Ask The Rabbis

By | Oct 11, 2011
2010 July-August


Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the legendary teacher at Yeshiva University, a great philosopher and Talmudist, usually began each class by asking for questions on the assigned text. Once when none of the students asked a question, Rav Soloveitchik walked out saying: “No questions? No class.” Learning begins with questions and requires courage to expose one’s ignorance. However, Jewish tradition recognizes some instances when questions are asked for a reason other than to learn. In the Talmud, a non-Jew came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai drove the questioner away while Hillel converted the man by telling him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Hillel’s patience is admirable, but Jewish tradition is sympathetic to Shammai, who was bothered by the questioner’s mocking tone. Similarly, in the Haggadah, the wicked child’s question is answered abruptly on the assumption that the child is distancing himself from Judaism. I believe it is best to assume good intentions, because one never knows when a curt response might alienate someone who is genuinely interested in learning.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, Temple Beth El, Springfield, MA

Modern Orthodox

Don’t you know that the first time God addresses a specific human being (Adam) in the Torah, he asks a question? “Ayeka? (Where are you?”) The first time God addresses a murderer, he asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” The first time that Abraham addresses God, he asks, “…What can you give me seeing that I am going to die childless?” Isn’t this because the great principle of Jewish faith is that we are to imitate God? Don’t you know that Moses, our greatest leader, found his calling by asking a question: “Why doesn’t the (burning) bush burn up?” Aren’t the Torah’s stories all about giving us great human role models to learn from? As we try to understand the implications of the Holocaust (and of Israel and of Jewish life after the Shoah)—especially Jewry’s affirmation of life and moral responsibility—don’t you realize, as Elie Wiesel says, “[A response] is not a lesson; [it] is not an answer. It is only a question.”? Don’t you know that a good question is always more evocative and instructive than a good answer? So why ask: Do Jews ask too many questions?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, New York, NY


Judaism was founded on questioning and it is through questioning that Judaism continues to thrive. Had Abraham not questioned the conventional primitive religions of his time, civilization as we know it would not exist. The Passover Seder is purposefully structured to stimulate questions of participants and guide them toward answers. Most importantly, the greatest commandment in our religion, that of the study of Torah, is enriched, energized and made meaningful through an endless process of passionate questioning in search of truth. Of course, not all questions contribute equally to our intellectual and moral development. Some people raise questions only to attack, tear down or humiliate; others do so to demonstrate the real or imagined superiority of their intelligence. Such questions, rather than helping us to appreciate the beauty of a greater and more majestic reality, serve instead to aggrandize ourselves in the eyes of others. All questions that are inspired by sincere curiosity and a real thirst for knowledge deserve to be asked. This doesn’t mean that a satisfying answer will always be available, but to dismiss or ignore worthy questions would be an abdication of our religious obligation to honestly seek the truth.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, MD


Many of us believe that we will have an opportunity after our stint on earth to stand before a great mahogany desk in the sky and demand from G-d, “If You are so kind and omniscient, why were You silent?” And then G-d will show us the view as He sees things and all will be answered. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps at the end of all things, at the core of all wisdom, at the very essence of all being lies not an answer but a question, perhaps many questions—and who knows, perhaps this question is one of them. And if so, perhaps G-d will simply counter our question with yet another and ask, “So what did you do to answer this question?” And if we will say, “I did nothing, because I saw you did nothing,” then He will ask yet another question. He will say, “So this that you asked, was it a question? Or was it just another answer?” For that is the only bad question: the one that is not a question at all, but merely an inexpensive excuse to shrug our shoulders and scurry back into our holes, to do nothing.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman,, Thornhill, Ontario

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