In the Calcutta orphanage where I worked in the 1980s, the girls used an expression that challenged my worldview. When I would ask a simple question, such as, “Where’s Bhavani?” or “What time is Didi coming back?” they would usually answer with two Bengali words: Ki jani? Rather than a specific, “I don’t know,” ki jani is a more sweeping, “What do I know?” It’s a global confession, an existential declaration of the sheer inability of mere mortals to know.
In the Western world where I was raised, knowledge was the ultimate value. Textbook knowledge got you into a good college or grad school. Knowledge of current events and national politics won you the approbation, “well-informed.” Even knowledge of trivialities, such as where Babe Ruth was born or what year Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, became a passion, spawning a million-dollar trivia industry. During my twenties, I used to devour Newsweek and Time, lest someone at a cocktail party would ask me about some recondite political figure and I would have to publicly confess to the cardinal sin of not knowing. (Alas, in my life I was invited to only one cocktail party, and no one asked me anything, not even my name.) Not knowing was an embarrassment, a public pillory to be avoided at all costs. If I didn’t know, I would guess. If I couldn’t guess, I would fake it.
Of course, knowledge is one of the important motivators of humanity and has great inherent value. But for many of us, the thirst for knowledge can turn into an alcoholic-like compulsion to know, an inability to accept the insecurity of ignorance. Then we fill in the blanks at any cost, stamping the imprimatur of “truth” on every supposition. The knowledge-addicted mind can turn fantasy into fact, assumptions into character assassination, and conjecture into condemnation.
No wonder I felt challenged every time my Calcutta orphans humbly declared, “Ki jani? — What do I know?”
Reb Shlomo Carlbach was once praying in a South African synagogue. Much to his horror, the cantor appointed for that service was terrible. He could barely carry a tune and garbled the Hebrew words. As Reb Shlomo listened to this affront to his musical sensibilities, he became more and more irritated. How could they let such an incompetent lead the services? he wondered with mounting indignation. He surmised that the man must be a wealthy donor and the synagogue leadership had kowtowed to him by giving him the honor of leading the prayers. What a sacrilege! What a capitulation to the power of money!
After the service, Reb Shlomo complained to shul’s rabbi. He was told that that man had, before the Holocaust, been the most prominent cantor in all of Europe. Hearing of his reputation, the Nazis had deliberately targeted him for torture. They had mangled his tongue with iron instruments and had injured his hearing. The rabbi, in deference to who this cantor had once been and what he had suffered, honored him by asking him to lead the prayers that day.
The Nazis had mangled his tongue with iron instruments and had injured his hearing. The rabbi asked him to lead the prayers that day.
Reb Shlomo told this story with the anguish of one who has judged harshly — and wrongly. He heard the man’s incompetent singing. What did he know of his past? How could he know the whole story? Ki jani?
Individuals are commanded to give the benefit of the doubt (See Leviticus, 19:15). This means that even if you witness someone doing something wrong, unless the person is a known miscreant, you are obligated to find some favorable interpretation. Often your “not guilty” verdict will be based on “insufficient evidence,” your admission that you don’t know the whole story. Can anyone ever know the whole story?
Here’s how this looks in real time:
- You ask your rich friend to sponsor you in a charity marathon, and he offers you a paltry sum. You conclude that he’s stingy, but is it possible that he’s suffered financial reverses that you don’t know about?
- Your new supervisor is acting tense, critical, and unfairly demanding. You conclude that she’s cantankerous by nature, but is it possible that she’s going through a divorce that you don’t know about?
- Your intelligent child comes home from school with bad grades. You conclude that he’s lazy and isn’t trying, but is it possible that he has a learning disability that you don’t know about?
- Your neighbor is neglecting his property. The grass is too long and the garbage is starting to pile up on his side of the fence. You conclude that he is shamefully negligent, but is it possible that his wife was diagnosed with cancer and they are preoccupied with life-and-death matters?
