Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Asking Questions

You will not die and go to Gehenom for asking questions. If your questions are because you want to know the answers then it is a Mitzvah to ask them, as it says in Pirkei Avos - Lo HaBayshan Lomed - if you don’t ask questions you won't learn.

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The following is a copy of a response I sent by email to someone who "works with girls" and wanted to know why we have questions and answers in "public" - since lots of times if a girl wasn't bothered by a question, she will ask it to get attention, then she will internalize it slowly and then go off the derech because of the questions." Therefore, she contends, we should not show questions, or else people will go off the derech.

Something like that.

Here's my answer:

For hundreds of years our Gedolei Yisroel have been teaching and writing - for the public - the answers to such questions about Yiddishkeit. It was always considered a good thing, not a bad one.

The reason is, questions are not bad, they are good. Lo habayshon lomed. And since there are solid and easy answers to all these questions, asking them just strengthens one's emunah, which is a good thing.

The public should have access to answers, since the public has questions. That’s why we make the material public. And it also shows the public that there are indeed answers to questions, so that even if they come up with a Q that they have not heard an answer for yet, they will still feel confident that just like the other thousand questions have easy answers, this one must also have one.

It is good for people to know that there ARE NO "problems" with Yiddishkeit. And that is what this site shows.

The real problem is when people - teachers, mentors, etc - deal with kids who have questions to which they themselves do not know the answers. That is a problem. Because how can you convince someone else to be frum if you yourself don’t know what you should be?

The questions we are talking about are not rocket science. There is not a teenager in the world that is not capable of thinking, how do I know that I am being taught the truth? They all know that there are other religions out there, and others who hold form no religion. Any intelligent person wants to know, if they are dedicating their life to a certain way, which at least they should have a reason to believe they are doing the right thing.

Whatever the answer is - be it inspiration from the great example of holy people, to the intellectual approach of proofs to the torah - there needs to be an answer. If not, the kid will likely go off, and if she does not go off, then she is being frum without any real motive, just because "it’s the thing to do" or because her friends or family are or because its convenient. That kind of frumkeit is not the kind that stands hard tests when and if they arise, and it has no emunah, and certainly cannot have bitachon or any other kind of relationship with Hashem.

Think: If a girl is NOT bothered by these questions, why isn't she? Is it because she is not capable of thinking of the questions? Nope, she surely is.

Or is it because she doesn’t really care if there is an answer or not - she doesn’t care if Judaism is true - she's just frum because why not? So what’s the difference? Or at the very least, she will make believe she thinks it’s true because it makes life easier.

That, unfortunately, is the reality. The only other reason people aren’t bothered by the questions is because they have reasons not to be. That is the only acceptable solution.

But since many people who "deal with kids" do not know the answers themselves - and the kids know that their teachers do not have answers - the teachers are scared lest a question come up, and since they do not know the answer, they will have to either tell the kid not to ask, or avoid the question or give a bad answer, which will send the false message that there are no answers.


Since the kids know that their teachers have no answers, therefore their questions are a threat - to the teacher and to the student. When a kid "asks a question to get attention" it is the same as saying to a teacher: I am cutting myself; I am hanging out with the wrong crowd; I am doing something dangerous. Stuff like that are attention-getters.

Questions are only attention-getters because they make teachers nervous. If teachers would have the answers to these basic questions, which teachers should have - then there is no danger of a kid asking. Even if they are asking to get attention, when they see there are easy simple answers, they will have to find another way to shake up their teachers.

Questions are only "danger" because the teachers have no answers.

"Internalizing" questions is only bad if they internalize them without the answers. If they have answers to their questions it's better than not having a question. There’s nothing wrong with having a question; it’s not having an answer that’s the problem.

So the problem that you are witnessing "working with girls" is not that girls ask questions. It's that nobody has answers for them - that makes asking a question a threat, and attention-getter, and a crisis.

It's like trying to recruit people for the army but when someone raises their hand and says "Why should I go to the army?" "How much is the pay?" "Why shouldn’t I go to the navy instead?" the recruiter hasn’t a clue. ("Yes, but come to the army shabbaton and see how beautiful it is". Desperation at work.)

