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January 31, 2017 7:42 am

Judaism Teaches Us the Necessity of Asking Questions and Raising Our Children to Do So

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

Email a copy of "Judaism Teaches Us the Necessity of Asking Questions and Raising Our Children to Do So" to a friend
Rear view of class raising hands. Photo: Royalty-Free/Corbis.

Rear view of class raising hands. Photo: Royalty-Free/Corbis.

It is no accident that parshat Bo, the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, should turn three times to the subject of children, and the duty of parents to educate them.

As Jews, we believe that to defend a country you  may need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless parents hand on their memories and ideals to the next generation — the story of how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way — the long journey falters, and we lose our way.

What is fascinating, though, is the way that the Torah emphasizes the fact that children must ask questions. Two of the three passages in our parsha speak of this:

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And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when He struck down the Egyptians.’” (Ex. 12:26-27)

In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Ex. 13:14)

There is another passage later in the Torah that also speaks of a question asked by a child:

In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’ tell him: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.’ (Deut. 6:20-21)

The other passage in this week’s parsha, the only one that does not mention a question, is:

On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 13:8)

These four passages have become famous because of their appearance in the Haggadah on Pessach. They are the four children: one wise, one wicked or rebellious, one simple and “one who does not know how to ask.” Reading them together, the sages came to the conclusion that: [1] children should ask questions; [2] the Pessach narrative must be constructed in response to, and begin with, questions asked by a child; and [3] it is the duty of a parent to encourage his or her children to ask questions, and the child who does not yet know how to ask should be taught to ask.

There is nothing natural about this at all. To the contrary, it goes dramatically against the grain of history. Most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. The task of the child is to obey. “Children should be seen, not heard,” goes the old English proverb. “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord,” says a famous Christian text. Socrates, who spent his life teaching people to ask questions, was condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the young. In Judaism, the opposite is the case. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they grow.

Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a religion that is based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult, that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself. “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” asked Abraham. “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” asked Moses. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” asked Jeremiah. The book of Job is largely constructed out of questions, and God’s answer consists of four chapters of yet deeper questions: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … Can you catch Leviathan with a hook? … Will it make an agreement with you and let you take it as your slave for life?”

In a yeshiva, the highest accolade is to ask a good question. Isadore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask: ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me a scientist.”

Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey.” When Hebrew was revived as a living language in the 19th century, and there was need for a verb meaning “to obey,” it had to be borrowed from the Aramaic: le-tsayet. Instead of a word meaning “to obey,” the Torah uses the verb shema, untranslatable into English because it means [1] to listen, [2] to hear, [3] to understand, [4] to internalize and [5] to respond. Written into the very structure of Hebraic consciousness is the idea that our highest duty is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to obey blindly.

Why? Because we believe that intelligence is God’s greatest gift to humanity. Rashi understands the phrase that God made man “in His image, after His likeness,” to mean that God gave us the ability “to understand and discern.” The very first of our requests in the weekday Amidah is for “knowledge, understanding and discernment.”

The historian Paul Johnson once wrote that rabbinic Judaism was “an ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” Much of that had, and still has, to do with the absolute priority Jews have always placed on education, schools, the beit midrash, religious study, learning as a life-long engagement, and teaching as the highest vocation of the religious life.

Hand on the memories to your children, says Moses. But do not do so in an authoritarian way. Encourage your children to ask, question, probe, investigate, analyze, explore. Liberty means freedom of the mind, not just of the body. Those who are confident of their faith need fear no question. It is only those who lack confidence, who have secret and suppressed doubts, that are afraid.

The one essential, though, is to teach our children that not every question has an answer we can immediately understand. There are ideas we will only fully comprehend through age and experience, others that take great intellectual preparation, and others that may be beyond our collective comprehension at this stage of the human quest. Darwin never knew what a gene was.

Even the great Newton, founder of modern science, understood how little he understood, and put it beautifully: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

In teaching its children to ask and keep asking questions, Judaism honored what Maimonides called the “active intellect,” and saw it as the gift of God. No faith has honored human intelligence more.

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