The Jewish Spirituality of Asking Questions


Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 84

Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a

Luke 2:41-52

This sermon was preached by Daniel at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on January 4, 2015.

According to Jewish tradition, at a time when Jesus was a young boy, there were two famous rabbis teaching in Jerusalem, Hillel and Shammai. One day, a Gentile approached Hillel and Shammai at different times with the same question. He first approached Shammai, standing on one leg, and asked, “Rabbi Shammai, can you summarize the whole Torah for me while I stand on one leg?” Rabbi Shammai, offended by this obnoxious question, picked up a ruler and chased him away. Apparently undeterred, the Gentile then approached Rabbi Hillel and, again standing on one leg, asked him the same question, “Rabbi Hillel, can you summarize the whole Torah for me while I stand on one leg?” To the Gentile’s surprise, Rabbi Hillel kindly answered, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” Deeply impressed by this answer, the Gentile converted to Judaism. And today, Rabbi Hillel is honored as the exemplar teacher because of his humility, his patience and his openness to all kinds of questions, no matter how peculiar. In fact, when it came to teaching and learning and sharing wisdom, Hillel encouraged bold questions and discouraged bashful silence. He said, “The bashful person cannot learn.” When it comes to learning, Jewish wisdom sees bashfulness as a major hindrance not only for students but for teachers as well. Teachers grow and become better educators by teaching students who ask challenging questions. One ancient rabbi (Rabbi Chanina) said, “I have learned much from my teachers, but I have learned more from my colleagues and I have learned even more from my students” (Ta’anit 7a).

So it is into this environment of openness to questions that the young Jesus enters in today’s Gospel. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus was not bashful among the teachers. He listened attentively and then boldly asked questions. It would not be too much of a stretch to imagine either Hillel or Shammai or even both at the temple when the young Jesus visited. One can easily imagine that Hillel’s teachings had a profound impact on young Jesus who later offered a similar summary of the Law and the Prophets: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Although we can only guess what kind of creative and challenging questions young Jesus was asking, we know that questions continued to play a major role in his teaching and ministry. Among the four Gospels, Jesus asks over one hundred questions (108 to be exact). His questions were meant to wake up his listeners, to get the creative juices flowing and to stir up a response.  And his questions caused his listeners (including us) to look within in, to reflect and to be transformed. He asked questions like “Why do you worry?” (Matt 6:28) “Why are you so afraid?” (Matt 8:26) “Why do you harbor evil thoughts?” (Matt 9:4)  “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15) “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) “Do you love me?” (John 21:16). As a teacher, Jesus knew the power of asking questions and he encouraged others to not be bashful and to ask him questions as well. Although he would often answer questions with more questions, he generally appreciated other people’s boldness.

As a teacher in different capacities (a youth minister in Marin, a teaching fellow at CDSP and an instructor at the School for Deacons), I love asking students questions and appreciate engaging them with their own questions as well, which can be as colorful as “Who is the pope of the Episcopal Church?” or as challenging as “Why did God let his Son suffer and be crucified?” Teaching is difficult; it can be exhausting and, at times, disappointing, but when I get to witness students asking deep theological questions and then offering their own original and innovative answers, I am honored to be a part of that process.

One of Jesus’ final questions in the Gospels is not directed to his disciples or to any of his followers. It is directed towards God. On the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was not bashful when it came to asking questions. Jesus was bold just like the psalmists he quoted, the psalmists who confronted God with their powerful and painful questions in the midst of suffering and despair. The psalmist knows that one day in God’s courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, because in God’s courts, we can bring our most difficult and troubling questions to One who will most certainly listen and to One who will respond.

Personally, I have been asking God some tough questions recently. I just returned from Minnesota, where I attended the funeral of one of my best friends, who suffered for several years from a severe case of a mysterious disease called “chronic fatigue syndrome.” There are many unanswered questions about the disease, but I find myself more preoccupied with questions like, “Why? Why did this happen to such a wonderful young person? And why, God, did you not heal him after years of prayer? Why?”

My favorite theologian is the first English theologian. She is a woman and she is known today as Julian of Norwich. In the 14th century, Julian experienced a day in God’s courts, day upon which she reflected for decades to come.  During her 24-hour-long mystical experience, Julian did not shy away from asking God the hard questions like “Why do you allow so much suffering?” and “Why didn’t you prevent sin and evil from entering the world?” And God responded to her with 16 revelations of divine love, assuring her that “all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Although God did not always give Julian the intellectual and rational answer that she may have hoped for, God did respond with revelations of love and invitations into deeper faith. And in reading her Showings, one gets the sense that the God with whom she speaks is deeply fond and appreciative of all her questions.

