Essays 2020 / Finalists
Questions are integral to our interpersonal, business and academic lives. Asking questions allows us to achieve things as mundane as clarifying tasks, to probing the deeper meaning of reality. This essay aims to explore the status of questions in the doctrines of Chassidic thought,. The ideas in this essay were inspired by a letter from the Alter Rebbe, Epistle 26 in Iggeret Hakodesh in Tanya, which outlines the basis of the Chassidic approach to questions, applying a role of cosmic resonance, to what could be considered as a purely pedagogical medium. These ideas are explained and amplified in some fundamental discourses by the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe. The purpose of this essay is to promote critical thinking, within the learning of Chassidus specifically, amongst all other fields of knowledge.
May I ask you a question?
When was the last time you hit upon a thought provoking dilemma, a glaring contradiction or just an intriguing issue, and couldn’t find peace until you pursued the topic until the end? Children start off their lives asking questions incessantly, using them as a tool to explore the world around them. Gradually our interest dries up as mainstream educational practices replace wonder with rote learning and curiosity with cramming. In today’s media-saturated age, critical thinking and questioning has become more important than ever. To differentiate between truth and fiction; to determine our sense of morality and determine our standards, we must constantly question and challenge, analyse and doubt and look beyond, without falling into assumptions, illogicalities and biases.
Generations of dialogue
In Judaism we clearly witness questioning as an integral method of teaching tradition; the Seder night, a highlight of the year, revolves around stimulating curiosity and is peaked by the ‘Four Questions’ asked by children to their parents. Most importantly, the Talmud, the monumental corpus of Jewish lore based on the Halachic skeleton of the Mishna and concluded 500CE, is built up of the questions and answers, rebuttals and debates of thousands of scholars, of a three-hundred-year period of clarifying and refining, reworking and revising. Later scholars asked their own questions on the Talmud’s conclusion, comparing and contrasting to find deeper layers in the text, creating a millennia long conversation, which continues until this day.
While Talmudic study expands one’s mind and has been widely admired, isn’t this mere wrangling over the details of a legalistic code? What is the religious significance of a question- if there is one?
And what is the extent of bounds of acceptability for a question within Judaism, according the Chassidic lens? (Especially given the approaches of the more obscurantist paths of certain streams of Judaism, that elevate unquestioning adherence to tradition and discourage too much independent thought?)
‘A kashe is a klipah’?
In the Zohar it’s written that the Jews will leave exile by learning the book of the Zohar. The Zohar isself-described as deriving from “the Tree of Life,” and defines itself as free of “problematic inquiry, from the side of evil, and no controversy from the spirit of impurity.”
From this statement is derived a famous Chassidic saying that ‘a kashe (question, in the sense of ‘difficulty’) is a klipah (an external concealment of the G-dly truth)‘; thereby correlating questions to negativity. The inner dimensions of Torah, Kabbalah and Chassidus, are said to be free from questions, in seeming contrast to the revealed aspect of Torah, the Talmud and Mishna specifically, which the Zohar attributes to the ‘Tree of Good and Evil,’ where constant debate and rhetoric serves to differentiate between correct and incorrect, holy and unholy, impure and pure.
Questions, in their essence, imply a deficiency in the subject being questioned. Or, on the other hand, they imply a detraction in the one questioning, an inability to understand what should be clear, or accept what should be believed.
The Alter Rebbe, pioneer of Chassidus Chabad demanded intellectual involvement with those esoteric Kabbalistic mysteries, queries/challenges the Zohar’s exposition. Of course the unconcealed, civil law are just as much an unsullied part of G-d’s holy Torah. Torah after-all, is G-d’s Wisdom and Will, in its essence completely One and bound with G-d, yet evolved through numerous contractions to be able to be expressed and grasped by a human mind, the same way a teacher imparting knowledge to his student must condense the information, yet remain true to the source.
G-d’s Supernal Wisdom is in Hebrew called Chochma, made up of the words Koach-Ma, the ‘power of what Is,’ the original conception and blueprint of this universe, is a mediatory, allowing finite beings to connect to the Infinite. Kabbalah describes a ‘World of Chaos’ (Olam HaTohu) that preceded this current physical world, in which G-d tried to invest the Chochma of how the worlds work, an incredibly elevated and powerful state of consciousness that led to ‘breaking of the vessels,’ a so-to-speak explosion of light. The World of Rectification/ Tikkun, our current world, is more sustainable, containing the Wisdom of what the true nature of things is (G-dly reality) yet not why they are that way. Sparks of the light of Tohu however descended into our world, and falling from such high elevation they became buried in the depths of distortion and obscuration; explaining why “difficult inquiry descends from the side of evil,” – because the answers are concealed. This leads the Alter Rebbe to an amazing and radical conclusion.
