Political scientists have long noted a fascinating and troubling phenomenon: despite the explosion of available information and the increase in education in the Western world, most people are woefully ignorant about politics. This ignorance is present regardless of political affiliation, and it extends not only to complicated issues like heathcare policy but also to basic knowledge of how their particular government functions.

A similar phenomenon seems to be present when it comes to religion – many Christians, for instance, are often unaware of basic facts about their faith, particularly their denomination. While Jews scored relatively well on this particular study, my experience tells me that a focused NJPS-style survey of Jews’ knowledge of Jewish history and religion would reveal large if not enormous gaps in said knowledge, regardless of whether the Jews are Orthodox, secular or anything in between.

Why is this? Why is it that so many Jews know so little when it is possible to research a subject with a few google searches?

Some elitists would write this off as more proof of the stupidity of the masses, but this argument won’t hold. There are many people who are quite intelligent and often savants in their chosen fields who are nevertheless just as politically or religiously ignorant as your average Joe.

Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University has a better answer: for most people, ignorance is often a rational decision rather than a sign of intellectual deficiency. Take politics – to properly learn even one issue on the political agenda requires a significant amount of time and effort. Given that the chances of any one citizen affecting policy through votes or other means is infinitesimal, it is simply not worth it for them to spend the time just to become a “better voter”.

The same argument could be said for religion and Jews. The corpus of Jewish literature is enormous and still growing; it is doubtful if any one person can master but a small part of it. Given that most Jews will not become – or at least have no ambition to become – intellectual giants or major religious/secular scholars, their incentive is to learn enough to be able to “get by” in life without too much fuss. Once they’ve passed that particular threshold, whatever further information they will learn will either be for entertainment or curiosity purposes or because it is a religious ritual duty – even if they remember nothing afterwards.

Why is this important, you ask? I can think of at least two reasons:

Halachic Deviance: Religious – specifically halachic – ignorance goes a long way towards explaining both the “chumra of the month club” and all sorts of unfounded leniencies. Most decisions of the halachically ignorant are made out of lack of awareness of relevant halacha, by “winging it” and going with one’s instinct or inclination. This results both in unfounded humras and kulas just as much as any Rabbi’s psak, a movement or custom “from below”, if you will.

Laity Education: I’ve written before on how Judaism depends on a strong core of commited baalei batim or laity to maintain itself. As baalei batim are not likely to pursue advanced studies quite as much as the elite section of the population, they are more likely to be religiously ignorant after a certain threshold. Jewish educators of any denomination would do well to locate that threshold and tailor their education programs with this phenomenon in mind.

Rational ignorance, whether political or religious, is here to stay. We would do well to take it into account in any discussion of Jewish education and identity.