Ear­li­er this week, Rab­bi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about how he approach­es chal­leng­ing queries and the ben­e­fits of crowd­fund­ing one’s book. His book, Jew Got Ques­tions?, is now avail­able. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

One of the first Jew­ish books I remem­ber read­ing as a child belonged to my sis­ter; it was the Jew­ish Book of Why by Alfred Kolatch. Its easy-to-read Q&A style kept me inter­est­ed enough till the next ques­tion. When I began to for­mu­late the idea for my book, I felt the short answer for­mu­la was the way to go. I rea­soned if peo­ple did­n’t have patience to read a long answer thir­ty years ago, how much more so today! 

As I men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous post, writ­ing short’ answers to big’ ques­tions car­ried with it the dan­ger of triv­i­al­iz­ing ques­tions that need a longer more nuanced response. But the Kolatch way’ was well received, so why would­n’t mine be? 

The more I thought about, the more I real­ized how much of an impor­tant role ques­tions play in Jew­ish life. 

Many of us fond­ly remem­ber stand­ing as a young child by the Pesach seder ask­ing the four ques­tions. 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. 

The four sons’ of the hag­gadah are also part of the world of ques­tions. We have the wise son,’ the wicked son,’ the sim­ple son,’ and the one who doesn’t know how to ask ques­tions.’ Tra­di­tion­al­ly we look at the wicked son’ as the worst of the bunch, with his ques­tion that is both cyn­i­cal and dis­re­spect­ful. Does he real­ly want to learn or is he just ask­ing in order to mock? Either way we give him a response to keep him engaged in the con­ver­sa­tion. The best of the bunch, one would expect the wise son’ to be beyond ques­tions and be answer­ing ques­tions the oth­er three sons are pos­ing him, but he too is ask­ing a ques­tion, albeit in more respect­ful and inter­est­ed manner. 

The worst of the four I have come to believe is the last in the list. He sits alone, out­side of the con­ver­sa­tion, not know­ing what is going on and is bare­ly present except for his blank stare at the excit­ed goings-on at the Pesach seder, the son who has no ques­tions. He is a trag­ic and mute char­ac­ter who is not part of our peo­ple as he isn’t even inquis­i­tive enough to ask about the strange and for­eign rit­u­als he is watching.

Over the years I had heard count­less sto­ries of peo­ple describ­ing their frus­tra­tion at not being able to ask ques­tions dur­ing their time at Hebrew or Jew­ish day school. They felt judged or were humil­i­at­ed by teach­ers who may have felt threat­ened by being asked philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions about G‑d, Judaism, heav­en, hell, or any­thing else. The fear of ask­ing ques­tions is anti­thet­i­cal to being Jew­ish. To be part of the peo­ple of the book is to take pride in learn­ing and ques­tion­ing until the truth is revealed. 

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. 

Ulti­mate­ly I want­ed to allow the read­er to fin­ish read­ing my few hun­dred ques­tions and feel con­fi­dent enough to ask some of their own. 

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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