There’s a strange passage in the Gemara in Kiddushin 32a. We are told that Rav Yehuda, the son of Rav Yechezkel, corrected his father’s lesson by saying “Father, don’t teach the mishna that way!” After describing the debate that ensued between father and son, the Gemara records that another sage, Shmuel, yelled at Rav Yehuda for the way he spoke to his father, and quoted him the following:
One whose father is transgressing the Torah’s words, he should not say to him, Abba, you transgressed the Torah’s words! (We’ll call this option #1 – אבא עברת על דברי תורה)
Rather, he says to him, Father, thus is written in the Torah. (#2 – אבא כך כתוב בתורה)
“Thus is written in the Torah” – [that too] causes pain to [his father]!
Rather, he should say to him, Father, the text is written thus in the Torah. (#3 -אבא מקרא כתוב בתורה כך)
Now, maybe it’s just me, but “the text is written thus in the Torah” sounds an awful lot like “thus is written in the Torah.” I can understand why the first option is considered disrespectful, and a violation of the Gemara’s earlier statement that reverence for one’s parent includes not contradicting their words. But why does that third formulation finally satisfy the Gemara as being an appropriate way to point out parental error? How is it different from option #2, which is rejected as being too “painful” for the parent?
Rambam offers a simple yet crucial explanation, which I think has great potential to improve our learning, our middos, and all our interactions – not just those between parent and child.
[If the child] saw [the parent] transgressing words of Torah, he should not say to him “Father, you transgressed words of Torah!” Rather, he should say to him, “Father, [is it] written thus in the Torah” – as if he is asking him, not like he is cautioning him. (Hilchot Mamrim 6:11)
Rambam makes one simple enhancement to option #3: he adds a question mark.
Without punctuation, the Hebrew words are ambiguous, so Rambam clarifies: One should not state “father, the Torah says this” – i.e., differently from what you just did – but should instead ask, “Father, does the Torah say this?”
What is the advantage of a question over a statement? I think there are two categories in which questions might be better, which I might label (1) pretend uncertainty and (2) actual uncertainty.
First, questions demonstrate more respect: even if the child is dead certain of the facts, pretending uncertainty allows the parent to save face and take the lead as the one who knows. The child expresses confusion – “It’s Y? But I thought there was this pasuk that says X!” – and turns to the parent for help in arriving at an explanation: “Can you explain to me how this pasuk fits with your statement of Y?” Even if the child actually knows it’s X, the child takes a step back and allows the parent to play the part of the one who knows stuff.
Don’t we all feel better about discussions in which we’re shown respect as thinkers and knowers, rather than simply being told something? Aren’t we more amenable to changing our positions when we can play the role of thinker and knower?
I know I am much more likely to give an alternative perspective serious thought if I am asked about it than if someone makes a declarative statement against what I already said. If I say Y and you tell me X, I am liable to get insulted and/or defensive, and stick to my guns even more. But if you say “But Sarah, how do you explain this pasuk?“ – then we’re partners in exploration, and maybe you’re even casting me as the authority. Now I’ll have to think seriously about X, and it won’t hurt me at all to come to your conclusion – because I’m the one who came to it.
We’re more receptive when we’re respected as thinkers and knowers, even if that respect is (partially) an act.
What might be even more important, though, is that questioning is more intellectually honest, allowing for the possibility not just of pretending uncertainty but of the child actually being wrong and the parent being right.
A statement leaves no room. By stating “The sky is blue,” I assert that I know all about the sky, and I know all about blue, and anyone who says otherwise is mistaken. I take the sum total of my learning and my experiences, and come to this conclusion, and cannot fathom that there might be anything I don’t know. I’m right, and even if you are my parent, you are wrong. The sky is definitely, unequivocally, blue.
Oh, but guess what? Maybe it’s not. Maybe if I were to dig more deeply, instead of assuming the facts accord with my perceptions – maybe if I would say “Is the sky blue?” I would find that the sky looks blue because of something light blah blah scatter something waves … (This is not my field.) In fact, I asked Google this very question and found that very answer (with more actual science-y words). I even found an article entitled “Blue Skies Only In the Eye of the Beholder.”
Even with such a simple statement as “the sky is blue,” that seems so obviously true, I might be missing part of the picture.
Indeed, there are some things about which we should make strong, unequivocal statements. But before we get to the statements, we should ask questions.
How often does it happen that a story will spread around social media like wildfire, condemning some person or institution for some reprehensible act – and then, eventually, word trickles out that we didn’t get the full story, that there was good reason (or at least, perceived good reason) behind the act, that it wasn’t so reprehensible as we thought?
Maybe it was exactly that reprehensible – and then we should, indeed, take a stand. But only once we are satisfied that we have the full story, that nobody has unwittingly jumped to conclusions based on assumptions rather than facts. Only once we’ve asked the questions.
It’s hard to ask questions, though, because it’s so easy to make assumptions and so hard to realize we’re doing it.
I see examples of this phenomenon all the time, in all areas of life.
One of my favorites in the area of Torah study comes up when I teach the story of Moshe’s birth and people start getting upset that his mother, “saw that he was good, and hid him for three months” (Shemot 2:2). “She only hid him because he was good; that’s terrible! A mother should always love her child and do whatever it takes to save that child!” Until we start to tease out the assumptions underlying that reaction, by asking questions instead: What does “good” mean here? What reasons might there have been to not hide him? How does his “goodness” relate to her hiding him? I won’t give away the answers, but commentaries have addressed these questions and more for centuries. It’s a weird pasuk – but only if we assume it means what we think it means. Once we ask, we find out how much more there is to learn.
It comes up in discussions of practical halacha, too. I’ve been accused by many, including friends, family, and rabbeim, of being a little overly concerned about what happens in my kitchen (“crazy,” I think, is a word they’ve used), but I stubbornly steadfastly maintain that I’m simply aware and alert to potential pitfalls. An example of the sort of exchange I have frequently: Years ago, I asked some shayla about something fleishig that had been put down directly on the counter, and was told it was all fine – but then I pointed out that we had a baby who sometimes drank formula, that the counter in question was the very spot where we mixed those bottles, and that invariably there was dairy formula powder spilled there. Even the thoughtful, erudite rav I was bothering about this had jumped to a conclusion without realizing it, and had assumed the counter was clean. (I’m sure it was still fine in the end – I don’t really remember – but at least the missing detail made it a more interesting question.)
How much more could we learn, and how much more accurate could we be, if we trained ourselves to shift our sentences? Not “I’m sure it was clean,” but “Was it clean?” Not “She only hid him because he was good,” but “What does good mean?” Like Rambam shows us, one little question mark can make a huge difference.
And of course, asking instead of telling can shift all types of interpersonal relations – not just between parents and children, and not just in the context of Torah. I’ll refrain from sharing examples here, lest I embarrass myself or others when those with whom I’ve related interpersonally inevitably recognize themselves. But we all know it’s true. Think about the last conflict or misunderstanding you were part of or observed. Could it have been avoided by phrasing a statement as a question instead, even if only for the sake of softening a blow or allowing the other to save face (pretend uncertainty)? Could either party have learned something by being open to having a question answered (actual uncertainty), rather than assuming the answers?
If we can train ourselves to add a question mark, transforming our statements into questions until we are truly and fully ready to make a declaration, then we will be better able to recognize the assumptions underlying the statements we would have made. We will be prepared to learn that our assumptions may not have been correct, and might even shake up our entire perspective on an issue. And we will be better able to influence people where it really counts, when we really are right and they are wrong.
After all, everyone is right sometimes, and everyone is wrong sometimes. Even children, and even parents.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.