Freedom to Question (Part One)

By : May 6, 2011: Category Inspirations, Quest of the Question

Q: Does the Torah and/or Kabbalah allow a person to really ask questions?


From David R.


Freedom of speech begins with freedom to question.

In order to develop this thought, we have to first address the state of exile that strips us of these essential freedoms. The psychology of exile relates to the feeling of forced ejection from an inner sense of being at home with oneself. Subsequently, as displaced ‘persons’ with ‘mis-placed’ personhood, we are cast in the role of being ‘out-casts’. Not recognizing ourselves in this new state of affairs we close up. We are unable to speak. We have lost our voice.

As the foundational story of the Jewish people, the exile and redemption from Egypt contains all of the universal dimensions of a process of self-alienation followed by self-recovery. As the archetype of all exiles, the enduring meaning of the Exodus narrative addresses the nature of restriction and limitation (maitzar) which is etymologically en-rooted in the Hebrew word for Egypt (mitzrayim).

Our bounded subjectivity, unable to properly express itself, leaves us mute and passively accepting of our lot as an unavoidable fact of life. The self-apparent and self-certifying exilic reality that we find ourselves in foreswears all questioning of it. In blunt terms, we look out into the ‘natural’ world and pacify ourselves saying: ‘this is what there is and this will never change’.

Land-locked and unable to convey what comes to mind and pulses through our heart proves to be one of the most challenging states of personal confinement (the figural Egypt). How often is it that we recognize that there is something wrong with the world or with our lives but are incapable of verbalizing it? Being at a loss for words, the earliest intimation of what’s going on in the quiet corners of our soul, is drawn out of us at the behest of the right question. Transcending our limits demands a willingness to ask difficult questions. Only then can we transcend the immaturity of our previously held presumptions and surmount the narrow framework of understanding that convinces us that we are slaves to an unchanging world.

Central to the Jewish holiday of Passover is the reading of the Haggadah, a strange and twisted retelling of the Exodus story. The theater for this recounting of the Exodus is the festive meal known as a Passover Seder. What is hidden from view in the English translation is the implicit meaning of name ‘Passover Seder’.

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, has several definitions, one of which is pesicha meaning to jump or skip. In slightly more technical terms, jumping or skipping refers to non-linearities or discontinuities.

Seder in Hebrew means order. For most people ‘order’ seems to imply serialization or following a linear progression.

Here is where the strange twist comes in: taken together, the expression Pesach Seder means a non-linear order or a sequence that jumps around breaking down the conventions of step-by-step logic. For anyone who has ever partaken of such a meal, the text of the Haggadah, as well as the customs of the Seder itself, seem to almost randomly skip all over. Logicians could never plan such an event.

Part of the underling teaching that comes from ingesting so much nonlinearity is the experience of true wonderment inherent in asking questions. Questions remove us from the familiarity of our constricted surroundings and begin to lead us out into ever expansive uncharted horizons, much like the transition of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt to the desert and then on to the unknown promised land.

Jewish consciousness posits the need to dedicate a meal or meals with abundant food for thought that nurture and inspire the questions in everything. Furthermore, robust questions are not put to bed with an answer but rather possess a certain fecundity. In Kabbalah, the question and the response play the role of the parents of the subsequent question which in turn seeks to mate with another response ad infinitum. In a similar fashion, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas often drew a distinction between the totalizing answer which affectively kills off the query and the infinite response which serves to catalyze ever more questions.

Since the sages of the Talmud enjoin us to view ourselves as having exited from the Egypt of our constricted consciousness each day, it follows that we can decipher the question-response relationship within the structure of this time frame. In Genesis (1:5) we find the phrasing “God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. It became evening and it became morning one day.” On a mystical level, all of this refers to states of consciousness. The psychological mapping is fairly straight forward: the darkness of night, which precedes the light of day, is likened to the confusion of the question followed by the lucidity of the response. Each a day is another still or frame of consciousness.

On a relative scale, as we grow the thoughts of yesterday were the Egypt of restriction as compared with the expanse of today. Yet as today turns into yesterday the process repeats itself over and over again. What was once liberating is now felt to be confining and we must experience the Exodus all over again.

In Egypt, according to the Zohar, speech was in exile. It is as if to say that ‘I can’t find the right words’ or that ‘we have lost all communication’. Recovering both our collective and personal voices or means of expression is the start of liberation from the wall of silence. If only ‘I’ or ‘we’ knew what to say or how to say it. Alienation, be it psychological or social, may by overcome by entering into effective communication.

The solution presented on Passover or Pesach is hinted at, according to the Arizal (16th century kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) in that the Hebrew word may be divided into two parts—peh-sach—meaning an ‘mouth that speaks’. Consistent with the previous interpretation of Pesach (Passover) as jumping, language itself implies a nonlinear leap from self to other which proceeds by fits and spurts in a way that defies linearity. Thus the freedom of Passover is the new found freedom of speech. The mouth opens and our mind, body and soul are released with the questions that pour forth.

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