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Ask Me a Question

22/03/18 09:54:34

Mar22

It has been said that animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions. Oliver Goldsmith once retorted: “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies”.

I can’t imagine comments less Jewish than these! The Kotzker Rebbe who was known for his sharp retorts was once faced with a challenging question from a Yeshiva student. The student asked why it took God so long to create the world. Without hesitation the Rebbe replied: “You think you can do better? Well, what are you waiting for?” The Kotzker’s response is instructive in that while critical of the questioner and in keeping with the typical Jewish retort to a question (shoot back with another question) was certainly not deriding the notion of asking questions. Judaism is in love with questioning and rarely tries to silence a question asked from a genuine enquirer. Jewish tradition would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.

Religious faith, for us, is certainly not blind. Even if some argue that the Talmud adopted the Socratic Method, it is today a quintessentially Jewish approach. We are not only the people of the Book, we are the people of the Question. Enquiry, debate, argument, the interrogation of a text is the traditional Jewish approach to learning. Even Jews far removed from tradition are deeply traditional in their critical and sometimes pugnacious approach. We are drawn to the enquiry and the very word for wisdom – חכמה – has been interpreted as  כח מה – the strength of what and why…

If anything characterises Pesach and the Haggadah it is the question. Pesach is not only a spring time festival, it is a season of questioning. And so on the night of Pesach we begin our journey through the seder – which opens with the four questions, proceeds to the four sons or children (and their four enquiries) and in many ways is held together by questions, both formal and informal.

The ability to live with difficult questions is a sign of a mature mind. As the Yiddish expression reminds us: “we don’t die from asking questions”. The Hagaddah examines different kinds of questions; some are factual, eg “why do we eat the matzah?” Some are existential such as that of the “Tam,” the so called simple child. His is in fact no simple question but a cri de coer, a search for meaning, a “what’s it all about” cry from the heart. Similarly the one who “does not know how to ask” may not be the ignorant individual portrayed in many pictorial Haggadot, but a highly thoughtful and sensitive person who recognises that knowledge begins with the recognition of what we don’t know.

While Judaism deeply appreciates a questioning mind it doesn’t respect a question asked out of cynicism. If we seek to genuinely learn, not to ridicule or reject, then we are asking a true question. The wicked son of the Haggadah asks not out of a thirst to know, but a desire to dismiss. We value a good question more than a ‘parve’ (neutral or non-committal) answer.

There are times in every family, community and society when questions need to be asked and in their framing they can change the very direction of that group – a question after all is a quest. Some of the perplexing questions that will feature at my seder and are implicit in the Haggadah this year include:

  • How can we promote more passion for Judaism and learning Torah in committed Jews?
  • How can we better connect to Jewish Millennials and keep them connected?
  • How do we engage marginalised Jews and those who feel excluded?
  • How can we as Jews help develop a more compassionate policy for asylum seekers in Australia and Israel?
  • How can we as Jews teach our sons to be more respectful of women?
  • How can we help the hungry in Australia and address the hunger for meaning across our continent?

This Pesach as we sit around our seder tables may we ask with alertness, search with sincerity and quest with passion. As the beautiful Ethiopian proverb put it: “Unless you call out, who will answer the door?”

Chag Kasher Vesameach.

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 23 July 2019 20 Tammuz 5779