top of page

6 - Curiosity Cured The Cat

Using our Acronym "Be Free", we dive into the letter B: Be Curious. Being curious and asking questions is a fundamental Jewish value. Find out why!


Hey everyone, I'm Menachem Lehrfield. Welcome back to 0%. We've been discussing the importance of the growth mindset and delving into the work of professor Carol Dweck. We're using the framework of freedom and our acronym B free. In this episode, we are finally ready for the beginning. The B, which stands for B curious someone with a growth mindset is constantly curious about the world around them. They're interested, interested in learning, interested in growing. Being curious and asking questions is one of the most fundamental and foundational Jewish values. From a young age, we teach our children the importance of asking questions and focusing and emphasizing those questions. We're a religion that never shuns questions. Asking a question doesn't mean you don't have faith. It doesn't mean that you don't truly believe.
We do not believe that faith is blind or unquestioning. We constantly learn about our great sages and patriarchs that question God. The very name Israel, Yisrael, means to wrestle with God, to ask those hard questions. We are not a religion that believes that education is about adults talking to children. About adults talking and children listening. That's not what it's about. I remember when my cousin became a bar mitzvah. So here in America, when a bar or bat mitzvah child gets up, they usually give some sort of D'var Torah, a nice speech that talks about something in Torah portion that has a nice lesson and everyone listens respectfully and quietly. And when he or she is done, everyone gets up and they clap and they applaud, and they go on about their day. That is not what happens in more religious circles. Definitely not at my cousin's bar mitzvah.
So what they do is what's known as a [foreign language 00:02:16] which is essentially a Talmudic thesis that you are defending. Only difference is you're talking about a 13 year old child. So the 13 year old comes up with some sort of novel Torah idea that they came up with her on their own, and then they begin to present it. But instead of the audience sitting back and listening quietly and respectfully, the audience actually pushes back. They ask questions, they give answers. So my uncle happens to be a student of some great sages, some who are still alive, some who have passed away. And I remember this 13 year old kid presenting his [foreign language 00:02:56] his Talmudic discourse in front of some really, really great sages, [inaudible 00:03:01] for those who know who those people are and others, and he begins, and he honestly, I don't think I understood a word of what he was saying, but he was about five minutes in and [inaudible 00:03:16] began to ask some questions and then [inaudible 00:03:18] piped in and the two of them are beginning to pick apart his speech, his dissertation, and ask questions. And my cousin responded and defended himself and they continued to ask. And the three of them went back and forth in this argument until finally my cousin answered it enough that they said "okay, you're right." And I remember being so floored from that experience.
Can you imagine? Listen, if it was me, if I got up there and one of the greatest sages alive told me I was wrong because of reason X, Y, and Z. Even if I didn't think he was correct, I would've just sat down, shut up and said, thank you anyway, I'm sorry for wasting your time. I would've dug a hole and just jumped in, but that's not what happened. I remember thinking, can you imagine in a university setting a professor says something and then a student, a very, a junior student raises their hand and says "Professor, you're wrong. Let me tell you why." That student is finished. Done.
When I was in grad school, I had a law class and I called my father up. Cause I had some question about some case. He said to me, ultimately, it doesn't really matter. You can be a hundred percent right and it makes no difference whatsoever. The only thing that matters is what your professor taught you. You need to answer whatever it is that your professor thinks the right answer is, regardless of the truth, that's all they care about. Can you imagine a professor being challenged by a 13 year old child? And then ultimately in the end, acknowledging that the kid is right? That would never, ever, ever happen. And yet in Yeshivas throughout the world, a child does not feel inhibited to ask a question, to challenge a something and say "I don't think that's correct. Let me explain why." That's what it's like to be a people that value questions above all else.
