Tackling Jewish questions you were afraid to ask

Here’s a stumper: Why did many Jews of earlier generations walk stooped, with hands folded behind their backs?

Or maybe you’re stuck on a far more basic question, such as: What is being Jewish all about?

For answers to queries such as these, you can study Talmud, talk to your rabbi or sit down with a scholar. Or you can quickly consult some contemporary texts, such as “The Jewish Book of Why” and “Tough Questions Jews Ask.”

Though strikingly different, both books are filled with questions and answers.

Why am I Jewish? Do I really believe in God? Are the stories in the Torah true?

These introspections rattled Edward Feinstein, author of “Tough Questions Jews Ask,” when he was a boy.

Finally, just weeks before his bar mitzvah, Feinstein went to visit Uncle Mottel, an Orthodox rabbi and teacher, for a talk. After discussing his bar mitzvah studies and preparation, Feinstein reluctantly brought up his religious doubts, fearing an unleashing of anger.

But his uncle reassured him that questioning is part of being Jewish. “Wrestling, asking, wondering, searching is just what God wants us to do!” his uncle replied. “God loves good questions. Now tell me, what are your questions?”

Feinstein, an instructor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and a rabbi at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, wisely mentions his own youthful questions as an introduction to his handy new book. Written for preteens and young adults, “Tough Questions” is useful for several reasons.

First, it provides answers that may elude parents. The typical response to a child’s difficult query — something on the order of “That’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer” — may be honest, but it’s unfortunate, because the time and moment to seize an educational opportunity is lost.

Second, Feinstein, a longtime Jewish day-school educator and seminary instructor, knows how to deal with some of the toughest skeptics: teenagers. (He is the father of three teens, which helps, too.) Feinstein raises what he calls “some of the best questions I’ve been asked,” and replies in a conversational tone, with “the responses that have helped people think more deeply.”

Which brings up a third plus: Feinstein doesn’t preach, nor does he pretend to have all the answers. He acknowledges right off the bat that there are “many ways to answer life’s toughest questions,” and that the reader may disagree with his opinions.

Delving into questions such as “How can anyone believe in God after the Holocaust?” and “If we live here, why is Israel so important?” Feinstein, at the very least, opens the floodgates for conversation and thoughtful contemplation.

“The Jewish Book of Why,” by Alfred J. Kolatch, is altogether different. It is far more encyclopedic, posing 500 questions and probably three times as many answers about Judaism, its culture and practices.

With its small typeface and fairly hefty volume, this new, paperback edition of Kolatch’s 1981 hardcover book can be a little off-putting at first. But if you give it a chance, you’ll understand why the original hardcover has sold more than 1 million copies, and why he published a sequel in 1995, “The Second Jewish Book of Why.”

This is where you’ll find the answer to such arcane musings as the stooped-posture question. According to Kolatch, “There is a talmudic ban against walking more than 4 cubits (about 6 feet) in a jaunty, insolent, upright position — b’koma zekufu — which may account for the development of the posture…”

But his book also deals with the basics. Sixteen chapters, starting with “The Early Years” and moving through marriage and divorce, death and mourning and dietary laws, cover just about all the bases, including the Sabbath, holidays, minor observances and general questions.

Ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Kolatch was a congregational rabbi and Army chaplain before turning to writing and publishing. He has written several books, including “Great Jewish Quotations,” “How to Live a Jewish Life” and “What Jews Say About God.”

His “Book of Why” is fascinating in places. Why does the groom break the glass at the end of the marriage ceremony? Several reasons have been suggested, Kolatch writes, but in every case “the underlying purpose is the creation of noise.” In typical style, the author runs through the various explanations — traditional, kabbalistic and customary, but points to superstition as the most likely reason for the celebratory grand crunch.

A comprehensive index in the back makes for relatively easy maneuvering through the 336-page text, though for sure this is not a book most Jews will want to sit down and read in one sitting. It’s a great resource for the home library, however, and for those niggling questions you never bothered to ask. n

“Tough Questions Jews Ask” by Rabbi Edward Feinstein (Jewish Lights Publishing, 128 pages, $14.95).

“The Jewish Book of Why” by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch (Penguin Compass, 336 pages, $13).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.