Big Questions and Hard Questions
For whom are we responsible?” is a different question than “What does it mean to be responsible?” or “Do we have a responsibility to our particular heritage?” The latter questions are examples of what I’ve come to call Hard Questions: they matter to everyone, but they invite a response only from those who feel they have sufficient information or expertise to answer them. They are questions of definition, philosophy and categorization. They tend to lead to debates—about objective meanings, about policy. Ask one of these questions at a dinner table, and more likely than not, after a while, two or three people will be left arguing, while the rest have moved to the couch, the kitchen, or simply become spectators.
“For whom are we responsible?” however, is a Big Question, a question that matters to all of us and that all of us can answer—regardless of information or expertise, regardless of religion or ethnicity. We can all answer this question because we’re human beings, and human beings inescapably exist in networks of responsibility. Someone has been responsible for us, and we have been responsible for someone else. We have stories about those people, about our experiences with them, about our memories. Ask this question at dinner, and it can lead to stories rather than debates, to engagement rather than passivity, to community rather than isolation.
This doesn’t necessarily happen on its own, as we can easily veer off of a Big Question into a Hard one: “For whom are we responsible?” can turn into a debate on the meaning of “responsible.” But when nurtured with proper care, the seed of a Big Question like “For whom are we responsible?” can blossom into an encounter that enhances understanding, trust, and community.
Big Questions and Responsibility
In reflecting on the questions of responsibility and peoplehood, I believe that one of the most essential things to focus on is this distinction between Big Questions and Hard Questions. By and large, Hard Questions are the questions of our educational systems, and they undergird the discourse of our media. We are schooled in Hard Questions, and we tend to move immediately towards them: How should we respond to climate change? What are the policy implications of an aging society? Or for many Jews: What are our policies on Jewish identity, Israel, membership? These are important questions, but they invariably lead to debates in which the people who think they know something about them will argue, while many others feel alienated.
That is the nature of Hard Questions. They presume a sense of mutual responsibility, that the participants in the discussion feel connected to and responsible for one another. That is, they presume that the work done by conversations about Big Questions has already taken place. This isn’t the case for many Jews today, just as it isn’t the case for many people in general. A recent Pew study—not that Pew study, another one—reported that the Millennial generation, who are now between ages 18-33, have the lowest sense of trust in other human beings of any generation of Americans. We live in a paradoxical age of expanding connectedness and diminishing social capital. We live in an age when trivial questions or Hard Questions dominate our discourse, when Big Questions, and the habits and communities that grow from them, have been forgotten.
If we are to renew a sense of peoplehood, we have to renew a language and ethic of responsibility. And doing that starts with asking bigger questions—not the Hard Questions of labeling and categorization, but the Big Questions that animate all our lives and the tradition to which we are heirs. If we want to nurture responsibility, we have to cultivate trust and understanding. And those come best from intentional, reflective conversations about Big Questions.
Big Questions, Particularism, and Universalism
Something else happens when we start working with Big Questions: we reorient the map of particularism and universalism. Since Big Questions resonate with all human beings, we can talk about them with anyone—from Warren Buffett to Lady Gaga to Mickey the custodian at my office. They reinforce that we all share some basic questions, that we’re all writing our human story. They lead to greater humanism.
But Big Questions also invite reflection on wisdom traditions. “Where do you feel at home?“ animates entire tractates of the Talmud, from the first Mishnah in Tractate Shabbat to the closing stories of Tractate Ketubot about living in the land of Israel. “For whom are we responsible?“ opens up learning about the story of Jacob and Judah referred to above, Cain’s response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Moses’s challenge to the Israelites, “Behold I make this covenant with we who are standing here today, and with those who are not here today.” “When do you feel powerful?“ can lead to reflection on the Biblical spies’ observation “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them,” or to any number of Zionist considerations of what it means for Jews to assume power.
When we present Jewish tradition in terms of Big Questions, we invite ourselves and our students into what Parker Palmer identifies as truth: “An eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” In a fundamental sense, we reorient the question about universalism and particular, away from the notion of a zero- sum game, and towards a more capacious, expansive, and resilient experience both of what it means to be human and what it means to be Jewish. Thus, at the same time as they lead to a greater humanism, Big Questions lead to a richer sense of particularism too.
None of this is strikingly new. Indeed, I would say it’s radically old. We have known this for ages: a people come about through education, and education begins with questions. If we want to nurture the Jewish people in the twenty-first century, more than anything else, we need to recover the questions and conversations that have always worked. We need to have conversations about Big Questions.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson is the founder of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel International.
This article was originally published in the Peoplehood Papers #12.