Am I reading too much?

June 20th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 17 comments

Hello Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin,

I am wondering if it is possible to gain “too much” knowledge. We know that Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden because of their disobedience, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when instructed not to. However, as I have grown to understand it, their transgression was more in trying to “…be like God” and have His knowledge.

I love learning. I learn any way I can. I have a book in my hand (electronic or printed) almost all the time when I’m not occupied at work or with family. Am I potentially being sinful in my pursuit of knowledge?

Thank you.

Dennis J.

Dear Dennis,

What an interesting question! Before we move on to our answer we just want to say that ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes (as you correctly wrote) that Adam and Eve ate, not from the Tree of Knowledge which might have suggested that knowledge itself was part of the problem, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. 

Till that fateful bite, we humans had the ability to instantly and reliably know whether a particular action was good or evil.  That ancient surrender to tasty temptation forever confused us.  Now, in virtually every wrong and prohibited action, it is tragically possible to identify good, and in every good action it is sadly possible to see bad.

For instance, shouldn’t we  generally endorse and support homosexual marriage because after all, isn’t marriage good, and don’t we wish to see loving relationships?  Or, perhaps we should ban Bibles in public places since it surely is wrong to make some people feel distressed and excluded?

As you know these fallacious arguments are being advanced every day by those who view Judeo-Christian principles, not as vital for this nation but as primitive obstacles to progress.  And these mendacious twists persuade many.  Thank the serpent!

Back to your question. Like you, we are avid readers. When we moved, books made up the majority of our boxes. Yet, you are correct that the pursuit of knowledge (like so many other things taken to an extreme) can become a false god. We know of men who acquire degree after degree but never use any of what they learn to contribute to the world. We also know of those who worship pursuit of  “expertise” and when God’s word conflicts with the experts, His is the one they choose to ignore.

We doubt that any of this applies to you. You mention having both work and family which means that reading is not stopping you from living. We assume that you are judicious in choosing what you read and avoid books that have no redeeming value.

However, since you are raising the question, we would encourage you to ask whether you are a bit out of balance. Only you can answer if you are sometimes giving too much time to reading. Should you be spending more time with people, both family and community? Should you be exercising more or putting in more hours at work? Is your mind preoccupied with what you are reading so that you aren’t giving proper attention to other things? Is your pursuit of knowledge an end in itself or does it serve the purpose of making you a bigger person more capable of contributing to the world?

Answering these questions you tell you if you are being consistent with, “The beginning of knowledge is the acknowledgment of God.”

Happy reading,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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17 comments

David Malmstrom says:

Thank you for that answer, I believe that is so very true.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

You’re welcome David,
Happy to be privileged to provide it.
Cordially
RDL

James says:

What an elegant and thoughtful answer you (pl.) have given! Like you (pl.), I am an avid and voracious reader, in fact I own over 4,000 books. I seldom regretted any time that I spent reading or studying books. Yet sometimes I have found myself grappling with the same questions that Dennis has asked. For reading and studying must balance out with the other requirements and imperatives of life, which oft has other plans for us: life is all about choices…and balance. I found an answer to my question. In September of last year cataract surgery on my best eye went awry and I wound up with four surgeries (too many!) on that eye. At present I await the return of vision to my darkened eye, and all my reading with my one weaker eye is best accomplished online. So all my fine books are of little use to me now, for as a Spanish proverb attests, books unread are no more than blocks of wood. How life can turn our goals and aspirations topsy-turvy! My point is a caution not to invest all one’s eggs in one basket that might be overturned and lost. Yet I continue to hope and pray to the Good Lord for the restoration of my vision, if only to help me be of better use to my family. Thanks the both of you as always for your inspiring Thought Tools and Musings.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Good to hear from you James (Even with sad news about eye–praying for complete restoration)
And don’t think we miss your (pl) allusions. Thank you!
Great Spanish proverb about unread books…..didn’t know it.
Wondering if Audible books are perhaps useful to you right now while you are still experiencing difficulties?
Cordially
RDL

James says:

Many thanks, dear Rabbi, for your kind message. Yesterday was 6 months since the last surgery. Oh, I can “read” if with considerable eye strain, just not “power-read” for hours like in the old days. But I also need to drive again and perform “puttering” tasks requiring stereovision. The Lord knew what he was doing when he gave us TWO eyes.

