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Realizing Our Own Ignorance

Becoming Religious at Harvard

By Spencer W. Glassman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

My mother frequently told me that at every age she thought she had the world figured out, but as she got older, she realized how little she knew.

I was deeply nervous that I would be guilty of the same pretension. The trick I had up my sleeve was that she had told me this at a young age. Since I was aware of my ignorance, I wasn’t ignorant at all. I would tell myself, “Oh Spencer, you know so little,” in the front of my consciousness, but a little deeper down I would say, “Of course, since you are aware of that, you’re far ahead of your age.”

Such a realization is necessary, but it can be paralyzing. What can we do in this infinite cycle of ignorance and arrogance? How can we emerge with any claim toward a better understanding of the truth and toward becoming more mature people without a simultaneous nullification of our whole endeavor toward knowledge?

We must cede some of our epistemological autonomy. There are two ways to approach an old text: we can either look at it and find one thing that is heinous or stupid and then dismiss the whole endeavor, or we can presume that there is something wise in it and then take the burden upon ourselves to discover what that nugget of wisdom is. If we assume our own correctness and simply look at history, literature, philosophy, and religion to confirm our priors, we have utterly failed.

I once heard a story that a prominent rabbi was on a plane sitting next to an evolutionary biologist. His grandchildren kept running back and forth, asking him, “Can we get you anything?” and “Are you alright, Grandpa?” The eagerness of the rabbi’s grandchildren to help their elder perplexed the professor. Most kids nowadays, he thought, are caught up with their personalized entertainment and are far more inclined to make demands on their parents than to offer assistance.

So he asked the rabbi, “Why is it that your grandchildren keep coming over here? How did you raise them differently?”

“Ahhh,” said the rabbi. “In your field, you teach that each generation gets better. They are smarter, morally superior, more evolved. In my religion, we believe that each generation gets further and further away from the revelation of the Torah, so they cling onto me as a vestige of that which has been lost.”

While this story may be apocryphal, it embodies the stark difference between the religious attitude toward knowledge and that expounded by modern science. However, the attitude expressed by the rabbi doesn’t mean that we don’t understand math or science better than we did a thousand years ago; nor does it mean that we can’t make moral progress in society. Rather, the Jewish concept of yeridas hadoros (literally “descent of generations”) emphasizes that as each generation passes, we are further from the original Revelation at Sinai — but at the same time, each subsequent generation is elevated because they are closer to the final redemption.

This is all to say that we need to look back for wisdom and knowledge of the truth, but look forward for character development and social improvement. We can change as individuals and as a society, but we must be humble in that process, understanding that there are many people far more intelligent and more thoughtful than us who contributed ideas necessary for that process of improvement.

We are on Earth for a pretty short time, and we use vanishingly little of it to learn things. In arguing that we should look back for knowledge, I don’t mean to say that our parents or grandparents are exponentially closer to the truth than we are. In fact, they could be just as ignorant. However, we must treat previous generations with reverence rather than contempt. They have had a lot of time to think about the world, and we must not dismiss their writings because there were morally reprehensible political movements contemporaneous with them. There are morally reprehensible political movements in our time; should our greatest thinkers be cast off for being in their era?

We must always attempt to read and to learn with the attitude that “I know practically nothing, and this person has at least one thing to teach me.” Self-recognition of our own ignorance should not lead to hopelessness regarding our own education. It must be an imperative towards an endless quest for knowledge.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

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