Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The importance of questioning

I was listening to a fascinating interview the other day with Torah scholar and teacher Dr Avivah Zornberg about the Exodus story and how Jewish people today understand and celebrate that tradition. The following is part of a transcript taken from the interview about the Seder (Passover) ritual that takes place in Jewish homes:

Dr. Zornberg: ... I think the ... very beautiful ritual, is the whole Seder night ritual, which, simply, it's a fiesta of telling stories and asking questions. Or perhaps I should put it the other way around, the central role of asking questions. If you have little children around, then that's a gift because they should naturally be full of questions. And we do things to provoke their questions — put strange things on the table, like bitter herbs, so that they will ask and then we can talk about the bitterness of the slavery. But, of course, in the way of things, little children get older and they know t he answer already, and so they will ask more sophisticated questions, hopefully. And the questions never end. One of the very famous parts of the Seder night is the part about the four sons, the four different kinds of children who have different ways of approaching this problem of questioning, ranging from the wise son to the one who doesn't know how to ask at all. And, obviously, we don't think very much of that. Someone who simply doesn't know how to ask a question, that's a problem in terms of autonomy, in terms of freedom.

Ms. Tippett: I think not knowing how to ask a question is far more serious than not having an answer. Right?

Dr. Zornberg: Yes, absolutely. For me, it's — there's no question. And I think in the Jewish tradition, there's a sense that everything gets moving as a result of a problem, a question. That's what arouses. As soon as you've got even — if you want to call it a complaint, even if it's a rather querulous question, it's still better than no question because it pushes at the limits of the sort of silent conspiracy of the way things have to be. So there is the wise son, and there is the wicked son. And the wicked son asks a very disruptive question, and there's no great enthusiasm about his question. But it's still, in the hierarchy of things, it's probably better than the one who doesn't know how to ask at all. And what you have to do with the one who doesn't know how to ask is, and it's put very beautifully, v'at p'tach lo, you, feminine, it's put in the feminine
form, you open up for him. You try to stimulate him. You know, you put things in such a way that perhaps that will wake him up. So the emphasis, I think, the whole direction is on opening up.
Listening to this interview and thinking about it later, I've been reflecting on the importance of questioning. Perhaps I wonder if I'm sometimes perceived as the wicked son from this tradition who keeps asking the troublesome questions? I'm a little comforted that at least in one religious culture, this is still better than the one who doesn't ask any questions.

I interviewed a couple of people working for JewishCare in London a few years ago and as they argued amongst themselves about how to respond to my questions, they raised the old joke about how you can ask 2 Jews a question and get 3 opinions. Sometimes in The Salvation Army it feels like 10,000 Salvationists are meant to all be of one opinion. Yet, the reality is that we're bigger and better than that. Our practice, for the most part, tends to outshine the worst of our words and, at our best, grace often transcends the boundaries of our military structures. So, keep the questions coming. It's healthy.

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