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Reflections on Summer 2018: Becoming an Expert Questioner

RLI challenges us to see strength, wisdom and insight in complexity, and view layers of meaning as sacred and valuable in the development of purpose, mission and growth.

Reflections on Summer 2018: Becoming an Expert Questioner


Rabbi Elianna Yolkut is a thinker, writer and community educator in the metro Washington, D.C. area and serves as Rabbi in Residence of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Adas Israel. She is a member of Cohort VI of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. 


RLI Cohort VI in Jerusalem, Summer 2018

As I reflect upon my summer at Hartman, in the third year of the RLI fellowship program, I am struck by the unique contribution Hartman is making in the cultivation of what I call the expert text questioner. This goal is bigger than it sounds particularly in the age of social media. A major challenge facing practitioners of meaning, perhaps all people, is the ability to pedal our wares (religion, spirituality, meaning) with nuance, with uncertainty and with questions that push us to see beyond a first glance, a singular opinion on important issues. We have been born into and perhaps at times helped shape a culture which sees certainty and passion for your own position or opinion as courageous, strong. A real leader’s strength, especially in religious communities often comes because they know the right way to respond to a particular cultural challenge or problem, the correct understanding of the tradition or even the right way to read a text.

The Hartman rabbinic fellowship challenges us to do something different. It asks us to see strength, wisdom and insight in complexity: to view layers of meaning, sometimes even conflicts within the text, as sacred and valuable in the development of purpose, mission and growth. We live in an age that rewards certainty, fundamentalism and answers. To see questions, questioning and the ability to hold competing ideas together in one moment, one vessel as a sacred task is counter culture. It is a task which can elevate a conversation, a community, a moment and most especially religious sacred texts to something more nuanced, richer and maybe, in the end even more productive. Perhaps with this disciplined way of viewing, understanding and using texts we can create lights in the dark tunnel of discourse and societal responses to major challenges which seem increasingly incendiary, divisive and dangerous.

I often like to use the mantra (usually in my head) when teaching and hearing a student challenge my understanding of a text – maybe you are wrong, and their read is better. Repeat. I think the Hartman fellowship has heightened the stakes and the discipline in this exercise. Not simply seeing right and wrong but seeing the value of pushing up against my own initial understanding, feeling or position. Asking bigger and harder questions. Not only reading against the grain but thinking against it too – and sometimes pushing myself outside my own comfort zone to another layer, another look, a different view. In so doing I might, in fact, shift my own perspective and my ability to help my community grow and engage in a Judaism richer and deeper than a singular perspective could have ever done.

During the summer some of the specific questions our classes, scholars and texts brought to fore, that are still sitting with me and forcing me to grapple with dilemmas of a religious and ethical nature:

  • Why is there such a gap between the intuitive sensibility of derech eretz and the societal brokenness we face? Can “Torah” (all of our tradition)  bridge the gap?
  • Do we know Judaism to be a source of goodness and not part of these larger societal divisions?
  • Do we privilege the ethics of the self? What is the relationship between building personal moral character, “menschleichkeit” and a society of moral character?
  • What is the responsibility of religious leaders to respond to people who do not appear to seek out wisdom and growth but instead peddle in corruption in evil – does one respond to such a person? Does our tradition offer a repair, anecdote to this? What about someone with power – does the Jewish tradition want us to engage with that person or dismiss them?
  • Can we risk not engaging people who are trying to damage the discourse of society? What about those issues which strike at the heart of one’s identity? Does all free speech deserve tolerance by all groups?
  • Do leaders have any private stories of failure or are our stories inherently public?
  • How do you manifest your self worth without being arrogance? How do you manifest your humility?
  • What happens when the Torah or any of our sacred texts undermines derech eretz?
  • What is a society’s or community’s responsibility to create norms of derech eretz which will seep into people’s homes?
  • How can we use our strength as a community not to desecrate the private spaces but elevate them, supporting people going through marital challenges, difficulties with their children, illness etc.?
  • Are you betraying the mandate of your leadership by not honing your power and using it in the world to elevate – to serve as a conduit for God?

Each of these questions emerged from a summer Shiur, peer workshop or chavruta text study. They each, along with dozens of others, complicate a norm, an accepted notion of communal practice or custom or challenged me to ask a question on a text’s complexity I hadn’t previously seen or struggled with. These questions do not leave anything behind closed doors or unpacked – the demands of derech eretz toward the other, God, and self, require it. The learner (and the teacher) must ask questions which focus on the tradition’s highest ethical and moral values. And perhaps, most importantly, it helps these texts, ideas and conversations emerge from the safety of the beit midrash and come alive into a real world of practice. The expert text questioner sees bravery and value in opening up the conversation to the world of our communities, so we can share our questions, our conflicts and even at times our uncertainty about how to best offer answers. The summer theme reminded us that our tradition is richer for its layers and nuance, for its not always offering clear and decisive answers but always demanding of its readers and learners the highest level of moral responsibility and values and bringing those ideas to all the people we teach, preach and pastor to. In so doing we can create circles of expert text questioners who are able to, in the best possible sense, fulfill the adage “derech eretz kadmah l’Torah.”

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