The Questions That Define Us

September 4, 2018

As a people, our questions started early: Am I my brother’s keeper? Where is the sheep for a sacrifice? If there are 10 righteous people, will the city be saved?

The Talmud presents questions, answers them, then questions them again. Halakhot (Jewish laws) were codified, but that didn’t stop the questions. Once a year, we focus on four specific questions in the Haggadah at Passover but also meet four children, three of whom are defined by the way they ask questions. The fourth is defined by his inability to ask at all.

Jews question. We challenge statements as we hear them. Some of our questions rouse us to action: If I am not for myself, who am I? If not me, who? If not now, when? Others are rhetorical remarks, indicators of disbelief: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?” We’re even known for answering questions with other questions.

“Important questions have always been at the heart of the Jewish tradition,” said Sheila Katz, vice president of student engagement and leadership at Hillel International, and co-founder of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative. “Where a statement proclaims fact or truth, a question invites discussion and reflection and sparks learning. Instead of asking questions in ways that exclude or mock, Rabbi Hillel the Elder would ask questions in a way that honored the integrity of those with whom he was engaged and invited people into a great conversation.”

Hillel International, continuing in its namesake’s tradition, founded Ask Big Questions in 2011. First created at Northwestern Hillel to encourage more High Holy Days engagement for Northwestern University students, it has since expanded into a national program through which more than 300,000 people have had reflective conversations on life’s big questions.

“The power of questions is really important to the cultivation of anyone’s identity but particularly Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of  youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am. Some questions are inward-facing, focused on personal goals and reflection; other questions are external-facing, addressing the world’s challenges; while other questions look backward or force you to look forward, he said. “This is really a particularly Jewish way of questioning,” Hoffman said. “[Understand] who you are at the moment, then you can understand where you come from and where you’re going.”

Answering Questions With Confessions
When the High Holy Days arrive, our questions are directed inward. What did we do right? What should we have done differently? What are our hopes for the new year? These are hard questions because it is difficult to assess one’s own behaviors and remember the smaller moments. We resolve to ourselves and to the deity-in-chief that this year we will be different. More considerate. More respectful. Humbler. Better. But few of us change. A year later, we’re back in synagogue, holding the same prayer books, beating our chests penitently and repeating our admission: we have sinned. We have failed to make the changes that we wanted to make, and we have to face reality. We are not good at holding ourselves accountable.

Yom Kippur replaces questions with a list of confessional statements of wrongdoing. It is as if “al chet” (the confession of sins) is communicating that when it comes to bad behavior, there is no question. We are all guilty. So much so that the language of confession is communal. All of us. Every single one. It’s not a “choose all that apply” checklist of misdeeds we have personally committed. Even if we have not committed every misdeed on the list, someone in this room probably has. We’re a community of sinners.

“The power of questions is really important to the cultivation of anyone’s identity but particularly Jewish identity.” — Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman

And when we, again, promise God and ourselves to change our behavior, we know that only God or ourselves can hold us accountable. But our internal echo isn’t an effective taskmaster, and most of us rarely hear back from God.

But what if the process of self-analysis came with a coach who could remind us, nearly a year later, of the promises we’ve made to ourselves; who could prompt us to repent and remind us of the changes we wanted to make? Then we’d be more accountable, more able to answer the questions: “How have you changed, and how have you made progress toward your goals?”

10Q: The Origin Story
Enter 10Q, a 10-day process of self-inquiry available online at doyou10q.com that was created by network members of Reboot, an organization that encourages people to reimagine Jewish traditions and make them their own. Instead of allotting a single day for repentance, the process allows participants to think about repenting in smaller increments, challenged by one question every day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the span known as the Ten Days of Repentance, or the Days of Awe. At the end of that period, a person’s answers are “sent to the vault” and locked away until the following Rosh Hashanah, when 10Q returns the person’s answers to them so they can see if they made progress and, if so, how much.

The idea for 10Q grew out of a 2007 Reboot retreat, when a conversation about ethical wills between playwright Nicola Behrman, author and New Yorker magazine contributing writer Ben Greenman and then-Reboot staff member Amelia Klein evolved into something else. Riffing on ideas of time capsules and last letters, the three started connecting the idea to Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance.

“It felt like the most perfect time to create a curated experience of self-reflection for people,” said Behrman, now the resident energy alchemist at the Ojai Valley Inn in Ojai, Calif.

The original goal was to have 50 to 100 “Rebooters” and their friends engage in 10Q, but within a couple of days more than 1,000 people had signed up, including religious Christians from the South, “and the rest is history,” Behrman said.

In the past 11 years, more than 450 organizations and communities have used 10Q, with more than 60,500 individuals signing up, including 8,600 added last year alone. Reboot and its community partners also have hosted more than 310 in-person events using 10Q materials, engaging with more than 23,000 participants.

“Reboot is an invitation to people who don’t necessarily spend all of their time thinking about Jewish identity, inviting them to think about Jewishness and what is Jewishly powerful,” said Francine Hermelin Levite, Reboot’s creative director. “The results are often transformative, and 10Q is an example.”

Reboot has 542 network members, more than 900 community organization partners and hundreds of thousands of people engaging in its programs with names like Beyond Bubbie, The National Day of Unplugging, and Sukkah City, many of them created by network members. Hermelin Levite said 10Q is one of the projects that has really struck a chord.

