Sunday, April 17, 2011

People With Questions

R' Yitzchok Adlerstein has a fantastic response to the Ami piece discussed below, with the rather straightforward title People With Questions Are Not Sick. While it's possible to nitpick a couple lines, the basic thrust and points of the piece are right on target. Excerpts: (emphasis mine)
The first is that until recently, we had major talmidei chachamim well versed in the intellectual challenges of the day who devoted much time and energy battling the mockers and skeptics on their own turf. Think R Saadia Gaon, the Rambam, R Yehuda HaLevi hundreds of years ago. Think R Samson Raphael Hirsch, R Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, R Yitzchok Isaac Halevi, and the Malbim in more recent times, battling Higher Criticism or the platform of Reform, or the extremes of Jewish Wissenschaft. These figures studied and mastered the challenges from the inside, offering real counterpunches, rather than glib bromides. They did not, and could not, “prove” their case, but they could show that alternatives existed that were as attractive as any other. We do not have such figures today.

The second factor is the appearance of wrong answers. Sending serious seekers to vaunted “experts” is worse than allowing them to struggle on their own. Once a person meets the acclaimed “answer people,” the people everyone around him tells him or her are the greatest and deepest minds and finds their answers inadequate, he no longer has any reason to wait. He has gone to the top, and knows he cannot live with their approach – often with good reason.

The world of kiruv is populated with many wonderful people. Some of them are deep thinkers, and have taken the time to read and understand the genuine questions and doubts. Others, however, have swallowed the Kool-Aid. They are so convinced that answers are there, they imagine that they have found them, despite the fact that they are remarkably similar to the orthoprax subjects of the article, who are described as ignorant of both Torah and the secular challenges. Often, they are hopelessly ignorant of the literature and of the complexity of the challenges. (The embrace of the Bible Codes, the often shallow way in which the serious body of evolutionary evidence is dealt with, the use of oddball minority approaches to science, and the complete unawareness of issues relating to biblical studies are examples that come to mind. A good way to tell if you are dealing with one of them is if he tells you he has spoken to “the biggest scientists” – whatever that means.)
Even better:
It is vital to understand that there are many others whose questions are sincere, and whose situation is worsened by putting them in contact with purveyors of superficial and simplistic “answers.” There are far more of them than we think. [...] Rather than to meet well-meaning people who provide simplistic, facile and unsatisfactory approaches, it would be better to have them meet frum people of deep intellectual ability who also struggle, without detracting from their shemiras hamitzvos. There are many, many of them. They will provide some answers, but more importantly, will be models of how to live with questions.

Amen. For a bit of a Pesach vort, one aspect of the Hagaddah I've always found intriguing is that while we ask four questions at the beginning of the seder, and are encouraged to continue asking throughout, the discussion we have doesn't exactly answer those specific questions - and certainly not in the most straightforward fashion. There's a much higher level of complexity involved, and while certainly there are explanations given, there's always the aspect of a person needing to understand and determine for themselves what exactly is meant by it all and what to take away from the night.

We here at SerandEz would like to wish a wonderful Chag Sameach to all our family, friends, supporters, and readers. May we all merit to have our questions answered, and may we celebrate next year in Yerushalayim Habenuya.