Folk wisdom has it that avoiding discussions of religion and politics is the key to retaining good social standing. As a rabbi, I find one of those topics an unavoidable occupational hazard, so I am most dogged about steering clear of the other. My intent here is not to analyze the virtues or vices of national health care, or even the specifics of the President's speech that provoked Congressman Joe Wilson's unscripted commentary. Instead, I wish to question the value of spontaneously speaking your mind, of saying what gurgles up into your consciousness.

Our Sages teach us that a pupil should be silent while seated before an expert; he should simply absorb all that he hears. The key to all intellectual growth is the surrender of self, an emptying of one's identity in order to become a recipient for new information. The word chochmah – commonly translated as "wisdom" – can also be read as the "power of [asking] 'what?'" Wisdom is the ability to not know; a willingness to be amazed.

Society is often dazzled by the know-it-all – the one who has seen it all and been there before and has a closet full of t-shirts to prove it. You can't shock him. New ideas are reduced into neat packages of what he already knows; he responds to novelty with a summary dismissal. His favorite line is, "So what you're really saying is…" followed by a trite summary, reduced for minimal impact and neutered of inspiration.

Learning comes from listening, and that can be scary. If I learn something new, I may realize I've made errors in the past. There will be new demands on my behavior, and I will have to acknowledge that I don't know everything.

Now there is a downside to all this openness. Willing chochmah can be overtaken by some pretty silly ideas, which seem reasonable at the moment – think Coke II. So chochmah needs its indispensable sidekick, binah – analysis. Binah is an intellectual winnower, separating good ideas from flawed ones.

I teach in a local high school a few times a week. A student in a recent class wanted to ask a question. Believing that I knew what was bothering her, I suggested that she allow me to explain the idea again, anticipating that I could address her difficulty. She acquiesced; when I finished explaining, she insisted again on asking her question. I was surprised. I allowed her to ask her question, and from its content, it was clear that she had not been listening at all. I said this out to her, but she claimed otherwise, citing her silence while I was speaking as evidence that she had been listening. I explained that she had not been listening, she had merely been polite, allowing me to finish, all the while obsessed with her question, and now that I had paused, she had let loose with her thoughts. Her steadfast focus on her question crowded out any learning. She had abandoned her chochmah.

This happens so often in conversations. We get an idea in our head, and we are going to say it, no matter what. This is not dialogue; it's sequential monologues. I say what is on my mind, and you say what you had decided to say before I even began, without account for my point. We are so smart that while our fellow conversationalist is busy sharing his perspective, we're three steps ahead already formulating a response. It's not a discussion, it's a chess match; verbal sparring. Ask yourself right now: are you paying attention to what I am writing, or are you weighing my point, speculating on its validity, though you haven't even finished reading it?

So the next time you feel compelled to chime in with your two cents – pause and ask yourself if you have followed our sages' advice about being a student. Listen first and then, some time down the road, you'll analyze and comment. Become receptive. You'll learn a lot!