Shaya Cohen -


Why Ask “Why?”

Have you ever met someone who is, at least narrowly defined, very good at their job – but somehow has no clue about why that job exists?

There are obvious examples, of course: most TSA, DMV and other government-related jobs, where the rules are always the ultimate refuge. Employees even get to make up the rules as they go along because no smart “customer” calls out the gatekeeper for being slow, lazy, incompetent, or otherwise hopeless. Sometimes the results are positively criminal.

Members of the media and government employees are similarly almost entirely blind to the reasons we have the press or government services, and why those reasons are largely incompatible with political activism. With a straight face a reporter can tell you that Trump must be impeached while Obama’s administration was scandal-free, and Comey can give advice to fellow Democrats while blithely maintaining what is almost a sociopathic belief that he is non-partisan. Because we find it so very hard to believe that people can be quite that incompetent, we often err by thinking there must be malice in it.

But it is not malicious to simply be unable to see the bigger picture. The problem is far more widespread than we might think, and it has nothing to do with evil intent. Highly educated “professionals” are also usually stuck deep inside their own silos. For example, I know renowned and decorated physicists who are entirely unaware of any of the philosophical underpinnings of science or of what “knowledge” might actually be. They do not, for example, understand that for any set of data there are always at least two reasonable explanations (no data demands that there is only one answer). Similarly, it is very hard to get an astrophysicist to think intelligently about the different natures of different scientific fields: the Scientific Method that may work well for a controlled experiment in a lab can fall woefully short when talking about astronomy or geology, where there are really no experiments at all – just data as it comes. And even that data, as with all data, is only able to tell us what instruments and our own senses can see. Our answers are always limited by the questions that we ask.

The problem seems to extend to every profession and hobby. Most people “plug and chug” – they want to be told what to do, what rules to follow, and then they can turn off whatever capacity they had for critical thinking, and just perform their allotted tasks. And they may do these things very well – but without critically thinking, they are unable to adapt, to innovate, to improve and grow.

There is, of course, a strongly social component to this kind of non-thinking. As has been extremely well documented, most people really prefer to follow rather than lead, and they are just as happy to imitate their neighbors or peer group or even the mindless mob, as they are to seek out truly impressive leaders. There is safety in numbers, even if there is no wisdom in them.

I see this in religious people as well. An ever-present danger in religion is veering into theurgy: the quasi-magical belief that if you perform a ritual just right, that you have somehow perfectly picked heaven’s complex lock, and blessings will rain down, like the payout from a celestial slot machine. This is how paganism works, but neither Judaism nor Christianity are supposed to be this way: the purpose of ritual is to have an impact primarily on the practitioner, helping us to grow and change, to overcome and surpass our animal desires. And yet the fixation on doing things “just right” because that somehow makes everything all better, is often dangerously close to magical and pagan belief systems. Along the way, we forget that G-d does not benefit directly from the rituals we perform; He seeks for mankind to use rituals to come closer to Him.

Some of the brightest people I know are devout Jews, who spend their lives poring over the pages of the Gemara, investigating and rehashing ancient and medieval questions, learning the ins and outs of highly complex arguments. But the vast majority of them think that the purpose of learning Torah is to find answers to those questions – when it is obvious to any outside observer that the process of asking questions and wrestling with possible answers is the real point of the exercise. Being intellectually and emotionally engaged in Judaism – in a relationship with G-d – is the actual goal. Finding good answers is sort of like finding happiness; both are the byproduct of good choices, not the end-goal in itself. Anyone who directly seeks happiness or honor or “the right answer” for its own sake will be frustrated in that quest, because it is the process, not the product, that truly matters.

To me, being able to ask piercing and new questions is the difference between someone who is good at what they do, and someone who can actually change the world around them.

Alas, too many people find solace in the cop-out. Instead of trying to grapple with hard questions, they fall back on the excuse that some questions are not meant to have answers, or that we are commanded to obey, and that there are things we are unable to understand – so we should not even try. This excuse is the refuge of the TSA employee, not of someone who is partnered with our Creator in improving the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with rules per sé, or ritual or learning Torah. Quite the contrary! My issue is with failing to even try to understand the underlying purpose of rules, rituals, and Torah, with failing to stick our heads enough out of the silos to see how our lives and choices affect us, and everything around us.

Just as we are not supposed to be dumb animals, we are also not meant to be automaton machines, executing task after task without knowing – or even asking – “Why?”

Comments are welcome!

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