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.



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