To put it simply, the test of our generation is to avoid feeling arrogant, smug, or overly confident
sidor Isaac Rabi was a Nobel laureate physicist recognized for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, used the world over in MRI machines. He was born into a religious Jewish family in Hungary and came to the US as a young child. A letter to the New York Times in 1988, published shortly after he died, tells an amazing story.
Rabi was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”
Rabi answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.”
In our day and age, there is no shortage of good questions. The world is only getting more complicated and confusing with each passing day. And yet, despite the complexity of the questions we face, and regardless of our own ignorance or illiteracy on any given subject, we want to give the answer. We don’t hesitate to weigh in or stake out a position.
And the truth is, it is no wonder. We live in the information age, with access to terabytes of information at our fingertips offering answers to almost anything in milliseconds. We can consult videos found online and repair our own cars, install our own home alarm systems, replace the control board on a clothes dryer, or design incredibly complex spreadsheets. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we feel capable and entitled to understanding any issue and having answers to everything.
But the truth is that while technology may be opening doors to more information, more accessible instructions, and even answers, it is also giving us a gross case of overconfidence.
A 2015 study found that recent college graduates vastly overestimated how much they knew about their area of concentrated study, and dramatically underestimated just how much they had already forgotten. Social psychologists call that the “illusion of explanatory depth”: assuming you can write or speak extensively about a particular subject, when in fact you can barely scratch the surface. Another contributor is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias that tricks people into believing they are smarter and more skilled than they actually are.
In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman (nephew of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, rosh yeshivah of Ponevezh) called overconfidence “the most significant of the cognitive biases.” Indeed, Kahneman singles out overconfidence as the first bias he would eliminate if he “had a magic wand.” It has been blamed for the sinking of the Titanic, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the losses of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and much more.
Overconfidence is not only responsible for natural disasters and large calamities; it’s also a core cause of broken relationships, failed dreams, and struggles in faith for countless individuals. If someone believes and behaves as if he has a monopoly on truth and positions himself as the source of all answers, he will alienate all those around him, be they friends, chavrusas, colleagues, or, most significantly, his spouse and children. Genuine and healthy relationships require humility and modesty, openness to being influenced, and a commitment to understand others as much as to be understood by them.
Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” L’havdil, long before Twain, Chazal taught that a smart person is not one who knows the most but one who knows how little he knows. “Ezeihu chacham? Halomeid mikol adam.” Who is the smartest person in the room? The one who knows he has something to learn from everyone else in the room.
Knowing that the answer to almost anything is a simple Google search away, or that hundreds of thousands of Torah sources are instantly accessible, available, and searchable thanks to Otzar Hachochma, conditions us to feel far more knowledgeable than we are, far more self-assured than we should be.
Overconfident talmidim and students struggle to submit and defer to their rebbeim and teachers. And simultaneously, overconfident rebbeim and teachers too often fail to admit when they don’t know something, or when a question is better than any answer they can provide. Instead, they often criticize the questioner or label the question illegitimate or out of bounds, often leaving a young person dissatisfied at best, or worse, embarrassed, shamed, or turned off altogether. Overconfident rabbanim, rebbetzins, and chassan and kallah teachers fail to stay in their line, offering advice or guidance without training or expertise rather than referring to true authorities, unintentionally hurting the very people they intend to help.
Another byproduct of overconfidence is feeling both capable and entitled to understand the ways of Hashem. Previous generations who survived and lost more than we can imagine found a way on the whole to maintain their faith and Torah lives. Meanwhile, today, not only significant and consequential challenges rock our faith, but also much more minor hardships cause crises of emunah for those who can’t make sense of them.
To put it simply, the test of our generation is to avoid feeling arrogant, smug, or overly confident in understanding of politics, policies, religion, and life. When we fail that test, the impact is felt in marriages, in learning, and in faith.
I recently had privilege of sitting in the shiur of Rav Elimelech Reznick, a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim. The yeshivah is learning Maseches Yevamos, considered one of the three most difficult tractates in Shas. That particular day, Rav Reznick presented what is known as a “bomba kashe,” an incredibly compelling and powerful question, in this case asked by Rav Akiva Eiger. Before analyzing the question and the assumptions driving it, Rav Reznick went on a tangent to talk about the beauty of a great kashe, a wonderful question.
He spoke about Rav Aharon Kreiser, an alter Mirrer who, when he had a great question on the Gemara, would walk around the beis medrash with the biggest smile, sharing the question with anyone he could. When someone tried to respond with an answer or offer an unsolicited solution, he would cut them off and say, “This question has brought me so much light. Why are you trying to darken the sugya by offering a teirutz, an answer to my kashe?”
