The other day I interviewed writer Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” as part of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s 100th anniversary celebration.
Our conversation started with a dissection of an essay called “The Cut” from his recent collection, “Manhood for Amateurs,” which describes how he and his wife agonized over whether or not they should circumcise their second son. In the Bay Area, where the anti-circumcision movement is bizarrely strong, there was some anxiety in the crowd about their final decision.
What Chabon revealed was that after asking endless questions of himself, his wife, Jewish tradition and even recent medical studies, he made the decision he knew he would always make — to go ahead with it.
What struck me in Chabon’s discussion of his decision-making was not just the content, but the process. He asked endless questions of himself and the tradition, but ultimately decided he wanted to be part of a conversation that has spanned thousands of years.
In a way, Chabon’s essay’s model of interrogating the tradition — asking pointed questions in a public, non-Jewish context — is new. Jews today have the confidence to ask the most difficult questions about Jewish life and community, and do it without fear of retribution from inside or outside. Chabon compared this dynamic with his experience of Jewish instruction as a kid, where the kind of questions he was asking in his essay would have been dismissed as impertinent. Today, as his kids ask similar questions, he is grateful that they are doing so, and their teachers appear to be as well.
From another perspective, this interrogation of God and Torah is ancient. Abraham questions God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, and the questioning impulse permeates the Talmud, midrash and later texts.
In a recent public conversation about the nature of questioning at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as part of the new exhibition “Are We There Yet? Five Thousand Years of Answering Questions with Questions,” UC Berkeley professor of Talmudic culture Daniel Boyarin suggested that traditional Jewish thought took a kind of middle questioning path. “The tradition supports asking questions, but not in order to question authority” a la Lenny Bruce, he said. Instead, the tradition creates freedom of dialogue “to ensure full understanding.”
The framing of the Four Questions for Passover falls into this category of questioning being used to prompt a predetermined dialogue between callow but enthusiastic youth and wiser elders about Passover, and all the stories and laws they are required to learn. The questions have pre-determined answers, and the children are rewarded for asking them, word for word, the way their parents did.
The questions explored by the four sons/children (good, wicked, simple and unable to ask) during the seder seem more immediately relevant to the questioning of the meaning of questions. “What does this tradition mean to you?” is a far different question than “Why do we dip our vegetables twice instead of once?”
I was struck by an analysis by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb on the Ohr Somayach website about the nature of the child who doesn’t know how to ask. According to Rabbi Gottlieb, “The one who does not know how to ask admires the wicked son. He desires to show the same ironic contempt for the Torah, but unlike the wicked son he lacks the requisite cleverness. Not trusting himself to attack as effectively as his mentor, he remains silent.”
So let us not emulate the wicked son, at least in this formulation, and learn how to ask each other what Jewish life and ritual mean to us.
For the Passover seder this year, our family will ask each other questions about the holiday and about Jewish life we’ve been afraid to ask in the past. As an “aging” young adult, about to leave the 21-42 demographic, here are the questions I think my generation is asking — fairly or unfairly — of its elders:
Why does the community assume my commitment, and not try to earn it? Why has Israel “disappointed” me? Why don’t you have answers to my questions? And, Why do you ask observance and commitment from me that you didn’t do yourself as my age?
And these are the questions I would ask of the adult generation just behind me:
If you are not willing to create community for yourself and for your children, who will? Are you even dimly aware of the historical miracle of the creation of the State of Israel? Without institutions, however defined, who will be there for you when you’ve run out of good questions? And, Do you imagine that we were never in your position, asking your questions, at your age?
I hope — I’m certain — that others will ask better questions than these of themselves and of their friends, families and teachers. Egypt is a question mark, begging us to keep moving toward greater understanding.
Daniel Schifrin is director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.