Challenging Texts

This morning, as I always do, I read the Tanya. Written by the Alter Rebbe- also known as the Baal HaTanya- it forms the basis of Chabad Chassidic teachings, and explores Jewish mysticism through a series of analogies and teachings which I can only hope to ever fully understand. But not understanding the Tanya isn’t my only problem. Rather, it’s the bits which I feel I have a pretty good understanding of which trouble me.

I’ll be honest. My interest in Judaism, even before I became observant, has always been rather scholarly. The learning is actually what first attracted me to Judaism; I loved shiurim and Torah study classes, and reading and writing about the various commentaries on the Parsha was always the highlight of my week. I thrived on the intellectual rigour of Judaism, while a part of me remained aware that my interest was beyond the limits of a “normal” baalas teshuva. Frum girls like myself were supposed to stick down to watered down Chumash study, and reading Tehillim, and my passion for study set me apart slightly from most of the other frum women I knew.

But more recently, I reached a point in my learning where my viewpoint changed from one of exploration to one of challenging. External circumstances had made me begin to doubt my faith, and as davening began to mean less and less to me, I turned to the texts to look for answers. Reading the Tanya this morning, I found none. Instead, I found troublesome passages. Things which made me feel confused and argumentative. Things which, had they not been written by the Alter Rebbe, I would declare to be untrue.

Take the section about science, for example. We should not study the sciences of the “nations”, he writes. The message here seems to be “science is goyish and we should eschew it”- and I think “what about Rambam?”. The Rebbe goes on to write about instances in which studying science is permissible- when it leads to furthering one’s faith in G-d, or when it helps one keep the halachos.

Of course, I can’t stop reading here. I’m not satisfied with this explanation. And so, I spend more time than I care to admit working on the issue. I remember all the discussions I had with a scientist, who thought that Torah law was unscientific, and I realise that I don’t belong to either viewpoint- I think both can, and should, be combined. The minutes tick by as I continue my research on this pressing issue, trying to reconcile the Alter Rebbe’s viewpoint with my own, and that’s when I realise why I love this part of Judaism so much.

If there’s one thing which is bound to stop me from leaving Judaism, it’s this. These dilemmas. These discussions. These dialogues. Perhaps this is what the Alter Rebbe meant when he spoke about using science to elevate one’s understanding of the Torah; I’m using my doubts, my lack of faith, and my need to question, not to eschew Judaism, as many have done before me, but to further my love for it. It gives me a platform to explore and learn. Perhaps this was Hashem’s intention all along…

2 thoughts on “Challenging Texts

  1. Dear friend, let’s continue this quote from the Tanya: “Likewise, he who occupies himself with the sciences of the nations of the world is included among those who waste their time on profane matters, insofar as the sin of neglecting the Torah is concerned, as is explained in Hilchos Talmud Torah.” In no way does it imply that sciences are “goyish” and we should not study them; rather, that we should study them from the Torah perspective.
    Professor Herman Branover, a world renown physicist and Jewish educator (you can look him up on, recalled how the Rebbe visited another renown scientist, who at that time lived in Philadelphia, and noticed that the Sfoirim occupied one section of book shelves, whereas the science books were arranged in a totally separate section. The Rebbe commented that this separation was unnecessary because all the science is already contained in the Torah; therefore, science is part and parcel of Torah. Torah Emes (the Truth), which means it is all-encompassing. The Rebbe Himself, as you know, studied at Sorbonne
    I have a feeling that you simply haven’t met any frum women, other than “frum girls” you are describing who “stick to watered down Chumash and Tehillim.” I am participating in a Chassidus study group (by Skype) where every woman is a doctor – some of us are MD’s, and some Ph D’s. I would encourage you to look beyond your immediate environment, and eventually you will meet frum women who are intellectuals like yourself. I did, and so will you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The rest of the quote didn’t make much sense to me, but what you say about the Rebbe does. He showed such dedication to furthering scientific advances and yet he didn’t stray from the Torah in any way (cv”s). He truly was an amazing neshomo.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s