Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Intentional Ignorance

In his latest piece for Ynet, Uri Orbach points out something that has been a bother to me for some time.
My friend Kobi Arieli once told me that while visiting the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem he encountered an ultra-Orthodox teacher, near the tiger’s cage, telling his students in Yiddish that it was in fact a lion. When Kobi corrected him, the teacher said, in Yiddish: “Lion, tiger, what’s the difference?”
We are told that knowledge is power, yet it appears that often the fear of displaying too much knowledge is one of the characteristics of religious and ultra-Orthodox discourse. Even though there is no mitzvah that prompts us to confuse tigers and lions, religious people nonetheless have a tendency to convey the sense that general knowledge is minor and insignificant vis-à-vis familiarity with the Torah.
One is allowed to know a little bit about the ways of the world, but this isn’t truly important, because “the Torah contains everything.” Therefore, it is even appropriate to display blatant contempt towards everything that represents the achievements of modern society. This is the case in the face of scientific innovation, and certainly in the face of “culture produced by sinners.” Ignorance is power, too.

How much important information is contained in this short part of the article! Within the Chareidi community, there does exist a certain pride at not knowing about the outside world, as if to say: See, my mind is uncontaminated with tumah. When the Toronto Blue Jays were in their first World Series back in the early 1990's, the Rav of the shul I was attending in Toronto gleamed with pride as he explained that he had no idea that Toronto's major league ball team was making history as the first Canadian team to be in the Series. Yes, he vaguely recalled that Cleveland had a baseball team but knew nothing of the sports fever gripping the streets.
More than that, there is an act put on by some chozrei b'teshuvah who, unable to live with their lack of ignorance of the outside world due to their formerly sinful lifestyle, learn to feign ignorance. They forget about that concert they attended, or what a Big Mac tasted like. After all, keeping those factoids in their minds would mean their former tumah is still present too.
But it's one thing not to know how the Toronto Blue Jays are doing this year or that Dr. Pepper made a ridiculous deal with Axl Rose to finally get Chinese Democracy released some time this year. {Cue laughter} It is quite another, however, to feel pride or indifference in not knowing the difference between a lion and a tiger. That doesn't bespeak of a pure Torah education. It bespeaks of stupidity.
To say that everything is contained in the Torah is just plain wrong. How do we know this is so? The Torah itself tells us in the second Tochachah: "Also every sickness and every plaque which is not written in the book of this Law, them will the Lord bring upon thee until thou be destroyed." (Dev. 28:61) The Torah is God's Will, revealed unto us, the source of his Law for this world and the guide to our lives but it is not a science textbook, a history textbook or a math textbook. Yet does this mean we must remain ignorant of science, history and math because the Torah does not deal with them? And what to do with the mishnah in Avos that tells us that "everything is in it"? (Avos 5:22)
The answer is that the Torah, being our guide to life, is relevant to every facet of that life. It is the consort that leads us through the wide world full of information God has created for us. It tells us what is appropriate to learn and what is right to avoid. A movie about how DNA works would be approved, while one about donkeys getting it on with Scottish Highlanders would (probably) be frowned on. It is a good thing to learn about science and medicine so that one can lead a healthy, productive life and enhance God's creation through his efforts to improve them. It is wrong to believe that science is more than just a tool, to engage in scientism as a false religion instead of keeping God's Torah. In all cases of interaction with the outside world, the Torah guides us but the interaction is necessary in the first place!
The most confident, fulfilled Jew is the one who faces the outside world head on, knowing that the Torah has the answers to all its challenges and who then takes what God has created and fashions it as a tool to enhance his Torah observance. Anything else is either a concession to the secular or a ghetto-ignorance that is no longer appropriate.


offthederech said...

Blue Jays?
What's that?

Garnel Ironheart said...

It was, once upon a time, a competitive team in the AL East. Then the 1994 strike came...

offthederech said...

Their chances of winning it all are almost as slim as the Leafs'.

Notice how we're much easier to get along with when we stick to topics like these?