The Uphill Battle of Teaching Liberal Judaism
Two men run into a courtroom. This is either the start of a bad joke or a piece of Talmud. In this case, it’s it the latter. They are in the middle of a heated argument. After calming down the pair, the judges ask to hear the case.
Man A claims that he had lent his friend $100 last month and still has not received any payment for his loan, but Man B is simply unsure. Man B definitely remembers paying someone back, but since he is a frequent money borrower, he isn’t sure if he specifically paid back Man A’s loan or one of the many other ones.
According to mainstream Talmudic thought, the answer is simple. A Talmudic dictum used several times throughout its pages unequivocally states “certain, and uncertain, certainty prevails” (“bari shemah bari adif”). In other words when two people disagree, if one of them is certain and another is unsure, we believe the one who is certain.
At first glance, this rule seems reasonable. If we assume that each of these individuals are honest then we have a higher chance of judging correctly if we side with the certain one. Additionally, on a psychological level we find confidence extremely attractive. For the most part, we like people who know what they believe and are firm in their convictions, especially when they are up against someone who is indecisive and wishy-washy.
But the world is never as austere or simple as a classic Talmudic court case. Any student of Talmud knows that for every page of Talmud, there are hundreds of pages of commentaries questioning, revising, and reinterpreting every minor detail. Simplicity and certainty is often misleading when it comes face-to-face with reality.
I am a Jewish educator who identifies as a non-Orthodox, or liberal, Jew. While I view Jewish tradition, laws, and philosophy as a rich source of knowledge, I reject the vast majority of dogmas surrounding them.
When it comes to the “big” life questions such as “What happens after death?”, theodicy, or making any affirmative statements about God - I am not afraid to admit that I am unsure. This is not due to a lack of research, thinking or even indecisiveness on my part. Rather it is due to my conclusion that these questions are fundamentally elusive and unanswerable.
All of this is reflected in my educational style. The Judaism that I try and teach my students is one full of questions, discussion, and debate. In my pedagogical view, Judaism should be taught as an invitation to challenge everything in the world around us that we may have taken for granted.
Judaism gives us 3,000 years of arguments, opinions, and dialogue on almost any issue, no matter how big or small, and I want everyone to be an active participant in this discussion. Furthermore, I believe that Judaism provides us with a fundamentally pluralistic worldview, wrapped up in a moral imperative to be constantly challenging and bettering the world around us.
I can offer all of these wonderful things, but they do not come with a simple and easy answer.
However, there are many Jewish groups that do “know” the answer. By “know”, of course, I am not talking about them being factually or objectively correct; rather that they think they have all of life’s questions figured out. These groups have very clear beliefs and reduce Judaism into easy to digest fundamentals along with specious supports for their reasoning. These groups offer simplicity, certainty, and the utmost confidence that they are correct.
They are certain, while I am uncertain.
How can liberal or pluralistic Judaism even hope to take a stand against our fundamentalist counterparts? While they offer answers, we offer difficult questions. While they offer “the” correct worldview and way to go about one’s life, we offer pluralism and multiplicity of thought. While they offer theological and epistemological assurance and certainty, we (however reluctantly) offer skepticism.
As my Rabbi often says “People come to Judaism expecting all the answers, but I can only offer them more questions.” Like the judges in the Talmud, it seems that the average person will side with certainty every time.
It is for this exact reason that many pundits claim that liberal Judaism will slowly die out within the coming generations. We lack, they claim, a clear and comprehensive message and therefore anyone educated within the system will either ditch Judaism for the secular world or eventually swing over to Orthodoxy.
In my less optimistic days, I admit that I fall prey to these exact sentiments. But today I am feeling hopeful. I believe that in the coming years, an increasing number of individuals will come to realize that the world is not black and white and begin to seek out versions of Judaism that allow for the nuance and complications that are ubiquitous in our world.
They will be willing to trade in answers for questions, and certainty for truth. And we will be there with open arms, ready to embrace their complexity and show them exactly how they fit into our tradition.
And maybe, just maybe, we can change that Talmudic dictum to “certainty, and uncertainty - embrace the uncertainty.”
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