How many of us respond to the question, “Do you want to know a secret?” with “No, thank you”? Why do so few of us decline that offer? First, we have a natural curiosity and desire to know. And, when something is referred to as a “secret,” we want to know what others do not know. In part, this is because — as French philosopher Michel Foucault has taught — knowledge is power. While sometimes a secret revealed is no longer a secret and, thus, its power is diminished, sometimes, revealing a secret adds another layer of secrecy to the secret (some now know what others don’t know) and thus its power is strengthened.
Judaism, like most religions, loves secrets. Surprisingly, secrets are not always about knowing; sometimes, they are about living with not knowing. Though Moses supposedly achieved the highest level of human understanding, he did not share all that he understood with the Israelites. He took it with him to his grave. And God did not share everything with Moses. Though Moses wanted to know the “secret” of God’s glory, God replied that that was not possible. (Exodus 33:18)
The kabbalists claim to have the secret wisdom of the Torah. While kabbalistic teachings often reveal multiple layers of secrecy, they never reveal the secret itself. Kabbalah is about the texture of secrecy, not its disclosure. The secret or esoteric Torah, the Torah the mystics claim is embedded in their mystical literature, remains a secret, even to the mystic. As the protagonist to the Zohar, Shimon bar Yochai said to his disciples, “If I reveal the secret, I will have to die.” And as the 16th-century teacher of Jewish mysticism, Isaac Luria, explained to his pupil Hayim Vital, because Vital had coerced him to reveal more of the secret than he should have, Luria would die young. And so he did, soon after that exchange, at the age of 39. Secrets are dangerous. If we knew how dangerous they were, we would perhaps say, “No thank you” more often.
Sometimes, it is worth dying to keep a secret. But the psalmist also says, “There is a time to act for God, for they are desecrating your Torah.” (Psalms 119:126) How do we know when to act for God? At times, revealing a secret is acting for God. This underlies the Hasidic justification for making mystical doctrine more available to the masses.
Sometimes, not revealing secrets is dangerous or destructive. For example, academics are taught to be cautious, to not reveal too much about our personal selves or our personal beliefs lest we be accused of lacking objectivity. We must look at the world around us, assess the situation, and then decide whether to disclose our secret or not. It may be one of the hardest decisions we make as intellectuals.
I once had a teacher, a world-renowned scholar of Judaica. He was an extremely cautious person. He had strong views, but he believed that revealing them would compromise his stature. I believed he could have changed Jewish life in America. He never did. For whatever reason, he believed it was better for him to die with his beliefs remaining secret. After his death, I attended an evening of reciting psalms at his home. His body lay covered in a shroud on the floor as many gathered to pay their respects. I walked close to his body and felt a surge of anger well up inside me. I recalled Immanuel Kant’s line “Dare to know” and thought about a rejoinder, “Dare to tell.” In a whisper I said, “You could have done so much good; you could have helped change the Jewish world. But you wouldn’t reveal your secrets. And now, you’ve taken them with you. And I am in mourning, not only for you as a human being; I am in mourning for your secrets that will never be revealed.” I could not continue to recite psalms; I left and walked home. I do not know why he chose to die with his secret. And I do not know why I chose not to confront him about it. I suppose that was my secret.
Our tradition valorizes secrecy. God has many secrets God keeps from us. “Secrets are God’s, but revealed acts are for us and our children.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) Dying with a secret, as Moshe did, or dying for a secret, as did Shimon bar Yochai, is often viewed as a heroic act. But sometimes revealing a secret can be just as heroic. Scholars have the distinct privilege of being paid to read, think, and write. Our knowledge often, and should, yield informed opinions about the world. We often feel reluctant to reveal those opinions because, as scholars, we feel we should stick to that which we were trained to write about. Those “opinions” we are reluctant to reveal are our secrets. I believe that scholars and rabbis have a responsibility to make the world we live in more understandable, more livable. That responsibility, in part, includes weighing in on matters we care deeply about — such as Israeli government policies or responses to those policies — and revealing our secrets. Yet, revealing those secrets has a price. It makes us vulnerable,
puts us at risk, opens us to criticism. We need to choose carefully: If we reveal too much, we are compromised; if we reveal too little, we are irresponsible. We each have to assess and determine when “it is a time to act for God.” We each have to make an assessment whether we want to take our secrets with us or give them to the world, even if we suffer as a result.
The secret, our secret, to keep or to transmit, is the narrow bridge of the intellectual life: fire on one side, ice on the other. I do not want a student to stand over my lifeless body and say to herself: “What good are your secrets now? They could have had an impact on those you left behind. Why did you have to take them with you?”email print