“This is probably a stupid question…”
That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask. It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.
I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.
One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old. We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.
One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?
HOW ARE YOU? is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?
WHAT CAN I DO? is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept? One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too: what kind of help do you want from me?
WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS? is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip). Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah [evil speech] just as much as being the informant.
WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING? Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make? Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people? Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?
There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech: IS IT TRUE? IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?
And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere: DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?
What questions would you like people to ask more often? What questions do you not ask often enough?
Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?
- What is your question this Passover? (bejewish.wordpress.com)
- The Learning Holiday (coffeeshoprabbi.com)
- Stupid Questions (alansrants.wordpress.com)