Only one who is fully confident in his or her path can successfully transmit Emunah to others. R’ Shamshon Rapahel Hirsch was one such example, combining sensitivity and wisdom with absolute certainty in the righteousness of his cause. “Apologetics," as traditionally defined, is not compatible with our emunah. The Torah does not need our defense.

Shevat 5779, January 2019

I was once sitting with a group studying Derech Hashem; on this particular occasion we were discussing the existence and nature of evil. The discussion prompted our study guide to comment: “When I see evil in the world, I am amazed at the greatness of God. How God, who is the telos of good and all his desire is but to benefit, can also create the possibility of evil in His world, in order to serve the supreme purpose — is the complete and eternal beneficence.” A truly difficult and provocative statement indeed. Sure enough, after a brief moment of silence, a participant challenged her: “Indeed? Can you stand in Yad Vashem, in the face of the horrors it displays, and be amazed at the greatness of the God who created this tragedy?”

Our teacher closed her eyes in concentration for a moment before responding, “Yes.”


How many lessons and lectures had I heard about the Holocaust, on theodicy, the question of God’s presence in the face of suffering, on “tzadik v’ra lo – the righteous who suffer.” Hours upon hours of learned, even sophisticated explanations, all supported by mountains of sources and citations. And yet, this moderator’s honest and brave “yes,” unafraid of sounding arrogant and detached, was more profound than the lengthy discourses I had heard over the years.

I recall this event as I read Rabbi Eli Stern’s article on apologetics.

Rabbi Sterns describes individuals who attempt to defend emunah, those who wish to correct mistaken apprehensions of faith and thereby bring “dropouts” back into the fold. He critiques the harmful approaches that often characterize such interactions — the ego wars, the lack of inclusion, the condescension. Such encounters naturally lead to further distancing, even if the answers’ content and substance are on point. And by contrast, the successful apologist exemplifies the opposite qualities: humility, intellectual modesty, and an understanding of the questioner’s vocabulary and setting.

There is however another question that every such “explainer” should ask themselves: Do I believe what I say? Do I myself experience the faith I describe? Are the words escaping my mouth articulating a voice of truth, or are they tainted by ulterior motivations, projecting my own doubts?

One must confront these questions before engaging with questioners. I was so gripped by our teacher’s difficult “yes” not because it was graced by an imaginary halo of tortured doubt, but rather the opposite — because of the deep internal conviction with which it was expressed.


To Persuade One Must Believe

Rabbi Stern writes that apologetics are most successful when offered by a respondent who relates to and experiences the questioner’s doubts himself. I wish to challenge this point. The mentor whose faith is rock solid and doubt free can communicate the believer’s experience and values even without words. A person may possess a great deal of knowledge, excellent rhetoric skills, and debating ability, but when he is tormented by the dilemmas of the questioner he cannot transmit faith onward. Truth and faith are one; they must coexist. One cannot teach faith when he or she does not truly believe in it.

Truth and faith are one; they must coexist. One cannot teach faith when he or she does not truly believe in it.

Indeed, as one matures one does question the axioms of his youth, engaging in a personal journey of self-discovery, but one must be well past these stages before attempting to defend and explain faith to doubters. Yes, the explainer must be able to connect to the questions being asked. He or she should be able to remain unfazed by the challenges presented and thus empower the questioner to undergo his own journey. But a person who has yet to finish that process himself should probably wait a bit before he attempts to convince others. If he does not, he risks, as Rabbi Stern describes, “sinning” with apologetics, employing condescending retorts and “arm twisting” to make his points, the primary role of which are apparently to convince himself more than anything else.

We engage with those who are searching because we wish to restore their faith. Faith means confidence in the path. The questioner will therefore be justifiably sensitive to, and particularly suspicious of any deception or dissonance, nuanced as these might be. After all, many leave because of such inconsistencies, contradictions between the values they were taught and the actual conduct of the teachers.

When a person who wishes to defend emunah is not at peace with himself and is troubled by the same questions he attempts to answer, his arguments will not be effective. To be more precise: his words may be communicated well, but his heart and faith will be missing from the equation. The torch of faith cannot be passed on by someone who is plagued by doubts and conflicts. Of course, nobody claims to know everything, or never has questions themselves, but the questions that bother a person teaching emunah must not be of the sort that undermine faith. Questions that lead to deeper understanding are a necessary part of a person’s growth process; these do not shake or challenge one’s fundamental beliefs.

When a person who wishes to defend emunah is not at peace with himself and is troubled by the same questions he attempts to answer, his arguments will not be effective.

Moreover, a person who genuinely believes with all his heart in the Torah and its commandments can sometime say things which would not be tolerated were they uttered by anyone else. The strength and obviousness of his faith and his refusal to compromise on matters that lie at the core of Judaism will be accepted with understanding — he will be forgiven for statements that are not “politically correct” and that are not normally shared in “polite company.”

One of my acquaintances was once studying Torah with a secular professor. While engaged in a particular topic, my acquaintance said, “I would not let a person who does not keep Shabbos to …” Suddenly he stopped, remembering who he was talking to, and apologized for offending his study partner. Rather than take offense however, the professor answered, “No, go on. I want to hear things said in truth, we are snowed with words of honey enough.”

For this reason, I wish to reflect on the use of the word “apologetics” in the context of teaching Torah and emunah, which in my opinion strikes a somewhat discordant note.

