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Passover And The Jewish Art of Questioning Everything

Don’t be alarmed, but Passover is coming! It often feels that as my Purim costume is being stored away the Passover dishes are simultaneously dusted off with the countdown to the Seder frantically beginning. Matzah suddenly appears everywhere, securing a brisket becomes a priority and spring cleaning takes on a completely different meaning.

In just a couple of weeks, Jews around the world will congregate for the Passover Seder. To my surprise, more American Jews attend a Seder than fast on Yom Kippur, making it the most celebrated Jewish holiday on the calendar. With such large participation, it becomes an opportune educational and religious moment as the Seder is for many their only encounter with Judaism throughout the year. So with all their wisdom, what did the rabbis instruct us at such an auspicious time?

Belief in God? Keeping kosher? Giving charity? Nope. They preached about the importance of asking questions! With all ears listening, they decided that Passover night should be filled with questions instead of answers — a truly radical pedagogic decision on their part. Beyond asking why tonight is different from all other nights, the Seder is structured to provoke all sorts of questions. Even a Torah scholars who know all the laws of Passover must ask questions.

For many, religion is advertised as a way to gain clarity and provide comfort while a question at its core seeks to disrupt and challenge. For the rabbis though, a question is more valuable than an answer, teaching us to value exploration and not discovery. Elie Wiesel echoed the words of the sages by asking, “When will you understand that a beautiful answer is nothing? Nothing more than illusion! Man defines himself by what disturbs him and not by what reassures him. When will you understand that you are living and searching in error, because God means movement and not explanation.”

What is even more profound is that we instill this value in our children. One could argue that questioning is important but only after they reach a certain level of maturity. This is not the Jewish way as traditionally the youngest child recites the four questions and later we study the four children with their questions. “To be a Jewish child is learn how to question” explains Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Against cultures that see unquestioning obedience as the ideal behaviour of a child, Jewish tradition, in the Haggadah, regards the ‘child who has not learned to ask’ as the lowest, not the highest, stage of development” he concludes. The rabbis were insistent that our first memories be of questioning and debating instead of dogma and compliance.

The importance of questioning is continually reinforced in Jewish learning and spirituality. Abraham, the very first Jew we often learn about has the chutzpah to question God’s decision making ability by asking God whether He will sweep away the innocent along with the guilty. Moses also follows the Abrahamic legacy by asking God why he was chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. According to some commentators, it was the very fact that he asked this question that made him fit to lead since a question is a true sign of humility as we admit what don’t know or understand.

Finally, the Talmud itself is a book of questions and its entire methodology is based on challenging and raising questions. Its pages are filled with phrases like, “from where do we derive these things?”, “what does it teach us?” and most importantly “what is the reason for this?”. Nothing can be learned if not challenged, even if it means deconstructing everything in the process. Truth can only be claimed if it can withstand the storm of questions.

“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught. Curiosity is not sacrilegious but a vital religious virtue. On Passover we replicate the experience of going from slavery to freedom by drinking wine, reclining like royalty, and eating a delicious meal. However, the Seder teaches us that the highest expression of freedom is asking questions. By asking “why?” we take the first step into freedom.

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