Ask The Rabbis

By | Oct 11, 2011
2010 July-August


When I was a child coming home from school, my parents never asked me, “What did you learn today?” Perhaps they knew that the obligatory childhood answer is “Nothing.” Instead, each day they asked, “What questions did you ask today?” The paradigm of praising questioning has deep roots in our tradition. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Moses, perhaps weary of the process of questioning and answering, approaches G-d and says, “Master of the universe, reveal to me the final truth in each problem of doctrine and law,” to which the Lord replies: “There are no pre-existent final truths in doctrine or law; the truth is the considered judgment of the majority of authoritative interpreters in every generation.” Moses cannot get a final answer and must continue the process of questioning and exploring! We also learn in the Passover Hagaddah that the wicked child is wicked precisely because of the way he “asks.” The other three children initiate conversation and relationship through shared discussion, but the wicked child simply embeds his exclusion in his comment. All questions are welcome, but how we ask them determines not only the response but the relationships we create in the process.

Rabbi Chava Bahle, Makom Shalom, Chicago, IL


Besides being People of the Book, we are also People of the Question Mark. Our answers are ever-evolving, ever-tentative, just as science emphasizes working hypotheses over fixed facts. Open-minded questioning lies at the heart of the Jewish enterprise. We should never fear the slippery slope to which questions lead; our entire lives are lived on such slopes. Our FAQ’s really are our mark on the world. Consider our greatest creative leaps forward: Abe and Sarah asking about the oneness of existence and finding God, rabbinic Judaism boldly recentering our tradition around study, prayer and good deeds around 100 CE, or Maimonides’ philosophical revolution circa 1100. All came when everything was on the table. The last few hundred years have seen a certain ossification (in halacha anyway), which is abnormal in our rich history. Now, again, we are asking new questions that will yield yet untold advances. Mordecai Kaplan knew this; the title of his 1956 book Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers says it all. And when I first opened today’s Reconstructionist Haggadah, I literally wept in gratitude that it is about leading not one Seder but four (long and serious, short and kid-friendly, feminist and interfaith) from the same book. Its title? A Night of Questions.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD


It is commonly thought that one of Judaism’s contributions to the world is the Talmudic acceptance of questioning and resulting wide-open discussions. When God instructs Abraham to go to Sodom to announce that the city will be destroyed, Abraham challenges God: “What if I find only 50 righteous people?” God engages in dialogue with Abraham, so much so that Abraham is able to finally ask, “What if I find only 10 righteous people?” Hillel teaches: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Hillel’s questions push us to consider our relationship to humanity, our place in the world and our moral obligations. Asking questions opens our minds to new understandings of Judaism. Our questions give us deeper understandings of who we are. Our questions demonstrate our commitment to engaging in conversation with fellow Jews and with God. Our questions give articulation to the spiritual struggles we each undergo, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel and was given the name Israel for prevailing in his struggles. Our questions help us solidify our values. It is our ethical and spiritual obligation to ask questions and to seek answers.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Union for Reform Judaism, Livermore, CA

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