Some of my favorite Jewish personalities are those who bring about fresh perspectives despite the well-worn paths in Torah. While many do little more than quote the scholars of the past, my personal favorite thinkers are those who will be quoted in generations to come from now for their unique insight. While you would assume that these individuals are incredibly intimidating, they also happen to be some of the most approachable figures in existence. They have their own doubts and fears just like the rest of us. In fact, many of these thinkers are so similar to the average person that one may not realize their own genius. I would go even further to argue that even every common person has their own contribution to Judaic thought. My main source for this theory would be Exhibit A: Myself.
While I have a blog online that discusses Jewish ideas, I’ve always said I’d rather be the talk show host than the interviewed guest. My knowledge of Hebrew is mediocre at best and I’m not particularly well-studied in comparison to many of my fellow online Jewish writers. I’ve sat across from scholars fluent in several languages, those who had entire works committed to memory — those with all sorts of titles before and after their names on very expensive pieces of paper. I am not one of these people. I am the one who dreams of simply reading the books published under their names. Despite this, I believe that every person has a unique perspective on the well-worn path of Torah scholarship and Jewish life. I didn’t realize this as much until someone brought one of my ideas up in conversation — me, a quasi-educated Midwesterner trying to catch up with my own Judaism.
In October of 2014, I published an article in which I argued that the 10th commandment of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was the most underrated commandment of the ten. The piece was called “The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin.” In it, I basically argued that the act of coveting was the basis for all other averiot (sins). One must desire something in a way that is unhealthy before they act upon such a desire. One steals because they covet an object. They commit acts of violence or infidelity because something appears to be in the way of what they covet. Even desecrating the Shabbat is done so when one covets not being “burdened” by the Shabbat’s stipulations.
This didn’t necessarily seem like an earth-shattering piece to me, but fell more under the criteria of “Judaism According to Ken.” Some years later, I was visiting Congregation B’nai Israel, the headquarters of the Karaite Jews of America in Daly City, California — just a little ways outside of San Francisco. After Erev Shabbat dinner, I was sitting with my friends, Shawn Lichaa (creator of A Blue Thread) and Tomer Mangoubi — an MIT graduate and accomplished Karaite Jewish scholar. They both wanted to talk more about my idea about the 10th Commandment being linked to all other transgressions. They seemed to be making a bigger deal about it than I thought they would and seemed to hold the opinion in very high regard.
“Do you realize that this was an opinion held by the Karaite sage Hakham Nisi Ben Noach in his work ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” Tomer uttered.
I shrugged, as I had never heard of Hakham Nisi Ben Noach. They continued to shower me with compliments about coming to such an insightful conclusion.
“Yeah, well…how do you know that I didn’t just rip that idea off from ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” I murmured as a means of reminding them that it was me they were talking about — not some published authority.
“Because ‘Bitan Maskilim’ has never been translated into English and I know that your Hebrew isn’t that great,” Shawn said with a truthful laugh. He was right — my Hebrew, especially then, was trash. Though he had said this for the entire room to hear, the previous compliments on my ideas about “לא תחמד” more than outweighed any potential embarrassment I could have felt.
While I continue to study Torah, I would be tremendously surprised if I ever were to come up with many more ideas that would seemingly warrant such accolades — after all, coming up with “ooh-ahh” concepts is not the reason I study. Still, I would encourage any person to share their own perspectives with their peers. If someone like me — who couldn’t pass for a talmid hakham on TV — can come to an insightful conclusion worth repeating, surely you have an entire book to write.
“Whoever is able to write a book and does not, is as if he has lost a child.”
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov