Big Questions and Elul

by Josh Feigelson

I delivered this dvar Torah on a recent Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

II. Rediscovering Big Questions

Let’s begin with Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Religion is an answer to ultimate questions,” he writes. “The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in. The primary task of religious thinking is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer.”

Our lives are our answers to questions. We go to work for a reason. We raise our children for a reason. We do mitzvot for a reason. We eat, sleep, exercise, get sick, heal, make love, rejoice and mourn in response to questions. Not necessarily questions we consciously ask ourselves, but inescapable questions. The kinds of questions the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor refers to when he writes, “We take as basic that the human agent exists in a space of questions. And these are the questions to which our framework-definitions are answers, providing the horizon within which we know where we stand, and what meanings things have for us.”

What are those questions? How do we find them? In seven years of work, after a lot of trial and error and the helpful thinking of many good partners and friends, I can posit an answer. These are what we call Big Questions (capital B, capital Q), and they are defined by two basic criteria: First, they matter to everyone. Second, everyone can answer them. Additionally, they are directed at people, in the second or first person plural: at you or at us.

  • What will you do better this year?
  • Are we free?
  • When do you conform?
  • What have you learned so far?
  • What could we sacrifice to change the world?

These are some good examples of Big Questions.

To better understand how Big Questions work, we have to move for a second to a different area, what I call Hard Questions. Hard Questions look a lot like Big Questions. They also matter to everyone. But only some people can answer Hard Questions. A lot of university life is filled with Hard Questions. How can we bring peace to the Middle East? is a classic. It matters to everyone, but not everyone can answer that question. To engage that discussion, you have to think you know something about the Middle East. The less you know – or, more accurately, the less you think you know – the less likely you are to participate. The question becomes unanswerable to you. (For a short, fun video that explains the difference between Big Questions and Hard Questions, click here.)

Some other examples of Hard Questions: Does God exist? Is truth objective or subjective? Is nature or nurture more important? All of these are important questions, but not everyone can answer them. Typically they lead to debate. Most of us have probably been at a Shabbat meal where the topic turned to a Hard Question – Who should you vote for this November? – and we have all seen the result: a couple of people get heated, other people find ways to avoid the conversation (hanging out in the kitchen or on the living room couch), and by the end, the combatants are simply more hardened in their positions, while the rest of us are resentful because we would have rather eaten a nice meal together.

Now what if we put a Big Question at the center of our conversation? Remember, it has to matter to everyone, and it has to be a question everyone can answer. “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” which is a classic ice-breaker question, is definitely a question everyone can answer, but it fundamentally doesn’t matter. It’s not big. It’s a small question.

A good example of a Big Question would be, “Where do you feel at home?” Another is, “For whom are we responsible?” One many of us might be familiar with is, “What are you thankful for?”

All of these questions are ones that matter to everyone. They are significant. And they’re ones that everyone can answer. And when I say everyone, I really do mean everyone – from a six year-old to a 96-year old, regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, or socioeconomic background. Everyone can answer a Big Question. These are human questions.

What’s also important about Big Questions is that they lead to sharing stories. They lead to conversation, not debate. There are no reference books to use in a conversation about Where do you feel at home? No one is going to run to grab the dictionary or the encyclopedia (or google the answer on their phone) to look up some fact during a conversation like this. Instead, a Big Question invites us to share our stories, speak in the first person, and listen. In the words of our tagline, when we ask Big Questions, we come to understand others and understand ourselves.

III. Big Questions and Text Learning

In our work at Ask Big Questions, we’ve developed a four-stage approach to holding reflective conversation in community. The four stages are easy to remember: 1) Ask; 2) Share; 3) Learn; 4) Do. Ask refers to Asking Big Questions, questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can answer. Share refers to sharing personal stories. Do refers to asking, at the end of the conversation, what will we do based on this conversation – in our own lives, and in the life of our community?

I skipped over step 3, which is Learn, and that’s because it is both the hardest and the most significant of the four steps. When we say learn, we mean that a good reflective community conversation is centered around an interpretive thing – a text, an image, a video clip, a song. Putting the object at the center gives all the participants equal access to the conversation. It prevents the conversation from becoming simply people talking about themselves, which could easily become a therapy session. It gives the conversation dimensions beyond the people in the room, bringing in voices from other points in time and space.

