Too Many Mavens

I had no idea how many non-practicing zoologists lived in our midst! Did you?

Two weeks weeks ago, a young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The gorilla began to interact with the boy. After about five minutes of that interaction, zoo officials decided to shoot the gorilla and save the boy.

Zookeepers had to make the quick-instinct choice of saving either a human life or an animal’s. That decision has since brought all the zoologists and gorilla specialists out of retirement.

At the same time, I also never kept figures on the disproportionate number of parents who also live in our midst who have never lost track of any of their children. So many of them have scored perfect 100s on parenting tests. Clearly, each of these infallible souls knows exactly how to parent in every situation and could concoct the perfect recipe for churning out pristine and unflawed people, who never wander off, get into mischief, or misbehave.

Magically, these kids morph into teens and then into adults, who grow from perfection into people riddled with therapy-worthy issues.

We live in a society of mavens; a place where every person knows every detail of every particular situation and how best to handle said situation better than anyone else. These mavens each knows that his or her voice has more worth than another. They know that schooling and training are nice, but not necessary. They are definitive in their opinion with little space for other voices, thoughts and ideas. There is very little room for being unsure. Social media has fertilized these mavens, so their expertise and prowess reach across continental divide.

The Yiddish word, “maven” has its origins in Hebrew. The word MAY-Veen translates loosely to “understands.” The person with the best understanding in certain situations was called the maven. A ha!

This phenomenal growth of mavens has been increasing in momentum over the past few years. Have you ever noticed how many members of the Jewish world were mavens on nuclear science and the enrichment of uranium, especially last summer? Many of the same Jews who have trouble unclogging a toilet or installing shelves in their garage know precisely the chemical timing and behaviors of fissile material.

Some of these very same mavens received some undocumented post-doctoral training in the Middle East, its complex makeup, and how best to deal with its challenges, especially when it comes to Israel. They know emphatically what is good and what is bad, who is evil and who is our savior. Ever meet one of these specialists and hear him or her talk about the Arab Spring, land for peace, the Oslo Accords, settlements or what have you? Clearly the Zionist world was in the dark because it didn’t choose to listen to their counsel. Had we done so, just imagine the peace and quiet we could be enjoying this very day in Israel!

I think my most favorite groups of mavens today are in the mystical category of soothsayers and telepathic understand-ers. These are people who cannot prognosticate the weather tomorrow but can declare with certainty what will happen in the future in Israel, in the United States, and across the globe. This competence is best demonstrated in the arenas of politics, elections, finances, and sundry other topics. This specialty usually is accompanied by telepathic understanding — the art of knowing exactly what another person, whom you have never met, is thinking. TU — telepathic understanding — traditionally gets its best results when lasered in on celebrities and dignitaries.

We have a world that is overloaded with mavens and does not have enough novices.

The world I face every day has few linear questions and more objective conundrums. In my rabbinate, I am not pestered with queries about what do to when the dairy pot is accidentally mixed in with the meat utensils. That requires a linear answer, much like 3+2 does. That equals 5.

I do, however get questions that sound something like this: My granddaughter is marrying someone who is not Jewish. Should I attend the wedding?

I am not sure which candidate in the coming election is better for Israel. Who do you think I should vote for?

My mother is on life support but she never wanted to live in a vegetative state. Should I turn off the ventilator?

I am not a maven on these questions. I have no emphatic answers for them. Each one is a unique situation and demands individual attention. Further, nothing in my answer is definite. In fact, often times, my best answer is just “I do not know.”

It is true that as a rabbi, I do know more than most and less than others on some topics. But surely that is not true about all topics. It’s just like my accountant buddy, my physician friend, and my attorney neighbor, who know more about their own disciplines than I do.

King Solomon showed wisdom in divining truth when two women claimed to be the mother of one child. His brilliant yet ludicrous suggestion of cutting the baby in half convinced the real mother to relinquish her claim to the child, with the hope of sparing his life.

While the solution was brilliant, and later the term Solomonic was coined to honor it, at no point did the king profess to know the outcome of his dilemma. In fact, the solution was a last resort that yielded the best result. I do not see a maven in Solomon. I see a man searching for an answer, not even assured that his answer is right.

In fact, the core to Judaism is multiple voices, opinions, practices and thoughts. I would contend that to be dogmatic on matters of opinion is inherently not a Jewish value.

Solomon’s test has little application today. There is no hearing to determine who loves America most, nor is there a magic elixir we can drink to figure out which of our neighbors is more Zionist. Equally, there is no judge to decide who is the best parent. These are all subjective queries and reminders to us that we can not divine another’s place, passions, or prejudices. But we must make room for each person to have them.

Maybe we can create some more sacred space in life, where we can say “I do not know” or “I am of two minds,” or “I will leave it to the experts.” I think we could use more curiosity and room for thought and fewer gorilla mavens and zookeepers in the world. After all, that is the Jewish way.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.