Once, when Rav Reznick showed up for his chavrusa with Rav Asher Arieli, the Mir rebbi who delivers the largest shiur in the world, Rav Asher told him, “I have a matanah for you, a special gift.”
Rav Reznick looked around and didn’t see a box or anything in wrapping paper.
Rav Asher told him, “I have a great kashe for you, a great question for you to think about. There is no matanah more precious than that, enjoy.”
When he was a young bochur, Rav Reznick’s rebbi presented this very same question of Rav Akiva Eiger. After shiur, Rav Reznick went up to his rebbi to offer a possible answer. Instead of considering the answer, his rebbi immediately launched into a ten-minute mussar schmuess, characterizing the effort to answer a question of the great Rav Akiva Eiger, without having ever fully having learned all of Yevamos even once, as an enormous chutzpah, an act of brazenness.
Rather than reflect with bitterness or resentment, Rav Reznick nostalgically shared this story with gratitude and appreciation, explaining how today we would coddle a young person, put an arm around him, and say, “Way to go for attempting an answer, good for you.” But that is a disservice, he continued, a terrible pedagogic mistake. Genuine chinuch means reminding talmidim of their place, to both encourage and reward their creativity and pursuit of answers while simultaneously reinforcing the importance of humility and the dangers of overconfidence.
In Koheles, Shlomo Hamelech describes his efforts to explore, understand, and have the answers to everything. “Amarti echkamah, v’hi rechokah mimeni — I said I will be wise, but it remained elusive to me.” Shlomo confesses that he tried, analyzed, contemplated, but at the end of the day, he came up short; despite being the wisest of all men, complete understanding was beyond his grasp.
The reality is that there are some questions we simply aren’t capable of answering. Some questions aren’t for us to answer. We need to learn to concurrently foster curiosity, inquisitiveness, interest, and the pursuit of answers, while also reinforcing the importance of understanding our place, and appreciating that we must not have the chutzpah to feel entitled or even able to understand everything, and that sometimes there is not only nothing wrong with living with and grappling with a question we cannot answer. Indeed, there is something very beautiful and magical about it.
Admitting we don’t know and learning to live with questions is not just necessary for our generation, it is an important part of our mesorah. The Gemara (Berachos 4a) states, “D’amar Mar, lameid leshonecha lomar eini yodeia, shema tisbadeh v’sei’achez — Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.”
Our greatest scholars didn’t hesitate to say “I don’t know,” causing us to think more rather than less of them, and to place greater confidence in the things they did purport to know. Rashi, without whom Shas would be a closed book, is famous for the several places in which he writes, “eini yodeia, I don’t know,” regarding the meaning, interpretation, or relevance of a particular verse or statement.
Rav Soloveitchik once shared:
I remember that once I was studying Talmud with my father. I asked him why the Talmud did not resolve the problem under discussion in so many cases. Instead, the Talmud concludes with the phrase Teiku [let the matter remain unresolved]. Why was no conclusion reached by the Talmudic sages? My father explained to me that a Jew must apprehend that he cannot understand and comprehend everything. When a Jew learns that there are halachos which are ambiguous, then he will also come to the realization that there are other areas that are also not clear-cut. In matters of faith, Teiku will also be encountered.
The greatness of Avraham, our forefather, was that he knew how to say “Here I am” [Bereishis 22:1] even though he did not understand the request that Hashem made of him. The basis of faith is Teiku. If a Jew does not master the concept of Teiku, then he cannot be a true believer.
Similarly, when discussing a perplexing theological challenge, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon stated that sometimes the best response is “Teiku,” that we don’t yet know, we can’t yet answer, the matter is unresolved.
If Chazal were sometimes satisfied leaving a question unanswered, if Rav Soloveitchik and ybdlcht"a Rav Mattisyahu could live with the tension of questions that are unresolved, then we, too, must have the humility to sometimes admit that we don’t know, we don’t understand, and we won’t have the chutzpah to suggest otherwise.
If we want healthy and functional relationships in our lives, if we want to succeed in our dreams and ambitions, if we want to live with emunah and bitachon, we must recognize that confidence is a virtue, but overconfidence is a dangerous vice. As we confront difficult dilemmas and circumstances, as we try to make sense of complicated issues and topics, let’s let in some light by spending time sitting on the question and appreciating its light, and not hurrying to extinguish it by running to provide answers. —
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue, a rapidly growing community of over 1,000 families, and the founder of the Yeshiva of South Florida.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 937)
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