Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, is reported by Plato to have declared: “If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.” This absurd statement is often referred to as the Socratic Paradox, but would more correctly be defined as an oxymoron, or a self-refuting statement.
In fact, Socrates reveled in making such confounding statements, and also enjoyed making his disciples feel uncomfortable by challenging anything and everything they ever said with clever refutations and pithy rebuffs. He single-handedly turned incisive rational thinking and logical argument into a sport — but with this most famous of his quotes, he readily admitted that it was all just a front. Ultimately, he knew nothing — or as he might have put it: he was constantly at the beginning of a new learning curve.
It has always struck me that the Socratic Paradox has a parallel in Jewish tradition. The Talmud records the dramatic moment when the Jewish nation received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Rav Simai said, when the Jewish nation declared נַעֲשֶֹה — ‘we shall do’, before saying וְנִשְמַע — ‘we shall listen’, 600,000 heavenly angels came down to every member of the Jewish nation and crowned each of them with two crowns, one of them to correspond with ‘we shall do’ and the other with ‘we shall listen’” (Shabbat 88a).
There is no greater paradox in Jewish history than this blind acceptance of Torah whilst at the same time declaring that it needs to be understood, albeit only once the Jews had already agreed to be bound by its requirements and restrictions. After all, if they were admitting that they “know nothing” by saying “we shall do,” why was there any need to later seek an understanding of the Torah by saying “we shall listen”? What would be the point?
Jewish tradition informs us that Torah is the ultimate expression of God’s will on Earth. In reality, as Maimonides makes clear, God and His will are entirely inseparable, which means that if God is infinite, the Torah must also be infinite. A human being possesses limited intellect; consequently, had the nation initially said “we shall listen” before saying “we shall do,” this would have indicated that they wanted to make a decision about their commitment to Torah based on what would have been by definition limited comprehension — as if it was possible for them to cogently opine on God’s infinite wisdom, and only then to accept it.
But by saying “we shall do” before saying “we shall listen,” they indicated their unconditional acceptance of God’s Torah, acknowledging their own inability to ever truly comprehend it fully. The question this forces us to ponder is where exactly the Jewish nation had acquired their ability to do this.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), legendary founder of the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva, suggests that this incredible national characteristic originated with our patriarch Abraham. When God assured Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, He told him to go outside and “look toward the heavens and count the stars.” Without thinking twice, Abraham went out and began counting the stars. The verse continues with God asking Abraham: “Are you able to count them? So shall be your offspring” (Gen. 15:5).
What was going through Abraham’s mind as he attempted to count the stars? It is totally impossible for a human being to count all the stars in the sky.
The answer would appear to be — that is just who Abraham was. If God asks you to do something, you do it — because God is God, and if He asks you to do something, you do it. Similarly, when the Jewish nation was told that they were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they immediately indicated that they were ready to receive it without going through a prolonged process of consideration and reflection to see if it all made sense.
That is what the verse means when it says: “so shall be your offspring” — God was telling Abraham: your descendants will also possess this trait of devoted loyalty to Me, so that when they are about to receive the Torah, they will declare “we shall do” before saying “we shall hear.”
The sheer magnitude of the Torah at every level means that if we are only willing to accept the Torah if we grasp it intellectually, our intellectual limitations will prevent us from ever understanding it. It is only by knowing that we know nothing that we can ever begin to know anything at all. In other words, “we shall do” has to come before “we shall listen.”
Meanwhile, the even greater paradox is this: if we are willing and ready to accept God’s Torah without first understanding everything, then we just might merit to understand it. I think that is a paradox worthy of Socrates himself, or, as he might have said, “Naaseh Venishma!”
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader of the Beverly Hills Synagogue.