Then he blames those who provide such information because by doing so, G-d forbid somebody may think of asking why they should join.

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Rav Chaim Brisker ZTL used to say "vus felt in hasbara felt in havanah", meaning, if you can't explain it then you don't really understand it.

If you don't have questions because you learned the answers that’s wonderful, but if you cant answer someone else when they ask the same question, that's not so good. You need to audit your inventory of answers to determine if you really have answers, or just don’t bother to think about the questions.

Again: We are not talking here about major philosophical issues that perhaps it's better not to know the question if you never had it (although there are answers to all of those as well - it's just that why bother with the answer if you don't have the question to begin with, especially if the answer is more difficult to understand than the question. In such a case, if the question doesn't bother you, then leave it.); we're talking about questions that everyone is aware of already. Such as "How do I know what I am being taught is the truth?"

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"Questioning" means two things:

(a) doubting, as in "I question you right to say that", and

(b) seeking information, as in "Can you please answer my question?"


The first type of questioning, which is really objecting, is wrong. The second type, where we know there are answers and we merely are seeking to know what they are, is a positive thing. Lo Habayshan Lomed.

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You're not going to hell for asking these questions. You're going to heaven. “Lo habayshan lomed”, it says in Pirkei Avos, “Someone who is ashamed / embarrassed / feels guilty and does not ask questions, does not learn.”

How can you learn if you do not ask questions?

You know, sometimes in class maybe you’ll raise your hand and ask a question, and the teacher will say “The Ramban asks that”, and you’ll be very proud of yourself. Well someone asks your questions, too. Quote:

“I have a yearning and desire to settle some issues … of the fundamentals of our religion … I believe, but … there are things that I believe but do not understand or grasp … the existence of G-d, His not being human, [the authority of] prophecy, that He gave the Torah … all these things I understand … However, the way Hashem runs the world (Hashgachah), His method of reward and punishment … I believe in for sure because I am obligated to do so, but I want an explanation of them that will put me at rest.”

Do you recognize these thoughts? They are yours, almost verbatim. But the quote is not from you. These are the words of the Neshomah, as expressed by the Ramchal at the beginning of his sefer Daas Tevonus, which is written almost entirely to answer the particular questions that you have asked. Your questions are questions of the Neshomah. The Noshmah as perceived by the Ramchal. And your neshomah, too. You’re in good company.

The Neshomah continues:

“[What bothers me is] great events that I see in the world that suggest the exact opposite of Hashem controlling them. And even more so, the purpose of these events, I cannot fathom the point of it all. What did G-d want with all His creations? Why does He control them? What’s the point (end result) of all this?”

The Ramchal writes that we are obligated to “chase after the knowledge of these things” – not just “know them”, but pursue the knowledge of them -- from the Torah command (Devarim 4:39) “And you should settle it on your heart, that Hashem is G-d”.

By asking these questions you fulfill that command.

You also fulfill the Mitzvah of learning Torah. And the Rambam writes that of all the topics he learns (and he learned them all) he prefers to learn about the fundamentals of our religion more than any other topic.

You also fulfill the instruction in Pirkei Avos “Da mah shetashiv l’apikores” – know what to answer the Apikores.

So you won’t go to hell for asking these questions. You’re going to heaven.

And so are we, anybody who reads the answers because you asked the questions. We are going to heaven, too, because of you and your questions.

