When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher handed out awards at the end of the year, tailor made for every student. I won the ‘Most Inquiring Mind’ award. I hesitantly, and somewhat disappointingly approached my teacher to get my certificate.
“What’s inquiring mean?” I asked as if it were a reflex. The whole room erupted into laughter and I still didn’t get the joke. I would eventually.
My whole life I’ve been asking questions. To the point that teachers didn’t like to call on me. Because I ask so many god. damned. questions. And usually won’t stop until I have a satisfactory answer. Not everyone likes this.
This kind of questioning can be a problem when you’re asking about large abstract concepts, like religion. Is God real? Does it matter if God is real? If God is real, are they good? If God is good, then why do so many terrible things happen in the world? Does faith matter more than actions? Does heaven exist? Is sin really a thing? What if all the religions that currently exist are wrong? Why bother with religion at all? What is the purpose of life? Why does religion create so much hate, if it’s meant to help people be good?
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. I don’t think anyone does. (That’s not entirely true, I think there are a number of people in the world that genuinely believe they have the answers to all of these questions, and I think they’re fooling themselves). The one thing I do know, is that even without answers- it’s still worth asking these questions.
As I’ve said before, I grew up Christian. Specifically, I grew up Lutheran. I learned a lot of valuable things growing up in the churches I did, and was lucky enough to belong to congregations that were heavily involved in social justice issues and tried not to make me feel ostracized for being different. But, when I would ask these kinds of questions, things would start to unravel. At a certain point in most Christian teaching, it all boils down to faith. Faith ends up being the superseding factor regarding whether or not you get a satisfactory answer. If you believe, it will make sense.
That’s never been good enough for me.
I don’t take “Just because” well. When I was in high school geometry, I asked so many questions about trigonometry that my teacher asked me to see him after class. My classmates were baffled as to why I wouldn’t stop asking questions. Why I cared at all. Just put the numbers into sine, cosine, or tangent and your answer will ‘just be there’. I didn’t like that at all. What were these magic formulas that just knew the answer? And more importantly, how the fuck did someone figure out these formulas so that my dumb ass could just poke a button on a calculator? I wanted to know the how and why these formulas worked at all. My classmates just wanted me to shut up. My teacher, knowing that the rest of the class didn’t care, but that I would be a disruption until the end of the year if I didn’t get my answer, sat down with me after school for at least an hour to explain how tangent, sine, and cosine were derived and why they functioned the way they did. It was the most patient and wonderful any teacher has ever been with me.
If I’m that persistent with questions about small things like basic geometry, imagine how frustrating I can be to clergy, youth leaders and really anyone who will have a discussion with me about God. Some of the only people I’ve found that relish in rather than run away from my questions, are rabbis. When I’ve brought questions to rabbis I know, I’m met with thoughtful conversation and usually leave not with answers, but better questions.
So, here’s what I know- I can’t stop asking questions (Both in a metaphoric sense, but also probably physically) and I’ve used a lot of different methods in my life to try to find answers. If I need to know how to truss a chicken, Google’s there for me. If I’m asking how to rotate the tires on my car, my Dad’s got an answer. But, when I’m asking whether or not my faith matters, or how to parse the idea that God is not what I was raised to believe they are, who do I ask? In this moment, with these questions, Judaism. Not that I can ask one abstract concept about another, but I want to use Jewish teachings, traditions and scholarship to try to find the answers. It’s felt like opening a new toolbox, full of strange and foreign tools that I know are made for a specific task, but I don’t know how to use them yet. Imagine holding a screwdriver, but having only seen nails your whole life. You know it’s good for something, but you’re not sure what yet. Each tool is like a lockpick that I keep using to try to open different questions, hoping that one of them will open the lock to reveal the answer. I’m finding that sometimes it takes multiple attempts, or even multiple tools to get each lock open. And once it’s open there’s rarely an answer inside, usually it’s just another lock with another question.
I think hoping that one day I’ll be able to unlock all the questions is unrealistic. What I’m hoping for is that one day I have the appropriate toolbox to pick apart any question, and that the satisfaction in asking and seeking never goes away. I don’t think I’ll ever stop having questions, and hopefully Judaism will never stop having better ones.