“And if your children should ask you…” (Exodus 12:26).
Socrates (469–399 BCE), the great Greek philosopher and mentor of Plato, was in the habit of asking disconcerting questions. To this day, persistent questioning in search of clarity is known as the Socratic method. For this habit, among other things, he was put on trial by the Athenians, accused of “corrupting the young,” and sentenced to death. Nothing could be less like Judaism, in which teaching the young to ask questions is an essential feature of Pesach, so much so that the Haggadah – the narration – must be in response to a question from a child. If there is no child present, adults must ask one another, and if one is eating alone, one must ask oneself. In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth. “And the [child] who does not know how to ask,” you must begin to teach him how. Many customs of Seder night (dipping the parsley and removing the Seder plate are two examples) were introduced solely to provoke a child to ask, “Why?” Judaism is a religion of questions.
Abraham Twerski, the American psychiatrist, remembers how, when he was young, his teacher would welcome questions – the more demanding the better. When faced with a particularly tough challenge, he would say, in his broken English: “You right! You hundred prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.” The Nobel Prize-winning Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi once explained that his mother taught him how to be a scientist. “Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask instead, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’” In the yeshiva, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest compliment a teacher can give a student is: “Du fregst a gutte kasha – You raise a good objection.”
Where did it come from, this Jewish passion for questions? Clearly it owes much to the fact that three times in the Torah, Moses speaks of children asking for an explanation of religious practice, and in another place it says, “You shall tell your child on that day” (Exodus 1:8). Together, these four verses serve as the basis for the “four sons” of the Haggadah. Education is not indoctrination. It is teaching a child to be curious, to wonder, reflect, inquire. The child who asks becomes a partner in the learning process. He or she is no longer a passive recipient but an active participant. To ask is to grow.
But questioning goes deeper than this in Judaism – so deep as to represent a sui generis religious phenomenon. The heroes of faith asked questions of God, and the greater the prophet, the harder the question. Abraham asked, “Will the Judge of all the earth not perform justice?” (Genesis 18:25) Moses asked, “O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people?” (Exodus 5:22) Jeremiah said, “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before You, yet I would speak with You about Your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1) The Book of Job, the most searching of all explorations of human suffering, is a book of questions asked by man, to which God replies with four chapters of questions of His own. The earliest sermons (known as the Yelamdeinu type) began with a question asked of the rabbi by a member of the congregation. One classic genre of rabbinical literature is called “She’eilot u’Teshuvot – Questions and Replies.” Questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.
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