You must ask!
In order to ‘redeem the sparks of G-dly wisdom,’ every Jew is “obligated” to “reveal secrets of wisdom and innovate a new insight,” through solving problematic questions in Torah.
This is a fascinating dimension to the general mandate to ‘rectify the world under the Kingship of the L-rd,” by elevating the sparks of Tohu through the redemptive acts of using physical objects for a Mitzvah. Asking and answering questions in Torah is also a corrective task, releasing ideas from G-d’s wisdom from a state of bondage in ignorance – and it is the task of every Jew, not just the greatest scholars! This reasoning adds a dimension of cosmic resonance to the very cerebral task of asking, questioning, inferencing and deriving Halachic rulings and answers to define Jewish practice.
And every Jew has a certain part of Torah that becomess their specific duty to reveal!
In life; asking a question ‘redeems a spark.’ It opens thinking processes, engenders creativity, and brings down ideas that may never have been thought of before.
Now ask: ‘How can I uncover my part in Torah? What interests me? What would I like to know more about? What questions can I think of that will engage me and connect me to the subject?’
Yet can we question everything? One reason students may hesitate to question the why is because of about the inherent human limitations of understanding an Eternal Law. ‘What’s the point of asking when the ultimate answer will be – it’s because Hashem said so?” True, some laws in the Torah are assigned as Chukim – super-rational; unable to be grasped by human logic. Yet Rambam posits that “even though all the laws of the Torah are decrees… it is worthwhile to meditate on them and assign reasons to whatever part you can assign reasons to.” The Alter Rebbe writes in continuation to Epistle 26; “The root of the commandments is exceedingly high,” yet in no way does that alleviate our responsibility to uncover the meaning behind each part of the Torah, to the best of our ability.
In Life: When given an assignment, ask yourself, ‘what’s the goal or intent behind it?’ That will help you decide on the correct strategy to achieve it.
Now ask; Do I believe there is really a reason for everything in Torah? How can I work on elevating myself enough to discover them?
Don’t be shy!
The statement from the Zohar , quoted at the beginning of Epistle 26still remains. Are there really no questions in the inner dimension of Torah? Is Chassidut a metaphysical philosophy one receives from the teachings of the Rebbeim and strains to contemplate and implement in one’s lives, but never question?
The Rebbe explained that his predecessor, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, introduced critical inquiry even into Chassidut. He insisted on the attept to grasp the inner-working of G-d with our minds, to unite the deepest part of Torah with our physical brains. He rejects the pietistic approach of “it’s enough to believe with complete faith that everything in the inner dimensions of Torah is correct.”
In Tractate Avos it is written “the bashful one does not learn,” a warning against hesitating to ask and attempting to gainknowledge. And this applies to Chassidus as well. 
In Life: Put simply, if you don’t ask, you won’t learn. Most people are afraid to question due to fear of negative evaluation, but you look weaker if you don’t ask.
Now ask; ‘am I using false piety to release myself from the challenge of exploring my questions? How can I strive to understand all the concepts in Chassidus that I learned like a chemical textbook, but never really internalized?’
A good question is better than a mediocre answer
So far we’ve been speaking of questions as a means to achieve deep and profound understanding; to reach a satisfactory answer and reveal the hidden knowledge. Do questions have a value in and of themselves, even if no answers are found, or the ones that are, are rejected?
The Rebbe mentioned many times that just as the laws in the Talmud are part of G-d’s word as intuited by the sages, a question in Talmud is also part of Torah, and so is an attempted answereven if rejected! We would need to say the blessing before studying, them all equally.
Possibly the purpose of an unanswered or unanswerable question is to allow us to understand that we don’t just study Torah to learn what to do, but rather to appreciate Torah for Torah’s sake. Connecting to G-d’s Wisdom isthe ultimate aim.
In Life: Eric Schmidt, CEO of google, told in an interview in 2006 ‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’ So too our goal is to keep things fresh and innovative, not just supply responses to needs, but constantly question how to create new needs as well.
Now ask: ‘Do I ever learn Torah exclusivelyfor Torah’s sake, or do I get frustrated when I can’t neatly tie up a concept and move on?’
A question is half an answer
There’s an even more profound explanation of the value of an unanswered question. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus said “On every question, I can provide an answer, and on every answer, I can find a question.” On a metaphysical level this is explained by concept of the Torah being filtered down into this world through four Spiritual realms. Each of these different levels of consciousness contains a different layer of the Torah. Therefore, even things that could be a question in a lower ‘world’ – has an answer in a higher one.
