Be Curious

Dear Friends,

Like many of you, I have become enamored with the TV series, Ted Lasso. My favorite scene from the first season takes place in a pub over a game of darts. (Spoilers ahead…)

Just before Ted surprises people with his dart-throwing prowess, he says to the arrogant bully:

"...One day I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman painted on the side of the wall, and it said, 'Be curious, not judgmental.' I like that. And all of a sudden, it hits me. All of them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them were curious. They thought they had everything all figured out, so they judged everything and everyone."

This scene resonated with me, of course, because the kind, positive, optimistic underdog humiliates the arrogant, condescending, ostensibly powerful jerk — a familiar form of poetic justice in television and movies. More profound was the fact that curiosity triumphed over judgment and humility over arrogance, flipping the script of who is powerful and who is weak. It reminded me of the counterintuitive wisdom of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”

Lack of curiosity is one of the root causes of the polarization, demonization, and disintegration that plague our society right now. We consume “news” and “learn” about the world through social media that creates and thrives on echo chambers designed to reinforce beliefs, narratives, and worldviews rather than challenge them: judgment machines.

We see those in our present and our past with whom we disagree not as well-meaning, misguided — or even as wrong — but rather as morally corrupt, or worse, as existential threats. Without humility and curiosity, even well-meaning moral conviction can lead to harmful judgmentalism and a narrowing of the very discourse and exchange of ideas that help build a more just and compassionate world.

This Shabbat, we roll the Torah back and start again from the very beginning: Genesis, the creation of the world. In his book, The Beginning of Wisdom, philosopher Leon Kass suggests that the medium of the story is the message, that its style is a form of pedagogy, teaching us something about the world and ourselves.

He notes that the description of creation itself is mysterious. For example, did God create the world out of nothing, or out of some preexisting matter? The text is unclear and this is not knowable. To some, this might appear as a shortcoming of the Torah — if the text cannot accurately explain creation, there must be something wrong with it. For those who are interested in what the story tells us about human nature, the mysteriousness of the text might teach us about the mysteriousness of our world, reminding us of the limits of human understanding.

There is so much about our world — not merely how it came into being, but also how it continues to change and evolve each day and each moment — that we cannot ever fully comprehend. This is true about other people as well. To truly honor the dignity of another person is to acknowledge their uniqueness and complexity, their still-unfolding story, and the possibility that they will change and evolve. This is the opposite of putting them in a box, of assuming that we know or understand their thoughts, actions, and motivations. One of these stances leads to judgment, the other to curiosity.

The creation story itself and the natural world that creates itself anew each day affirm Walt Whitman’s and Ted Lasso’s wise advice: An intellectual life, a moral life, and a spiritual life all demand more curiosity and less judgment. As we begin reading the Torah again this year, if we also want to begin to repair and reweave the social fabric of our communities and our society, this seems like a very good place to start.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.