New rubric: Rabbi's Word

New rubric: Rabbi's Word

We are pleased to announce that we are starting cooperation with the institute of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and publish specially prepared material for the communities of the EAJC members.

The article is based on a lecture given by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel-Steinsaltz in the academic campus of the Novosibirsk branch of the Academy of Sciences of Russia.

Questions we ask

There are around two hundred synonyms to the word “camel” in Arabic. Just as many words there are in Eskimo language for 
“snow”. Why don’t Russian or Hebrew have so many synonyms for these words? The answer is simple: a desert-dweller surrounded by no-one but camels studies them more closely. He distinguishes between a small camel and a big one, a beautiful and an ugly one, a male and a female, a fast and a slow one, and gives each of those types a name. Similarly, a person living in the land of eternal ice and snow learns to see even the slightest variations of snow that an Israeli who barely sees snow once a year can’t even notice.

One of the issues I encountered when I started translating Talmud was just this. In Talmud, there are more than 30 synonyms to the word “question”. There is nothing similar to this in other languages. One word stands for “an easy question”, another one for “a complicated question”, and there is a particular word for a question deriving from a controversy between two concepts. This list can be continued. 

Based on the lexicon of Arabic, it is easy to infer that Arabs live in a place where there are plenty of camels, whereas based on the language of the Eskimos we can tell that they are surrounded by snow. What was the nature of the world of those who created Talmud? It was a world in which questions outnumbered the answers, and they were the basis of existence. It is awkward, as we are used to thinking that religion answers all questions, including both those stated and those which are unstated. Faith ‘knows’ rather than contemplates, it ‘claims’ rather than asks. However, in Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism, questions prevail. Most people are surprized that Judaism is not afraid of asking.

In every field, answers are essential, useful and significant, but every scientist knows: Sometimes answers may be boring, whereas questions draw much more interest. 

Science philosophers say that from time to time science needs a different perspective on fundamental matters, which means that to discover a new research field, one must ask unusual questions.

Looking for answers for the same questions may lead us to a dead end, which has already happened in the history of science numerous times. 

More details might be revealed on the way, but they only confuse the researchers without letting them discover something really unique. Indeed, a fresh theory that is able to explain things happening in the world must emerge. Without it, each new detail wouldn’t change much in the whole picture of the Universe. Too many details even complicate and confuse it. In the end, we find ourselves in a situation that the more we learn, the less we know. Someone has summarized the modern tendencies in science in the following words: “We gradually learn more about increasingly smaller elements; therefore, in the end, we will have learned everything about nothing”. 

I am telling you this not only to emphasize the importance and usefulness of questions. I wish to show the mechanism of their emergence and to reveal the stand a man takes as a questioner in relation to this world and its issues.

There are universal questions that each of us asks as a part of our nature. We are not always consistent in this and not always honest with ourselves intellectually. Sometimes we are not even aware that we ask them, but it doesn’t matter that much. One of these questions we ask ourselves can be formulated as it is stated in one of the fundamental books in Judaism, dedicated to the questions of morale and ethics, Pirkei Avot: “Know from where you come and where you are going”.

A famous Arabic parable tells the story of a king who demanded that he be given a summary of human history. It took the wise sages so long to do this that the king grew old. On his deathbed, he called the chief sage, who had also grown old by that time, and asked him to reveal him what human history was like in a few words. “All people were born and suffered, and all of them died,” – the sage replied.

It is quite a precise summary. However, a reasonable question arises: if that is true, where and why are we hurrying? There is no way of answering it in a few words. I just wanted to ask it again as one of those topics that must be revisited, despite the fact that sometimes it leaves us restless. We tend to ignore such questions, as answering them may lead us to rather far-reaching consequences, such as fundamental changes in our world perspective.

From this point of view, a scientist, busy counting facets in a fly’s eye, has a clear advantage. No matter how many of them he finds, it wouldn’t require him to change his lifestyle. Such tasks engage our intellect, but don’t touch our soul. Questions like “what is the purpose of my life?” or “why does everything exist?” are more challenging to resolve, and none of the possible answers will be comprehensive.

Formulated differently, it is the first question that emerges in the Tanakh. The Creator asks Adam: “Where art thou?” Similarly, today, at the beginning of the 21stcentury, He turns to each of us with the same question but seems not to be getting a satisfactory answer. Once stated, this question is relevant at all times, forcing us to ask ourselves: “Where, in fact, am I?”

I would like to address another one of those questions that keep us awake till dawn. Many of you present here are Jewish by heritage. I am not going to establish who is a good Jew and who isn’t, but I want to ask you - what does it mean to be a Jew?

One of the great discoveries in psychology was the concept of “complex”. What is a complex? It is a state evoked by a problem that a man is unable to articulate and pose. It keeps on tormenting him, staying in the unconscious and not finding its solution. In Russia, as well as in plenty of Western countries, being Jewish has become a kind of mental pathology. The “Jewish complex” develops where the Jews are ashamed to raise the question of their Jewishness and face the truth, asking themselves: “Who are we and what are we?”

One of the fundamental tenets of Greek philosophy is "know thyself." I am not providing any answers, but I am posing questions. I am trying to arrange something like a group psychoanalysis session for people who haven't dared to touch this painful issue that emerged in the third millennium before the new era for decades.

Each of those questions always entails more of the same kind. These are not scientific, but rather philosophical ones, dealing with human existence. However painful it might be, it still makes sense to ask yourself these questions, as this is what our life and the reality we live in demand. And if we are suffering, it is only natural to ask ourselves: “For the sake of what?”.