Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, January 1954, as part of the series “The Persistent Questioner”.
There are three distinct attitudes to religious questioning. The first is to react to such questionings with impatient irritation. This attitude is often due to an awareness on the part of the person to whom the questions are addressed of his inability to answer them to his satisfaction. He too, deep down, is bothered by the same difficulties which he dare not recognise if he is to retain his peace of mind. The very vehemence of the “freg nit ken kashes” retort is often enough evidence that the one who makes it is more disturbed than he cares to admit. It was Rabbi Simhah Zissel, of Kelm, who acutely observed that the rabbinic injunction to know what answer to give to the epikoros may refer to what he called the “eiginer epikoros” —the unbeliever n one’s one self.
The second attitude, adopted by many distinguished Jewish spiritual leaders, especially in former ages, frowns upon religious questionings because of their futility. The adherents of this view are so convinced of the truths they teach that they are not prepared to admit the existence of honest doubt. Reversing the Freudian doctrine that we believe because we wish to, they would have it that if we lack faith it is because we are disinclined to submit to the stern discipline demanded by the Torah life, from the conclusions of which we seek refuge by denying the premises on which they are based. The verse “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (Isaiah lv, 7), has been quoted to lend support to this view—if only the wicked will learn to control himself the unrighteous thoughts will disappear of themselves. The Chaftz Chayim is reported to have said that for the man of faith there are no difficulties, while for him who has no faith there are no solution.
However, there have always been thinking people who have sincerely desired to believe but who have been disturbed by difficulties in the path of belief to which they cannot find a solution. Hence the third attitude, one represented by the greatest names in the history of Jewish thought, positively welcomes the spiritual struggles of the persistent questioner, looking upon them as the first, perhaps the essential, steps towards real faith.
Not that those who adopt this attitude believe that all questions in matters of faith can be answered. In the nature of the case, there can be no complete solution, capable of being grasped by the human mind, to difficulties such as the most obstinate barrier to a theistic faith, the problem of pain; of how a benevolent Creator can tolerate evil in His creation. Indeed, if God is what Judaism says He is, then there are bound to be difficulties of this kind. Only the infinite can comprehend the infinite: man’s finite mind can see at the most, only a tiny fragment of truth. It follows that a religion which presented no such difficulties would certainly be false. Maimonides’s apophthegm: “If I knew Him I would be Him” is the final word on this subject. Or as a prominent clergyman once retorted: “If I knew all the answers I would be running the Universe, not answering questions about it.”
An examination of the articles in the “Persistent Questioner” series shows that not only are all the contributors agreed on the importance and value of Jewish survival, but, rejecting the “secular” Judaism popular in certain quarters, they all conceive of Judaism in religious terms. With one exception, they are further agreed on the value of Orthodox Judaism, though some of them remark on the danger of equating Orthodoxy with fundamentalism and prefer the term “traditional” Judaism, with its more fluid connotation, to that of Orthodoxy with its nuances of rigidity and inflexibility. This point is of particular significance to the whole discussion.
“The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm xix, 7), exclaims the Psalmist with enthusiam. This verse is interpreted in two ways in the Midrash (Yalkut ad loc.). It can either mean that the Torah restores the soul because it is perfect or that the Torah is perfect because it restores the soul. These two interpretations give us the key to the difference in approach between the two great “Guides for the Perplexed,” neither of them fundamentalistic; that of Maimonides, written for the medieval Jew, and that of Krochmal, for the modern Jew. In the Middle Ages Jewish thinkers were not overmuch concerned with demonstrating the beauty of Jewish life. It was sufficient for them that the Torah was perfect. This perfect Torah must be obeyed and it would then have the effect of restoring the Jewish soul. Modern historical criticism, with its researches into Jewish origins, has caused us to reverse the process. The fruitful approach nowadays is to work backwards; to arrive at the conception of a perfect Torah by witnessing its effect on the lives of Jews throughout the ages, of showing how the soul of the Jew had been elevated and his spirit enriched by obeying its precepts and following its teachings. A simple but typical illustration of the difference in approach is given by Krochmal in his consideration of the Davidic authorship of the whole Book of Psalms. He notes that in the “ages of faith” people found a source of great inspiration in the traditional belief that King David, guided by ruach hakodesh, foresaw that his people would one day be in exile in Babylon and would lament: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Nowadays we find greater inspiration in the thought that those who were actually called upon to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land uttered the poignant lament with longing in their hearts. The value of the psalm’s message is unaffected by either approach.
It cannot, of course, be maintained that all the pioneers of Jüdische Wissenschaft were interested primarily in religion; they were historians rather than theologians. But Zunz and Krochmal, Rapoport and Frankel did not labour in vain, and religious Jews who follow the traditional Jewish way of life are becoming increasingly aware of the value of an approach, in which the search for truth of the critical school is wedded to the devotional atmosphere in which the traditional student of the Torah conducted his researches into the will of God.
The Jewish Chronicle is to be congratulated for introducing this exciting discussion. Judaism has nothing to fear from the sincere questioner, no matter how persistent he is. It has much to fear from the support of the ignorant. The Chassidim tell of a chassid who came to the Rabbi of Kotzk and complained that he kept brooding about whether there really is a judgment and a judge. “What does it matter to you?” asked the rabbi. “Rabbi! if there is no judgment and no judge, then what does all creation mean?” “What does that matter to you?” “Rabbi! if there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?” “What does that matter to you?” “Rabbi! what does it matter to me? What does the Rabbi think? What else could matter to me?” “Well if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the Rabbi of Kotzk, “then you are a good Jew after all—and it is quite all right for a good Jew to brood: nothing can go wrong with him.”