Teaching from the Small Tractates of the Talmud



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I Don't Know, Therefore I Am

By Nachum Mohl

"Always teach your tongue to say 'I don't know'" is a teaching from one of the small tractates of the Talmud called 'Derech Eretz'. This tractate has many teachings regarding proper behavior and this particular teaching is mentioned also in the tractate 'Brachot'.

It is an interesting teaching and particularly applicable today when we seem to be swarming with experts in all fields, from health care, political views, and even Judaism. Unfortunately many of these 'experts' are knowledgeable in many aspects of their specific fields, but not in all aspects, and are certainly not experts in other fields. Yet, because of their limited expertise, they are granted a mantel of respect that enhances their opinions.

The words used by the teachers of the Mishnaic period are always important to scrutinize. They never used extra words and before they composed their teachings considered carefully what they said was expressed. They wanted expressed in a very exact manner. Therefore it is necessary to reflect on the words they use.

The first word, 'Always' is interesting. 'Always' is indicative of a constant on-going effort at teaching one's self to learn this lesson. There is a need to never say, 'I learnt this lesson.' The word 'always' means we must forever be on guard to continue to impress in our memory and mind the message that 'I don't know'. Only when a person can reply to a question poised to him with the answer of 'I don't know' can he qualify to look into it in greater depth.

Being a recognized as an expert may bring great prestige, but being an intelligent and intellectually honest person requires careful consideration and constant contemplation. We expect an expert to reply immediately with the answer, but often real problems are not as simple as the number of home-runs a certain baseball player hit in a specific year. Real problems are complex and require careful thought and consideration which take time.

The problem is that we respect those whom we are told are experts. To the simple person, an 'expert' can not say, 'I don't know' – but sometimes that is exactly what he should say, and this means that since he is an intelligent person, he needs to look deeper into the matter. He may not be certain that this matter is exactly what he appears to be, he may need time to delve into it and examine the many possible facets.

Secondly, it says 'teach your tongue to say' this means that he must be prepared to vocalize his 'not knowing'. To many 'experts' this is an admittance that he is not a real expert, for if he were, he would know the matter at hand. But the teacher of this statement knows that for real knowledge one must be humble and not strive for glory. By saying aloud 'I don't know' instead of covering up with some excuse requires a strong character.

It is very unfortunate, that we have so many people who are trying to become recognized authorities in various matters, from science to political analysis to Jewish religious matters who cannot say, 'I don't know'. For them, this is akin to admitting ignorance. But in reality, the truth is different – if he were a true scholar, he would realize that depth and understanding do not appear in all manners in a split second. Often it takes research, and research takes time and effort.

The truth of the matter is that a fool thinks he knows everything, but a wise man realizes that he lacks knowledge. Simple people believe that there is one correct viewpoint and to that goal he strives, an intelligent person realizes that matters are complicated; no one has a monopoly on truth. When examining issues, he will assume that both sides have some truth, but each side will emphasize one aspect while ignoring other perhaps even vital data or other important facts that would cause their case to loose relevance.

Teaching ourselves to say 'I don't know' will not only increase our respect of true knowledge and bring us always closer to the truth, whether it be in medicine, science or the many facets of Jewish law and tradition, but will enable us to become true experts.


from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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