The Jewish View on Jewish Views

Originally posted on jewishvaluescenter.org

 

We have all heard the common phrase “there is no such thing as a stupid question”. While this may be true from the perspective of a student, an educator must be able to dig deeper and understand the gap in knowledge or reasoning that lies at the root of any specific question. There is one type of question, however, that Jewish educators across the board seem to be failing at answering, inevitably creating a proliferation of confusion across the Jewish community.
 

This type of question, which is among the most commonly asked by people who want to learn more about Judaism, is the “What does Judaism say about X” question. These questions come from a good place. For example, a high school student wants to know what Judaism says about a controversial or difficult topic – say abortion, the presidential election, theodicy, etc. – so they ask a Rabbi or teacher to receive the answer. And herein lies the problem. Judaism is not monolithic and there is no such thing (and there never has been such thing) as the Jewish view.

 

Last week I attended a Q and A session with a popular Jewish educator in the Los Angeles area, and one of the attendees asked a question about God’s involvement in the world on a day to day basis. After giving an extremely anti-rationalist view, the educator then opened up the floor for discussion. At this point I immediately chimed in with the view of Maimonides who posited a much more rationalistic view of God’s involvement in the world. Not only did the educator have no idea what I was talking about (the Rambam’s philosophy is seldom learned in many Orthodox circles), but I was continuously told, and the others in the room were assured, that the view that I was espousing was not the Jewish view.

 

Ironically, it was the suggestion that there was only one answer to this question that was the “not Jewish” view. The beauty of Judaism is that there is seldom only one view. At its core, Judaism is a tradition centered around debate. Going back to the Tanakh we see different outlooks and opinions vis-à-vis various fundamental topics and questions such as God’s relationship with humanity, theodicy, political systems, etc. The Talmud continues with this theme and in two famous lines suggests that there are “seventy faces to the Torah” and that “these and these are both the words of the living God (even if they are contradictory)”.

 

Our beautiful tradition arose, and continues to function, on a platform of constant dialogue and discussion – any attempt to shut down this multiplicity is actually a negation of classical Judaism. It is much more honest to talk about various schools or streams of Jewish views, rather than one single view on any topic. In answering a question about the Jewish view on a specific topic, Jewish educators should immediately take a step back and inform the questioner that Judaism almost never has one view on any topic. Only then should the educator proceed to tell the questioner about the “commonly accepted view” or the one that he/she thinks is correct.

 

It is all too often that I meet individuals who have spent many years of their life in Jewish school or a Jewish community, yet do not even realize that Judaism says more than one thing on any given issue. What is even more depressing is the fact that I have met many Rabbis who think the same way. This epidemic stems from a lack of proper Jewish education and has extremely negative repercussions. Not only can this monochromatic worldview misrepresent Jewish values, many people who share this black and white view of Judaism either become Jewish fundamentalists or completely unaffiliated. Judaism, like the world, is anything but black and white – and our educators must stop representing it as such.

 

Thus, it seems that the true Jewish view on Jewish views is that there is no Jewish view. And while I know that phrase may seem slightly ironic – I’ll take solace in the fact that I know that many Jews will disagree with this post!

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