When I learned how to study the work of the prolific medieval commentator Rashi from the wonderfully prolific Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, in her tiny Jerusalem living room, she would always ask, “What’s Rashi’s question?” (or, more colorfully, as she was quite colorful: “What’s bugging Rashi?”). She was asking us to play an ancient Jewish version of Jeopardy. Rashi had provided his answers, but unless we understood the questions that inspired them it was “game over.”
While I, like Rabbi Stern, disagree with the Syrian community’s fundamentalist approaches to Jewish life detailed in the Zev Chafets article, I do not have the type of “SY”-envy he describes. As Stevie Wonder sings in “As,” “So make sure when you say you’re in it, but not of it, you’re not helpin’ to make this Earth a place sometimes called hell.” Being “in” the world to make millions, but only being “of” the tiny little slice of it you want to preserve is a luxurious fiction we neither can afford in these precarious times, nor is it a vision of what I believe Judaism exists to do in the universe.
That said, the Syrian Jewish community Chafets profiles has identified the question to which their way of life is an answer: How do we perpetuate Syrian Jewish life? It is clear, and it perpetually animates and informs their choices.
When Adam Bronfman convened the “Why Be Jewish?” conference this past summer under the auspices of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Rabbi Stern took a lot of what I felt was undue flack as the conference coordinator. Far too many people, in my opinion, thought the question shouldn’t even be asked, perhaps because many already believe they know the answer, or that people already should. But the fact of the matter is, this is THE animating question for entire generations of Jews today, not because of the critical failings of any one institution, issue, or approach, but because we are in the midst of an intense period of transition in Jewish existence–one on a par with the transition from Temple to Rabbinic Judaism. That this is a question is a good sign, because a serious question is a sign of and a bridge to life. The very act of asking is itself a Jewish act, its presence our treasured way of saying, “Game on!”
–Posted by Rabbi Jennifer Krause
Rabbi Jennifer Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One
Question at a Time. For more information, please visit her website.