Goldstein, Rabbi Niles Elliot. “Eight Questions of Faith: Biblical Challenges That Guide and Ground Our Lives”, The Jewish Publication Society, 2015.
Life’s Biggest Questions
I feel certain that the moment we enter an organized religion we are met with questions and that we have many questions. For me, that is one of the beauties of being Jewish—I spend a lot of time pondering and even less time arriving at answers but the time I spend thinking is my most valuable time of day. What makes it all so interesting is that, as the Torah says, there is nothing new beneath the sun. The same questions have been asked for generations and that just goes to show that there are no easy answers. These same questions that I ask have been asked by kings and prophets, leaders and followers, sinners and holy men.
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein boils these down to eight questions that are found in the Bible and they explore the human journey from birth to death. These questions often deal with “existential experiences and themes as mortality, responsibility, forbidden knowledge, sin, and the afterlife”. Rabbi Goldstein brings together texts from the Bible, commentaries, philosophy, psychology, and literature and his own life experiences and then writes about them as meditation. While what he writes is somewhat universal, it is also very personal as we read it and apply it to our own lives.
Reading the introduction I learned about Goldstein’s three questions that brought him to write this book and I was stuck by how much they resemble my own. His first question deals with his marriage and while I am not married, I can understand that question to be about my relationship with others and whether these are honest relationships that will stand the test of time. The second question has to do with my relationship with my synagogue or temple. I love it but it indeed gets on my nerves once in a while. I have returned to the faith after years of living a secular life while helping to build the state of Israel. It took my return to America and the experience of Hurricane Katrina to make me understand that I needed to return to my religion and therefore to my temple. Goldstein was in the big city but I was in Little Rock, Arkansas having been evacuated there after the storm. I became active but as a reform Jew not as the Orthodox Jew that I had been raised. I rarely missed a Sabbath service but the temple seemed so unreal and there were so few that took it seriously. Moving to Boston changed everything. I was in a community of intellectuals who loved their faith and who participated regularly…or so I thought. Soon I realized that even with the few regulars, sincerity was missing. I hated those who pretended to be good Jews when in reality they had come to be seen by others. I tried to move on but I was tied to the temple and soon my worries passed and the sincerity that I looked for seemed to return. The third question answered itself when I moved from Arkansas to Massachusetts. Intellectually now I am somewhat satisfied but I know that these questions will return. With them will undoubtedly come the eight questions of faith that Goldstein gives us here and they are so simple and so much the kind of questions that we all have that there are no surprises:
“How do we live when we know we are going to die?”
“Why is humility so important?”
“Are we responsible for other people?”
“What is the purpose of human life?”
“Is some knowledge too dangerous to possess?
“Has God abandoned us?”
“How do we return when we have lost our way?”
“What happens to us after we die?”
Now that I am older and aging every day, I realize that the road home is a lot shorter than the road that brought me here and these questions always seem to be part of me. I search for the answers to them knowing that I will never find them yet I also know that many other people are asking the same questions. Rabbi Goldstein does not have the answers just as none of us do. But just as we are not alone asking these questions, neither are we alone looking for answers. The bible will not give us answers either but it will give us a sense of belonging and fellowship. Believe me when I say that it can be fun to try to find the answers. One of the things I do everyday is study Torah in Hebrew for at least an hour. It keeps my knowledge of the language fresh and satisfies my intellectual curiosity. With fifty years of graduate and undergraduate instruction under my belt, I find I still am intellectually curious.
Rabbi Goldstein tells us that we are on a journey and these questions become signposts on the way. They are the basis of human inquiry and the conversations and thoughts that come with them are far from easy. But Rabbi Goldstein is a good traveling companion and knowing he is there with me makes this journey less arduous. I do not need answers to be uplifted—I need to know that I am in good company and with the good rabbi and all of you I can tell that it is a good journey. The rabbi is here to give insights from his personal experiences be they philosophical or religious; it only matters that they are provocative and thoughtful. We are here to listen and contribute.
I sat down with this book this afternoon and I was determined to read it through without stopping and I did. I also realize that tomorrow I will have to reread it and stop and think about all that it says— to me that is what makes a book important and worth having in my library.