Jonathan Muskat

Should I study theologically challenging topics or is it too risky?

This past Shabbat I delivered a shiur on the question of whether we can prove the existence of God and if we cannot, then why we should remain faithful Torah observant Jews. After all, there are many intelligent Jews who are Torah observant and there are many intelligent Jews who are not Torah observant. If it’s so obvious that God exists then why isn’t every Jew Torah observant and if it’s not so obvious that God exists then why are so many Jews Torah observant? After all, the Torah makes so many demands on us so why should we live a life based on assumptions that might not be true?

I joked that we will see how well the lecture goes by how many people stay for mincha. But the truth is, my joke highlighted a very important question. My community is a typical Torah observant community, some of whose members may or may not struggle with some aspects of faith. Why raise challenging questions that may pose serious challenges to our faith that contain answers that may or may not be satisfactory to the listeners?

To address this question, let us take a step back and first ask why study Jewish thought altogether. I think that we can point to three benefits. First, this study can help us observe halacha better. In Avot D’Rabbi Natan (Chapter 29), Rabbi Yitzchak ben Pinchas said that anyone who has studied halacha but has not studied midrash has never really tasted fear of sin. Furthermore, anyone who has studied halacha but has not studied midrash is like a weak person with a weapon in his hand. The halacha is a weapon and a guide to battle spiritual malaise. The midrash, or Jewish thought, strengthens us internally to want to observe Torah and mitzvot and to refrain from sinning. Moreover, in the Moreh Nevuchim (3:51), the Rambam writes that we must reflect on why we observe halacha while observing it in order to fully achieve the goal of that particular halacha. When we study the “why” when it comes to religious observance, then, to paraphrase motivational speaker Simon Sinek, we seek a compelling higher purpose that inspires us and acts as the source of all we do. The study of Jewish thought provides us with the “why” of halachic observance which transforms halachic observance into an inspiring and passionate experience.

Secondly, this study can facilitate a deeper understanding of God which intensifies our love for God, as the Rambam writes in a number of places (Hilchot Teshuva, 10:6, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2 and 4:12). He famously writes “according to the knowledge, the love of God will be; if it be small, the love will be small; if it is abundant, then the love will be abundant.” (Hilchot Teshuva 10:6)  In Torat Ha’adam (Shaar Hagemul), the Ramban explains that the study of Jewish thought provides us with a better perspective of the world. He writes:  “[W]e shall benefit ourselves… by becoming wise men who know God in the manner in which He acts and in His deeds. Moreover, we shall become believers endowed with a stronger faith in Him than others regarding matters known and unknown (consciously and subconsciously).”  Understanding God’s world ultimately provides greater understanding of, and consequently a greater attachment to, God Himself.

Finally, this study can respond to theological challenges that confront us. Rav Soloveitchik writes, “Had, for instance, Second Commonwealth Judaism formulated its great moralistic doctrines in a philosophical vernacular comprehensible to both Jew and non-Jew of that era, Christianity would not have been able to boast throughout the ages that it had discovered new ethical horizons and would not have been credited with being a progressive religion. The Gentile would have known then that the “new” vistas allegedly unlocked by the founders of the church had beheld long before their advent by the Jewish rabbis and moralists.” (Community, Covenant and Commitment, Selected Letters and Communications, p. 100-101) We could have more successfully responded to the theological challenge of the Church if we had developed a more articulate approach to Jewish thought, especially as it applied to ethics.

Studying Jewish thought can enhance my avodat Hashem, it can help deepen my understanding of God and the world that He created, and it can ward off theological challenges from the outside world. But is it worth the risk? What if I raise theological questions that people haven’t considered or articulated and these questions may distance people from religion? Do the benefits of studying Jewish thought outweigh its dangers?

In my experience, I have found the answer to be yes. I have found that for the overwhelming majority of people today, the greatest roadblock to meaningful halachic observance and passionate commitment to God is not theological challenge but apathy. We live in an age of distraction when anything meaningful competes with so many distractions. One method to deal with these distractions is to forbid them, whether they are the internet, social media or outside culture.  That’s very hard to do in today’s world. The more practical solution is that we must compete more effectively with these distractions and make that which is meaningful more compelling. We must make religious life more compelling. We must make halachic observance more compelling. We must immerse ourselves in religion by taking a deep dive in understanding why we do what we do. Yes, there are risks involved, but if we immerse ourselves in these questions and grapple with them in a rigorous, honest and responsible fashion, then it is well worth the risk for the overwhelming majority of people. In my experience, I have found that the advantages when we engage in complex and challenging Torah questions of a greater and more inspired halachic observance and a deeper understanding of God and His world far outweigh the risks of engagement.

And, yes, they all stayed for mincha.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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