know everything. And animals learn only what they need to live. So the only beings who are curious about anything are people.

This notion was always powerful within Jewish life, and it has pushed some people to high intellectual levels.

Isidor Rabi – who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944 – attributed his prize and his great achievements to his parents. When he came home from school, they never asked him what he learned. Rather, they wanted to know, “Did you ask a good question today?”

The Jewish approach to learning seems to have been ingrained very early and very deeply. Hectaeus, a Greek geographer during the reign of Alexander the Great, wrote about remote countries that were beginning to be known at the time. He remarked that he had heard of an interesting people who lived south of Syria: All of them were philosophers, that is, people who ask idle questions and are interested in wisdom for wisdom’s sake. That is a nice statement about our people.

On the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah. We don’t dance and sing with it, as on Simchat Torah. Rather, alone or together, we sit and learn – whatever text or topic we choose – just to learn and to connect with God.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz