Rebel, Rebel A Guide on How to Ask Questions by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Students often pose questions concerning apparent conflicts between personal values and those of the Tanach and the Gemara.  Almost always these questions have been in a polite and appropriate manner.  Rarely, however, questions are posed without showing proper respect for our holy Torah.  While the asking of the questions clearly enhances the study of both the Tanach and the Gemara, it is obviously proper that such questions be asked in recognition of, and not in contempt of, religious authorities.  Let us explore this issue in light of some examples from Tanach, and try to develop an appropriate framework for such questions.

There is an old Yiddish saying (that is attributed to Rav Chaim of Volozhin) “no one ever died from a question.”  This attitude is best depicted by a charming anecdote, which I heard from my Rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Shlita.  A student once asked Rav Chaim Soloveitchik a question, and Reb Chaim referred him to a small Tosafot which simply ask his question and do not answer it.  Reb Chaim then responded that he wanted to make him to be aware of the fact that others have asked this question, and that no one ever died from a question.

Indeed, the literature of our sages indicates an unreserved willingness to ask the unanswerable.  The Talmud itself often concludes a discussion with the word “Kashya” – the question remains unanswered.  Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 5:5) readily admits that the human mind is incapable of reconciling the contradictory principles of human free will and divine presence (see, however, Rabad’s strident comments on this passage).  Rav Akiva Eiger, in his commentary on the Gemara, consistently possesses   earth-shattering questions, which he leaves unanswered.

However, while questions asked out of interest should be encouraged, disrespectful questions can be destructive.  The classic illustration of this is the age-old discussion of the difference between the questions of the wise and wicked sons of the Hagada.  At first glance, the wise son’s question, “What are the testimonies, statues, and judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?” seems quite similar to the wicked son’s query, “What is the service of yours?”  Why is one son deemed wise and the other condemned as wicked?  (For a survey and discussion of this issue, see Nechama Leibowitz’s studies in Shemot pp. 147-151, and presentation of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s view in Mesora, volume 3, pp. 29-30.)  Nechama Leibowitz answers that the Torah describes the wise son’s comments as a question “Tomorrow when your child will ask you” (Devarim 6:20), where as it portrays the wicked sons remark as a statement, “And when you are children will tell you” (Shemot 12:26).  The wise child may ask audacious question, but actually seeks an answer.  The wicked child on the other hand, is not interested in asking a question; he merely wants to make a statement thus, the reaction of the wise and the wicked children clearly serve as examples of how to, and how not to, ask questions. 

The Torah itself provides a more direct contrast between appropriate and inappropriate ways of asking questions.  In Sefer Bemidbar, we read of both the Korach rebellion and the grievances of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  Yet, while Korach and his company were severely punished and constitute the classic examples of destructive rebellion (see Bemidbar 17:5 and Avot 5:20), Chazal heap praise upon praise upon the daughters of Tzelofchad.  They are described as “righteous,” “lovers of the land of Israel,” (Rashi, Numbers 27:1), and “intelligent,” (Rashi, v.4); “their eyes saw what Moses failed to see” (Rashi v.5) – “praised be those to whom God agrees to their words” (Rashi v.7).  We must ask, though, why they deserved such overwhelming praise for apparently they registered their complaints to Moses just as Korach and his company had voiced their objections.  By analyzing the differences of their methods, we can discover why the former are so routinely praised and the latter so roundly condemned.

We can identify at least four important distinctions between these two groups.  The first fundamental contrast centers on the acceptance of Moses’ authority.  Korach rejected Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership, and Chazal describe how Korach poked fun at both Moshe Rabbeinu and the Torah (see Rashi, Numbers 16:1 and the analysis of Rashi by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in Reflections of the Rav Volume 1, pages 139-149).  Conversely, the daughters of Tzelofchad wholly accepted Moshe Rabbeinu’s authority upon presenting their complaint to him.  In fact, they later accepted without objection the restriction that they may marry only within their tribe despite the severe limitation this placed on their spousal selection.

Second, Korach attacked the personal integrity of Moshe and Aharon, while the daughters of Tzelofchad presented their grievance without launching an ad hominem invective.  Furthermore, the daughters of Tzelofchad registered their complaint as individuals, not instigating others to “gang up” on Moshe and the leaders of Israel.  Korach, however, organized a mob to join him in his actions.  Whereas the daughters of Tzelofchad sought to pursue truth and justice when they approached Moshe, Korach sought to intimidate Moshe and to stir up a negative attitude towards him among the children of Israel. 

Finally, a critical distinction between the two groups lies in the different motivations for their complaints.  Chazal explain that Korach was angered because he was not appointed to be president of the family of Kehat (see Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1).  On the other hand, the daughters of Tzelofchad merely wished to preserve their father’s share in Eretz Yisrael.  In short, Korach’s demand for power constituted a rebellion, while the daughters of Tzelofchad, with their request, respectfully attempted to have their father’s name remembered and receive a portion of Eretz Yisrael.

Accordingly, whenever we question the Torah, we must do so in the spirit of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  We learn from them that Hashem appreciates sincerely motivated, respectfully posed questions, which implicitly honor the authority of the Torah and Gemara. 

However, there is one last point that we must bear in mind.  Moshe Rabbeinu recognized the sincerity of the daughters of Tzelofchad, yet he could not satisfy their request because the Torah does not allow for female inheritance.  Fortunately, Moshe was able to consult with Hashem for a resolution to this problem.  However, Poskim today still find themselves in the difficult position Moshe was in.  Individuals today may be sincerely troubled by certain strictures within the Halachic system, and may be unable to find satisfactory resolutions to their quandaries.  Hashem, though, does not resolve our Halachic dilemmas.

Hence, we must patiently await the arrival of the Mashiach and the reconstitution of the Sanhedrin, under whose jurisdiction Halachic quandaries will be resolved.  The contemporary spiritual heirs of the daughters of Tzelofchad must wait for the Mashiach’s arrival until they will be satisfied.  However, we will certainly hasten the arrival of the Mashiach if we ask questions in the spirit of the daughters of Tzelofchad and the wise son, avoiding the attitudes and tactics of Korach and the evil son.

Editors’ Note: For further discussion of the Bnot Tzelofchad, see Rav Elchanan Samet’s essay on Parshat Pinchas in the second volume of his work Iyumim Biparshat Hashavua.

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