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You have to understand that, unfortunately, teaching hashkafa in this sense, that is, proofs to the torah and understanding of G-d etc., to frum people was until recently not normative practice, particularly in girls schools. It was thought to be important to Baalei Teshuva becoming frum, but not for Frum Frum Birth's. This was a terrible error - and it was NOT made by the great Tzadikim, but by the hamon am - the masses - themselves.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZTL was the first person to spread such teachings among frum people, and his books had an awesome impact on both the non-religious, and the very religious alike. Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine, Rosh Yeshiva of Telz in Chicago, said at an Agudah convention that he came from a royally rabbinic family, had the best Torah education, but yet the books of Rav Miller ZTL influenced him so so much when he was younger.
Now listen: I once asked Rav Miller ZTL why he doesn’t put out any books in Hebrew. His answer was, because he "doesn’t want the letzonei hador to get a hold of them and mock them."
In other words, the Hebrew-speaking American crowd, namely, the Yeshiva-BY crowd, would not accept it. This was a terrible, terrible, error on their part.
At Rav Miller's levaya, the Novominsker Rebbe was one of the speakers. He knew Rav Miller because he (the Novomonsker( was a student in Chaim Berlin when Rav Miller was Mashgiach there. At the levaya he said "who would have known that Rabbi Miller's books would be so popular, spread so far and wide..."
The Novominsker Rebbe meant it only as a praise for Rabbi Miller, but it is also an indictment of the hamon am - the public - in those days, because - Hello! - the value of such teachings even to the biggest Bnei Torah, should be obvious.
Yet to many it wasn’t. It was (a) considered "below" the needs of Bnei Torah to deal with "proofs" to the Torah and things like that - only non-religious people "needed it", and (b) there was some kind of paranoia which, try as I might, I still can't make sense of, that by teaching people answers to questions about Yidishkeit, somehow they will have within them questions awakened that they never would have previously thought of, and, even though the answers are there in front of them, they will get messed up because of the questions.
This is sad. I have been accosted by several people (all women mechanchos) claiming that this website is bad for people, and in fact we should not teach people this material about Judaism because of the looming spiritual dangers of educating and strengthening Emunah.
I was speaking in Yerushalayim once, and said that we have to teach our children about Hashem, the Torah, the basic hashkofos that we are discussing here.
After the speech, a menaheles in some school came over to me and said, in a very cynical tone of voice, "Reb Yisroel Salanter said that if you learn Chumash and Rashi it makes you more frum, are you saying that doesn't apply nowadays?"
In other words, their curriculum of Chumash and Rashi - Sefer Vayikra to be specific, where they learn about being makrev korbonos - is sufficient to address the hashkafic issues in question.
I answered her. "What Rav Yisroel Salanter meant was that by learning Hilchos Esrog before Pesach, you will keep Pesach better. But can you compare someone who prepares for Pesach by learning Hilchos Esrog to someone who prepares for Pesach by learning Hilchos Pesach?"
There are issues that anybody with the intelligence of a child can think of. Were not talking about major philosophical dilemmas - and there is TORAH out there that addresses them. If you’re in business you need to learn Choshen Mishpat, even though Chumash and Rashi makes you more religious; if you're getting married you learn Even Haezer, even though Chumash/Rashi makes you a better husband.
And when you are in the field - as we all are - of Emunah, then you learn about Emunah!
I wonder if such people would, instead of Kallah classes, teach soon-to-be brides Chumash and Rashi and then say that according to Rav Yisroel Salanter you don't need more!
The Roshei Yeshiva back Rabbi Mechanic's project - Rav Matisyahu Solomon was the first to write him a hashkama. Many others followed. Rabbi Levine - the one I mentioned above - writes that he himself sat in one of Rabbi Mechanic’s sessions and it was marvelous, and he highly recommends it.
If Roshei Yeshiva recommend it - and I know of not a single Torah authority that disagrees - and if such Torahs are good enough to make a lasting impact on a future Rosh Yeshiva, then it is certainly good enough for Beis Yaakov girls.
In any case, you should please please educate yourself if you can't get it from others. Sadly, even today, there are precious little sources of this material. The fact that schools all over America need a Rabbi Mechanic, or the fact that thousands of teenagers every single day need to go to Frumteens for their daily dose of Chizuk and Emunah, is sad.
But at least we have what we have.

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It’s OK to argue, as long as you also argue with yourself. In other words, treat your opinion the same way as you do that of others, and "beat it up" until the truth comes out.

The Gemora tells us that Rav Yehuda could come up with 150 arguments to make a bug Kosher.