In 1944, Isador Rabi won the Nobel prize in physics for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. I have no idea what nuclear magnetic resonance means, what it does or what it is. But what I do know is that when he was asked why he became a scientist, he replied, "My mother made me a scientist without ever even knowing it. Every other child will come from school and be asked 'So what'd you learn today?' Or even worse 'Did you have fun?'" But says, Isador Rabi "My mother used to ask a different question. She would look at me and she would say, Isi, did you ask a good question today?" And Isidor Rabi says, that's what made him into a scientist. That question, focusing on questions, because questions are the seeds of learning. It's important to understand what a question is.
I think we all assume everyone knows what a question is. I have this conversation with my children all the time, and I think it's so important to define a question. My children, especially when they were young, they would mix up questions with statements. They would say things like "Daddy, Daddy, I have a question. I want to ask you a question. I have to ask a question" and you'd say "Yeah, go ahead. What's your question?" And say "On the way to school today, we saw a firetruck." That's wonderful, and I'm so happy you saw the firetruck, and it must have been really exciting, but that's not a question. That's a statement. And the reality is so many of us, even adults, still confuse questions and statements. A question is only a question if the following is true,. Every question contains within it the following acknowledgement. There's something I don't know. And I'd like to know more about it. If that is not the intention I have with whatever it is, that's coming out of my mouth. Then it's not a question.
When I ask a question, cause I want to sound smart. When I ask a question, cause I want everyone else to look around and say, wow, what a clever fellow. That is nothing more than a statement with a question mark at the end. A question is always an acknowledgement that I don't know something. That's why inherent in a real question is vulnerability. But that is the vulnerability that is necessary for understanding. Someone with a fixed mindset is more concerned about looking smart than actually being smart. That be all an end all for someone with a fixed mindset is that everyone else should believe that I am smart. That everyone else should be that I am talented and qualified. So somebody with a fixed mindset will never ask a real question. They will only say statements with question marks. The problem is without asking questions, we cannot learn. Without being vulnerable we can't learn.
In the Talmud, in the book of ethics, chapter two mission of five, it says [foreign language 00:08:51] "The easily embarrassed person does not learn." [inaudible 00:09:00] explains what is the mission to mean? What does that mean? That one who's a "easily embarrassed person" doesn't learn? It means if you're bashful, you can't learn? No, he explains that one who is embarrassed to ask out fear of being ridiculed will always remain in doubt. Someone who's too afraid to acknowledge and admit they don't know something. Someone with a fixed mindset, will never learn anything. Because in order to learn, I need to make myself vulnerable. I need to acknowledge the fact I don't know something, but I want to learn more. And then, and only then, am I able to begin the process of learning.
But why are questions so important? Why are questions the seeds of learning? The morale of Prague explains that questions create a hole. They create a void that can now be filled with information. If I just share an insight with you, I just give you information. So it goes in one ear and out the other. It doesn't have a place to take hold. Only when somebody is curious. Only when you ask a question or more importantly, you prompt somebody to ask the question themselves. Only with that curiosity will there now be a void. A hole that can be filled with the information.
Questions also engage a person. The most important night of the Jewish calendar is [foreign language 00:10:29] night at the Seder. On a Passover our entire Seder is formatted by question and answer. We encourage our children to ask questions. We cannot tell the story of our Exodus until a child asks, because once they ask, like we said, through the morale, they're now open. They're now curious to learn and hear more. But more than that, it engages a person. It connects a person. We learn this from the fact that after Adam sins, the almighty doesn't come down and say "You did this. You did that. You were wrong." He begins by asking questions. Through those questions, he draws him in and through the process they begin a dialogue that leads somewhere positive. A question creates that dialogue.
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb is now a rabbi in Jerusalem at the yeshiva Ohr Somayach. But before that, when he was a PhD student studying at Brandeis, he had the opportunity to meet with a great Sage, the Boston [00:11:39], and he came into to his meeting with the rabbi with a long list of questions, all kinds of philosophical questions that he had against Jewish philosophy, Jewish thought. Questions against the validity of God, the validity of the Torah. He comes to the rabbi with his questions and the rabbi listens patiently to each one. And at the end of the conversation, he said "You know, those are some really good questions. Why don't we learn together? Why don't we discuss? Why don't we try to understand the answers together?" And over the next several months, they began learning and studying, and eventually rabbi got leap became Rabbi Gottlieb instead of just Dr. Gottlieb.
