These Are The Questions That I Don't Want to Ask

At this point in the school year my students have figured me out. They're not the only ones who are trying to get me off topic. I also want to go off topic.

Naturally, I work hard to bring everything back to the text we're learning. But say, for example, a Talmid wants to discuss the war in Ukraine, well then, there is nothing I would like more than to spend class discussing the notion of Milchama. What does the Torah think of war? Is it an ideal? Should we daven for an end to war or should we be davening for victory?

“Rebbe...”, another Talmid asks, “Why did Moshe have to take off his shoes at the burning bush? Why can't a mourner wear shoes? What do these ideas have to do with each other?” Great question. There's a whole world of understanding shoes in Halacha and Hashkafa. (The Shelah HaKadosh explains at length how shoes are our connection point to the earth, and there are times where we are obligated to feel that connection in a visceral way.) These are detours from the curriculum that I'm glad to make.

(I've written about some of these detours before, see here and here.)

There is, however, one type of question that I no longer enjoy discussing:

“Rebbe, how can we prove that there is a God? How do we know that the Torah is real? How do we know that this isn't all just made up?”

For years, I used to revel in these conversations. I have a litany of sources, well honed arguments, and some great texts to explore.

So what's the problem with these questions?

Consider for a moment, that my kids call me “Abba”. (Full disclosure: only three out of four call me anything. The baby doesn't talk yet.)

Despite my deep desire for my children to be well versed in natural sciences as well as Torah, I can safely state that their understanding of biology does not warrant them calling me “Abba.” They simply don't know enough to fully explain what makes me their dad.

Does this lack of biological information detract from my relationship with them? I doubt it. Insisting on a scientific proof for familial relationships would render them totally dysfunctional.

Try asking a child why they call their mother “Mommy” or “Ima”. It's a fair question, in a certain sense, but practically, it's ridiculous.

The danger arrises when that question is asked regularly. Imagine a pre-schooler arriving at school everyday and hearing teachers asking them how they know that the person they call “mommy” is indeed their mommy. Of course, a well grounded child will brush it off once or twice. But what if the teacher kept it up? What if the same questions were asked day after day? How would a child defend their understanding of parenthood? What might all this do to a parent-child relationship?

But the problems that would arise from such a scenario are not limited to the relationship alone. The deepest destruction here is what it would do to the notion of “parenthood” in the eyes of that child. The idea of “mommy” or “abba” cannot be contained by a lecture in biology. They cannot be explained by rational arguments.

How tragic would it be for a child to spend decades understanding the science behind a relationship, rather than being in that relationship.

The truth is, that the socratic method of challenge and inquiry are brilliant tools for understanding laws, principles and facts. But these same tools are disastrous when applied to personal connections, relationships and emotions.

Consider that there is nothing that will destroy a shidduch quicker than asking “How do you know that this person loves you?” You don't know. You can't know. Certainly not with the same knowledge that 1+1=2. Scientific inquiry is the wrong tool with which to probe the depths of interpersonal relationships.

All of this points to a simple truth: If we are trying to develop a relationship with Hashem, then philosophical inquiry is the wrong tool to use.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there is no place for philosophy. Indeed, at a mature stage of relationship, understanding the biological underpinnings of family could be enlightening. But there is no stage where philosophy or science replaces emotional connections.

This is the issue that lies at the heart of Lag Ba'Omer. Rabbi Shimon spend 13 years in that cave and gifted us the realization that Hashem cannot be contained by math, science, words, or even Torah.

The Maharal explains: Sometimes in our great love for the study of Torah, we forget the Giver of the Torah. We enjoy the process of questions, answers and inquiries so much that we fail to engage in the necessary emotional work to keep the flame of our love for Hashem alive.

So how do we answer these questions? Whether we are challenged by our students or our own thoughts, how do we respond?

I think the best response is what we might say to a child wondering how to explain that “mommy” is their mommy: Run up to her, give her a hug. Then you'll know.

How do we know that Shabbos is real? Torah is real? Hashem is real? Sit at Shabbos table with friends, family and a bowl of cholent. Fall asleep in the middle of Chad Gadya. Scream Shema Yisrael at the end of Yom Kippur. Drop everything to make a minyan and finish a daf. Because Yiddishkeit cannot be explained, it can only be lived. Rabbi Shimon's great chiddush is simple: If we run up to the Ribono Shel Olam, give Him a hug, then we'll know.