As Jews we encounter texts all the time. But what we sometimes forget is that how we interact with those texts matters. Too often, and here I first and foremost indict myself, rabbis and teachers use Jewish texts as a means of demonstrating our own intelligence. Say something smart, dazzle the audience, and you’ve done your job. Show them how brilliant you are. I have given my share of such presentations, and I have been in the room for many more.

But as writer and educator Parker Palmer has helped many teachers to see, being smart is not what great teaching is all about. It’s not what texts are meant to be for. Being smart is in many ways the yetzer hara of the teacher, and using texts towards such ends warps them and cheapens them of their power. Great texts, and especially Torah, are meant to anchor an eternal conversation about questions that matter to all of us and that all of us can, and must, answer. This is what Heschel meant when he said that “the primary task of religious thinking is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer.” Our texts, from the first words of Bereshit to the poems of Marge Piercy, are the touchstones of a conversation that started before the creation of the world and will continue until the days of the Messiah.

In order for our texts to be that, we have to approach them with kavvanah. We have to be open to being changed by our encounter with a text. Havruta o mituta, says the Gemara. Poetically rendered, this means that our learning must take place in community. There is a place for hitbodedut, for silent reflection and meditation. But transformative learning happens when we are held by, and at the same time help to hold, the tent poles of our community – those who are here with us, and those who are not here with us today.

I would suggest that this kind of learning is possible – perhaps only possible – when we ask Big Questions. If our questions are big enough and yet accessible enough; if they invite us to reflect and share in a space that is both challenging and affirming, reflective and non-judgmental; if they invite us into the eternal conversation that is Torah and the story of human beings, then I believe we can experience the full meaning of the Rabbinic ideal of Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah equals all other mitzvot.

IV. Big Questions and Teshuva

In my final comments, I want to reflect on how this approach of Big Questions informs the season of teshuva. By now, I hope, you’ve picked up on the theme: when we ask Big Questions, we are not doing anything so terribly new. In fact, I like to say, the idea of Ask Big Questions is radically old.

Children have an incredible capacity for asking big questions. Spend time in a kindergarten classroom and you will remember what it feels like. “What are you thankful for?” is something kindergartners talk about at least once a week. Who is in your family? Who is in our community? Where do you feel at home? This is the bread and butter of age 6. Yet somewhere between age 6 and becoming a grownup, we forget those questions. We become more interested in knowledge acquisition, in showing that we’re smart and skilled and capable. To borrow another phrase from Heschel, we become more interested with information and less animated by appreciation.

Yet these questions frequently find their way back to our consciousness when we lose a parent. While thankfully my parents are still living, I have been to my share of shiva houses. If your experience at a shiva house is anything like mine, you’ll find that there is an openness to Big Questions, to a nurturing kind of reflection among community, during moments of mourning and remembrance.

I can suggest two reasons for this. First, death prompts us to confront questions that truly matter, questions of ultimate concern. Endings force us to think about everything that leads up to them, and the end of life leads us to consider what truly matters in our own lives. This, of course, is reflected in the High Holidays: these are days on which we see ourselves as on trial for our lives; Yom Kippur is a day of abstaining from the materiality of life, a day of confronting mortality. And so Elul and the High Holidays lead us to consider Big Questions.

Second, when confronted with the loss of a parent, we rediscover, as an adult, what it means to be a child. K’rachem av al banim, ken terachem aleinu. As a father has mercy on his children, so may You have mercy on us, we say on the High Holidays. If the process of teshuva is about rediscovering the nature of our parental relationship with the Holy Blessed One, then it is also about rediscovering something of that experience of being a child. Teshuva is both about learning and unlearning from the past year. We return, not to a state of innocence, but to a place where our hearts can be open – to each other, to God, to ourselves.

As I have said a few times, I believe the path to that openness, to the teshuva we truly, deeply seek, begins with asking better questions, bigger questions. I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with an Elul of Big Questions, a Tishrei of great conversations, and year of renewal and transformation.

Ketiva v’chatima tova.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson serves as Educational Director for Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative. He is also a consultant for the iCenter and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Northwestern University.

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