My friend Jen is a 35-year-old widow with four young daughters. She used to rent out the roof of her former apartment for events. The day after she got up from sitting shiva for her husband, her phone rang. When Jen answered, the woman on the other end inquired about renting the roof for a wedding. “I don’t rent out the roof anymore,” Jen said simply, and hung up. A moment later the phone rang again. This time it was the inquirer’s husband, ranting and yelling at Jen for hanging up on his wife. What do we ever know?
All the anger and resentment we feel starts with a negative judgment: s/he is doing something wrong. If we could quell the negative judgment by telling ourselves, “I really don’t know the whole story,” we would save ourselves and others so much grief.
The most destructive negative judgments we make are when we judge God. “How could God have let that child die?” “How could God have let the hurricane destroy the home of that wonderful couple?”
Here, more than anywhere else, we are judging with insufficient evidence. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller says, we are on page 324 of a 400-page book. All we are able to see is pages 310 through 340. The rest is hidden from us.
The sacrosanct name of God, uttered only on Yom Kippur by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem, can be understood as the condensation of three verbs: He was, He is, He will be. That is, God’s infinitude encompasses all time, from the primordial beginning of time to its ultimate end. Only God knows the intricacies of all our past and future incarnations and how every single action affects every being on the planet. Such mega-ecology is far beyond our ken.
When I gave up the presumption of knowing, I started to learn.
When I started to learn Torah 26 years ago, my insistence on my ability to know was perhaps my greatest obstacle to actually knowing God. My questions – about the Holocaust, the suffering of the innocent – were arrogant demands that the Infinite God fit into the confines of my three-pound brain. My turning point came when Rebbetzin Heller said to me, “This world, olam in Hebrew, comes from the root word meaning ‘hidden.’ God is essentially hidden in this world. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much you know, you will never fully know God.” Then she added, “And would you really believe in a God that was no bigger than your finite mind’s ability to grasp?”
When I gave up the presumption of knowing, on that day I started to learn.
Alex, at age 39, was intelligent, artsy, sensitive, handsome, and spiritual. No wonder my friend Denise fell for him. I would see them sitting on a bench in the neighborhood square, engrossed in deep conversation. A few months went by. Then, when we were all anticipating that they would announce their engagement, suddenly Alex broke it off. Denise was heart-broken.
I was angry. Denise was kind, generous, and smart, but she had an acne-scarred complexion. Obviously Alex, for all his vaulted spirituality, couldn’t get past the externals. Is his sense of beauty only skin-deep? I protested under my breath. And if he was so turned off by her bad complexion, why did he lead her on?
A few months later my friend Shirley phoned. She told me she was interested in a match with Alex and asked me to speak to him about her. Shirley was pretty, stylish, and spiritual. Like Alex, she had become observant several years before. Thirty-eight years old, Shirley was eager to get married. It sounded to me like a perfect match, so I called Alex. He told me he wasn’t interested in going out with her. “Why?” I insisted. "What are you waiting for?” Alex stonewalled me. I hung up annoyed.
Obviously he wants someone younger, probably much younger, I concluded. But why would a topnotch 25-year-old want to marry Alex? He overrates himself. This is why there are so many wonderful women who never get married. Guys like Alex are always looking for girls half their age.
A couple months later the head of our local Chesed Committee called. She told me that Alex was sick with bronchitis and she asked me to make soup for him. I cooked the soup—grudgingly. If he had married one of my friends, I sputtered to myself, she would be taking care of him instead of the neighborhood women.
During that spring, I sporadically saw Alex, thin, pale, and all wrapped up, sitting on a bench in the sun. Once, I stopped to speak with him. I told him that his problem was that he needed to get married, that the bachelor life obviously did not agree with him, that there were many wonderful women who would be happy to make a home with him. He nodded silently, pursing his mouth, making me feel like a meddlesome neighbor.
Three months later Alex died of AIDS. What, indeed, did I know?
For the aliyat neshama of my mother, Leah bas Yisrael, on her 20th yahrzeit. She truly embodied the humility of not judging others negatively.