Photo by Ana Municio on Unsplash

“I Love You, Even if You Don’t Exist”

Recently, I learned on the language-learning app Duolingo that the Yiddish verb for ‘to know,’ kenen, also means ‘to be able’ or ‘to know how.’ For example, Ikh ken tantsn, in Yiddish, can mean both ‘I can dance’ and ‘I know how to dance.’ In English, the verbs ‘can’ and ‘know,’ though not the same word, are also related: they share the Proto-Indo-European root, gno (g-n-o), which refers to all things knowledge. This double meaning, this linguistic link between ability and knowledge, led me to wonder if the same thing might be true in life: Are being able to do something and knowing how the same thing? And more broadly, what does it mean to know something? To know someone? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about knowledge lately. I tend to make a distinction between being able to do something and knowing how to do it. For example, I know how to do fouetté turns, a showstopper ballet move, because I studied ballet, was taught to do them, and practiced them quite a bit. But I could never do them well, and the simple answer to whether I can do them now, after years away from dancing, is no. I’d say that I know how to do fouetté turns but can’t actually do them.

I remember an email exchange with my ballet teacher years ago when she gave me tips about how to do fouettés. Advice like, “Start to plié before you reach center,” “Open your arm when you land and close it when you start to turn,” and of course, “Spot!” 

I told her I was doing all that and still having trouble. She replied that if I really had been following the instructions, I would be turning perfectly.

 I was certainly thinking about my teacher’s advice. But was my body following it? Did my body know what to do? I guess not. I’m inclined to say that this proves there’s a difference between knowledge and ability. But it could also suggest that they’re one and the same—and I had neither.

I’m raising my own hackles here, as a person with disabilities, because if ability equals knowledge, then disability equals ignorance, and the latter is just not true. I can’t wink my right eye, for example. Does that mean I don’t know how? Does a person who once could do something and then loses the ability also lose their knowledge?

It’s also possible to know how to do something but be unable to do it, or to have knowledge that you cannot apply, not because of disability but because the thing you know about is imaginary (how to train your dragon!) or theoretical (“if a train travels at ¾ the speed of light…”) or absent. Think of the Talmud authors in Babylon who debated in granular detail how best to operate a Temple that the Romans had destroyed before they were born. That there was no physical Temple doesn’t diminish the rabbis’ efforts. In fact, to me that makes it all the more beautiful. There’s something touching about it, as if the rabbis were saying to the Temple: I love you even if you don’t exist. 

In an effort to be systematic, I made a little table with all the combinations—four—of knowing and not knowing, being able and not being able. 

Through the ballet example, we’ve already covered knowing how to do something but not being able to do it. Sometimes, though, you know how to do something and are also able to do it, like someone who can do fouetté turns or parallel park. 

The third category in this table includes things we can do even without knowing how, those involuntary processes, like pumping blood. You might gain intellectual knowledge about the cardiovascular system, but knowing how the heart pumps blood is not what keeps the pulse steady. Some abilities have nothing to do with knowledge.

Then there is the fourth category: things you don’t know how to do and cannot do. At first, I thought this category would be the least interesting because I could not think of anything I didn’t know how to do that seemed particularly important. I don’t know how to play the sitar, but I don’t want to do that. As for things I’d like to learn, like how to chant Torah, I’m confident that I can learn. Maybe this confidence comes from the access to education that I’ve always had.  If I lacked more fundamental knowledge, if I didn’t speak the language where I lived, or I couldn’t read, it would not be trivial at all. 

But there is a kind of reading that I struggle with: I’m not good at reading people. This is a very important thing to know and skill to have and unlike, say, how to chant Torah, I’m not sure it’s something that I can learn as an adult. I’ve never heard of a “bodies as a second language” course.

In sum, “not always” is my answer to the question of whether knowing how and being able are equivalent.

What does it mean to know a person? In English, and Hebrew, too, ‘to know someone’ in the biblical sense, means to have sex with them. What a double meaning! People who know little about each other, not even names, can know each other in the way that “Adam knew his wife.” On the other hand, friends can have long-term, close relationships—knowing each other’s stories, predicting each other’s reactions—without this sexual aspect.

I find that knowledge, even when it’s not physical, even when it’s not about a person, can produce a feeling of intimacy. That’s sort of how I feel about the Talmud authors and the Temple, that the way they thought about the Temple seemed almost romantic. Part of what appealed to me about Judaism when I was on the path to converting was that it seemed like the sort of thing that I could know intimately. I don’t mean know as in, become an expert but know as in to become familiar with, so that connections pop up everywhere within it. That kind of knowledge is a way of feeling close, if not to someone than to something. Something big and never-ending and immortal…

I think my feelings toward God are something along the lines of: “I love You, even if You don’t exist. I love the worlds of Judaism and Jewish community that have grown up around You. Or around the idea of You.”

Knowing God, knowing about God, knowing if God exists. Or not knowing. While writing this, I had what felt like an aha moment about the word agnostic: does it literally mean not knowing: A- (not) plus g-n-o gnostic? I wasn’t quite right. From its Greek roots, the literal meaning of agnostic is “not known.” But still, agnostic does tend to refer to not knowing if there’s a higher power and the idea that it might not be possible to know. 

Being agnostic often stands in opposition to being a believer. What’s interesting to me is that believing also has the connotation of not entirely knowing. If someone asks you a question and you think the answer is yes, you might say “I believe so,” to indicate that you think that’s right but aren’t entirely sure.

And whether it’s God or the tooth fairy we’re talking about, believing often implies wanting the thing to be true. Belief is doubt plus optimism. So being agnostic and being a believer aren’t really so different, in terms of knowledge. Both terms imply some uncertainty. The difference lies in what effect that uncertainty has, or what you do with it. 

About two years ago, I brought my not knowing, indeed, my whole self, to a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. One thing I know now is that it’s a good place—a welcoming place, an accepting place, a multifaceted and reliable place—to learn.


Ashley P. Tayor is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. Find more of her work at