Questions, Practice, and Moving Toward Life

by Becky Silverstein, SVARA Faculty

A learner is seated in the bet midrash, pointing to a section of a page of Talmud. They have a pencil in one hand, and the table beneath them has a lot of learning resources scattered about.

In June 2022, the On Being Project paused its weekly podcasts. The podcast’s host and executive producer, Krista Tippett, shared this message with her listeners:

On Being and I are shifting to a new rhythm of life in this time of change. I need to be differently present to that: out of the studio and out in the world. But we will be back in the fall, with some tools for living in a world of upheaval.” 

Indeed, Tippet returned this past fall to share four “foundations for the art of living” that emerged from her time of reimagining and synthesis. These foundations included Seeing the Generative Story, Living the Questions, Taking a Long View of Time, as well as Calling and Wholeness. In each of these short podcasts (about ten minutes each), Tippett suggests a way to put these foundational ideas into practice. I am confident that we could find each of these ideas in our textual tradition, but in this moment, “Living the Questions” speaks most loudly to me.

The question I am practicing living is “who do I want to be in a time of collapse?” Don’t tell Benay, but there was a time when I didn’t believe that we were living through a crash as large as the loss of the second temple. I am now convinced. Whereas in the past it was only my personal narratives that were crashing — stories of what it meant to be a parent, a partner, or just a person — today it feels as if the very structures around us are crumbling: the earth, democracy, capitalism, to name a few. In her podcast, Tippett cautions us that the questions we hold often don’t have answers, so we must live the questions. She reminds us that questions elicit answers that match their quality. “It is hard to resist a generous question,” she tells us and continues: “I believe that we all have it in us to ask questions that invite, that draw forth searching in dignity and revelation. There is something redemptive and lifegiving about asking a better question.”

I often speak with those who are either new to Jewish learning, Jews by choice, or are in conversion processes. Over time I have noticed that many of these folks cite the Jewish tradition’s multi-vocality and openness to questions as a big draw. After all, questions form the core of our halakhic process; Jewish law is created within the context of an individual asking a question to their rabbi. This is part of what is so essential about the Trans Halakha Project’s work of engaging trans teshuva writers – both the questions and the answers emerge from trans experience. This means that the questions are framed through trans experience and draw their power from that.

The act of asking a question and responding is so central to our tradition that it is listed as one of the ways in which Torah is brought into the world (Pirket Avot 6:6). This is demonstrated in the Passover Seder, when the narrative of collective liberation is shared through the asking of questions and the rich answers that they evoke. The Gemara goes so far as to say that “…even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other” (Pesachim 116a). Everyone has to ask the questions.   

What might it look like to “live the questions” in our learning? Let’s take Shabbat 31a:

שׁוּב מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ כְּשֶׁאֲנִי עוֹמֵד עַל רֶגֶל אַחַת! דְּחָפוֹ בְּאַמַּת הַבִּנְיָן שֶׁבְּיָדוֹ. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. אָמַר לוֹ: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ, וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁהּ הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר. 

Another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. He said to him: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel. Hillel converted him. Hillel said to him:  That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.

While it is clear from the text that though there is no explicit question asked, there are many implied. Some that come to mind are:

Who is this gentile? What are their intentions? As we read, what assumptions are we making about them?

How do we understand the gimmick of “on one foot?” How long can I balance on one foot? Is this the best posture for learning Torah? How might this inform our understanding of the gentile’s mindset? 

Why does the gentile set the bar for conversion at the entire Torah? 

Is there a central idea from which all of Torah relies? What would each of us lift up as that central idea? 

Is there a central idea from the Torah that I live the most fully in my own life?  

Allowing these curiosities to surface is, I think, one way that we “live the questions” in the Beit Midrash. We don’t seek to flatten the text with singular or knowable answers, but rather we dwell in the constellation of possibilities that a singular question can hold. Refining our questions and holding multiple truths brings redemption and life not just to the text but, as Tippett says above, to each of us. 

We live the questions because we live Torah. In living Torah, we commit to the notion that a world of liberation must be continuously built, again and again and again.

Returning to the gentile who approaches Hillel and Shammai, I wonder about the content and form of the request – comprehensive knowledge and a sentence. Once I take a stance of generosity, I can assume they actually wanted to learn about our holy tradition and can create questions from there. Perhaps they were intimidated or afraid of the possibility of moving through the conversion process and not knowing everything they needed. Perhaps they didn’t realize how deeply embedded the practice of asking questions is in our understanding of the world. Perhaps they were just testing the water.   

I’m guessing it was not a coincidence that Tippett’s final guest before their programmatic pause was adrienne maree brown:

brown: So I always tell people that you’re always practicing things. So it’s not like you go from not practicing to practicing, but it’s, are you practicing things on purpose? Are you practicing things you would want to practice, or are you practicing what someone else has told you [laughs] is the right way to do stuff? And once you start practicing on purpose, then you can actually practice liberation and justice and freedom and — then I think you begin to have this contentment that comes from practice. Like, I know that I won’t see total liberation in my lifetime, but I also feel very satisfied with how I’m practicing liberation every single day and in every relationship.

Tippett: And moving towards life.

brown: And moving towards life. [laughs] Life moves towards life, you know. That’s the trick. 1

As I practice living the question “who do I want to be in a time of collapse,” I am taking inspiration from the deep place of questions in Jewish tradition and the reminder to move towards life.


1 Tippet, Krista, narrator. “adrienne maree brown: We are in a time of new suns.” On Being. June 23, 2022.

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