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Parshas Shelach (5774)

Judaism & Asking Questions

Most Jews will tell you that Judaism – unlike some other religions which shall remain nameless - believes that asking questions and welcoming questions is a necessary part of education and growth, and that we should not accept blindly whatever we’re taught. As Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks writes, “Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself.”

Yet while that is what most Jews will tell you – you should not blindly accept what they are saying without question.

You see, there are two sources which seem to indicate that Judaism is not into questioning the religion as much as we thought it was.

The first is the famous statement made by our ancestors as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah: “… everything that G-d has said - Na’aseh V’Nishma – We will do [first] and [afterwards] we will understand” (see Exodus 24:7). The Talmud in Shabbos 88a praises the Jewish people for making this statement in which they commit to doing whatever G-d wants from them without first questioning why they should do it.

The second source is a verse in the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shelach, where the Torah commands us to wear tzitzis (fringes or tassels) on the four corners of our garments. The Torah states: “It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray’ (Deuteronomy 15:39).

The Talmud in Berachos 12b understands the words “and not explore after your heart” to be an actual Biblical prohibition (one of the 613 commandments) against reading heretical works or exploring any false ideologies.

Maimonides in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Idolatry 2:3) elaborates on the Talmud’s words and explains that with this commandment not to “explore after our hearts”, we are enjoined to avoid any thought that can entice us to uproot a fundamental of the Torah. Human intelligence is limited and not everyone can ascertain the truth, so that a person can destroy his world if he follows his random thoughts. For example, if a person ruminates on whether or not there is a G-d, whether the prophecies are true, or whether the Torah is of Heavenly origin – and he does not have the degree of knowledge and judgment to find the clear truth – he will be opening himself to heretical beliefs. Therefore, the Torah commands that one not explore after his heart lest he come to stray from belief in G-d.

So it’s not so simple to say that Judaism encourages questions and wants us to explore and challenge and find our own way.

I therefore think that we need to slightly modify the statement with which we started. “Judaism believes that asking questions and welcoming questions is a necessary part of education and growth - with two caveats”:

Caveat #1: Even as we are encouraged to question and challenge and explore Judaism’s teachings to help us better understand them, there’s always a fall-back position. We have a long-standing mesorah (tradition) going straight back to Mount Sinai through which we know without a doubt that the Torah and Judaism are true. Just as our forefathers, who actually witnessed G-d giving the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, committed to doing all the commandments before questioning them because they saw the truth, so do we, their descendants commit to doing all of G-d commandments because we know them to be true, and only after that do we question why we do them.

This principle is illustrated beautifully in the popular liturgical hymn Ein K'Elokeinu that is traditionally sung each week in the synagogue at the end of the Saturday Morning Prayer Service. The Kotzker Rebbe points out that in this hymn the definitive statement Ein K'Elokeinu (“There is no one other than our G-d”) precedes all the questions of Mi K'Elokeinu (“Who is like our G-d?”); "Mi K'Adoneinu" (Who is like our Master?); Mi K'Moshienu (“Who is like our Redeemer?”). He explains that only after we have firmly established the basic principle that we know from our tradition that there is no one like our G-d, can we start raising questions.

Caveat #2: We need to make sure we have some basic background knowledge of the Torah and Judaism before we attempt to ask any questions. Questions, if they are to be taken seriously, need to come from a position of strength and knowledge, not from ignorance and unawareness. Imagine the chutzpah of a student who is just starting to study physics, sitting in Professor Einstein’s class in Princeton University the very first day, and correcting him by saying: “No, Professor, I think e=md2!” You have to have some rudimentary knowledge of the subject before you can ask questions!

This is why Maimonides wrote in his explanation of why the Torah prohibits exploring heretical works that “he [i.e. the one exploring] does not have the degree of knowledge and judgment to find the clear truth”. The prohibition is referring specifically to those who begin exploring and questioning their religion without first gaining basic knowledge and analytical skills that will help them make proper judgments.

Now that you’ve heard what I have to say, feel free to question it ... (-;

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