The state of public discourse, both within the Jewish community and within our society at large, has taken rather a beating. Even when people across the political aisles can be brought to the same room for debate, the exchanges seem to be more a pro forma opportunity to restate one side’s positions or insult the other.
Religious communities aren’t any better. Each one declares itself fully in possession of the knowledge of God’s opinions. And yet, Judaism suggests that perhaps we would be better off having some humility. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lying.”
The mystics called this world alma d’sfeka—“a world of doubtfulness,” and yet we find that so often we are convinced of our rightness. Convinced enough to end friendships or to go to war. The talmud is speaking of deliberate falsehood, but it might just as well be speaking of words we speak of things that we consider certain, which may turn out not to be. This doubtful world is one in which conflicting perspectives—which may be equally true to the respective speakers—make the possibility of discerning “the whole story” of anything very difficult, if not impossible.
The midrash compares Moses to the other prophets, saying, “What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Il’ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Yehudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses, but Moses saw through only one. The rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, but Moses saw through a clear lens.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:14)
Moses saw the most clearly, but he, the greatest of all prophets, still saw truth through a lens. The clearest sighted among us still was divided from direct knowledge; his vision, too, was limited.
We like to think that religion’s business is to give us answers because it is frightening to have to make decisions without knowing the outcome, and yet we must. It is also disturbing to wonder: Can you have trust if you have doubt? Can you have religion, if you don’t have certainty?
The Talmud, that great argument of the rabbis, in which they strove to discern the will of God, is not really a work of answers—it is a work of questions. Some questions can be answered, but many are left for Elijah the prophet to answer in the future. Some truths cannot be known by us, now.
And so while we have to make decisions—to take risks with not enough information, and to hope that we will know enough, even knowing most of the time we won’t—when we try to persuade others to take a course of action, it might be worthwhile to speak with humility, and ask ourselves, when we feel certain of our rightness, whether it is really the other person whom we are trying to convince.
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