Years ago, Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, was asked why he became a scientist. He replied: “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.”
Asking good questions can also make you into a good teacher and an excellent participant in our Torah study class on Shabbat mornings. Every Shabbat morning an eclectic group of us gather to study Torah with Rashi, our Tradition’s 11th Century French sage and most well-known Torah commentator. Although there are feisty “regulars,” the composition of the class is different every Shabbat. Don’t be afraid to try it out. Everyone is welcome!
One of the most striking features of our Torah study conversations is the extent and the quality of the questions that our participants ask. Although we may be learning with Rashi, the content of our conversations is open to far-flung questions, not just, “what is bothering Rashi” (meaning, why is Rashi commenting on this verse or this particular word?). In the familiar style of Tevya, who questions God as a good friend, participants will question God, the Torah, Rashi, one another, and, of course, me.
What is most thrilling for me is to see the sparks and hear the ideas flying. For 18 years before going off to Rabbinical School, at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago I participated in Shabbat morning Torah study from 9:00 – 11:00, went into services to hear the Rabbi’s sermon, daven musaf, and then spend an hour or so at kiddush talking some more about Torah or what was going on in the world (not necessarily separate topics of conversation). I loved it. It was the highlight of my week. It was not for the faint-hearted.
Torah study is hard. It is humbling, and it can be infuriating. Our most cherished beliefs, political perspectives, and sensitivities can and will be challenged and disputed. Those of us who participate in Torah study will come to know each other intimately and, if we’re fortunate, love one another.
I am grappling with my own role in our class. I review all of Rashi’s commentary for the week’s parashah, select what, in my opinion, are Rashi’s most interesting or provocative insights and bring them to our study session. If all goes well, and, also in my opinion, it is going well, our verses of Torah and Rashi commentary act as springboards which launch our questions. Because I have logged many, many more hours as a participant than a facilitator, I sometimes forget myself and jump into the water with you. Selichah. Please know that I mean no harm. I, too, am looking for truth through Torah study. Our Torah study leader in Chicago, Moish Lenow, acted as our guide, facilitator and referee most of the time. Only occasionally did he duke it out with us. To his great credit, when he truly and fully engaged, he usually opened with a piercing question.
It is helpful for all of us to remember that a genuine question is not an insult or a personal attack. It may very well be criticism, but if we can see its merit, our best response is another question or a heartfelt, “thank you” for pointing out something we weren’t conscious of at the moment we spoke.
A modern Torah scholar and psychiatrist tells of how, when he was a student, his teacher would eagerly embrace challenges to his arguments. In his broken English he would say: “You right! You a hundred prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong!”
May we all have the strength, humility, and insight to recognize and enjoy a good question when we hear one. These are the true gifts of Torah.
Arthur and I wish you a Chag Sameach this Shavuot. May you never stop asking questions!
Rabbi Aviva Berg