“10Q is an invitation to reflect on the year that’s passed and set intention for the year ahead,” she said. “Jews say that all the time. But this, you really have to think about, because it gives you actual questions, inviting you to stop and reflect and take it out of the theoretical. It creates a crack in time to spend with yourself and jot those things down.”

The 10Q User Experience
Writer and illustrator Christopher Noxon — an avid 10Q user for the past five or six years — called the modality of asking questions as part of the reflection “potentially life-changing.”

“There’s no theology [in 10Q],” Noxon said. “It’s about what’s deeply important to you. Where do you want to get better? There isn’t a lot of room for very honest personal reflection in our lives otherwise. No one’s asking those searching questions in a secular environment. No one’s asking you to confront your deeper truth.”

As the program has grown, Reboot has learned that, in addition to individuals sitting down to answer the questions, some groups have used the 10Q materials to engage their members in contemplation and conversation about the group’s needs and goals.

Hoffman, for instance, who uses 10Q “every year, religiously,” worked with Reboot to generate programs that use the 10Q methodology beyond the online experience. One program, designed for the classroom, featured each 10Q question printed on a sheet of giant butcher-block paper. At Temple Beth Am, students added their answers to each of the sheets, which were then displayed throughout the High Holy Days, providing a snapshot of what students were thinking about.

“The kids appreciated it as an intentional structure, a thoughtful way to reflect,” Hoffman said. “And it’s easier to access than prayers.”

“It’s a wonderful tool and it feels like it’s been around for a long time now,” said Ashley Sullivan, a self-proclaimed “unofficial ambassador” for the program who also uses 10Q in her work as outreach coordinator for Nefesh services at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. If someone says they haven’t heard of it, she’s surprised. “I actually have this twinge of feeling sorry for people, I suppose, that they don’t have this trove to look back on if they are just getting started with it.”

In yet another example of asking questions, Reboot does an annual survey of users, and the responses reveal the program’s wide impact.

“When I get distracted or feel motivated during services, I start looking over the questions and thinking through my answers,” one participant said. “10Q has changed the way I interact with spirituality and reflection during the High Holy Days.”

“10Q has helped me to strive for new futures,” another user wrote. “Over the past few years, I have seen common threads in my responses and, upon reflection, I realized that I needed to pull those threads if I was ever going to make necessary changes in my life.”
Noxon said he loves the project “because of how it gets at very deep personal and spiritual truths that are rooted in Jewish tradition without ever explicitly screaming ‘Judaism! Judaism! Judaism!’ ” he said. “They tapped an ancient technology and made it work in a smartphone world, which is really subversive and really ingenious.”

The Questions
10Q’s format starts with questions that prompt your reflection on personal things that have happened to you in the past year, as well as world events that have had an impact on you. It then moves toward goal-setting for the next year, such as with Question 7, which asks: “How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?”

The questions are the same every year, but Noxon said that “every year I feel like I’m answering them for the first time because I feel like I’m a totally different person.”

“What we did was create a very basic time capsule structure that homed in on a specific series of moments every year,” Behrman said. “It’s structured enough that people actually do it, but it’s spacious enough that they get to do what they want with it. I have found again and again that the deepest wisdom and joy comes when we give people a simple structure and space to express themselves.”

Hermelin Levite said Reboot is responding to the shifting needs of 10Q’s users. New adopters are “more mobile-ready, more accustomed to using hand-held devices to access their favorite programs and culture,” she said. This year, Reboot expects to have a mobile app ready by the time the 10Q vault opens for reflections just before Rosh Hashanah. It has also created print journals for 10Q partners.

“[Reboot and 10Q] tapped an ancient technology and made it work in a smartphone world, which is really subversive and really ingenious.”
— Christopher Noxon

Reboot regulars find creative ways to “do the 10Q.” For instance, Jill Soloway, a Reboot network member and creator of the Amazon series “Transparent,” answered in a video 10Q’s Question 8 — “Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in the coming year?”

“My answer is the concept of joy,” Soloway said in the video. “I think I don’t feel anywhere near enough joy. And I think joy needs to be sought out, curated, time held for it.”

Damon Lindelof, a network member and co-creator of the television series “Lost,” got creative with his 10Q last year. As his spiritual mystery show “The Leftovers” ended in June — generating questions among fans — Lindelof answered his 10Q from the perspectives of that show’s characters.

Each year, when “the vault” opens the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Reboot staff is inundated with emotional emails.

“On the eve of 10Q when they get their answers back, I receive the most incredible texts overflowing with gratitude,” Behrman said, noting that 10Q is used in some prisons and as a point of conversation for families with distant family members. “Thousands of people around the world, regardless of religious affiliation, now have beautiful time capsules of self-reflection as a result. It’s such a beautiful reminder of what is possible in this world.”

Do You 10Q? I Do
I too am a regular user of 10Q. I started using it in 2008. There have been years when I skipped one or more of the questions, rushed through my answers just to check them off my list, or even skipped it entirely — such as in 2016. I’m not sure why.

But whether I use 10Q conscientiously, I still believe that the self-reflection it promotes with the same questions year-to-year — while I potentially experience changes in my personal, intellectual or professional life — is a particular kind of time gift. It challenges me to suspend the other things on my never-ending list of things to do, and dedicate separate and distinct time to reflection. One might even call that period of time kadosh (holy).

Part of the challenge of the High Holy Days season is understanding that we possess far more questions than answers about our friends and family, our community, the world, the future and ourselves. But as Jews who are centered on making the world and ourselves better — during this or any season — we still have to create the space, make the time and ask the questions that in the year ahead may come to define us.

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