My belief in questions

Challenges to our faith can yield new insights which help to strengthen it, says the author of a new book


Rabbi Raphael Zarum leads an educational tour of the British Museum for the London School of Jewish Studies

Do you firmly believe in God? Would you say all the stories in the Torah are true? And are its laws still ethical for today? If you are not certain, then you are not alone.

The modern world has dramatically changed us all. Scientific innovation and instant online access have increased our knowledge exponentially. Radical changes in social norms have profoundly affected our values. New perspectives in history, culture and psychology force us to constantly reassess our sense of humanity and its purpose.

Jews, of course, are not exempt. These changes have led many of us to ask deep and difficult questions about our faith. Some find the Torah to be antiquated, with little to say on contemporary issues. Some query the morality of Jewish law when it clashes with modern sensibilities. Most worrying of all, some feel that Judaism lacks relevance and personal meaning in their lives.

In my experience as a lecturer and rabbi, the questions being asked are rarely intended to provoke or belittle Judaism. On the contrary, they come from an honest desire to better appreciate our religious tradition.

Judaism was always meant to be a religion that encourages questioning: “Ask your father, who will tell you, your elders who will speak to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). From the inquisitive child at the Seder to the yeshivah student who challenges their teacher, Jewish tradition is suffused with a culture of curiosity. Abaya, the 4th-century rabbinic sage would often say, “I am open and ready to answer anyone asking questions about the Torah.”

And yet, I have spoken with many people who feel that their questions have not really been answered. This can open the door to disillusionment. A weak reply to a real question, or ignoring it completely, just confirms to the questioner that Judaism is ill-equipped to respond. Besides being insensitive, teachers who give dismissive answers fail to understand the religious angst of the sincere individual who stands before them.

Many thoughtful adults no longer even bother to ask questions about Judaism because they fear that their doubts will never be convincingly addressed. To stay committed, they feel that they must sacrifice intellectual integrity. When teenagers and college students do not receive meaningful responses, they tend to drift away from Jewish life, leaving distraught parents in their wake.

So, what do I know? Well, I’ve been asking many of these questions myself for a very long time. I, too, was frustrated with many of the stock responses with which I was routinely given, so I went looking for something better.

I sought out ideas, books, and people that might help. Years of learning with some wonderful rabbis, pursuing academic studies, reading widely, teaching reflectively plus endless late-night conversations have enabled me to forge a path…

The European Enlightenment caused a radical shift in human thought. Cherished beliefs of the devout, Jews and Christians alike, came into question. Long-held assumptions firmly rooted in biblical teaching were challenged by new sources of knowledge. For the deferential and religiously minded European society of the 19th century, the rapid succession of discoveries and realisations in numerous fields of study was devastating.

The geological research of Charles Lyell extended the age of the world far beyond what was implied in the Bible. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged the account of species formation in Genesis. Ancient inscriptions translated by Assyriologists such as George Smith questioned the uniqueness of the Creation and Flood narratives.

The German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen confronted the Torah’s unity, portraying it as a synthesis of four independent narratives. Social scientists such as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber recast religion as nothing more than a human construct. And Sigmund Freud’s research into psychoanalysis, especially the unconscious, undermined the Bible’s emphasis on human choice and personal responsibility.

All this intellectual richness caused a crisis of faith. As Christopher Lane wrote in The Age of Doubt: “Never has an age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith, or so many great men and women of religious temperament standing outside organised religion.”

Initially, the religious establishment dismissed, downplayed or simply ignored the results of all this new research. However, as the new ideas and discoveries gained wider recognition, such reactions could not be sustained. Priests and rabbis needed to respond to mounting questions from their congregants. Some doggedly continued to deny or deride what they portrayed as new-fangled theories or dangerous ideas. They retreated from modernity, preferring to intensify their religious practice.

Others were unwilling to reject the mounting evidence and learnt ways in which to accommodate this knowledge into their religious outlooks. Rather than weakening belief, they found that understanding these new ideas uncovers creative avenues to reinterpret ancient texts and renew religious commitment.

For me, the process of investigating challenging questions has uncovered fresh insights that invigorate my understanding of the Torah. This has moved me from a defensive stance to a re-evaluation of Judaism for the modern age.

Questioning Belief – Torah and Tradition in an Age of Doubt is published by Maggid, £22.99. Rabbi Zarum will be speaking about it at Book Week, 3 March, 11am,

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