The point is, that even though he could submit these arguments in a way that nobody could answer, he never, ever did such a thing, because even though nobody could find fault in his arguments, he could, since he was such a powerful debater.

Argue with yourself before you express an opinion. Use that talent of yours to find the truth.

When I was a kid, my little sister asked me how come I always win the arguments we have?

I said, it’s because I always argue for the right side. ;-)

Of course, nobody is always right, but at least you can try to not argue unless you’re arguing for the right side. You’ll be surprised how many more arguments you’ll win that way.

It’s not the victory that means anything, it’s the fact that you’ll know the truth.

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In Torah advises us not to come to "conclusions" without obtaining a complete picture, without being sure of the conclusion. "If the issue is as clear to you as the fact that you cannot marry your sister, then say it; if not, then do not say it," Chazal tell us.

Now if we're talking about who’s going to win the Super Bowl, it doesn’t matter much, but if we're talking Torah, such as the position of the Rambam on such a fundamental issue, we are not supposed to have "opinions" until we know. Or better said, if you don't know then, even if you have an opinion based on likelihoods, you don’t say "MY opinion is such and such", you say, rather "I don’t know." You opinion, which really isn’t even an "opinion" but rather a first impression, doesn’t matter. What you "know" does matter.

Now of course anybody can be wrong, and of course nobody is perfect, and so Hashem only expects of us to know something to the best of our ability. And that’s both a "chumrah" so to speak, and a "Kulah".

It's a kulah because Hashem doesn’t expect us to know anything better than your ability to know it; but its also a chumrah because you are not entitled to an opinion until you indeed know something to the best of your ability.

Until that point, until you "know" something, you are supposed to take the position, "I don’t know."

"Teach your lips to say 'I don’t know'", Chazal tell us.

This is something that modern society does not believe in. Today, everyone is "entitled to an opinion." No, they are not. They are only entitled to an opinion if it is indeed an opinion, and not speculation, an impression, or wishful thinking. If it is, then you do not have an opinion. Instead, you "do not know".

The Piasetzna Rebbe ZTL in Chovas HaTalmidim explains that "today" (i.e. his days - pre-war Europe) kids are going off the derech because they are being taught, even when small, to express their opinions on matters for which they have not yet entitled to have an opinion.

In other words, when the Global teacher in a 5th grade class asks her 10 year old students who they would vote for President, she is damaging the children, because she is teaching them to make decisions such as who to vote for even though they really have no clue who is the better candidate.

Ten year olds should be taught to say "I do not know who to vote for. I am not well-versed in politics or the issues at hand, and so it would be wrong for me to express an opinion on something that I know nothing about."

Or, in 10-year old language, simply "I dunno."

Kids today (even a couple of generations ago) are taught how to express opinions rather than how to form opinions, and therein lies a terrible tragedy, because they are expressing opinions that are not ill-formed.

This is why we have so many crazies out there with so many crazy opinions. People are taught by societal norms that they may have an opinion even if they have no clue.

But the truth is, it is infinitely worse to be clueless than opinionless, and even much worse than that, if the clueless are not opinionless.

It’s like someone saying, for instance, that the Satmar Rebbe ZTL had modern feminist hashkafas because He encouraged his wife to make havdalah for herself at times and his wife spoke at his levaya. Now both of those things are true, but clearly, anybody who knows anything about what the Satmar Rebbe preached and wrote and held would never come to such an absurd conclusion. What he would do is, he would say, "I don’t understand what’s going on here."

And what would I say to someone who, knowing only the above facts, tells me that they believe it is more likely that Satmar really are feminists because in the 20th century there was a feminist movement in Orthodox Jewry, and its not likely that by coincidence, the feminist tendencies were historically precisely during the same time period as the Satmar Rebbe.

And so when somebody tells me that the Rambam held that secular studies have inherent value, or that they think the Rambam may have held that, or that they are considering the possibility that the Rambam may have thought that on Purim once, I would tell them "Hello. Read what the Rambam writes. Read his Hashkofos, his halachic rulings. Read the Torah and the Halachah and the words of Chazal about secular studies. And if you still have a question about the Rambam’s behavior, obviously, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is attributable to specific circumstances, not to a global hashkafa."

