What’s Here, and What Isn’t? On Questions, Suspicion, and Faith

Years ago, just after I graduated rabbinic school, I remember being at a training retreat for Hillel student interns. These were students who had not previously been involved in Jewish life on campus, and who were recruited to be part of a cohort that would deepen their own connection with Jewish life while engaging their peers in Jewish experiences.

The retreat was held at a summer camp in August, after the campers were gone but before college started. On the last night of the retreat, there was a campfire for everyone. Another staff member was leading songs on a guitar, and as the minutes went on, it was clear that none of the songs were particularly Jewish—they were pop hits that everyone could sing, but there weren’t songs in Hebrew or about Jewish life.

I was getting frustrated. I leaned over to a colleague and complained, “Why isn’t any of this Jewish? Shouldn’t we be singing more Jewish songs?” My colleague was wise. She replied, “You know, I’m trying to focus more on what’s here than what’s not. And what I see are hundreds of Jewish kids singing together at a campfire at a Jewish summer camp. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

I return to that memory on a regular basis, because its lesson lingers. In essence, what my colleague taught me was that we have a basic choice when we interpret what life presents: We can ask, “What’s not here?” as I did, or we can ask, “What is here?” as she did. We can focus on who or what is absent, or we can focus on who or what is present. We can be critical, and ask, “What’s missing, what’s covered, what’s hidden?” Or we can be generous, and ask, “What’s showing up, what’s uncovered, what’s visible?”

Now both of these questions have their uses. Critical questions are essential for justice: In order to be inclusive, we have to notice who isn’t being included, whether by sins of omission or commission. For instance, if we are going to notice that minority populations are underrepresented in images, at events, in positions of power and privilege, we have to begin with the question, “Who isn’t here?” We have to think about who should be here, who we’re not seeing, and ask both why they’re not here and what we might do to include them.

But if we only ask critical questions, we wind up continually focusing on absence. And when we do that, like my younger self in the campfire story, we diminish our ability to be present. We focus so much on who’s not here that we don’t give attention and energy to who is. And that can have some bad effects: It can make us jaded, diminish our ability to listen empathically (rather than critically), and fray the bonds of community.

So we need both kinds of questions—critical questions that focus on who or what isn’t here and might be, and generous questions that focus on who is here and what we bring to the circle.

Half a century ago, the French philosopher Paul Ricouer coined the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” to describe the discourse of critical questions that animated some of the revolutionary thinkers who had a major impact on European—and ultimately global—life in the twentieth century: Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Ricouer noted both the positive elements of critical questions and their negative sides, and he proposed that alongside the hermeneutics of suspicion, we must also practice a hermeneutics of faith. That is, at the same time as we focus on what’s not here, we also need to focus on what is. Too much of one, and we allow what is here to blind us to what could and should be; too much of the other, and we hollow out what’s here and become blind to the moment right in front of us. We have to ask both kinds of questions.

The Passover seder is a night of questions and stories, and its motions remind us of both Ricouer’s philosophical challenge and the more basic day-to-day reality of my campfire story. “This Matza, why do we eat it?” we ask according to one of the Haggadah’s core parts. “Because our ancestors didn’t have enough time to let the dough rise when they left Egypt.” The question focuses on the matza right in front of us—matza we point to and that we are about to ingest. But the answer takes us to what’s not here, to a memory that is separate from us and that we are challenged to make our own.

The haggadah does this over and over again, inviting us to both be here and be somewhere else, to ask, What’s here? and, What’s not? Who is at our seder this year, and who isn’t? Where are we this year, and where have we been in the past? What does the Haggadah say, and what might it mean to us? As we go through seder night, we are constantly working this dialectic between presence and absence, between a hermeneutics of suspicion and a hermeneutic of faith.

In many quarters these days, it seems like we’re erring too far in one direction or the other of this continuum of questions: it sometimes feels like we’re either consumed with questions of suspicion—What isn’t here? Who is being excluded? Whose story aren’t we telling?—and we forget the questions of faith; or we narrowly focus only on what’s before us, and don’t ask what’s missing (think of the way our weather forecasts still only tell us about local conditions, rather than asking how those local conditions might be related to larger climatological trends).

If we are going to make it, as individuals and as a species, I believe the ability to ask both kinds of questions is essential. Asking both questions of suspicion and questions of faith has to be part of our lives, our politics, and our education. Passover always reminds me of this, and it’s at the root of the work we do at Ask Big Questions.

Whether or not you are attending a seder this year, I hope you’ll take some time to think about these two kinds of questions, and challenge yourself to ask both of them simultaneously.