Admitting “I Don’t Know”

This post originally appeared at

admitting_slideDo you think normalizing relations with Cuba is a good idea or a poor one? Will it support and help the people of Cuba while strengthening America’s interests? Or does negotiating embolden a dictator and endanger the lives of Americans abroad? What is your position on the lack of indictments in the two recent cases of unarmed black men who were killed by police officers? Is it an indication of systemic racism in America, or do you believe our judicial system did its job and a just conclusion was reached? Did the CIA’s advanced interrogation techniques cross the line of torture or did they keep our country safe? What is your opinion on the President’s recent executive action on immigration? What do you think about gun control? Abortion? Same gender marriage?

In my experience, the response of most people to these questions is somewhat predictable. Know just a few variables about a person – his or her political orientation, age, race, gender, religious background, socio-economic status – and you can guess with a high probability of success what position he or she will take on any given issue, be it political, social, or religious. It feels like we are becoming increasingly polarized in our thinking, partisan in our positions and therefore predictable in what we believe on any given issue. Being predictable and parochial is not just boring, though. It is inauthentic, superficial and most of all, a cop-out from substantive research, intellectual honesty, individualism, and objective thinking.

Too often, conversations consist of regurgitating talking points rather than thoughtful, nuanced dialogue, genuine discussion, critical thinking, and open debate. We are usually talking at one another instead of talking to or with one another. Too many aren’t open to influence or even to the possibility of being persuaded by another. Instead, we presume to know exactly why others believe what they do and we are prepared to refute their positions even before we have given them the courtesy of truly hearing them out in an open way. The Talmud (Eruvin 13) tells us that even though Beis Shammai was sharper in its thinking than Beis Hillel, we follow the opinions of Beis Hillel because only Beis Hillel exhibited the capacity to listen and consider other points of view before forming their own.

In many cases, we are so polarized religiously and politically that we don’t even engage people of differing opinions and instead seclude ourselves in echo chambers among others who align with our beliefs, reinforcing our already-entrenched positions instead of challenging them. A recent New York Times article describes:

Social media like Twitter and Facebook can create an echo chamber in which people are exposed only to opinions in line with their own, according to the study, which analyzed Twitter usage during the 2012 election. Both conservatives and liberals were disproportionately exposed to like-minded information, and like-minded tweets reached them much more quickly than those from people who disagreed with them. This effect matters because people increasingly rely on social media as a main source of news, and services like Twitter and Facebook are more aggressively filtering and shaping what people see based on their interests.

What is perhaps most damaging about the pressure to have a position on any given issue is the growing discomfort with giving what is often the most honest answer – “I don’t know. I simply don’t know enough about the issue.”

Do we really know enough information, data and research to form opinions on the issues I raised above? Can you have an opinion about relations with Cuba without knowing basic information like the impact of the embargo these last decades, what the Cuban people want, and what risk normalization poses to security? Is it fair to have an opinion on the lack of indictments and racism without knowing statistics about black crime, rates of indictments of law enforcement, legal takedown techniques, or without even knowing the basic facts of a case? Is it meaningful to have a position on the use of torture without access to unbiased information on what we learned as a result of advanced interrogation techniques and could we have learned it any other way?

Those who have researched these questions and studied the issues in real and meaningful ways beyond headlines, tweets and Facebook posts are most certainly entitled to their opinions. But for those who haven’t, why is it so difficult to say, “I don’t know?” Why do we feel compelled to have strong opinions and to even communicate them as convictions when they are often nothing more than parroting shallow talking points?

Admitting “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish us, make us inferior, or less smart. Indeed, in our Torah tradition, it does exactly the opposite. The Talmud (Berachos 4a) states, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know.’” Pirkei Avos (2:6) encourages us that “ein ha’bayshan lomeid,” loosely translated as “someone who is embarrassed to admit they don’t know will never learn.”

Our greatest scholars didn’t hesitate to say “I don’t know” causing us to think more, rather than less of them, and to place greater confidence in when they did purport to know. Rashi, without whom the Talmud would be a closed book, one of our greatest and most authoritative scholars who wrote commentary on all of Tanach and Shas, is famous for the several places in which he writes, “eini yodei’ah, I don’t know” regarding the meaning, interpretation or relevance of a particular verse or statement.

I had the incredible privilege of being in Rav Schachter Shlit”a shiur at Yeshiva University. Each day he took us on a two-hour journey through the depth and breadth of Shas, Rishonim and Achronim as we explored the given sugya (topic) at hand. When Rav Schachter delivered his prepared shiur he cited dozens and dozens of opinions and sources in an amazingly organized and structured fashion. His true genius, however, shone when he occasionally opened the floor to questions on any topic in Torah or any area of Jewish law. I vividly remember getting literal goose bumps when Rav Schachter unpretentiously revealed his encyclopedic knowledge and grasp of Torah by quoting off the cuff from diverse, random, and often obscure sources. And yet, with all of the learning Rav Schachter imparted to us, perhaps his most powerful lessons were not the times he articulated clear answers to our questions, but rather the many occasions when he didn’t hesitate to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Each day seems to bring with it new complex and complicated issues. Rather than feeling obligated to espouse an opinion along particular religious or political party lines, let’s pledge to do our own research and investigation, to expose ourselves to diverse views with an open mind and to come to as objective a conclusion as possible.

And when we don’t or can’t, let’s be comfortable enough in our own skin to be able to simply say, “I don’t know enough, I don’t have an opinion on that.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.