I know that the biographies on the Rambam, especially those written by people who are not total Bnei Torah emphasize his secular studies without putting it in context. They do this because the more the Rambam is "unique" the more interesting the Rambam is, and the more interesting the article or book is. And the more of an excuse we have to learn secular studies.

Even if a historian does not lie, he can still write what he wants to give someone a totally wrong idea. If you want to know what the Rambam held, read his seforim. Read the Torah - for the Rambam was a Torah Jew. If the Torah had a certain value, you can be sure the Rambam had it too.

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We say Al hanisim on Chanukah and on Purim. Yet even though the two tefilos covey the same idea, the Bnei Yisaschar points out that there are some differences in the way they are worded:


1) On Chanukah, we refer to Matisyahu as “Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol”, whereas on Purim we refer to Mordechai simply as “Mordechai”. No “ben yair ben shimi etc.” Why do we mention Matisyahu’s father and not Mordechai’s?

2) On Chanukah, we mention that the Yavanim waged war “al amcha yisroel”. On Purim, we do not mention al amcha yisroel. Instead we simply say that Haman wanted to destroy es kol hayehudim.

3) We’ll add to the Bnei Yissachar’s observations a very strange thing that the Meforshim point out about Chanukah: It is almost nowhere to be found in all of the Mishna. There is one mention of a Menorah that accidentally causes fire damage, but as a Yom Tov,Chanukah is utterly omitted from the entire body of the Mishna. That needs an explanation.


The history books, Josephus, and Megilas Chashmonayim tell us that the beginning of the shmad against the Jews was not perpetrated by the Syrian-Greeks. It began by Jews, the Tzedukim. They were the ones who started to try to make the Jews forget the Torah and violate the laws of G-d’s will. They were in fact the ones who recruited the Syrian-Greeks into the fray. But the war began not between Jew and gentile, but between Jew and Jew, between the Jews and the Tzedukim.


The Tzedukim believed only in Torah shebiksav, not Torah shebal peh. The difference, of course, between Torah shebiksav and Torah shebal peh, is that Torah shebiksav only gives us bottom-line instructions. There are not hava aminas in Torah shebiksav, no mina hani milis, no lama li kra svara hu, no reconciliation of contradictions, no machlokesim, no shakleh vetaryeh, no questions; just instructions.


I am now going to borrow a vort from Rav Leib Chasman ZTL in his Ohr Yahel. He says that when Yaakov was fighting with the malach, the sar shel esav, and asked the evil malach its name, the malach answered, “Why are you asking my name?” “lomoh ze tishal leshmi?” Why was the malach so reluctant to tell his name?


Rav Leib Chasman answers that the Malach did in fact tell his name. His name was lamah ze tishal leshmi! His name was Why are you asking such questions? (see the Ohr Yahel who uses this for his approach. We are going to borrow it for ours.)

We should also ask why on the other hand did Yaakov care so much to know the Malach’s name? The answer is because Yaakov wanted to know what ‘Yisroel’ means. He knew that he was granted that new, glorious name Yisroel because he defeated this malach. So he wanted to know what was the essence of the name, since the essence of a malach is its name, and he wanted to know the essence of the malach was that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel. What power is it that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel? What hurdle does one have to overcome in order to merit the great name Yisroel?


Who are you, Malach, that by beating you, one is called Yisroel?

And the malach answered, The obstacle that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel is lamah ze tishal. The Satan that says why are you asking questions is what has to be defeated in order to be called Yisroel.


Jews ask questions. We proactively seek the truth. We love questions, because aim habayshan lomed, without questions you cannot learn anything. We are not scared of questions the way other religions are. We do not blindly accept what we are told, by society, by the newspapers, by anyone! In schools of other religions, when a student stumps his Galach with a question, he is reprimanded for asking. In Yeshiva, when a student stumps his Rebbi with a hard kashya, he is a hero! Questions bring out the truth, and when the truth is brought out we rejoice.

