May 25, 2024
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Discussing the ‘Big Questions’ of Life

I often hear complaints that the Jewish community does not discuss the big questions of life. “Big Questions” address all-important issues of purpose: who we are and why we are here. Yet our rabbis tend to speak about issues like which blessing to recite on a specific food or how to perform a certain activity permissibly on Shabbos. Without downplaying the importance of these issues, they are minor aspects of a larger framework. We are focused, the argument goes, on small issues, while frustrated would-be intellectuals have to look elsewhere for satisfaction. The problem here is real but when restated, the solution becomes apparent.

Even issues that loom large sociologically are often small questions. When someone discusses whether women can serve as rabbis, or whether active homosexuals should be accepted as synagogue members, he is talking about small questions. Whether women should be released from marriage without a get or recalcitrant husbands should be beaten to near-death, are also small questions. Yes, they are important. Indeed, they are probably life-and-death questions in some cases. But Big Questions are about big-picture issues, how we see the world and our place in it.

Big Questions include: how God communicates with us; what our goals in life should be; why God creates people who will face serious challenges; what marriage means and how it should be begun and ended; how men and women should respond to the divine call in today’s world(s). These may seem like issues we rarely discuss in the Jewish community, but appearances are often different from reality.

Big Questions form the basis of Jewish education. The first biblical verse traditionally taught to a Jewish child is “Moshe commanded us the Torah, a heritage for the congregation of Israel” (Deut. 33:4). Children are taught to fulfill the commandments as a response to God’s call; that we all face tests in our lives; that everyone has a unique role in the world and much more.

Why do adults who received this fine education complain about the Big Questions? Two reasons come to mind. First, adults don’t remember what they learned in elementary school. Even if they do, they may associate those memories with other emotions and experiences, rendering them ineffective. Second, we teach children based on their comprehension abilities. School children will not be able to handle complex answers that incorporate the ambiguities of life. Instead, we teach them pat answers that generally satisfy their curiosity and set them on a traditional path. Adults need answers with more meat that reflect their experience and sophistication.

However, these Big Questions are still often discussed among adults. Historically, Judaism places discussion of important issues of theology in studies of the weekly Torah portion. Many rabbis raise these issues in an occasional sermon. Open most books on the parsha and you will find Big Questions. For example, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin recently completed his series “Unlocking the Torah Text.” In the first volume, in addition to his unique textual insights, he includes discussions of issues such as: chosenness vs universality, the nature of marriage, individual and community and divine tests. Skipping to the fifth volume due to space considerations, I will highlight a few more of the many topics he addresses: dependence on God, doubt, historical truth and rabbinic infallibility. Like many rabbinic classes and sermons, within Rabbi Goldin’s Torah essays lie discussions of key religious ideas. Take any classical book on the parsha and you will find treatments of similar topics.

If sermons and books throughout the ages have discussed these Big Questions, so why the discontent? Perhaps people feel that the discussions are too superficial. When a teacher is content to quickly quote from past sources, he implies that all the answers have already been reached. And if he utilizes only one of many approaches, without acknowledging the existence of other valid views, he shuts down important conversation. Yet the nature of a living Torah is that every generation has its own struggles and its own voice to add to the discussion. Our discussions of Big Questions cannot end with the citation of sources. We need to dive deep into them, to find their relevance to our concerns, and to explore the challenges and implications of different approaches.

Rabbi Goldin not only applies the varying approaches found in traditional texts to contemporary issues but also asks open-ended questions. He invites readers to think further and to add to these vital discussions. We need to revisit the beliefs we were taught as children, deepening our faith through our added experiences and understanding. We live in a social media culture that prizes quick, clever responses to every question. But we need to treat the Big Questions and the questioners with the respect and seriousness they deserve.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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