I have another great saying for you that once upon a time was new to me: “A room without books is a body without a soul.” Cicero (106-43 BCE). And I am immensely grateful for your (pl.) prayers. Beracha (blessings)!

Bruce Corley says:

Thy word have I hidden in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. Nuff said.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks Bruce–
But, and it’s an important ‘but’, no one single verse is ever ’nuff said’. In other words, life is too complex to be governed by one slogan even if that slogan comes from David’s Psalms (119). If we are to be guided by only one verse, it is easy to find another verse which seems to carry an opposing meaning. Ancient Jewish wisdom helps us stitch together an integrated tapestry of meaning and purpose.
Cordially
RDL

Lj Kennedy says:

Our home,and those of my elders, encouraged reading books of knowledge in the order of: the Bible, the dictionary and the Encyclopedia. Fiction was fun and frivolous, but allowed. The pursuit of knowledge was encouraged from early in my life. I’m still learning as I near 60 years. Thank you and bless you both for aiding me in my study of God’s Word.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Right Lj–
And even fiction can enlighten and assist. Important point for today is that even fiction books do far more good for your cognitive development than television documentaries.
Cordially
RDL

Brian says:

I remember Ecclesiastes reminding us that too much study wears people out. It’s something I struggle with too because I love to learn in general, but especially in topics I’m fascinated with! I love books.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Right Brian,
and what many forget is the colossal difference between knowledge gained by reading or listening as opposed to watching.
Cordially
RDL

Anita says:

I have a pastoral teacher whose position is that most of us are educated about God far beyond our obedience. The knowledge is wonderful, but we need to live in obedience.

Susan Lapin says:

Anita, I think we would approach this from the other direction. The more we learn, if the learning is true, the closer we come to appreciating God. As my husband says, it isn’t a question of us thinking about God rather us trying to understand what He thinks about us.

Lisa says:

Interesting questions with interesting replies indeed.

Reminds me of my college professor berating his class for not reading the newspaper every single day. This was before the internet. This was in a political science class that was a requirement towards a degree. However, there was no requirement to read the newspaper, especially since we had required textbooks to study.

My argument was 1) newspaper writers aren’t always accurate or up to date, 2) as a full-time student working a job, where would I find the energy and time to read anything other than textbooks, and 3) it can be so exhausting to keep up with the world where nothing is ever new under the sun, and what goes around, comes around. Not to mention that hype rules very easily in world of newspapers.

And even now, I don’t have the luxury of time, energy, and extra money just to buy and read any book, let alone a newspaper. It would need to be a wise sound investment to my total well – being to do so.

Susan Lapin says:

Lisa, I do think reading newspapers is important if only to know how the public is being led.

Ross says:

To everything there is a season.
I used to read everything I could get my hands on that I felt was true & some like the communist manifesto so I knew where the opposition was coming from. However around 35-40 when I felt most of the direction of my life was set & a lot of doors were closed I found that while interesting too much was & burden & I needed to put into practice what I had learned & could narrow my focus to a half dozen books that really provided the information I referred to on a daily or weekly basis, like the wrenches & hammers of my trade at one point I thought I needed 2 of everything & 6 of the rest but life experience that what I needed was very simple & should have lived like a soldier carrying only what I needed.
Solomon says something to the effect of there is a limit & it grows wearisome.

Susan Lapin says:

It is so important as you show, Ross, to constantly reevaluate and recalibrate. What is right in one season isn’t right in another.

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