Adin Steinsaltz

Curious Jews

The uniquely human drive to study for its own sake is the trait that raises humans above the angels

For most people, the act of studying stops abruptly at the end of formal schooling, whether after elementary school, high school or college. They continue to learn once their schooling is over, have lots of experiences, and hopefully, learn something from them. People who live in a good-sized city may have all kinds of lectures to choose from, and perhaps they go and listen, and even go again, if the subject interests them. However, few adults actually sit down and study in a continuous, disciplined way, because they find no compelling need or motivation to do so.

Curiosity is a characteristic of youth. All 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 do not understand this. They try to make every subject “relevant,” and this is a big mistake. Teachers, and sometimes parents, think that relevance enhances the desire and the inclination to learn, when in truth, it actually destroys curiosity; and curiosity is what matters most. Our interest in irrelevant things – in things that have no immediate, and maybe even no remote, relevance to our existence – is part of our uniqueness as human beings.

In the preface to his book on popular physics, Leopold Infeld describes the earliest experiments with electricity. You can even perform them yourself. Take a piece of glass and rub it with silk, and you get electricity. Or, take a piece of amber and rub it with flannel. You also get electricity this way, but it is of a different kind: one is positive, the other is negative.

Now, what would most people do if they had such objects? They would probably use the piece of glass as a paperweight, put the amber on a shelf as an ornament, polish their shoes with the flannel and use the silk to wipe their noses.

So how did we go from static electricity to computers? What is common to the Greek philosopher Thales (the first to describe creating static electricity by rubbing glass with silk 2500 years ago,) and to Steve Jobs who tinkered in his parents’ garage? They were both curious men who had time on their hands and objects with which to play. They played in order to satisfy their curiosity. They tried this and that, and eventually discovered something interesting.

Making everything relevant and utilitarian can be helpful, but it can also kill the basic notion of curiosity. Surely there are certain realms of knowledge where it is fine to ask “What is the good of this or that” or to see whether we can find a practical answer to a practical problem. But sometimes, we just want to find out about what that object is, and “relevance” simply kills curiosity. 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 for its own sake. This is a rather unusual religious activity. Most religions have expectations about belief and about doing the right things, but they do not obligate one 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, have very little practical use.

So why are people studying laws about things that happened in remote times – and were rare even then – or things that the Talmud says never happened and never will? We devote time to this 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 that makes man, in a certain way, higher than the angels. Angels do not seem to have any curiosity; they know everything, and animals learn only what they need to survive. 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 had 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 asked idle questions and were interested in wisdom for wisdom’s sake. This 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.

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
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