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How a Chacham Becomes a Rasha: Some Thoughts about Questions

A few years ago, I was speaking with a high school student who was struggling with her faith. She told me that she’d learned some material in her Halacha class that upset her. When she shared it with me, I had to admit that I’d never heard of it before, and encouraged her to ask her teacher for sources, so she could at least research and try to understand the basis for the lesson.

She told me that she asked, and her teacher replied as follows:

“I am your Rabbi, and the Torah says you must follow the teachings of your Rabbis. I am your source.”

The young woman found this frustrating. She was asking to learn more, to understand better, and was essentially being told, “no.”

I feel grateful to have not been educated that way. The family and institutions from which I drank my Torah growing up always encouraged and celebrated questioning and the desire to learn from primary sources. They were invigorated by students seeking deeper and broader knowledge, and even welcomed the opportunity to reevaluate their lessons on the basis of insightful inquiry. At my parents’ Shabbos and Yom Tov table, there was no such thing as “off topic” discussion- if we were interested, then that meant it was on topic; we could always circle back to the original dvar Torah afterwards.

The Torah I inherited is one that honors truth, integrity, and generously sharing the ‘shakla v’tarya’ of how different minds process reasoning and arrive at varied and evolving conclusions and multiple opinions. It allows an essay to end with the words “v’tzarich iyun.” [and it requires investigation]

In the Haggadah, it’s the wise child who is credited with asking: “What are all the different types of laws that G-d commanded you?” And the imperative is to offer generous explanation, not “hush and do it because I said so”- a slap across the face of ‘emunas chachamim.’ Na’aseh v’nishma doesn’t mean depriving kids (and adults) of knowledge- it just describes the order of the commitment.

G-d Himself gifted each and every one of us with free will- the very choice that makes us human, that renders our decisions meaningful. Have we been taking that away from the next generation? From ourselves?

Without access to knowledge, what are our choices actually worth?

The Time of Our Freedom

Freedom has become a loaded topic lately.

The old stipulation about “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” has morphed in so many permutations around timely issues such as what constitutes hate speech, smear campaigns, the spread of information and misinformation, public health emergency, and the aguna crisis. Free speech is a complicated right.

Religious free will is undergoing a parallel metamorphosis.

On the one hand, it’s indispensable to the system- without the capacity to choose, our actions lack meaning or value. On the other hand- when the pedagogic system usurps ideological authority, then how will the next generation learn to think? Of what will their free will and choices be comprised?

The dalet amos of Halacha seem to be shrinking around us all the time, in the form of new chumras and ever increasing restrictive cultural prohibitions and pressures.

It’s the fences, really.

“Make a fence around the Torah.” Sure, that makes sense. But then we built a fence around that fence, and another around that one, and another. Must keep everyone safe. Until we’ve constructed so many concentric fences that the Torah itself is imprisoned and barricaded, buried behind a mesh of wrought iron so that its authenticity and visibility has become almost entirely obstructed. There’s now man-made barbed wire “protecting” us from the beauty of our rightful legacy, scaring thousands away from the very gift it was meant to preserve.

“We don’t cast a decree on the public which the majority cannot uphold”- the “public” does not seem to be doing well with many of the new decrees. The distortion of G-d’s Torah in the name of this new alt right Reform Judaism is driving away so many precious souls.

And while the distortion of Halacha to include constantly new and more restrictive practices endangers the integrity of the original mandates, perhaps even more troubling are the new imperatives around restricted thinking. Could it be that a developing young mind should want to learn more and be told, “no, the buck stops here”? How could there be free will without access to the knowledge that grants it?

Spiritual Slavery

We know all this, and we have the solution.

How many times have we been taught: “Mitzrayim is meyzarim: constraints”?

And: “engraved on the tablets”- the word engraved is related to that of freedom:

“You have no free person except for one who gets involved in the learning of Torah.”

The gift of Torah can only be appreciated in the context of freedom, of free will.

If we strip people of their freedom to ask, to understand, even to observe, then we are actually subverting the entire premise of their relationship with G-d. Real love cannot grow with a gun pressing against its temple.

Answering Questions and Questioning Answers

As parents, we start out wishing we could control everything that happens to and from our children. To protect them from pain, to shield them from their own mistakes. We are ego-invested too; we want their experiences and behaviors to be a reflection of our own best intentions and dearest values. But good parenting is a process of incrementally letting go, the right amounts at the right times- it’s nearly impossible to do this perfectly. We can’t feed them predigested food forever. They need to live and struggle and learn in order to mature and develop. So do we. It doesn’t stop at adulthood.

G-d is a good parent. He offers us free will, the gift of messing up – time and time again. The Torah he gave us is deliberately oblique- open to countless interpretations and iterations. “Like a hammer shattering a stone.”

Pesach is the holiday of faith. It’s when we go back to our origin story- dissect and analyze who we are and how we got here, and purposely try to evoke questions. From the children. Not just the ones prescribed in their overstuffed notebooks and our Haggadahs; those are just to get the ball rolling. But also and more importantly, the ones emanating from the tablets of their hearts.

Many adults fear children’s questions- especially the good ones. Especially the ones for which we don’t readily have satisfying answers. And most especially, the ones with which we ourselves may still grapple.

Questions can make us uncomfortable. But repressing questions makes everyone and everything uncomfortable in the long run. And squelches the authenticity of our relationships and spiritual framework. People are less likely to become disillusioned from asking questions than they are by having their questions silenced.

What’s the Difference Between the Chacham and the Rasha?

The questions of the Chacham and the Rasha look very similar: Both ask about the service, both use the word “to you” regarding the older generation as the link. The Wise child asks in curiosity- genuinely wanting to know- details, sources, distinctions. The Rasha asks from a place of defiance, of challenge, with the intent to dismiss. But why? How did that happen?

I’ve been wondering whether the four sons model in the Haggadah is not as much descriptive as it is prescriptive, for us. After all: children are not held accountable the way adults are.

Maybe the Rasha doesn’t get his teeth blunted because he is the Rasha, but is a Rasha because he had his teeth blunted when he asked in earnest.

Maybe some children don’t ask because they were educated in ways that feel irrelevant to and exclusive of them, or worse: they were taught not to ask their questions. Or got dead end answers.

Maybe some children only ask simple questions because they’ve only been offered shallow paradigms.

And maybe some children become wise because they are offered a broad and confident platform on which to question and receive knowledge.

If “because I said so” was meant to be the answer to everything, the Torah would be a whole lot shorter.

Inviting and embracing our children’s questions is the theme of Seder night, and the key to strong, healthy Jewish education.

We don’t need to have all the answers; we need to know and to let them know, that it’s safe to ask questions. That it’s actually wonderful to ask questions. That even if the initial answer is “wow- I don’t actually know,” we can research, and ask others who know more for more sources, to go deeper, and be able to explore ever more questions. Truth-seeking is a life-long journey.

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