Why We Hate Know-It-Alls

Why We Hate Know-It-Alls

In one of the talks of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, nestled in a truly epic Baal Shem Tov story, is the following exchange:

He blurted out: “Is it possible to study G-d’s Torah with an uncovered head?!”

Moshe asked in reply: “And why should it not be possible?”

Avraham Moshe: “Because it’s insolent in the extreme.”

Moshe: “What insolence?”

Avraham Moshe: “Insolence toward heaven!”

Moshe: “But the whole point of covering one’s head is to show that one stands in awe of his Master; a person who has no Master cannot show that he stands in awe of Him. Out of respect for you, however, I’ll put on my hat.”

He rose to bring it, leaving R. Avraham Moshe thunderstruck, shuddering and bleary-eyed, open-mouthed but speechless.

By the time his host returned, he was able to say: “Words like this oblige a man to rend his garments.”

Moshe disagreed: “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

And with that Moshe spelled out his outright denial of the Creator’s existence, of the Torah’s Divine origin, and of all Thirteen Principles of the Faith as enunciated by Rambam. At the same time he insisted that he dearly loved the Torah; he liked and respected its students, and found no favor to a scholar too difficult; but he had no faith in the Creator and His commandments.

Here, in all its ugliness, is the classic case of the thief in the tunnel, the religious hypocrite. His hypocrisy is mitigated by his admission of disbelief, but he more than makes up for it by being obsessed with the intricacies of religious law which he does not follow and thinks irrelevant.

This is an obsession with knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

It is the realm of the know-it-all.

What makes a know-it-all infuriating? My first thought was pure jealousy. Someone knows more than me, and I resent that. But it’s not so simple. Most of us are familiar with experts submerged deeper in their arcane areas of study than anyone ever need be. Further, the expert is not afraid of (and often quite enjoys) public idiot hangings. Think Sherlock Holmes, or Gregory House, or Lincoln Rhyme. Everyone else is hopelessly outmatched by their genius, they are extremely flawed, and we root for them to the bitter end.

No, It’s not that someone else is smarter than us that ticks us off so much. It’s not even that they’re willing to blatantly demonstrate their superior expertise. It’s that their broad and eclectic bookshelves and the endless hours ferreting out and squirreling away their Internet gleanings serve no one. When your friend begins replies to all statements with “actually” (“Actually, Marie Antoinette never said ‘let them eat cake.’” Ugh.) he is not actually engaging in conversation. You spit out a fact, he spits out a fact. Modems trading queries.

Imagine if he had just as much knowledge and the exact same self-confidence, but asked, “Didn’t Rousseau write that long before Antoinette was Queen?” What a difference this makes! (The Rambam says: “If he sees his father violate Torah law, he should not tell him: ‘Father, you transgressed Torah law.’ Instead, he should tell him: ‘Father, is not such-and-such written in the Torah?’, as if he is asking him, rather than warning him.”) He demonstrates respect not only for French History and for himself but for his friends as well. Because when you speak to him of the revolution, it’s not to merely seek the truth; that’s what books are for. It’s to talk to him, and you hope that he will talk with you.

Bottom line: It’s obnoxious when the knowledge, instead of the relationship, is the bottom line.

Which brings us back to the Rebbe’s story of Moshe and religious hypocrisy. For Moshe, the Torah and the intellectual pleasure it offers, not his relationship with G-d, was the bottom line. Which, one has to imagine, G-d finds annoying. Here He is, trying to give a great gift to His chosen people (“They are to be desired more than gold, yea more than much fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycombs.”), and they get so caught up in the intricacies of what the Torah is that they forget Who wrote it. The Torah is the only means by which we can have any relationship with the Creator, for the simple reason that the finite is only relevant to the Infinite by the Infinite’s choice, and never the other way around. But in our short-sightedness we sometimes think that the Torah is about us, our knowledge and our world. And this gives rise to our tendency to deviate from G-d’s will.

Think about this logical progression:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, it makes him happy, and if I don’t, it pains Him;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it.

As long as the person has a solid knowledge of Torah’s divine origin, this is all a no-brainer. It’s pretty much like this, which we do all the time:

  1. My mother tells me she loves flowers;
  2. If I do what she says, it makes her happy, and if I don’t, it pains her;
  3. Therefore, I’ll buy her flowers for Mother’s Day.

You don’t have to be a genius, just someone who wants to be a good son/daughter/brother/sister/aunt/uncle/friend/etc. Who would deny their mother flowers on Mother’s Day?

The problems start when the obligations are divorced from the relationship. Instead of the above progression, most of us relate to G-d like this:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, I’ll be fulfilling the Torah’s commandment, and if I don’t, I’ll be in violation of Torah’s commandment;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it, as long as I care about eventual rewards and punishments for my behavior in the afterlife (or, as long as I care about what a book/rabbi/community/prospective spouse thinks about me).

It’s not much of a relationship at all. Sure, if I can convince myself I’m saving my skin by doing what you want, I’m all over it. As soon as I find a way out, see ya. No one is hurt by my not wearing a yarmulke, and therefore I just don’t care; I end up saying things like “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

What a know-it-all.

Instead, we can treat G-dly revelation like the next person who tells you that same old joke. It’s not about intellectual exercises or a compelling novelty. It’s people who love each other, huddling around a scrap of light in a dark and lonely place. Even poor gifts wax rich when givers prove they’re kind. Don’t say, “I’ve heard that one before.” Just smile, and nod, and know another.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.