This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Ask a Stupid Question... *

Among the many educational fads and fashions that enjoy episodic popularity at our university, the current enthusiasm for "inquiry-based learning" is one that strikes a sympathetic chord.

I imagine that most teachers are acutely aware of how important it is to encourage students to ask questions. In spite of our frequent reassurances that "there are no stupid questions," sometimes it requires extraordinary amounts of self-discipline to keep from brusquely dismissing a query that seems utterly inappropriate, incomprehensible or wrongheaded.

The encouragement of free exchange was a crucial feature of Talmudic culture, where the preferred mode of instruction involved intensive debate and argumentation, and every statement had to be defended against challenges by colleagues and students.

Occasionally, the Talmud relates that a rabbi intentionally introduced flawed argument, in hope of provoking his students to point out the errors in the reasoning. On such occasions, the Talmud explains that the scholar in question employed specious logic "in order to sharpen the students."

In the course of a Talmudic discussion, the Babylonian teacher Rav Pappa once presented an argument that was so weak that it provoked his hearers to laughter. Rav Pappa was not upset by this reaction, but observed calmly that it is preferable to pose a flawed question than to sit in passive silence.

Rashi explained astutely that the rabbis who made intentional use of unsound arguments expected their students to emulate their teachers' openness, and not be inhibited by the fear of embarrassing themselves beforre their fellows.

The important thing was that they should feel free to raise as many questions as were needed to elucidate the topic.

The rabbis' encouragement of inquisitive students is evident in the unfortunate experience of Rav Kahana who had to flee from Babylonian to Israel, and made a penitential vow that he would refrain from raising objections against Rabbi Yohanan. Thanks to his reputation as a resourceful "lion" of Talmudic debate, he was admitted to the prestigious first row of the academy.

As he sat in silence through the discussions, his scholarly reputation was progressively diminished, and the erstwhile lion was pushed back row after row, until he was dismissed to the last row with his status reduced to that of a mere "fox." The only way he could redeem his credentials was by aggressively challenging Rabbi Yohanan with objections and difficulties.

Nevertheless, some rabbis managed to try the patience of their colleagues by pushing the limits of acceptable questioning.

For example, the Talmud reports that after the death of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah instructed his disciples not to admit Rabbi Meir's disciples to enter his academy, "because they are disputatious and do not come to learn Torah."

One of these quarrelsome students, Symmachus, forced his way into the study hall and tormented Rabbi Judah with a provocative question. This prompted Rabbi Judah to berate his disciples for their laxity in keeping out the troublemakers.

He was convinced that pupils like Symmachus were not really committed to the sincere promotion of scholarly truth, but merely to inflating their egos at the expense of their teachers and fellow-students.

A notorious troublemaker of the Talmudic academies was the fourth-century sage Rabbi Jeremiah. He had a special proclivity for questioning the rationality of the various quantitative measurements that were used to define the limits between different categories in Jewish religious law.

To take a modern analogy, Rabbi Jeremiah's objections might be comparable to a sharp-witted attorney who defends a client against a speeding charge, by arguing that the speed limits are unfairly arbitrary. The lawyer might dwell rhetorically on the absurdity of differentiating between fifty and fifty-one km per hour: Is it logical that one should be legal and the other punishable?

The rabbis who opposed Rabbi Jeremiah took the position that without such fixed measurements there would be no practical way of formulating or enforcing laws.

Eventually, Rabbi Jeremiah's colleagues completely lost their patience with his exasperating questions.

The momentous incident occurred during a discussion of the Mishnah's rule that when a young pigeon is found on the ground, if it is within fifty cubits of a dovecote, we presume that it came from the dovecote, and hence must be returned to the dovecote's owner; but if the distance is greater than fifty cubits, the pigeon is assumed to have come from elsewhere, and hence the finder is entitled to take possession of it.

Against this law, Rabbi Jeremiah posed the following question: If the pigeon was found positioned so that one of its feet was inside the fifty-cubit range and the other beyond it, who could claim it?

The Talmud reports laconically: "It was on this occasion that they removed Rabbi Jeremiah from the academy."

According to Rashi, what snapped the rabbis' patience in this case was the fact that Rabbi Jeremiah was wasting their valuable time with such a farfetched and foolish question.

However, Rashi's grandson, Rabbi Jacob Tam, pointed out that the Mishnah itself went on to deal with a similar case, where the pigeon was found exactly equidistant between two dovecotes.

Rabbenu Tam concluded, therefore, that there must be a more fundamental theological issue underlying the rabbis' extreme reaction to Rabbi Jeremiah's query: By challenging the coherence of the Mishnah's fifty-cubit criterion, Rabbi Jeremiah was in effect calling into question all the measurements that are cited in the rabbinic legal tradition. Because measurements occupy such a central place in the halakhah, Rabbi Jeremiah's brand of skepticism might potentially undermine to the entire structure of the Torah's legal system.

Eventually, Rabbi Jeremiah realized the error or his ways.

During the period of his expulsion from the academy, the scholars were stumped by a certain problem in the laws of testimony and, perhaps as a last resort, they requested his assistance to resolve their doubts. The tone of his response indicated his humble contrition: "I am not worthy of having this enquiry addressed to me, but your disciple is inclined to the following opinion..."

The outcome of this change of heart was that Rabbi Jeremiah was re-admitted to the academy.

He had now learned to appreciate the difference between serious questions that are intended to promote understanding, and those that are merely designed to irritate or provoke.

The lesson of this episode seems perfectly clear.

That is, of course, unless you still have some questions ...

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

published by

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