Etymologically and intuitively, the word is associated with apologizing. Yes, the term is technically used to describe the process of justifying and intellectually defending the principles of religious faith, but even there it seems to have adopted a tone of defensiveness. Somehow “defense” of religion requires adjustments, apologies, and protections to “justify” its truths in the eyes of the listeners.

Employing the word “apologetics” in the context of Torah and emunah is thus mistaken. Anyone who thinks he needs to defend the Torah is wrong. The Torah stood for thousands of years on its own merits, and does not need our defense. And indeed, the esteemed author does not use this term in the common sense of “defending religion,” but rather suggests that this effort be thought of as “mediation”. This is indeed a more appropriate term.


RS”R Hirsch’s Apologia

In all matters relating to drawing back those who have strayed from Torah, we would do well to closely follow Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l. Rav Hirsch’s model incorporated the strong and unapologetic position we described, and he used it with great success. His writings make clear his own unwavering faith and uncompromising commitment to all matters sacred. At the same time, he demonstrates a deep understanding of the searching soul and a familiarity with the questioner’s intellectual world.

In his commentary on Shemos, while discussing the mission of Moshe and Aharon to Pharaoh, Rav Hirsch provides a glimpse into the unique way he dealt with his generation’s youth, which entailed understanding them deeply and being willing to explain concepts by engaging with youngsters at their own level. He writes:

“Those who wish to acquire hearts for the truth, should not suffice with developing the material studied alone. He must consider the level of the people whose hearts he wishes to acquire and eyes to enlighten. He must find a connection to the concepts, opinions and views, the wishes and the ambitions, which are common among them. The real will be his starting point; from there he can develop the ideal.”

Later in this commentary, he acknowledges the dangers inherent in this path, risks which we pointed to above: excessive defensiveness, reducing the respondent’s level to that of the questioner:

“But the speaker will easily become endangered. In adapting himself to the ways of thinking of his audience he may absorb some of them into the field of truth, which he wished to bring, to adapt it to their taste. Or he will bypass its stringencies, or dirty its purity with foreign foundations, or make peace with compromises, to make its acceptance easier.”

A person who wishes to convince others needs to be firm in his views and believe in himself. If he fears the listeners or tries to appeal to their tastes, his speech will be both unworthy and ineffective.

Rav Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah provides innumerable examples of this model. His commentary was adapted to the conceptual framework of his generation but shows uncompromising commitment in every sentence. Elsewhere he writes:

“Those who are convinced that their opinions are right and true must express them incessantly and at every opportunity, honestly, and without consideration of the degree of support he has or the level of opposition he will face. Only lies require supporters to succeed. A lie requires the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in the correctness of its argument. The truth, by contrast, will always win in the end, even if that takes a little time. Noble, brave and pure, expressed with all the fire of persuasion and with all the clarity of assured awareness, expressed again and again at every opportunity — in the end the truth will achieve the respect and esteem even of those unwilling to accept it. The only truth which will be lost without possibility of recovery is the truth which its bearers lack the courage to be honest for.” (Writings, VI, p. 104)

Had we been unfamiliar with Rav Hirsch and his immense success, we could dismiss his words as baseless naiveté. But we are speaking of the great “mekarev,” a unique thinker who led the first teshuvah movement of those who had left the fold.

By contrast, how fearful are we today of saying simple truths. How convoluted are our explanations sometimes, as we attempt to cover for what strikes us as an incompatibility between the Torah and our times?


A person who is thus devoted to saving others and who is willing for this purpose to be buried with him under the stones of a building, can save the person, embrace him, and with this love, build a building with him.

Beyond the matter of uncompromising belief, one can learn from Rav Hirsch as well the abiding sense of mission and urgency to save the generation and bring people back to Torah.

In Igrot Tzafon (letter 19) he colorfully describes his feeling of urgency:

“Within the flames of fire, I see a child. All around me are paralyzed with fear, and they do not lift a finger, just making an effort to save the building. I see the boy, and I burst into the inferno. Must I first ask the person standing next to me, if he sees the boy, too? Must I also take note whether in my bursting through I am pushing or harming one of those who stands in my way? Must I ask and investigate if in my bursting forth to save the child, I am not interrupting the rescue of the building or increasing the wind to increase the bonfire? And if you ask me ‘And what if you were late in acting, and even before you reached the child, the building collapsed and fell on the child?’ I will respond: ‘Even if I knew I would be buried with him together, I must fulfill my duty?”

A person who is thus devoted to saving others and who is willing for this purpose to be buried with him under the stones of a building, can save the person, embrace him, and with this love, build a building with him.

How much energy we can draw from these words! The strength to speak, to rescue, and act even against dismissive and demoralizing reactions, and against the hostile responses of those who think that perhaps we are interrupting the efforts to save the building.


Beyond the character traits which Rabbi Stern noted in his article — humility, mental and intellectual flexibility, inclusiveness, and the ability to accept the other’s complexities — let us not forget our main objective.

We wish to inject faith and ignite a flame that will burn long and bright. This we can do only with an already burning fire – absolute faith in our cause

We wish to inject faith and ignite a flame that will burn long and bright. This we can do only with an already burning fire – absolute faith in our cause. A candle thus lit from a source that is already ablaze can indeed perpetuate the eternal betrothal between the Creator and His sons.

The Torah does not need our defense. It is with us, as ever, sustained and permanent, standing forever, “a form of the existence of the Creator” (as the Ramchal puts it). It successfully survived generations of questions. In this respect, our generation’s questions are no different than those of its predecessors. The Torah can stand up to them as well.

photo: Bigstock

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