The Tzedukim did not believe in a Torah that asks question and raises difficulties. The held that Torah is simply blind instruction without understanding.

The Tzedukim believed that there is no such thing as understanding the whys and wherefores of Torah. The believed that questions should no be asked. They did not believe in the Zurich iyun’s of Reb Akiva Eiger; of the chidushim of the Ketzos, of the milchamtah shel Torah that constitutes the Bris between Klall Yisroel and Hashem - the Torah She BalPeh.. Their Hashkafah did violence to the very name Yisroel, which we merited because we do REFUSE to say lamah ze tishal.

There is a machlokes about this, but there are those who say that the Yohanan Kohen Gadol who was the father of Matisyahu was the infamous Yochanan Kohen Gadol who became a Tzaduki. His son, Matisyahu, was the leading fighter against his father’s Hashkafos. Imagine, then, had Matisyahu accepted his father’s teachings on blind faith without asking Kushyos -- we never would have had a Chanukah miracle! But Matisahu did not blindly accept his father’s teachings.. He asked: If there is no such thing as Torah shebal peh, then how in the world does Pesach fall out in chodesh ha’aviv, the spring month, when every year the lunar calendar loses 11 days against the seasonal solar calendar, and so before you turn around Pesach comes out in the middle of the winter!

He asked, if all we have is Torah shebiksav, please tell me, father, how do we fulfill “vhayu letotafos bain aynechah”? What are “totafos”, what does the word mean?

How do we fulfill velakachtem lachem pri etz hadar? What is a Pri Etz Hadar? A cherry? A kiwi?


Please tell me, father, why does the Torah tell us to celebrate a holiday on the first day of the 7th month, a day of blowing is what it tells us to make. WHAT IN THE WORLD IS A DAY OF BLOWING? WHAT DOES THIS HOLIDAY CELEBRATE??


No. Matisyahu proactively sought the truth and found it. He did not blindly accept his fathers heretical Hashkofos. He defeated his father’s attitude of Lamah zeh tishal!


The reason we refer to Matisyahu not merely as Matisyahu but Matisyahu ben Yochanan is because the fact that he was the son of Yochanan is part of the Chanukah story; part of the victory of Yisroel over the heresy of Lamah ze tishal. It is part and parcel of the Chanukah victory.

And that is why on Chanukah we refer to the shmad as an attack al amcha Yisroel . It was an attack waged specifically against those who were worthy of that great and glorious title, Yisroel, those who refuse to say lamah zeh tishal!


Chanukah is introduced by Chazal in a very unusual manner. Chazal don’t say “On the night of the 25th we light candles”, the way it does for Pesach, or even, “Chanukah is the Yom Tov that celebrates etc.” Instead, Chazal ask, Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah? And in response to this rhetorical question the Gemora explains the holiday. Chanukah is introduced not like the other holidays are introduced by way of instruction, but rather with a question. Because the very essence of Chanukah is asking the question. Mai Chanukah - the question of a wise man is half the answer. Chanukah is indeed the celebration of the downfall of lamah zeh tishal.


The reason Chanukah is not in Mishnayos is because Mishnayos, though part of Torah shebal peh, is the instructive part of Torah shebal peh. The structure of Chazal’s teachings in the Oral Torah is to first give us the laws in the Mishap then to analyze them, in the Gemora. Chazal saw fit to leave Chanukah to the part of Torah she balpeh that asks and answers; that analyses; that reconciles contradictions and contains hava aminas and maskonos. Because that is what Chanukah is all about.


When you light the Menorah on Chanukah, you should know that the Ohr that emanates form the Menorah represents the enlightenment that you all gain by asking questions. And by getting answers to those questions. Lo habayshan lomed. If you want to be zocheh to the glorious title of Yisroel, you must ask and seek and find Torah.


Through our asking and answering and studying and learning and seeking may we all be zocheh together to the glorious and magnificent title of Amchah Yisroel!

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