Thinking for Ourselves

Thinking for Ourselves

I remember when my son Albert was about 7 or so, his pediatrician made the following statement, “Albert will be a wonderful adult….if he survives to adulthood.” The point the physician was making was that Albert did not take things at face value; he asked questions and would not take a simple answer. In other words, the efforts of his mother and me to raise someone who would speak truth to power and seek real answers to questions were succeeding.

I was reminded of this the other night while doing some interfaith work. I was speaking with a young man from a different religion and he apologized every time he asked a question. It was not quite the tentative flinching of a dog making sure he will not be hit for getting too close, a dog who has been hit too many times before, but it was uncomfortably close. It was clear that asking questions was strongly discouraged within the curious young man’s congregation when he was growing up.

When I teach religious school, I want my students to ask questions and to probe. I want them to use their critical faculties and intelligence when addressing questions of Jewish belief, Bible, and ethics. It is part of what we do in our tradition to raise up good Jews, good members of the people who “wrestle” with G-D, good descendents of Abraham who asked of his Creator, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth be just?” (Gen. 18:25).

Now this business of raising questioning children is not without its aggravations as a parent. Indeed, it can be dangerous in situations where quick obedience is necessary for safety and some provision must be made for that. However, we do not raise our children to be children forever, we raise them to be adults and able to act as strong independent voices for justice and the repair of the world.

We have seen the danger of blindly following leaders whether political or religious. In the religious world we have seen unscrupulous and charismatic leaders take advantage of their followers for monetary gain or lead them to destruction as in the incidents in Jonestown and Waco. We may feel despair as seeing fellow citizens uncritically taking political positions on both the left and right or even making scientific judgments based on the pronouncements of their spiritual leader or leaders.

It must be remembered that while there are cases of abuse, I firmly believe most religious leaders and followers, even in the most authoritarian traditions, are fully sincere and trying to serve G-D the best way they know how. Neither do I suggest that this approach does not have merit. We cannot and should not all be the same in our approach to religious truth and practice.

You might think that Jews do not have a tradition of charismatic leadership that discourages questions. This, however, is not the case. Within the Chasidic movement, started in the 18th century, there was a great deal of loyalty within a given branch to its leader, or rebbe. The level of loyalty and openness to the questioning of the rebbe varied from group to group. Yet, even though I spoke tolerantly of some authoritarian approaches above, I find this strain within Judaism disturbing. It is not just because of the possibility of abuse, and there have been abuses, but the whole idea feels contrary to the shift that was made after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e.

In the sacrificial cult of the Temples, our sacrifices were made by the priests. They carried out the ritual of sacrifice for us and we worshipped vicariously through their acts. However, with the ascendency of rabbinic Judaism, growing out of the democratizing Pharisaic movement, we became fully responsible for our own worship in our thrice daily prayers, adherence to the commandments, and acts of loving kindness.

Yes, we deferred on the interpretation of the law and practice to the rabbis and scholars who were the decisors on such issues. Yet rabbis were not viewed as infallible and our traditional texts recorded the debates among the rabbis. Even Moses is shown losing his temper, making mistakes, relying on his father-in-law for good advice, and, even, committing murder. However, among some of these Jewish groups, loyalty to the leader was of high value and he, it was always a he, was viewed as somehow beyond merely human. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who I like to quote and had many profound insights, also said, “When I take money from someone, I am actually giving him something. My taking is actually giving.” I must admit to having some difficulty with that. Do not get me wrong, when helping others, we should be grateful for the opportunity to do good. However, while I believe Rabbi Nachman to be entirely sincere in his statement, it flows from the sense that he is closer to G-D and can affect some level of reconciliation for his follower with The Holy One because of the rabbi’s merit. The follower, in helping to support the rebbe, partakes, in some way, of the relationship between rebbe and G-D.

I have observed my teachers’ teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as he has withdrawn, in Lurianic terms, performed a tzimtzum, to make room for others to ascend to leadership. He could have made himself into an unquestioned leader of his followers modeled on the authoritarian master seen in the past, but he consciously did not. Like Washington refusing a crown, Reb Zalman allowed for growth and the passing of the torch and now, when we who study would like to hear more from him, he demurs. It is in his withdrawal that I find my highest respect for him as a leader and a teacher and makes me want to understand what he is trying to teach, even when I disagree with him on a particular issue.

Make use of teachers. Seek wisdom from the wise and in observing all people. Appreciate the saintly and those devoted to a life of service. But never give up your autonomy; never check your brain at the door. You must be prepared to stand up and say no, I do not agree and I will not follow. As our father Abraham did when questioning G-D and when Nachman’s Chasidic contemporary, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev put G-D on trial for injustices to the Jewish people, speak truth to power and follow your conscience and the soft murmuring voice within that calls you to both justice and kindness.

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