By: Rabbi Mendy Wolf
Where is the space for the individual within Judaism? Is there any opportunity for one to think on one’s own, to ask and understand? Or is this a religion that requires mindless obedience?
The truth is quite the contrary; one must ask. Jews are known as the People of the Book. The search for knowledge and understanding is integral to Jewish life.
For example, the Passover Seder is geared to the education of children, and many of its customs were instituted in order to stimulate their questions. The Seder even begins with the Mah Nishtana, the “Four Questions” – literally putting questions into the youngsters’ mouths to encourage them to ask further. The rest of the Haggadah is dedicated almost entirely to helping them understand the background of the holiday, the meaning of its rituals and its relevance to their lives.
Mindless obedience is not the Jewish way.
Imagine a child who witnesses a town fire brigade in action. A massive fire breaks out in a housing complex. A loud bell rings, and suddenly, half a dozen fire trucks seem to appear out of nowhere! Within minutes, they have erected ladders and connected hoses – and the fire is extinguished.
The child finds the scene fascinating: A bell creates fire trucks! At the next opportunity, he rings a bell, expecting to see the fire trucks zoom into his yard, looking for a fire. But nothing happens. Obviously, the child was naïve, thinking that the bell created fire trucks. His simple faith in the power of the bell was not admirable; it was purely childish. With a little bit of knowledge and maturity, he would have understood that there was an organized system activated by the bell, and that the noise on its own was meaningless.
In Judaism, too, what we often perceive as a concept that must be accepted on faith may really be one we could easily understand and appreciate. The key is not necessarily more belief; it is more knowledge. We can approach Judaism as the child saw the bell, or from the perspective of an adult who knows that there is more to the situation that meets the eye.
Information is power. Let us invest in knowledge.
Rabbi Mendy Wolf is the educational director for the Institute of American & Talmudic Law, and the director for Project Life, an organization which promotes Jewish values throughout the business community in NYC. R’ Mendy is a sought after teacher and lecturer and resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and family. Contact Rabbi Mendy to book him to speak or with feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.