Our Sages Were Wrong

I want my child to know that his choices matter. They have consequences.

I love my kids’ school. I know we have conversations about Jewish belief and practice that we may not have had, had they not been students at a Jewish day school. This is what I value the most. I don’t send my children to day school so they can memorize texts or rituals. I want them to question and challenge and be thoughtful about their beliefs and practices. Our sages modeled this method of Jewish learning in the Talmud. They didn’t just state a question and provide an answer. They recorded the entire debate! Multiple views are preserved and there is value in this type of discourse. Not only does it show us that by asking questions and engaging in conversation with others our eyes become open to new insights and perspectives, it also teaches us to respect diverse views.

But, when I was helping one of my sons with his homework recently, I was disappointed to see that the teachings selected by his teacher were so dissonant with the Jewish teachings that I know. The sages he introduced to my son focused on destiny and events being out of our control. All we need to do is have faith in God. Our choices have no impact. God is in complete control. Well, these sages got it wrong.

Judaism teaches that we have free will. Our choices do matter. We have an entire instruction book guiding us how to make good choices that will benefit us and positively impact our world. Why would we need the Torah and the mizvot and values it teaches, if we had no say? If our actions had no meaning?

I admit, I was irritated when I read these texts that I felt strayed so far outside Jewish norms and seemed to negate personal accountability. I want my child to know that his choices matter. They have consequences. And, when he chooses justice, compassion, and kindness, he becomes a better person and he will make a positive mark on our world.

But then, I remembered my teacher from rabbinical school and how he remarked that the wisdom of our sages is that they understood the minority opinion may sometimes become the majority opinion. This was part of their genius in preserving the entire debate of the Talmud, including both the minority opinions of our sages and the generally accepted answer of the majority opinion, and of the debate itself. Such foresight! To realize that your answer, at this moment, may not be the right answer tomorrow or for future generations. It made me ask, what is the wisdom in these teachings of sages that so offend me? What is the lesson that I can learn?

There are times, truly, when events are out of our control. Natural disasters and illnesses are two examples. But there are also times when the burdens seem so great that we need faith that somehow everything will be alright. In times of war and oppression, when so many face food insecurity or famine, when we see the effects of global warming, we might think there is not much once person can do. Having faith in God, that perhaps God has a plan and is in control, may comfort us and give us hope.

I still believe in free will. I believe that, even when the work is great, there is always something one person can do. And, I realize that sometimes having a little hope and faith just helps us get through.

Discover More

Valuing Debate and Conversation

Jewish tradition, informed by the precedent of the Talmud, prefers to promote discussion rather than correctness.

Why The Mishnah Is the Best Jewish Book You’ve Never Read

This almost 2,000-year-old text flies under the radar -- but it's immensely important to Jewish life.

What Is the Talmud?

An intergenerational rabbinic conversation that is studied, not read.