The Courage to Question

Modern Orthodoxy takes pride in its intellectual courage. We often say our ideology is based on a willingness to confront new ideas and the ability to manage, if not always resolve, conflicts between religious tradition and current modes of thought.

But Orthodox Judaism, including its Modern branch, is also said to have its theological limits. Emotionally charged debates continue to flare up over acceptable beliefs and who may legitimately display the “Orthodox” label.

Virtually all such discussions revolve around the origins of Scripture and how to contend with the claims of modern biblical scholarship. God’s incorporeality, for example, was once a major point of contention in Jewish theology. But today, an Orthodox writer who accuses another of “rejecting the tenets of Jewish faith” is almost certainly referring to his target’s nontraditional views of the Bible. For the heresy hunter, secular biblical scholarship is the last heresy standing.

As Jews who choose to live in what often seems like two irreconcilable intellectual worlds, we feel the full brunt of the issue. It is up to us, especially our educators, to formulate a courageous response.

Depending on the school and the community it serves, the yeshiva educator who wishes to broach this topic may be in a delicate position and has several factors to consider: Do the risks of proactively raising this issue outweigh the benefits? How will the parent body react to the introduction of such controversial material? What if students begin to doubt all they have been taught about the basic assumptions of Judaism? Might this new knowledge, even when refuted, lead students “off the derech” (off the path; that is, to abandon religious observance)? If even one young man or woman stops keeping Shabbat after learning about the Documentary Hypothesis, would the effort be worth the cost? When students do not seem troubled by the subject, a teacher may conclude, it would be foolish to stir up the hornet’s nest.

But a significant risk arises — a risk that may manifest itself only later — when educators choose to ignore or defer discussion of an issue that is all but certain to confront religious students at some point in their lives. In Ad Ha-Yom Ha-Zeh (Until this Day), a rich survey of this topic, Rabbi Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion describes the anguish of some yeshiva alumni who encountered secular Bible studies in university for the first time (my translation):

Exposure [to academic Bible studies] may stimulate questions that [some yeshiva graduates] consider unanswerable, and they may react with shock and horror to the destruction of the entire way of thinking on which they were raised. These graduates often direct their anger at various stages of the religious educational system which failed to prepare them in any way for this struggle . . . I believe it is completely appropriate to expose our students at some point to the fundamental questions [raised by biblical scholarship] — the problems and their proposed solutions. The questions will lead them to a deeper and more truthful understanding of the Torah on its own terms. At the same time, the questions will enable students to establish a firm intellectual world – one that is not based on suppression — which will allow them to formulate their own pathway through that world.

Rabbi Bazak cuts a path through the thicket of textual problems he lays out in every chapter of his book. But his particular solutions, he implies here, are not as important as the questioning process itself (the book is subtitled “Fundamental Questions in Bible Teaching”). By demonstrating how to confront difficult problems honestly, rather than suppressing sensitive matters or dismissing problems with dogmatic answers, teachers model the intellectual courage their students can draw from years after leaving yeshiva. Courageous questioning, he adds, is not only a survival skill, it is an avenue for spiritual growth (Rabbi Bazak attributes this idea to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook).

This, I think, is part of a larger lesson for our children and students, which goes well beyond biblical criticism: The biggest questions, including religious questions, tend not to have unique solutions expressible in binary terms like true or false, good or bad, permissible or prohibited. And to acknowledge and live with a question that may not have a conclusive answer is an act of courage.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.