A Tradition of Questioning Tradition

By Bethamie Horowitz

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Despite the classic worries that American Jews are evaporating into America at a rapid pace, a study recently issued by the American Jewish Committee gives an indication of just how distinctive Jews have remained here in the great melting pot.

The report, by Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center, reveals that Jews are older, better educated, better off, have longer-lasting marriages and smaller families, and reside closer to urban centers than other Americans do. More to the point, Smith finds that Jews display a distinctive commitment to education, learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

Consider, for instance, people’s views about child rearing. Compared with all other ethnic and religious groups, Americans Jews were more likely to value “thinking for oneself” as the most important quality to encourage in one’s children (71% compared with 50% for non-Jews), ranking it higher than working hard, helping others, obedience and being well liked.

This quality of thinking for oneself and being open to questioning stood out as distinctively Jewish at a retreat held earlier this month for newly minted teachers working in Catholic and Jewish private schools. At various points during this two-day meeting, which was sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, the program paired Jewish and Catholic educators to study texts relevant to the enterprise of teaching — first a section of the Talmud, and later a passage from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Encountering this literature and learning chevruta style were novel experiences for Catholic participants, who, as one put it, found it striking how “you wrestle with texts.”

Indeed, the Jewish educators were especially fluent in asking questions and in probing the texts, finding suggestions in the way things were formulated, seeking meaning and truth in the words. This sort of wrestling may bespeak a related quality: the idea of having a critique of a tradition, the ability to question freely and without inhibition, the valuing of difficult questions. In short, it suggests a habit of mind that may be characteristically Jewish, and one worth fostering.

This habit of questioning and wrestling brings to mind a story about Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi, who attributed his becoming a scientist (rather than a doctor or a lawyer, like most other immigrant Jews) to his mother’s way of greeting him after school. While most Jewish mothers asked their children, “Did you learn anything today?” Rabi’s mother asked him, “Did you ask any good questions today?”

Inasmuch as the retreat threw into relief the Jewish openness to questioning, it also highlighted a number of areas that posed difficulties for many of the Jewish participants. It was impressive to see the Catholic educators’ fluency in speaking about their “faith” and its meaning in their work. When asked, “How does your faith inform your teaching?” many described themselves as “experiencing God’s love, being grateful for the gifts God has given me and wanting to share those gifts with others.” That these formulations were heartfelt, widely shared and readily accessible indicated habits of mind and heart springing from a very different religious experience.

In contrast, the Jewish educators found the question itself hard to comprehend. “What do you mean by faith?” came the initial response. This term doesn’t translate smoothly between the two traditions. It could mean “trust in God,” or the idea that God will take care of things, or the belief that God exists. And all this talk of God then raises the question, “God as defined by whom?”

The very concept of faith was sufficiently perplexing for some participants to begin calling it “the f-word” by midretreat. The questions came freely, but the answers were more elusive. Rather than speaking about faith and God as the source of their inspiration, these Jewish educators identified their feelings of belonging to the Jewish people, their connections to Jewish tradition as wellsprings for their work. So they could speak about aspects of their Jewishness that were meaningful and motivating for them, but the talk about faith and God was more problematic.

Which raises the question, why?

Perhaps it is because, only 60 years after the Holocaust, talk of faith and God remains difficult. “Give us 100 or 200 years, and maybe we can speak that way,” one of the Jewish educators quipped.

Another reason might be that that faith isn’t a requirement for Jewish religious life. Although it’s a cliché, it’s nonetheless true that Judaism privileges actions over beliefs. This valuation means that a wide range of beliefs can fit legitimately within the Jewish spiritual umbrella. The focus on doing rather than on thinking or believing allows room for individuals’ thoughts. In making a minyan, no one’s belief is being scrutinized.

Though one can lapse from the Catholic tradition, there is no such thing as a “lapsed Jew.” There is only, as playwright Tony Kushner once described himself, a “failed Jew” — a person whose feeling of “discontent, discomfort, dislocation and disinclination” makes him or her “if not a Jew in good standing, then at least unmistakably Jewish.”

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.






Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.