The Comforting Beauty Of Asking Questions

The Comforting Beauty Of Asking Questions

Why me?  Why now? 

Beset by questions we pine after certainties.  Well-meaning friends offer answers.  Theologians expound.  Politicians offer sound bites and tweets.  The questions remain.   The search continues.    

I retreat to my books. 

The Talmud begins with a question.  The Talmud is much more than the multi-volume collection of rabbinic opinions completed in fifth century Babylonia.  It is no ordinary sacred text.  Its premise is that wisdom begins with a question mark.  Open any page and discover a question.  A discussion ensues.  Arguments emerge.

I marvel at the editorial mastery.  Debates are arranged.  A second century rabbi argues with a rabbi from the third century.  A fifth century scholar offers clarifications about opinions offered hundreds of years before.  A sage living in the land of Israel debates another living in Babylonia.  500 years of discussions are brought together on one page.  And a revolution of thinking is born. 

Countless scholars appear arrayed around the same table.  They rarely agree.  And yet through the editor’s hand, they all seemingly dine together.

People often think the Talmud is synonymous with Jewish law.  They believe that this is the book that fashions the institutions of Jewish life.  From its pages the synagogue emerges.  Jewish structures, and strictures, are herein erected.  The book comes to be viewed as Judaism’s answer book.

In truth the Talmud is only a beginning.  It elevates the question.  It embraces argument.  The Talmud represents the search for answers but not its codification. It offers a collection of opinions.  It was not until medieval times that rabbis began to distill such opinions and write definitive codes that far too many now revere.  Yesterday’s great rabbi becomes today’s authority.  And now people continue to live by his words.  Their actions are dictated by his commandments.   Is this the prayer to be recited?  Is this dish kosher?  Here are our answers.  Never veer.  Do not waver.  Worry about breaking this rule or that clouds the mind.  Fear displaces discussion. 

Gates appear to close.   

People continue offering certainties.  Too many gravitate towards the exactitudes that such codes offer.  They crave authorities.  They become enamored of decisiveness.  They speak as if they know what God wants.  They act as if they have determined the answers to life’s mysteries and our society’s most perplexing questions.   They level judgments against others.  They pit verse against verse.  They cite their tradition over another’s. God’s plan is spoken of as if it rests in their hands.  My book provides the answer. 

Citations crowd people out.  The shared table becomes a distant dream.

I retreat from the gathering. 

I return to the opening question mark.  I find renewed solace in the Talmud’s debates. We must see its method as a guide.  It is not its specifics so much as its methodology.  The search for answers is its endeavor.  Its quest is my search as well.  I gain solace. 

Doors are reopened.   The embrace of other seekers is the Talmud’s hallmark.  Its revolution is found in the arrangement of its pages.  A community of questioners is its gift.     

There can be no path but the affirmation of questions.  This is my inheritance.  Perhaps it must be ours as well.

It is the question that liberates.  I must revel in its uncertainties.  I must relish in its ambiguities.  I must embrace its mark. 

I find renewed comfort in an ancient table.  My questions are their questions.  Perhaps that knowledge offers a measure of comfort.  Perhaps the search can give me renewed strength.


Steven Moskowitz

Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications, including Hadassah magazine, Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel.

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