Dear Jew in the City-
I was raised to not be allowed to ask questions at my yeshiva, Is asking questions considered to be a bad thing in Judaism?
I wish you had asked this question around Passover because nowhere is the ethos of asking questions more apparent:
Maggid, the main section of the Seder really starts with the recitation of The Four Questions;
The section of The Four Sons is all about the way people with different personalities ask questions;
The famous response of the Talmud to why we do various things at the Seder, like eat charoses, is “So the children should ask.”
We see that asking questions is not just tolerated, it’s actively encouraged. Accordingly, the response to “What is the meaning of this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26) is “This is the Passover sacrifice to Hashem, Who passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians and spared our houses” (ibid., 12:27). It’s not, “Shut up! * thwack! *”
All of our great leaders asked questions – not just of humans but of God Himself!
When God informed Abraham of His plans to destroy Sodom, Avraham replied, “Shall the Judge of the entire world not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). When Pharaoh increased the Jews’ labors in response to Moses’ demands, Moses asked God, “Why have You brought trouble on this people?” (Exodus 5:22). The prophet Jeremiah asked God, “Why does the way of evil people prosper? Why do those who act treacherously live securely?” (Jeremiah 12:1).
Pretty much the entire Book of Job is made up of Job questioning God. At the end of the Book, God replies, which is kind of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Job did get some context regarding the things he had been asking about, but on the other hand he was seriously humbled and put in his place. This is because Job was entitled to ask questions but he didn’t ask quite so properly. If you read the Book of Job, you’ll see that he was asking questions to which he already had preconceived answers. He didn’t want honest answers so much as he wanted justifications for things he had already decided. When he got honest answers, it was a humbling experience because he was forced to confront that his preconceived premises weren’t intellectually honest.
This is also the difference between the wise son and the “wicked” son in the Haggadah. They both ask questions but the “wicked” son isn’t doing so because he’s curious, he’s doing so because he’s being antagonistic. He’s not looking for answers per se, he just wants to pick a fight. They both get answers but we “blunt the teeth” of the “wicked” son. He gets an answer but he also gets put in his place. This is an important principle when it comes to asking questions: it’s okay to ask if you really want to know. If you’re asking to mock or to pick a fight… well, that just makes you kind of a jerk and people are going to respond accordingly.
Anyone who’s ever learned Talmud knows that the process depends on asking questions and even challenging others’ positions. This is okay because the entire exercise is designed to try and find the truth. Korach, on the other hand, did the same to Moshe on the surface in that he asked questions and challenged him. The difference was that Korach didn’t really care about the truth. He had an agenda and he was prepared to mock whatever Moshe replied. The mishna in Avos 5:17 uses the sages Hillel and Shammai as an example of an argument “for the sake of Heaven” (i.e., sincere and productive) and the tactics of Korach and his followers as the archetypical argument that is “not for the sake of Heaven” (i.e., insincere and unproductive).
Finally, when one has questions – whether they are sincere or part of one’s personal agenda – our actions are not dependent on whether we have yet found responses that we consider to be satisfactory. When the Jews were given the Torah, they famously replied, “naaseh v’nishmah” (Exodus 24:7). This is typically translated, “we will do and we will hear” but a better translation would be “we will do and we will understand.” In other words, the Jews agreed to perform the mitzvos even as they strive to understand them. We must keep the mitzvos because God told us to. We are not only entitled to ask questions that will lead us to a better understanding of the Torah, we are encouraged to do so! Our obligations, however, are not predicated on receiving answers we like.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent