Confidence Man

In the years when I played tournament chess, I would wander over to the boards of the top players and was often surprised to overhear spectators with lesser skills (like myself) make whispered pronouncements about the play of the masters. I realized then that level of skill and level of confidence are two entirely different things.

In modern society we are often called upon to make judgments about things in science, technology, politics, economics — for which we have little training and less knowledge. Yet it does not seem to diminish, for many, the confidence with which they pronounce.

Judaism is a tradition that inculcates great respect for knowledge. Legitimacy of opinion is tied to familiarity with sources and ideas; depth of feeling is no assurance of correctness. As the Rabbis counsel us, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Experts are not always right, of course, and on rare occasions an untutored guess will prove more accurate than a learned surmise. But knowledge is almost always an aid to judgment; you don’t want your surgeon, pilot or automaker to be ignorant. Confidence that outstrips understanding is empty. As Hillel said — zil g’mor — go and learn.

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.