A question is the centerpiece of learning. A most valuable human transition from confusion to clarity, there is vulnerability in this fragile space of curiosity and uncertainty.
Fear can also rise to the surface if there was embarrassment in the midst of asking when young. A parent or teacher must be a humble educator with the heart of a servant in that moment. A child’s beautiful question must be honored with the gift of a generous non-judgmental answer.
We learn at different points in time and there is no room for judgment about what is known or not know, yet. What a young person understands, someone else may understand later in life.
MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Liz Lerman, a Jewish choreographer wrote Critical Response Process that “combines the power of questions with the focus and challenge of informed dialogue.” An aspect of creative thinking is suspended judgment. This is important to understand because judgment shuts down creativity. Her intelligent approach enables feedback that motivates via clean questioning. Using it with university students, creativity flourishes in non-judgmental, respectful, and high level exchanges.
She describes four steps that begin with sharing what is meaningful about the work. Then, the artist asks questions. This is followed by responders asking neutral questions, not ones embedded with judgments. Lastly, opinions are given, preceded by asking another question: Do I have your permission to give my opinion? The artist has the option to say no. This respectful boundary around opinion giving is wise for all life interactions.
In To Be Jewish Is To Ask Questions Edgar Bronfman writes “to learn more, to challenge yourself to think more deeply, is one of the central tenets of the Jewish religion. A leader has to have a great deal of security, a goal, and a belief in the cause being fought for — and not only ask bold questions himself, but be unafraid to be questioned. A great leader also has a deep sensitivity to the wants and needs of those he or she is leading, even when it might be exasperating to listen.”
Abbreviated ‘text talk’ takes away the necessary time to listen and hear with depth, while the ‘know it all’ has no questions. Giving a monologue, there is no participation in a shared dialogue, and active listening is absent. Void of a real exchange, there no space for learning, empathy, and growth. Attempting mental manipulation, they demand other ideas not co-exist with their all-knowing ideas. This is the voice of a narcissist.
However, a learning conversation gives refreshing symmetry in a judgment-free zone. Participants can relax in the flow of curious questions into exciting co-discovered answers. This is a healthy space of two-way listening and learning for growing parent and child, blossoming teacher and student, inquisitive friend and friend. These relationships nurture emotional intelligence and interpersonal ease. Here, we can agree to disagree while maintaining respect and closeness.
At Washington Hebrew Congregation 12 Jewish Questions is a learning community for Jewish and non-Jewish adults with questions about Jewish identity, beliefs, culture, and customs. It’s an environment to discover and rediscover the relevance of Judaism. “As adults, we all have questions about being Jewish, and many of us are still searching for answers.”
The Passover Seder tells about the Exodus from Egypt. This story, which will be told soon throughout the world, begins with the youngest person at the Seder asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah). These traditional questions provide the impetus for telling why this night is different from all other nights.
Educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff writes “with our parents and grandparents watching us with tremendous pride, our entire introduction to familial Jewish life was through those four questions. Even though we were reading from a script laid out in front of us, we understood that questions were good. We loved them and we sang them.”
In Jews and Their Many Questions he continues “Why are questions so important? The Maharal of Prague explains that people feel satisfied with their view of life. Thus they are complacent when it comes to assimilating new ideas. But when a person has a question, it is an admission of some lack. This creates an “empty space” to be filled.”
From the concept of ‘being a question and not an answer’ splendidly delivered by Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun in Chicago, Chava Rochel Golden poses a question in her thoughtful work Soul Journer. “Would you rather spend time with a person who has all the answers and who demands proof of everything you say, or with a person who is open and curious? The open person may not actually have a question, but they live life as a question. Their demeanor is inviting. They are curious, interested, and invite the unknown. They are happy for no reason; they attract quality, not quantity. The open person spouts limitless fountains of richness. The person who is a question MOVES forward; the interactions have a green light.”
There’s an abundance of beautiful questions waiting to be answered with childlike curiosity, shared enthusiasm, and empathic care. Let’s move forward together and fill those empty spaces.