By Benjamin Gottesman, Arts & Culture Editor
Five hundred men sat in the sweltering Athenian city center as a wizened, old man argued the question of his survival. Several hours later they would sentence him to death, cementing themselves into the annals of infamy as the jury who condemned Socrates. The Athenian public indicted the philosopher for “corrupting the youth” with his in-your-face and unrelenting pursuit of knowledge. Ironically, the trial they convened to convict him ended up serving as the platform for one of his most renowned teachings. During his lengthy defense, Socrates remarked that his legendary wisdom was not a product of prodigious knowledge but a unique awareness of his natural ignorance. This teaching, now known as the Socratic Paradox, is immortalized in Plato’s words: “I know that I know nothing.” Apparently, this argument did little to dissuade the jurors, and Socrates carried out his own death sentence soon after.
The next time the YU Observer is published, I will be its Editor-in-Chief. There are no words to describe how excited I am to oversee a publication that has voiced passionate opinions and fostered the writings of creative spirits for over sixty-five years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to leave my mark on the rich legacy of student contributors and leaders at Yeshiva University. The only feeling that trumps the enthusiasm I have for this position is the daunting fear that has dogged me ever since I accepted it.
My trepidation can be neatly summarized in the exasperated questions that have echoed about my consciousness during the past few weeks: Who am I to pen an editorial? What gives me the right to play gatekeeper, deciding what is and is not fit to print? Socrates’ statement of proud ignorance may have seemed right to him, but I imagine he wished he chose a different line of defense, seeing as he was executed because people did not like what he had to say!
While I doubt that a begrudged reader of this paper will take as drastic steps as Socrates’s compatriots, it still requires a healthy dose of gumption (a kind word for naivete) to unabashedly share what you think in an open forum. This is especially true when you are so painfully aware of how unaware you truly are. I am no great philosopher or ethicist. I am not a mystic or a monk, nor a great scholar of Torah or any other school of thought for that matter.
Despite the unfortunate ending to the Socratian saga, I still find comfort in his last remarks, much in part because of a similar, and significantly more uplifting, teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov zy”a. In Sichos HaRan (#3), Rebbe Nachman is quoted as teaching: “It is said that the goal of all knowledge is to realize that one knows nothing.” It is related (Shivchei HaRan #33) that a variation of this teaching came on the heels of some of Rebbe Nachman’s most poignant insights in which he revealed the staggering breadth of his knowledge. It was only in these moments of complete mastery of the known that Rebbe Nachman interfaced with the vastness of what is unknown. L’havdil (interj.), yet similarly, Socrates could only invariably conclude that he knew nothing at all after decades of toil in the study of reason and logic.
It is my understanding that the purpose of our paper is the pursuit of truth. It is my hope that we will strive to engage in this noble endeavor as best as we possibly can. Let me make it abundantly clear from the very outset that truth, in its undiluted totality, is unknowable, save from the mind of He who created it. As the wise man of the Kuzari remarks: “If I had known God, I would be God.” All we can do, as men and women, is reflect upon our limited understanding of the world we encounter and opine as to our best path forward based on our finite insight. The more we engage with those who are different from ourselves, the more we will realize how very little we know. This, says Rebbe Nachman, is the closest we will ever get to truth itself.
Based on this, I would like to begin my term as Editor-in-Chief with an invitation. I am just one man and I have but one mind. If I am to succeed in creating content worthy of your consideration I cannot do it alone. So please, come over. Reach out. Share with me your thoughts and experiences. If I publish something you like, let me know! If I publish something you hate, even more so let me know! If you have something to say, find the nearest laptop and start writing. The only way we’ll go anywhere as a YU community is if we’re loud about the little bit we do know and acknowledge the enormity of what we don’t.
As promised in the title, I will conclude with a prayer. Knowledge of all is God’s alone. Every time we think we approach an understanding of Him and His world, we realize just how far we actually are. This give-and-take is our earthly mission: continuous efforts toward growth in a never-ending path of sacred trying. We will never truly know. We will never find all the answers we are looking for. I pray that through working together we will find the answers we need to get where we need to go.
I look forward to working with you all.