Living in Ignorance

The struggle or disappointment I find myself in whilst studying these Seven Commandments is that I always seem to be in a place of ignorance, of no knowing. Now I’ve read my fair share of books on the Seven Commandments, read the words of different rabbis about the topic, gone onto different websites and forums about the Seven Commandments. I’ve read at least one part of the Talmud that deals extensively with the Seven Commandments, listened to lectures, partook in lessons, asked rabbis and Jews various questions. And some people have the idea that I know at least something about the Seven Commandments.

But despite all this – I know there’s more to come, and I don’t know it all – I feel a sense of disappointment when I’m told that because I don’t know all the Jewish sources, because I haven’t read all of the Talmud (which is not to be expected of a Gentile), because I don’t read Hebrew fluently, nor do I have access to the extensive library and heritage of the oral tradition of the Jewish people, because I don’t have all this, my opinion on topics is more or less weightless, having little value. I may have a view on one topic in the Seven Commandments, but maybe in another oral law source somewhere else there is a contradictory opinion.

And yet, I am supposed to be living according to these Seven Laws in my day to day life. Day-by-day, I have to make decisions on which way I will go, what I will and won’t do, what I stand for and what I stand against. And yet even if I diligently listen to one rabbi or read a certain book on the Seven Commandments, as I haven’t read some other book or some other section or listened to some other rabbi, then a course of action I may take or a point of view I may have could be totally wrong.

Talk about a life of uncertainty, a life that is in perpetual ignorance.

“David, did you get your point of view from Rambam? Well you should have learned Ramban, or Hirsch! Or Rabbeinu Tam!”

“David, did you get your conclusion from this place in the Talmud? Well, you should have looked at that part of the Talmud, or the Tosafot, or the Maharal of Prague, or the Sefer HaHinuch or some other book that you don’t have access to!”

Some would say, “David, this is why you should rely on a rabbi who has extensive knowledge of all these things! You should find yourself a rabbi and just learn under that one and do what he says!” My great weakness is that I don’t trust a rabbi, neither do I trust the extent of their knowledge. And for each rabbi that I would put my trust in, there’s another who supposed to know more or less than him who has a disagreement who could then point to some other resource that I have no access to, as with an awful lot of their books. I feel like I’ve lived in a house of education, compared to their city of learning.

I think it’s then that I have to sit down and chill a moment. Take a breath and deal with things as they are. I am not a Jew. I don’t live in their world. I do not have their books or heritage or learning. I’m not expected to have extensive knowledge of their books, many of which are either irrelevant to me or just plain outside of my reach. I don’t have a rabbi-on-tap. I’m not in a Jewish community and I may never be. I can’t just pull a rabbi to the side and say, teach me so and so. Heck, I can’t even do that with the scattered non-Jews who know the Seven Commandments. For all intents and purposes, I’m on my own. And in that context, I just have to do the best that I can.

And the things that I’ve learned, the places that I’ve learnt them from, they are not valueless at all. Each rabbi I’ve learnt from comes from a place of great learning and each book I’ve read has taught me a lot and there is a consistency throughout each.

My issue that I should not be standing still, resting on my laurels, as if I’ve reached the edge and there’s no more to see. I should be devoting myself to continuing to studying the Seven Commandments as best I can, not just reading a book and leaving it aside, but refreshing myself, going over it again. Why do I think the Jews read the five books of Moshe (Moses) perpetually, repeatedly, year after year after year? Why do I think people spend a lifetime immersed in Torah? It’s because there is no end to God’s truth. When you turn it over once, you learn something. When you turn it over again, you learn something else. When you turn it over and over, you find that you still scratch surface after surface of God’s truth.

I’ve spent too much time debating and talking, and not enough time actually listening and learning, doing what I can to learn, do what I – as a Gentile – can do to learn. It’s time I stopped struggling with the opinions and my own disappointment, and started struggling with God’s truth, something that is much more fulfilling. Despite my distrust, I still respect highly the men that have invested their time in teaching morality and God’s standard. If I refocus my distrust into questioning curiosity, I may find much more than simply disagreement but rather a wide expanse of learning opportunity.

Time to go back to the Seven Law books I have. Time to go back to the weekly parsha (section of the Torah). Time to do what I can do and leave aside whatever I can’t.

Let me end this with some wise words for Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A few of these words may apply more to Jews; but the general tone of each seems to be universal in scope. I need to keep some of these in mind. These quotes comes from http://www.azamra.org/essential.shtml. I think I like the last one the best.

The ultimate goal of all knowledge of God is to realize that one knows nothing. Yet even this is unattainable. A person may come to realize his own ignorance, but only in a certain area on a particular level. There is still the next level, which he has not even touched. He does not know enough about the next level to begin to realize his ignorance. No matter how high he climbs, there is always the next step. A person therefore knows nothing: he cannot even understand his own ignorance. For there will always be a level of ignorance beyond his present level of perception.

Sichot Haran #3

The more you draw yourself to God, the more you must realize how far you are from Him. When a person believes that he has succeeded in achieving closeness to God and understanding of Him, it is a sign that he does not know anything at all. If he did, he would understand that he is very far from God and knows absolutely nothing, because God’s greatness is without limits.

Likutey Moharan I, 63

Be very eager to serve God. Do as much as you can every day and every moment. The main thing is practical action. Study as much as you can. Carry out many commandments. Spend a lot of time praying and pouring out your heart to God. Do as much as you possibly can.

Even so, do not allow yourself to be rushed on account of the many devotions you may encounter in Torah literature. Maybe you wonder, “When will I be able to practice even one of these devotions, let alone all of them?”

Don’t allow such thoughts to frustrate you. It is no good to rush and try to achieve everything at once. Go forward steadily, step by step.

If you are overhasty, trying to grasp everything at once, you may become totally confused, like when a house burns down and people snatch the most worthless items in their panic.

Go forward steadily, one step at a time. If you are unable to do everything, that is not your fault. God exempts those under duress.

There may be many things that you cannot do. Even so, you should long and yearn to fulfill them. The longing itself is a great thing – for God desires the heart.

Sichot Haran #27

People are often very confused as to the best way to serve God. Sometimes it seems necessary to follow one practice, but later this appears to have been wrong and another way seems better. This can cause a person to become very confused and disturbed.

But why do you need to confuse yourself? Whatever you do, you do! As long as you don’t do anything bad, heaven forbid.

Sichot Haran #269

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2 Comments

  1. Hi David. I can relate fully to what you say in this post. The majority of us Gentiles (perhaps all of us Gentiles?) cannot access the depth of breadth of Judaic learning available to Jews in Jewish communities. All we can do, is do our best as we understand it now.

    What we did (or didn’t do) in the past is behind us – so no need for regret. Learn from the past, yes, but don’t obsess about it.

    What we do tomorrow is determined by what we do today, so no need to fret about the future.

    The only point in time we need to be concerned with is NOW.

    Make your next decision (whether it is what to have for breakfast or which Rabbi to follow – all decisions are equally important) based on what you know and who you are NOW.

    The important thing is that you DO make a decision.

    regards
    Neil

    • Thanks for the well-thought-out comment.

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