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A New Take on Old Classics: How a Rabbi Approaches Challenging Questions

Wednesday, January 07, 2015| Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about the benefits of crowdfunding one's book. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Rabbis get asked lots of questions. In many cases the answers we provide are not as good as the questions we are asked. I have a saying, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," but believe me there are some pretty stupid answers. Hence my concern with answering three pretty big questions that have either been troubling theologians for thousands of years or have become a concern only over the past few generations.

In no specific order, here are some challenges I faced when tackling these questions.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is the question that, in its many forms, I have been asked the most. It's also the question I least look forward to answering. The best answer to this question that I could give in the book was "I don't know." To even attempt at answering this question is the height of arrogance; however, my publisher was insistent that I pose and tackle this question to the best of my ability. As my publisher put it: "How can you leave out such a question?" How indeed.

Compounding the problem was the style of my book, which is composed of short answers to questions. Can this dilemma be dealt with in a few paragraphs? Ultimately, I added a long preface disclaimer and then gave a number of possible solutions to the answer. Regardless, though, of  whatever answer I attempted to give, the answer was not as good as the question.

According to Judaism, what is the age of the universe?

This question, although only taking up a couple of pages, set the deadline on my book back around three months. This is a topic that is constantly changing with new theories being proposed and new books being written from either a scientific or theological perspective or both! While attempting to answer this question a new book was published by a rabbi in Israel which, despite being rather disappointing, still had to be read and somehow incorporated.

After reading a number of Jewish books on the topic, I felt I needed to read an updated book or two from the scientific world. Luckily my chavruta (learning partner) is a doctor with a keen interest in this field. He selected books for me to read and ended up helping me write most of the answer, although I still had to deal with the publisher who had their own editor they had chosen to review all of my answers.

After much back and forth with the publisher we found a common ground. I ended up taking an approach which I felt would be best appreciated and, quite frankly, understood by any reader from my target audience.

Why can't I marry my non-Jewish partner?

The challenge here was that I know many of my readers are in fact intermarried or children of intermarried parents. The last thing I wanted to do was offend them, or make them feel any less Jewish. Like the first question, answering this question in a 'rational' manner is a challenge because the question is invariably 'emotional.' In other words, the questioner is really saying "I'm in love, why are you rabbis against me marrying the person I'm in love with?" No real answer was going to suffice on an emotional level.

However, with intermarriage rates at 53% and with so many young Jewish men and women dating someone not Jewish, I felt I had to tackle this question head on. Ultimately, it was my work with many people who are dating a non-Jew or who are married to one that led me to write an answer that I believe delicately but unapologetically gave some perspectives on this question.

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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