The Art of Asking Questions

This text is taken from: The Haggadah by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, Spring 2013) with permission from Rabbi Sacks. Further details available at www.korenpub.com.

And when your children ask you . . .
Exodus 12: 26

SOCRATES (469-399 B.C.E.), 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 asked by 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 not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth. ‘As for the child who does not know how to ask, you must begin to teach him how.’ Many of the 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, ‘On that day you shall tell your son . . .’ 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, enquire. 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 the God, and the greater the prophet, the harder the question. Abraham asked, ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?’ Moses asked, ‘O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people?’ 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?’ 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 Yelamdenu type) began with a question asked of the rabbi by a member of the congregation. One of the classic genres of rabbinical literature is called She’elot uteshuvot, ‘questions and replies.’ Questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality.

Religious faith has often been seen as naïve, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way. Judaism is not the suspension of critical intelligence. It contains no equivalent to the famous declaration of the Christian thinker Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est, ‘I believe it because it is impossible.’ To the contrary: asking a question is itself a profound expression of faith in the intelligibility of the universe and the meaningfulness of human life. To ask is to believe that somewhere there is an answer. The fact that throughout history people have devoted their lives to extending the frontiers of knowledge is a compelling testimony to the restlessness of the human spirit and its constant desire to go further, higher, deeper. Far from faith excluding questions, questions testify to faith – that history is not random, that the universe is not impervious to our understanding, that what happens to us is not blind chance. We ask, not because we doubt, but because we believe.

THERE ARE THREE KINDS of question, each corresponding to a different aspect of God, humanity and the intellectual quest. The first belongs to the sphere of chokhmah, ‘wisdom,’ and includes scientific, historical, and sociological inquiry. Rashi interprets the phrase on the creation of man ‘in Our image, according to Our likeness’ to mean ‘with the power to understand and discern.’ Homo sapiens is the only being known to us capable of framing the question, ‘Why?’ Maimonides includes scientific and philosophical understanding as part of the commands to love and fear God, because the more we understand of the universe, the more awe-inspiring it and its Architect reveal themselves to be. The sages coined a special blessing for seeing a sage distinguished for his or her worldly knowledge (‘Blessed are You . . . who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood’). The first request we make in the daily Amidah prayer is ‘favour us with knowledge, understanding and insight.’ Human dignity is intimately related to our ability to fathom the workings of the universe, natural and social. Chokhmah is an encounter with God through creation. Making man in His image, the creative God endowed mankind with creativity.

Second are the questions we ask about Torah, like the four that open the seder: ‘Why is this night different? Why do we do this, not that? What is the reason for the law?’ It is one of the most striking features of biblical Hebrew that though the Torah is full of commands – 613 of them – there is no biblical word that means ‘obey.’ Instead the Torah uses the word shema, meaning, ‘to hear, listen, reflect on, internalize and respond.’ God wants not blind obedience, but understanding response. Moses tells the Israelites that the commands are ‘their wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations,’ implying that they are amenable to human reason. In one of the historic moments of adult education, Ezra, returning from Babylon, assembles the people in Jerusalem and reads publicly from the Torah with the assistance of Levites whose task was ‘to make it clear and explain the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.’ The saintly Hillel, known for his gentleness to all, none the less said ‘An ignorant person cannot be pious.’ The more we ask, search and understand the Torah, the better able we are to internalize its values and apply them to new situations. Torah is a meeting with God in revelation.

Undoubtedly, though, the most unique of Judaism’s questions and the one most associated with the prophetic tradition is about justice: why bad things happen to good people, why evil seems so often to triumph, why there is so much undeserved suffering in the world. Karl Marx once called religion ‘the opium of the people.’ He believed that it reconciled them to their condition – their poverty, disease and death, their ‘station in life,’ their subjection to tyrannical rulers, the sheer bleakness of existence for most people most of the time. Faith anaesthetized. It made the otherwise unbearable, bearable. It taught people to accept things as they are because that is the will of God. Religion, he argued, was the most powerful means ever devised for keeping people in their place. It spread the aura of inevitability over arbitrary fate. So, argued Marx, if the world is to be changed, religion must be abandoned.

