Twenty (Jewish) Questions

By | Mar 08, 2012

by Kelley Kidd

Monday night, I sat in traffic in a taxi outside the Washington Convention Center as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gala (addressed by Benjamin Netanyahu) went on inside. Protest groups shouted out against a potential war in Iran.  My taxi driver, an Iranian himself, mumbled to me that “these people do not want their tax money funding another war.” The sentiment  seemed consistent with the shouts and signage of the people gathered outside the conference who called for “diplomacy, not bombs.” They, and other anti-AIPAC groups, have expressed fears that AIPAC wants war on Iran, a road they do not want to see America go down. Even President Obama cautioned that we must not disregard “the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world” before jumping into war. For Jews who stand in support of our homeland, it may be easy to side automatically with Netanyahu and Israeli president Shimon Peres in the view that the use of force, even war, is merited in averting a nuclear Iran. However, I think President Obama made a worthwhile point in bringing up “the weightiness of these issues.” The questions posed at AIPAC are worth serious, involved consideration; without lending support to either side, I believe it’s important to remember that both sides require in-depth consideration. Blind faith in any ideology is one of the most dangerous justifications for action. Historically, submission to unchecked and unexamined philosophies has been known to facilitate mass atrocities, the kind we are obliged to remember and prevent. Jewish tradition values examination and possible dissent from everything, even the very word of God.

The Jewish tradition of  “wrestling with God,” as in the story of Jacob, is not only a meaningful path to belief, but also a necessary part of our approach to practical and even political concerns. Challenging, examining and really putting the full force of consideration into finding belief helps you to construct fully formed opinions that you can truly support, even when faced with opposition. Judaism places a premium on understanding, learning, study and deep consideration, so much so that it is at the heart of much of our tradition. In the Torah itself, our forefathers even challenge God’s sense of justice. Abraham famously pleads for God to reconsider his destruction of Sodom, and his plea receives God’s consideration. Moses questions the justice of the “first draft” of the Ten Commandments, in which children will be punished for the sins of their fathers for four ensuing generations. God, upon hearing Moses’s wisdom, agrees to “nullify my words and confirm yours.” Both times, human evaluation leads God to reconsider, showing us that we must never leave the words of even the most decisive authority unexamined.

Looking beyond our biblical past, the importance of thoughtfulness in Jewish tradition is also illustrated by the breadth, depth and variation in Talmud. The study of Talmud demands that no stone is left unturned—“confronted with a statement on any subject, the Talmudic student will proceed to raise a series of questions before he satisfies himself of having understood its full meaning.” The student must search in depth for full meaning, reading between the lines, delving into implications and principles, making note of subtleties to find an underlying message that reconciles apparent contradictions. Our Talmud sets for us the example of questioning what seems readily apparent, searching for and evaluating every possible meaning before coming to a conclusion. In Judaism today, we introduce the “big questions” to our children early on. Each year on Passover, the youngest of the children present asks the Four Questions, demonstrating the importance of inquiry and understanding.

Judaism teaches us to never be afraid to demand and search for answers, and when we aren’t too scared to ask the tough questions, we can become confident in our own answers. God and Torah teach us never to settle for the simple response, for less than full understanding, even when this means facing multifaceted issues in all their complexity. When it comes to politics and Israel, I think that our people’s tradition of “wrestling” holds particular importance—in the maintenance of our Holy Land and homeland, holding fast to our tradition is crucial, and that means never settling for the unexamined questions.


One thought on “Twenty (Jewish) Questions

  1. “Each year on Passover, the youngest of the children present asks the Four Questions, demonstrating the importance of inquiry and understanding.”

    This was my first time hearing about this tradition, not having grown up in a household that celebrated Passover. What a special way to cultivate the inquisitive nature that you’re speaking of, as well as nurturing an appreciation for the traditions of those that came before.

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