Years later, Rabbi Gottlieb said there was no doubt that [00:12:28] knew the answer to every single one of those questions. And right there that after noon, he could have answered every single one. And he would've answered each question and I would've walked out of the office and said "You know what? That's a really, really smart man." But instead he listened to my questions. He validated my questions and he used them as an opportunity to engage me, to connect with me. In Talmudic learning a question is always more important than the answer. In fact, most of study of Talmud is learning the wrong information. It's not about the answers and we'll discuss next week the concept of focusing on the journey and the process. But part of that is this process of asking questions in a yeshiva the greatest compliment you can ever get, the greatest compliment is to say, "Oh, you asked a good question! That's a good question." So much better, so much greater than giving a good answer.
The alternative to this kind of system is a system where children, instead of asking questions and adults too, just try to prove over and over again, how smart they are. The obsession and the focus of looking good, looking smart instead of being good and being smart. [00:14:02] takes a classic source from the Talmud and explains it in a completely different way. The Talmud in the book of ethics chapter one mission of four says, Ben Zoma says "Who is wise? [who 00:14:14] learns from everyone. [says 00:14:19] it doesn't just mean someone who learns from everyone. It means someone who learns [could 00:14:26] be translated as from everyone, but can also be from the entirety of a person. Let's unpack this for a second. First of all, what does that mean to learn from everyone?
So it goes back to the idea we've been talking about this entire episode, that somebody who truly wants to become better, somebody who aspires to greatness, doesn't care, what other people think about them. Doesn't care if other people will ridicule them for acknowledging their own vulnerability. And so somebody with a growth mindset, somebody who learns these ideas that we're teaching understands that everyone, no matter who they are, has something to teach me. It is not belittling for me to learn from somebody who society might deem as lower than I am, because Judaism teaches us that every single person, no matter who they are, they have something to teach me. They have something that I can learn from. Judaism teaches us that every single person has something novel that they can introduce to this world that no one else, not even an Einstein could ever come up with.
You have your [foreign language 00:15:40] or you have your portion that you can bring down to this world that nobody else can. And so do I, every single person has something they can teach me if I am humble enough to learn from them. That's what it means. [foreign language 00:15:56] learn from every person. [Foreign language 00:15:58] takes it one step further. He says, "Don't just learn from every person, learn from the entirety of a person, learn from the entirety of everything." That means don't just focus on the things that you're already good at. The things that already interested in, instead of talking to people who are just like you and engaging with people who are just like you try to learn from everyone, try to learn from the parts that you don't already connect with.
Think about how silly it is to engage in conversation with someone who already thinks just like you. And, and yet that's what we do. We go on social media, we go on our text chains and our WhatsApp chats, and we start going on and on and on to our friends who already think just like us looking for some sort of confirmation and that doesn't do anything for us. Why not instead engage in meaningful dialogue with someone who might think differently from me? Someone who might give me another perspective, but be open to that perspective. Learn from everybody, learn from the entirety of that person. Learn from those parts that maybe I'm not so interested in, but you know what, if it's interesting to you, it'll be interesting to me. As Jim Collins writes, "Learn to be more interested than interesting." and by doing that, you begin to really learn all of that begins by asking questions. That's our letter B, be curious. Next week, we'll continue our conversation and focus on enjoying the journey. If you're enjoying these podcasts, don't forget to subscribe, share it with a friend and don't forget to leave a review so others can find us as well. We can't wait to see you back here next week and the following weeks. New episodes drop Wednesday mornings, look out for those. Stay safe. Be well.

bottom of page