A tension exists at the heart of Judaism and, for that matter, any human encounter with authority - when is it appropriate to question and when is it appropriate to accept?
Parents of younger children often confront this tension – a parent gives a directive – let’s say, “Go to bed.” The child asks, “Why?” The parent responds with an explanation. The child asks again, “Why?” Ultimately, the parent attempts to close the line of inquiry with, “Because I said so!”
In our Western milieu, with its focus on the rights of the individual, this tension is particularly acute. The tendency of our American society is to open everything to questioning and to possible rejection – the ethical standing of our leaders, the morality of our institutions and patriarchs and the validity of those branches of government that have a monopoly on violence.
We are living through an incredible age in which knowledge itself is seemingly under attack – the authority of journalists, bloggers and other purveyors of information to transmit a fact, let alone an idea, is constantly called into question.
I suggest a critical question: Is anything rightfully beyond the reach of questioning?
Having just experienced Rosh HaShana, we reading about the Akeda – the Binding of Isaac – certainly one of the most perplexing and philosophically challenging story in the corpus of Torah.
We are all familiar with this story. Having reassured Avraham that his name would be perpetuated through Isaac, Hashem commands Avraham to take his son, Isaac, and offer him as an olah sacrifice. Avraham proceeds to heed Hashem’s command. However, just before dutifully slaughtering Isaac, Avraham is commanded to refrain and to not harm his child, Isaac.
The Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, explains that after receiving this third command to not harm his child, Avraham turned to Hashem in bewilderment. How is he, Avraham, to understand these three conflicting Divine pronouncements – your name will be perpetuated through Isaac, followed by a command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice and followed again by a command to do Isaac no harm?
The great sage of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Rabbi Chayim Soloveitchik, asks what my students would call a “bomb kashya” – a very powerful and incisive question.
Why did Avraham wait to express his bewilderment until the third pronouncement – Hashem’s command to spare his son? Avraham should have been perplexed after the second command! The second command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was a seeming negation of Hashem’s first pronouncement – to perpetuate Avraham’s name in his son, Isaac! Why did Avraham wait to ask a question?
To answer this question, Rav Chayim makes recourse to an encounter that he had one time had with a certain chossid. As is known, in the time of Rav Chayim, there was a divergence of philosophy between the chassidim and the misnagdim. Speaking in generalities, the chassidim – followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov – focused on the power of each Jew – irrelevant of his or her intellectual capacity – to connect with the Almighty. The misnagdim like Rav Chayim were spiritual descendants of the Gaon MiVilna who highlighted the primacy of intellectual inquiry – particularly as applied to the Talmud.
This chossid asked Rav Chayim, “Why are the misnagdim always struggling with kashyas – questions? Against whom are they asking questions – Hashem? When the Torah says something – that is how it is! What is there to inquire about?
Rav Chayim responded that in one way the chossid was correct. However, explained Rav Chayim, it is important to define when it is permitted to ask questions and when it is not.
Rav Chayim explained that our Talmud teaches that when two verses in the Torah contradict each other, interpretation is permitted only when a third passage comes to reconcile them. Without the existence of a third, reconciling, passage, it is forbidden to investigate and reconcile the contradiction. One would simply be left to conclude that in one passage the Torah says this and in the other passage the Torah says something different.
Returning to our question – why did Avraham wait until Hashem’s third command to inquire. Why did Avraham not challenge Hashem after the Almighty made two seemingly contradictory statements – Isaac is your heir and sacrifice Isaac?
Rav Chayim teaches that Avraham understood the Talmudic teaching explained above. We do not always understand the will of Hashem. Sometimes, from our perspective, two manifestations of Hashem’s Will seem to contradict each other.
Avraham understood that Isaac was his heir. However, when Hashem commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, Avraham followed the command unflinchingly – he said nothing. The Torah empowers us to question and interpret only with the existence of the third command which we can use to reconcile and give context to the first two commandments. Only when Hashem issued a third command – for Avraham to spare Isaac – only then did Avraham inquire of Hashem and seek to reconcile the first two commandments. To this inquiry Hashem explained that He will not violate his covenant to make Isaac Avraham’s heir and that Hashem does not change His dictates. Rather, when Hashem commanded Avraham to take Isaac as a sacrifice, He meant only that Isaac should be completely dedicated to the service of Hashem.
All learning begins with a question. Questions are not only important, they are the basis of education. The lesson of this powerful story is that to be an inquirer into philosophy – a genuine thinker – a person must also be grounded in fundamentals. To be capable of inquiring into Hashem’s Will, Avraham had to be rooted deeply in the Torah and in Torah thought and be committed to performing Hashem’s will. This commitment allowed Avraham to conduct a proper investigation of Hashem.
As our children grow up and enter the ambient culture, they are bombarded with questions – some that attack our most closely held beliefs. These questions will attack Israel and Zionism, the Torah’s attitude towards sexuality, social justice and women and even the existence of G-d. Some of these questions are real. Some are not. To be able to filter real questions from fake ones and to have the capacity to deal with real questions, our children must be grounded in our Jewish fundamentals.
One of our school’s greatest strengths is its proven track-record of producing students who are simultaneously grounded in these fundamentals and intellectually curious about the world and about Torah.
Our dual curriculum fosters this harmony. In General Studies, our students develop their intellect, curiosity, knowledge of history and thought and skills for operating in the professional and academic worlds. In Judaic Studies, our students connect to our mesora and learn how to study it. At MHA-FYOS, we prepare our students for Jewish adulthood by rooting them in our fundamentals while simultaneously equipping them to meaningfully analyze and inquire about our beliefs and about the world in which we live. This is one of the reasons that I am so proud of our school and of our students.
Thank you for your support of our students and for your continued contribution to MHA.