In Life; Don’t be satisfied with the answers you once got. Constantly question and reassess the goal. One answer leads to a new question, with a better answer around the bend.
Now ask; ‘do I realise that everything has many layers of understanding; once I have grasped one dimension there is still so much more for me to aspire to?’
There’s a way to ask
One thing that can’t be glossed over is the definite way that a question must be approached. The wicked son and the son-who-does-not-know-how-to-ask receive an identical answer in the Pesach haggadah – (Which is?) and why is that? Because fails to ask respectfully, but sneers “what is this to you?” By the tone of his question he demonstrates that he is not truly interested in receiving answers.
An example; rather than asking “how could the Torah demand a cruel and primitive activity such as animal sacrifice?” Rephrase with humility; “What could be the spiritual significance behind the seemingly mystifying focus on animal sacrifice.”
In Life; ask genuinely, and not to provoke, and you will get an answer as such. It’s crucial to approach all subjects with humility and respect.
Now ask; ‘when I fail to find a satisfactory answer immediately, do I assume it’s an issue with what I’m learning, or possibly a lack in my own understanding?’
Ask, but do
It would be distortion to conclude that Chassidus believes that all can be achieved through reason and critical thinking. After all, as a religious system Judaism has some basic tenets that underpin all else; why question the applicability of a certain Torah law if one lacks faith that the Written Torah is Divine, and the Oral Law divinely inspired? Suffice it to say that Chassidus holds that belief is naturally implanted within the heart of every Jew, and only needs to be uncovered. Questions and doubts can lead one from commitment-phobia to leading a religious-Jewish lifestyle. Thus in order to ascertain that a question is being asked honestly, and not from a place of deflection or invasion, the rule is that one continues to practice all religious requirements, while simultaneously seeking answers for their doubts.
Rabbi Shmuel Rodal, a shliach in Milan, Italy, was a student in the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Israel, in the mid-1960’s when he started having doubts in his faith. After taking advice from teachers and mentors, he wrote a 7 page letter to the Rebbe about his questions. He received no answer, and a few months later wrote back again another 3 pages. The whole time he was experiencing doubts he “never missed prayers, tzitzis, tefillin,” out of the possibility that Judaism could be right. One day he woke up, and all his misgivings had just faded away and been replaced with conviction. His mentor had him write a letter to the Rebbe, and then showed him months’ worth of aerograms he had received, on each one the Rebbe asked how was (Rabbi Rodal’s full Hebrew name). Years later the Rebbe expressed that he had invested the “greatest efforts that Shmuel should remain as he should be, from above and below.”
The topic on when an supra-rational leap of faith is required within the framework of trying to understand Torah and G-d to the best of our ability, is a topic of its own. When I asked Rabbi Rodal how he achieved such certainty out of the blue, that the Rebbe in essence ‘bequeathed’ him belief, he pointed out that he started out by being unafraid to ask questions of his teachers and mentors and even addressed them directly to the Rebbe himself.
In Life; If one has questions of belief, while retaining their usual religious practices and examining the motives behind questioning, they should be sure to express them!
Now ask; ‘do I suppress my questions, or deny that I have them, leaving them to fester? Could I perhaps confront my fears and look for advice, while preserving intellectual honesty by maintaining commitment to what I’m doing?
Keep on Asking
Questioning and answering are an act of reaching higher to find truth, and drawing the answer back down. It’s a dynamic dance, of questions and answers, thinking deeper and just reaching deeper questions. In fact, you may not even reach the satisfaction of an answer – but just labor away at it with intensive toil.
Every time you ask, answer and then question again, your thinking process becomes clearer and more thorough. You stay engaged, passionate and curious
You learn to look at the world with a critical eye; not accepting the superficiality, of a dark and disconnected place, with no source and no future. You use the powers of intellect granted to you by G-d to reveal how every place, every space, every law and detail of the Torah clearly announces His presence.
 Groundbreaking text of Chassidic philosophy, first published 1797
 Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, Epistle 26
 Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 4
 Tzvi Freeman, Wisdom To Heal the Earth
 An illustration of this concept are the common characteristic of both extreme creative geniuses and mental illness sufferers, one being ‘cognitive disinhibition,’ a diminished state of filtering of external stimuli. Like the primordial ‘world of chaos’ arises when there is ‘much light and few vessels,’ – too much stimulation and not enough capabilities to contain it all, while remaining a strong and powerful force
 Rashi Bamidbar 19:2
 Mishneh Torah, Substitution 4:13
 Sicha, Beis Nisan, Vol 24
 Sicha, Simchas Torah eve, Vol 15
 The Rebbe’s Hagaddah
 ‘Waiting for an answer’ Living Torah, Program 734
 Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Tisa-Para 1990