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questions & answers

Shabbat Naso 5778 | May 26, 2018
“Go ahead, Ozz—jump!” “Jump, Ozz, jump!”
“Oscar, Don’t Jump! Please, Don’t Jump . . . please please . . .”
Somehow when you’re on a roof the darker it gets the less you can hear. All Ozzie knew was that two groups wanted two new things: his friends were spirited and musical about what they wanted; his mother and the rabbi were even-toned, chanting, about what they didn’t want.
The big net stared up at Ozzie like a sightless eye. The big, clouded sky pushed down.
“Yes, Oscar.”
“Rabbi Binder, do you believe in God?” “Yes.”
Ozzie looked around again; and then he called to Rabbi Binder.
“Do you believe God can do anything?” Ozzie leaned his head out into the darkness. “Anything?”
“Oscar, I think—“
“Tell me you believe God can do anything.”
There was a second’s hesitation. Then: “God can do anything.”
“Ozzie?” A woman’s voice dared to speak. “You’ll come down now?”
There was no answer, but the woman waited, and when a voice finally did speak it was thin and crying, and exhausted as that of an old man who has just finished pulling the bells.
“Mamma, don’t you see—you shouldn’t hit me. He shouldn’t hit me. You shouldn’t hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God—“
“Ozzie, please come down now.”
“Promise me, promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God.”
He had asked only his mother, but for some reason everyone in the street promised he would never hit anybody about God.
Once again there was silence.
“I can come down now, Mamma,” the boy on the roof finally said. He turned his head both ways as though checking the traffic lights. “Now I can come down . . . “
And he did, right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge…
This is how Philip Roth’s short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” ends. Roth, who passed away this week at 85 years of age after a prolific and important writing career, wrote this story in 1959 when he was 26 years of age.
In Ozzie, the questioning young boy on the roof, we meet Philip Roth, a person exploring Jewish identity in an America opening up to Jews, a person uncomfortable with authority and unsure about religion. A man who seeks to provoke, to inspire, and to share his view of the world through the eyes of the characters he creates. In May 2014, Philip Roth observed, “what writer takes Jewish more seriously than I do?”
This Roth story is about a young student who asks challenging questions, especially questions about other people’s religious beliefs. To keep him focused on his own identity, his teacher, Rabbi Binder, puts off the questions, which, in turn, puts off the student.
In “The Conversion of the Jews,” young Ozzie gets into a fight with his teacher, a rabbi, asking if God can do anything, can he do the things others, but not Jews, believe. The rabbi is furious. He demands to see Ozzie’s mother. When Ozzie tells his mother what he had said to the rabbi she hits him. This is his beloved widowed mother. The next day, Ozzie does not back down. The confrontation in the classroom ends with Rabbi Binder hitting Ozzie and causing his nose to bleed. Ozzie runs to the roof, locking the hatch behind him, and there he threatens to jump.
Ozzie, at the edge of the roof, forces the rabbi and his mother to admit that if God could create the world in seven days He could do anything. Ozzie calls down to the crowd after the alarmed adults kneel before him and admit he was right: “You should never ever hit anyone about God.”
The take away is clear to me, and I hope you. The surest way to prevent someone from finding meaning or interest in a subject, and certainly for a student learning about religious belief and trying to find his own way, is to push aside honest, difficult questions as unworthy of response.
I imagine many of us, or people we know, have experienced the disrespect of not receiving answers to some of our most difficult and pressing personal questions.
A second-year graduate student rose in class one day to ask a very elementary question. The teacher glared at him and replied, “That is a stupid question!” The embarrassed student sat down. Another student, recognized to be one of the best in the class, raised his hand. Expecting a more intelligent comment or question, the teacher called on him. The second student then proceeded to ask his classmate’s previously dismissed question, which the teacher answered, followed by an apology.
“I don’t know,” is a proper answer. “Let’s study that or look into it together,” is a valuable reply. Negating a question is not acceptable.
As we all understand, at essence, Judaism cherishes questions, thrives through questions, and sees in questions a fundamental truth about being free and finding personal meaning in Jewish tradition.
Our first insight is this. Don’t be afraid of questions.
Our second insight, however, is this. Don’t be afraid of answers, either.
A disagreeable man asked Rabbi Joshua, “Why did the Holy One see fit to speak to Moses out of a thornbush and not out of another kind of tree? Rabbi Joshua answered, Had God spoken to Moses out of a Carob tree or out of a Sycamore tree, you would have asked me the same question; but to dismiss you with no reply is not right. So, I will tell you why. To teach you that no place on earth, not even a thornbush, is devoid of God’s presence.”
We can’t build the foundations of meaning and purpose for our lives if we only challenge, criticize, and tear down. For our experiences to be significant and our aspirations to be realized, we also have to affirm and support.
Ours is a cynical age. We doubt the inherent value of so many institutions and traditions. Rightly, we challenge. We seek change. Wrongly, we don’t realize that anything we tear down requires us to build something new in its place.
The best tensions in our lives are between our beliefs and our doubts, our ideals and the world’s reality. Our questions inspire deeper thinking. Our answers enable wisdom for living our lives.
This is important because so much of our personal identities are tied to assumptions we carry and opinions we hold. We define our emotional identities, in great part, from thinking or believing as we do. We frame our experience and find our confidence knowing what we do in contrast to others.
Information challenging our comfortable assumptions, answers to questions countering what we previously thought, personal experiences different than we expected make us uncomfortable. Force us to reconsider deeply or long held personal perspectives tied to who we think we are at some deeper emotional level.
Here’s a simple, universal example to make the point. Think of a food you thought you didn’t like until you tasted it. Oops, that’s good!
It can be political. I’m a member of this or that party. I watch this or that network. I agree or disagree with this or that commentator.
It may be religious. I believe this, or if I’m not sure what I believe, I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that. I make this choice. I don’t agree with those who make that one.
Perhaps it’s social. I do or don’t want to associate with people who do that. I do or don’t respect people who… I’ve never met him or her or them but based on the way I look at the world, I know they’re good or bad, right or wrong.
Good questions force us to re-evaluate our place and disturb our comfort. Good answers to our questions lead us to new conclusions and life changing discoveries. Or, we can deny, obfuscate, and cease growing on our lives’ journeys.
Here’s how Philip Roth describes this in his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, a story about a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete whose life is ruined by the difficult questions and answers he confronts in 1960 America.
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance…take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong… Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.”
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784