Accepting Ignorance

I’m coming to appreciate the importance of humility. I consider myself a pretty smart/knowledgeable guy about a lot of different topics; prioritizing breadth of education and learning has been a central element of my self-identity for a long time. As a new parent, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I don’t know even about the world that confronts me on a daily basis. I am fortunate to live in an area with a wide range of bird life. I can readily recognize the herons, wild turkeys, robins, and woodpeckers on sight, but when my child inevitably asks me about what bird has a particular call unless it’s one of a few that I happen to know, I’ll be at a loss. I hope that we will learn together, and that acknowledging my own ignorance will make her comfortable with a lifelong prioritization of seeking for the answers over knowing them.

Though my own Jewish practice is non-Orthodox, I really enjoyed reading Genesis and Jewish Thought. Without being a biblical literalist, I think that the stories in Genesis in particular can be viewed as a form of ethical thought experiment: what would it mean for a perfect, all-powerful deity to behave in such a way, or to ask such things of His people? What does that illuminate about our own lives? In my experience, two areas that turn a lot of “logically-minded,” educated people away from religion are the problem of theodicy (i.e., why bad things happen to good people in a world with an all-good, all-powerful deity) and the ritual commandments, as it can feel arbitrary or nonsensical for the master of the universe to care about something that seems as trivial to us as dietary or dress codes. Navon addresses the latter question in a more satisfactory way than the theodical one, but both answers are worth discussion. First, he posits three responses to the question of theodicy:

  1. It doesn’t matter why evil exists, what matters is how we respond to it. This is a helpful way to live our day-to-day lives. It certainly sits better with my understanding of an appropriate/ethical response to crises (e.g., natural disasters, Covid-19) to recontextualize them as opportunities to demonstrate charity, lovingkindness, selflessness, and courage rather than to scrutinize our neighbors’ behavior for how they might have incurred divine wrath. From a philosophical, perspective, though, this feels like it dodges the legitimate question posed by the skeptic of “if G-d is all-powerful and all-good, why does He allow evil and tragedy on a massive scale?”
  2. We cannot understand G-d’s wisdom/logic. This at least recognizes that the question exists, though it’s not much more satisfying as an answer. I can readily admit an inability to fathom eternity or infinite power, and accept that my own logic falls short of that. But if that’s the case, then why bother trying to interpret any commandment? And why impose fence rules? If we can’t possibly understand divine logic, it seems like the safest thing to do would be to adhere to strict literalism, a path which leads to unhelpful anti-intellectualism.
  3. Everyone does both good and evil. This is the worst of the arguments to me. It combines with number 2 at one level, to imply that someone’s secret sins may be greater than we know, but I could not worship a god who viewed the petty thefts and grudges of children as deserving of suffering and death inflicted upon them in the Holocaust or slavery. It also feels like this invites thinking ill of one’s neighbor in his/her moment of greatest need.

A later book presents what I find to be a deeper and more compelling answer, so some discussion will have to wait until then, but at this point it will suffice to say that I believe that we are meant to ask the questions. G-d cannot need anything from us, but wishes, as a parent, for us to grow and improve. It is our divine responsibility to respond to disasters as if G-d had no part in them, and also to try to understand what they can teach us about resilience, ecology, and our place in the world.

Navon’s explanation of the ritual commandments is stronger. Again, they serve multiple purposes: on the one hand, their comprehensiveness reminds us that G-d notes our every action, and their observance can seek to improve our own mindfulness of divinity even when we eat our meals, dress, or shower. It’s also possible that they function similarly to zen koans; that pondering the question of “why is eating shellfish an abomination” makes us think more creatively and deeply about the connections between “trivial” actions and our underlying values. Our decisions around consumption (conspicuous and inconspicuous) have implications for the society and world in which we live, and if we thought of each of them in terms of “is this form of consumption aligned with G-d’s will?” we might live in a society with less waste and better treatment of workers and the environment.

I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah on the holiday of Shavuot, so my Haftarah portion was Ezekiel’s vision. It’s had a near and dear place in my heart as a result, partly because of its profound weirdness- the description of one-footed, four-faced angels with wheels within wheels is hardly intelligible. Solomon Freehof’s Book of Ezekiel: a commentary was more line-by-line discussion than recommendation of how to live with it/find meaning in the text for our own lives. Given Mr. Freehof’s prominence within the Reform movement, I was somewhat surprised that his commentary was so traditional; he focuses on Ezekiel’s contrast between G-d upholding his promises (to do good and to punish) and the people of Israel’s failure to keep theirs. Of course, one could argue that the generation which forsook the commandments was not the same as those who received them. I see a parallel to the current discourse around US history and the social contract. Our society suffers for our predecessors’ inabilities to live up to the moral and ethical ideals that they knew to be right. We can protest that it wasn’t our agreement, but that won’t repair the temple or end the exile; only living up to the contract as it existed (or should have existed) will bring us into the world we desire.

I’m trying to be more precise in my own use of language when it has particular moral valence. As a result, I will no longer refer to someone buying or owning slaves, as that phrasing represents the act of enslavement as if it changed the status of the human victims of slavery. A more accurate locution might be to refer to someone purchasing enslaved people, or controlling enslaved people. I can own an inanimate object once; owning an enslaved person involved daily control of their lives, and ongoing prioritization of the owner’s interests over those of the enslaved person. Language doesn’t change the world by itself, but it’s easier to identify the gaps between the world we live in and the one we desire if we can articulate things clearly and honestly.

None of us have all the answers, though our professional lives (and roles as parents) sometimes encourage us to pretend that we do. Ignorance may be our truest original sin; we are all born with it, and chip away at it through our own efforts and the kindness of others. We must lean into the confusing, complicated, unclear questions and try to find meaning in the search, knowing that it won’t be completed in our own lifetimes. We owe it to our younger, more ignorant selves and our fellow citizens of earth to forgive ignorance in others nonjudgmentally while trying to eradicate it in ourselves.

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