Nothing could be less true of Judaism – the faith born when God liberated a people from the chains of slavery. The question that echoes through the history of Judaism – from Abraham to Jeremiah to Job to rabbinic midrash to medieval lament to Hassidic prayer – is not acceptance of, but a protest against, injustice. There are some questions to which the response is an answer. But there are other questions to which the response is an act. To ask, ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ is not to seek an explanation that will reconcile us to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is to turn to God with a request for action, and to discover, in the very process of making the request, that God is asking the same of us.

There are three scenes in Moses’ early life. He sees an Egyptian attacking an Israelite, and he intervenes. He sees two Israelites fighting, and he intervenes. He sees non-Israelite shepherds mistreating the non-Israelite daughters of Jethro, and he intervenes. To be a Jew is to be prepared to act in the face of wrongdoing. When Rabbi Chaim of Brisk was asked, What is the role of a rabbi?, he replied, ‘To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of their oppressor.’ Judaism is God’s question-mark against the random cruelties of the world. It is His call to us to ‘mend the world’ until it becomes a place worthy of the Divine presence, to accept no illness that can be cured, no poverty that can be alleviated, no injustice that can be rectified. To ask the prophetic question is not to seek an answer but to be energized to action. That is what it is to meet God in redemption.

The three types of question are therefore inter-related. When we use our understanding of creation in conjunction with the commands of revelation, we help to bring redemption - an act at a time, a day at a time, knowing that it is not given to us to complete the task but neither may we stand aside from it.

THERE ARE THREE CONDITIONS, though, for asking a Jewish question. The first is that we seek genuinely to learn – not to doubt, ridicule, dismiss, reject. That is what the ‘wicked son’ of the Haggadah does: ask not out of a desire to understand but as a prelude to walking away.

Second is that we accept limits to our understanding. Not everything is intelligible at any given moment. There were scientists at the beginning of the twentieth century who believed that virtually every major discovery had already been made – not suspecting that the next hundred years would give rise to Einstein’s relativity theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s theorem, proof of the ‘Big Bang’ origin of the universe, the discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human genome. In relation to Torah, there were many German and American Jews in the nineteenth century who could not understand Jewish prayers for a return to Zion, and deleted them from the prayer book. These facts should induce in us a certain humility. Not every scientific orthodoxy survives the test of time. Not everything in Judaism that we do not understand is unintelligible. The very features of Jewish life one generation finds difficult, the next generation may find the most meaningful of all. Faith is not opposed to questions, but it is opposed to the shallow certainty that what we understand is all there is.

Third is that when it comes to Torah, we learn by living and understand by doing. We learn to understand music by listening to music. We learn to appreciate literature by reading literature. There is no way of understanding Shabbat without keeping Shabbat, no way of appreciating how Jewish laws of family purity enhance a marriage without observing them. Judaism, like music, is something that can only be understood from the inside, by immersing yourself in it.

Given these caveats, Judaism is a faith that, more than any other, values the mind, encouraging questions and engaging us at the highest level of intellectual rigour. Every question asked in reverence is the start of a journey towards God, and it begins with the habit which, on Pesach, Jewish parents teach their children: to ask, thereby to join the never-ending dialogue between human understanding and heaven.


This text is taken from: The Haggadah by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, Spring 2013) with permission from Rabbi Sacks. Further details available at www.korenpub.com.

One of the foremost religious and social thinkers of our day, Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  He is the author of numerous books including Celebrating Life, From Optimism to Hope, To Heal a Fractured World and Dignity of Difference, for which he won a Grawemeyer Award in Religion.  He can be reached on twitter @chiefrabbi and on facebook. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a monthly blogger for Ask Big Questions.