Just as Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Jesus welcomed bold questions from their students so also does the Risen Christ and God the Father welcome questions from us. Just as teachers delight in the creative questions of students so too does God delight in our questions, no matter how peculiar. So, as we enter the season of Epiphany when God makes Godself known to us in new ways, I invite us all to keep listening and asking questions and to bring our questions to the courts of God in prayer (no matter how difficult or absurd they might be). God will not chase us away with a ruler, like Rabbi Shammai. God delights in our questions because we are his beloved children “adopted through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” and God will respond to our questions with revelations and epiphanies of divine love. So keep asking.


6 thoughts on “The Jewish Spirituality of Asking Questions

  1. In Judaic classic literature, Hillel is referred to as “Hillel the Elder,” but never as Rabbi Hillel. The first rabbi was Yohanan ben Zakkai. But why let historical facts get in the way of misappropriation of Jewish culture?

    1. Moses, thanks for your comment. I appreciate the note regarding Hillel’s official title and designation in Judaic classic literature. Although Yohanan ben Zakkai may indeed be the first rabbi according to the Mishnah, you fail to acknowledge other texts and traditions that emerged out of Second Temple Judaism: namely, the Christian Gospels, which refer to Jesus as a “rabbi” numerous times. The Gospel’s reference to Jesus as “rabbi” is just as much of an historical fact as the Mishnah’s reference to Yohanan ben Zakkai as “rabbi,” so I’m not sure what you are referring to when you are accusing me of misappropriating Jewish culture. Are you saying that I am misappropriating Rabbinic Judaism because I called Hillel “Rabbi?” If so, that seems heavy handed, but maybe I’m missing something…

      1. A common fallacy in logic is proof by assertion. The belief that something must be true because it is said so often (it can even lead to election to high office). Using the title “rabbi” for historical(or mythical) personages does not go back in time and change events. For instance, Messianic Judaism is a modern religion. Orthodox Jewish organizations and the Supreme Court of Israel consider the sect to be Christian. Despite this you and your cohort deem yourself to be Jews. Cultural misappropriation is a form of colonialism whereby a dominant culture adopts and often distorts the practices of a minority and disadvantaged culture.

      2. Moses, I am not making the assertion that some historical person named Jesus was called “rabbi” in first century Palestine. We cannot know this for sure. In the same way, we cannot know for sure if some historical person named Yohanan Ben Zakkai was called “rabbi.” If either of us is trying to make an argument about historical events or personages, we are both on shaky ground. What we can know for sure is what our inherited texts say. I am making the assertion that the character Jesus in the Christian Gospels is referred to as “rabbi” numerous times. This is a fact.

        Thank you for pointing out the common fallacy of proof by assertion, a fallacy to which you are susceptible. Just because you assert that I am a Messianic Jew or that I claim to be Jewish does not make that true. I am not a Messianic Jew. I am an Episcopal priest. I agree with the Supreme Court of Israel on this issue. Messianic Jews are Christians.

        Thank you for your definition of cultural misappropriation. However, I’m still wondering what you are referring to when you are accusing me of misappropriating Jewish culture.

      3. I am a bit confuses as to your position. Did you not write, ” My father is a Messianic Jew and I was raised observing both Jewish and Christian holy days?”

      4. Indeed. That is true. My father still identifies as a Messianic Jew and/or a Hebrew Christian. Several years after he was bar-mitzvahed, he explored other faith traditions and eventually became a Christian after conversations with Messianic Jews. That is not my story. I do not identify as a Messianic Jew. I believe it is deeply confusing for someone to claim Jewish religious identity while also confessing Jesus as Messiah. As soon as one confesses Jesus as Messiah, they are no longer Jewish; they are Christian. I imagine you would agree.

        Following the wisdom of historical Jesus scholars, I am convinced that Jesus was a Jewish Mystic, which is why I say that my ultimate allegiance lies with a Jewish Mystic of first century Palestine. I think it is helpful to remind my fellow Christians and myself that Jesus was a Jew of Second Temple Judaism. Understanding Jesus within his Second Temple Jewish context deepens my love and appreciation for Jesus; and I am deeply grateful for Jewish New Testament scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine and Adele Reinhartz as well as historian Daniel Boyarin for deepening this understanding.

        I still occasionally celebrate Jewish holidays, but only as a guest at my local synagogue. The rabbi is a friend of mine, with whom I often participate in local community events and co-author articles in the local paper. Although many parishioners have asked me to host a Christian seder at my church, I refuse to do so precisely because I think it would be a misappropriation of Jewish culture. I tell my parishioners that if they want to experience a seder, they should visit the synagogue or become friends with Jewish families in the area.

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