I am Jewish, Therefore I Question.

mah nistanahBy David Jacobson

It is not by coincidence that our Pesach Seder begins with questions. Questions have long been both the focus of the Seder as well as the heart of Judaism. Literally from the very beginning, questions have been used to both inform us and, indeed, to challenge us. The Book of Genesis opens with potent, existential questions: God asks Adam, “Ayeka: Where are you?” God inquires of Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain responds with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Abraham questions God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will the judge of all the earth not do justly?” In many respects, our entire Jewish lives are responses to those questions. Rather than being threatened by questioning, Judaism actively encourages it.

Questions are so central to the Seder that according to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, changing the night’s procedure is permitted in order to provoke children to ask, “What’s the story?” We ask the youngest member of the Seder to ask the questions so that even before they have learned to read, our children are being trained to question intelligently. They are taught to wonder, to probe deeply and to politely, yet firmly request an explanation from us. This enables our children to move from passive observers in our faith to active and engaged participants. This has proved to be an incredibly successful model for education and has helped us transmit our faith from one generation to the next for thousands of years.

The first words of Moses in Exodus Chapter 2 are a question: “Why do you strike your fellow?” In fact, Moses constantly questions HaShem, including convincing G-d not to destroy Am Yisrael after the sin of the golden calf. Our tradition teaches us that one of the differences between a Noah and an Abraham or a Moses, is precisely that Abraham and Moses argue with HaShem. That is why Jews look back at Abraham as their father, while the rest of humanity is categorized as “sons of Noah” and is not considered to be subject to the Law revealed at Sinai. You have to argue with God to get to hear the Law.

Questions are a mark of freedom, so it’s no wonder they are the cornerstone of celebrating the festival of freedom. Yet, too often our response as communities to those who question communal ideology is one of derision, or worse, one of isolation and vilification. Yet, Pesach teaches us that we should not only be grateful for the questions asked of us, we should actively be encouraging even more questioning.

So, this Pesach, I would like to suggest four other questions we may consider asking:

1. Mah NishtanahWhat is our responsibility to speak out against oppression wherever we see it?

In Exodus 22:20 we are commanded: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This call to stand up against oppression and tyranny, to take care of the ‘ger,’ the stranger, is replete throughout our tradition. Moshe Rabeinu struck down the Egyptian taskmaster, not because he was beating a Hebrew (a Jew), but because he was mistreating a fellow human being. Have we always been sensitive enough to the plight of ‘the other’? Whether it be refugees or oppressed minorities in our home communities, or in Israel where the ‘other’ is a Palestinian population, do we speak out against unjust treatments against others when we see it? Or do we only look after our own interests?

2. Mah NishtanahWho decides who is in and who is out?

The Children of Israel who participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf were in, yet Korach and his followers were destroyed. This is extremely complex and perhaps only HaShem can make that call definitively. Our tradition teaches us that we were all at Sinai, standing shoulder to shoulder. That includes Jews of all denominations, Zionists, non-Zionists and indeed Jews of all sexual orientations. The Midrash tells us that it was the act of Moshe gathering an errant young sheep and bringing him back to the flock that catapulted Moshe to the position we know. So instead of being afraid of those who stray from our community, we should be actively engaged in gently helping them find their way back.

3. Mah NishtanahWho controls power?

All Jewish communities rely heavily on the incredible generosity of donors. However, globally there is a growing disconnect between the needs of the community as defined by its elected leaders, and the donors who control the money. Do donations come with ‘strings attached’ and if so, what are those? We have the ethical model for a response from Moshe Rabeinu. When Moses was building the tabernacle, he was asked to give the Israelites a full accounting of how donations to build the Mishkan were being used. In Shmot Rabbah it tells us that even though Moshe alone was treasurer, he called upon others to audit the accounts on their own. Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz takes this idea one step further. “If the seven appointed leaders of the city are not proper leaders and they were elected by people who didn’t vote for the sake of heaven, but rather based on their friendship with certain people, the elected leaders have no official power.” Chazon Ish, Baba Batra no. 4.

How much sway do selective, but not elected, individuals play in determining the direction of our community?

4. Mah NishtanahWho appoints our leaders and how democratic is our community?

Democracy and its integration with Judaism is complex. However, there are enough sources in the Tanach, Talmud and others to suggest that Jewish community should follow democratic principles. Hashem himself championed democratic consensus, when He told Moshe Rabbeinu to obtain the people’s endorsement of Bezalel to build the Beit Hamikdash, even after He appointed him. Rav Kook also discusses how democracy plays a role in Jewish leadership in Mishpat Kohen: “It seems that when there is no king, being that the statutes of the king also relate to the general welfare of the nation, the rights of these statutes revert to the nation as a whole.” It is our duty as a community to interrogate the structures of our community to check if they are democratically constituted: do they have constitutions, board of governors, fiscal control, fair elections to positions of power etc?. And democracy is not simply about holding elections. It is about actively encouraging rigorous engagement with the election process and then holding those elected to account.

These are just some of the questions we could ask. There are many more. This Pesach, let us teach our children to ask questions, and in turn, not to be afraid to being asked questions. Whether they ask what we think are wise questions, simple or wicked questions, they should all have an equal voice at our communal Seder Table. Chag Sameach.

David Jacobson has been a leader in the South African Jewish community for many years. The former Executive Director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies, David now consults to the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York and to other Jewish organiziations. He is involved in numerous Jewish spaces, including Limmud South Africa and the World Jewish Congress Diplomatic Corps.