Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Second Question- How to deal with the big questions our students ask

Jewish philosophy classes in high school are somewhat like the parah adumah. Just like the parah aduma was described by Chazal as “purifying the impure, and making the pure impure”, Jewish philosophy classes often help those who are struggling, while causing those who are not, to struggle. Is there a solution that can be found that is beneficial to all? I believe that there is.

A friend likes to say that when rabbis say that Judaism believes in asking questions, they only mean the first question. The second question? Not so much. By this he means that as long as the questioner is willing to accept the answer to their question, their questioning is acceptable. As soon as they followup with a serious objection, the rabbi is no longer okay with questioning. Although this idea is a bit too cynical for me, there is some truth in what he's saying. There are too many rabbis and teachers who are not knowledgeable enough on major questions of Jewish philosophy. Some, when challenged, become defensive, or even go on the attack, rather than admitting that they don't have an answer. Even more, there is a tendency among some to refuse to admit that some questions do not have an easy answer. If difficult and challenging questions are not addressed seriously, what conclusion can the questioner reach, other than that there is no answer?

There is one other danger that was pointed out to me by Rabbi Scott Kahn, Rosh Yeshiva of Yesodei HaTorah. When rabbeim and teachers are not sufficiently well-versed in Jewish philosophy, they might mistakenly think that certain questions and/or concepts are heretical. Rather than being in a position to help their student understand why her question is legitimate, the teacher might deem it unacceptable and out-of-bounds. Alternatively, they might lack the ability to present all available answers.

At the same time there are those with simple faith. They are not the deepest thinkers but they believe in God, and feel his presence in their lives. They can't tell you why, or prove that they are correct, because they have probably never analyzed the reason for their beliefs. Even if they have, their answers are not deeply philosophical. There is no need to introduce them to the hard questions. These questions often lead to doubts, and those who are not intellectual might not understand possible answers. Some have suggested that these people will eventually discover these questions through various means, but I know of many cases where this is not true. Even in the cases where it is, what benefit is there in introducing them to the questions at an earlier point?

I believe that Chazal recognized this duality when they taught in Maseches Chagiga that certain complicated topics should not be taught in large groups, or sometimes to more than one person at a time. They were not hiding from the “second question”. They merely recognized that a good teacher addresses complicated issues in a way that the questioner can handle. There is no blanket answer to complicated questions, which will work for everyone, and some don't have these questions.

I have struggled through some of these questions, and emerged a stronger person, but I would never claim to have the answer. Our understanding of God is inherently limited. Let us struggle when necessary, as we passionately search for truth. We can not and must not avoid the second question. We also should not introduce the second question to those who do not ask it themselves.

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