Faithful Questioning

At Passover family gatherings around the globe, the youngest child stands on a chair and recites Four Questions, refined by tradition and learned by rote. Adults applaud approvingly, and the Passover seder proceeds for hours discussing, debating, and answering those questions and others generated along the way. As a youngster, I wondered why asking the Four Questions figured so prominently in the seder service. As an adult, the reason is clear: Asking questions is the beginning of both knowledge and belief.

Nobel laureate in physics Isador Rabi recounts that his mother made him a scientist. When the other children arrived home from school, their mothers asked what they had learned that day. Not Rabi’s mother. She asked, “Nu, Izzy, did you ask any good questions today?” The same is true for religion: Questioning, doubting, and challenging are essential to an honest inquiry of ultimate issues.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in The Journey Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition writes, “Polls reveal that one-third of Americans identify as spiritual a whole host of things, including ‘a calmness of life,’ ‘believing in myself to make the right decision,’ ‘living a life that I feel is pleasing,’ and ‘living positively,’ without any reference to God, a high power, or a higher morality. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow sees this privatization of spirituality as the domestication of God, who now conveniently serves us, not the other way around.”

Americans pay abundant lip service to belief in God, but too often it is expressed as either a firm and incontrovertible faith that is immune to questioning and challenge, or alternatively a feel-good exercise in self-affirmation. We go from one extreme to the other: Either claiming to have a lock on God and truth, or sporting a God that created for self-affirmation.

In the context of broader American spirituality, which changes with the seasons and leans toward the fad-du-jeur, we need to scrupulously avoid both unquestioning theological rigidity and the self-absorbed conviction that living a religious life is all about making ourselves feel good. Life unavoidably entails discomfort, doubt, suffering, ambivalence, ambiguity, pain, and frustration. Not all the answers are at our disposal. We are not God. Living a religious life entails dealing with the nitty-gritty of life in a way that affirms its complexity -- complete with its ugliness, doubts, fears, and failings -- and which ultimately redeems life.

Robert Weston wrote: “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth... Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.” Testing neither threatens nor destroys. It refines and strengthens.

Doubt is natural, and questioning is itself can be a deeply spiritual act of inquiry and engagement with heaven, just as the Four Questions asked on Passover demonstrate. Religion ought to summon us to explore the depths of our soul, but also the depth and wisdom of our sacred texts to find answers that help us live our lives more fully and more righteously. We have every right -- I would claim sacred duty -- to challenge our religious traditions, and any religion worth following will challenge us to live our lives more humanly and more humanely.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.