Curious Jews

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

It isn’t that they don’t learn anymore once their schooling is over. They have lots of experiences, and hopefully they learn something from them. If they live in a good-sized city, they may have all kinds of lectures to choose from, and perhaps they 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. Other primates abandon curiosity relatively early in order to deal with the problems of daily living -finding food, rearing offspring – but the prolonged childhood of humans gives them the opportunity to spend more time cultivating their curiosity.

Many educational systems don’t understand this. They try to make every subject of study “relevant,” and that is a big mistake. Teachers, and sometimes parents, think that this enhances the desire and the inclination to learn, but they are actually destroying curiosity, which is what is most important. The idea of being interested in irrelevant things – in things that have no immediate, and maybe even no remote, 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 would take the piece of glass and use it as a paperweight. They would take the amber and set it on a shelf as an ornament. They would use the flannel to clean their shoes. And they would 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 2500 years ago) to Steve Jobs tinkering in his parents’ garage? These are people who were curious. They had a little 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 they saw something interesting.

When a school tries to make everything relevant and utilitarian, it is helpful in one way, but it kills the basic notion of 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 might even say that it is the lack of continuous curiosity that slows human advancement.

Observant 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, are books that have very 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 that is 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 an observant Jewish community cannot 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 one of the very true human traits in which we are, in a certain way, higher than angels. The angels don’t seem to have any 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 has always been powerful within Jewish life, and it has pushed some people to very high intellectual levels. When Isidor Rabi – who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944 – was asked to what he attributed his prize and his great achievements, he said, 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 active 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 to the 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 very nice statement about our people.

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