Most people, even the devout, struggle with beliefs about G-d. It is easy, for example, to affirm the basic tenets of Judaism during a prayer service, but when it comes to trusting G-d with our daily decisions, many share a secret, painful fear that G-d isn’t really looking out for them. Many of us have been brought up under the assumption that mainstream science is incompatible with our Jewish faith. So when we see compelling evidence for biological evolution, for example, we feel forced to choose between science and our faith. Wrestling with Faith was created to tackle questions like these—the “big issues” that keep people from an intimate relationship with G-d. The course acknowledges the often unspoken doubts and fears that all people share, and seizes their invitation for us to dig deeper for the answers.
A panoramic overview of 3000 years of Jewish learning, this course introduces you to the works that earned us the title “The People of The Book.” You will experience the different genres that shape Jewish life, including Tanach, Midrash, Talmud, Halachah, Philosophy, Kabbalah, Musar, Chasidism, and meet the influential personalities who drove thirty centuries of Jewish scholarship. Whether you’re meeting these texts for the first time or as a seasoned scholar, this course will inform and enrich all your Jewish learning.
We begin by addressing the question, “What is the Torah?” We discover how the whole of Jewish teaching (“the Torah” in its broader meaning) derives from the Chumash (“the Torah” in its narrower meaning). We also discuss the relationship between the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah,” and how these two components of Torah constitute a “partnership” of Divine revelation and human toil of the mind.
We then introduce the twenty-four books of the Tanach. We explain the differences between Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim, and review the contents of each. We also see how the roots of the different “genres” of Torah—Midrash, Halachah, Kabbalah, Musar, etc.—are all in the “Written Torah,” as will be further demonstrated in each of the next five lessons.
“Midrash” is both a methodology and a body of literature. In this lesson, we explore both aspects of Midrash. We study the various methods by which additional layers of meaning contained within the words—or between the lines—of the Torah are expounded. We also acquaint ourselves with some of the major Midrashic works that record the expositional teachings by the sages of the Talmudic era (approximately 100 BCE to 500 CE).
Midrash includes Halachic (legal) expositions, which extrapolate the details of the Torah’s laws from the text, as well as Agadic Midrashim—moral, philosophical, and mystical teachings, as well as historical narratives and parables. We study examples from both of these varieties of Midrash, including a number of intricate legal expositions, and an esoteric parable relating to a celestial battle over the creation of the human being and the paradox of goodness and truth.
More than any other work, the Talmud defines “Jewish learning.” In this lesson, we review the history of the Talmud, explore the structure of this intricate and fascinating work, with its 63 volumes of teachings and deliberations by hundreds of sages over a period of six centuries on virtually every subject under the sun. We also engage in the in-depth study of a Talmudic sugya (“subject discussion”) and experience the unique twists and turns of the Talmudic dialectic.
In the process, we discover how Talmudic learning leverages the “flaws” of the human mind—its circuitous reasoning, its contentiousness, and its inconsistencies—to reveal the multifaceted nature of the Divine wisdom and apply it to the complexities of human life.
Halachah is the “bottom line” of Torah, where the biblical commandments, rabbinical ordinances, and Talmudic deliberations translate into the dos and don’ts of daily life. Halachah addresses every part of a Jew’s life, from waking to bedtime, from birth to burial, from everyday activities to the most extraordinary situations.
In this lesson, we explore the history of Halachah, from its sources in the Written Torah, through the Halachic Midrashim, the Talmud and its commentaries, the various “codes” compiled through the centuries, and the many thousands of Halachic responsa authored through the centuries. We survey the great variety of issues and dilemmas that Halachah addresses. We then bring it all to life via a case study that traces a Halachic issue from its biblical origins through more than a dozen citations across the entire spectrum of Halachic literature.
Musar is the body of Torah teachings that deals with ethics, character development, and spiritual self-improvement. The field of Jewish philosophy, also known as “Chakirah,” includes works devoted to discussing the philosophy and ideology of Judaism. While these constitute two distinct areas of Torah literature, there is also a certain degree of overlap between them; indeed, some of the fundamental works of Jewish philosophy are also works of Musar, and vice versa.
In this lesson, we review the history and the primary authors and works in these two fields. We then study a number of texts covering three related topics in both these fields: the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (“something from nothing”), bitachon (trust in G-d), and the emotion of anger.
Kabbalah is the Torah’s mystical dimension, containing its most powerful and empowering ideas. But for many centuries, the teachings of Kabbalah were carefully guarded secrets, transcribed only in the guise of esoteric terminology and metaphors, and taught only to a small, exclusive circle of mystics in each generation. Chasidism is both an extension of Kabbalah as well as a field of Torah in its own right, revealing the inner “soul” that unites the Torah’s various components and applying its most abstract spiritual teachings in personally meaningful ways.
In this lesson, we survey the history of Kabbalah and Chasidism. We address the question of why these teachings were kept secret, and why and how they were eventually revealed. We then explore one of the core subjects of Kabbalah—the doctrine of the “Ten Sefirot”—beginning with a mysterious passage in the Zohar, followed by a series of Kabbalistic and Chasidic texts that examine the great paradox of G-d’s relationship with us, and the body-soul dichotomy that defines our own lives.
As we understand the natural world better, we have only grown more fascinated by mysterious topics like the meaning of dreams; the existence of angels, demons, and extraterrestrials; and the power of the evil eye. With record interest inspiring curiosity, dread, and mockery, this course probes the Talmud, Jewish philosophy, and kabbalah to provide Jewish
perspectives and guidance for those curious about these perennial questions.
We all dream as we slumber, but do the scenes of our dreams impart messages with lasting significance? And can we control our own dreams, perhaps to reduce nightmares and the like?
In this lesson, students will learn that traditional Jewish sources assert that the degree of meaning our dreams contain correlates with the degree of focus and meaning of our daytime thoughts. The occurrence of nightmares can be reduced through improving the quality of our daytime thoughts, strengthening our faith, and developing a positive Jewish bedtime ritual.
The lesson underlines the basic Jewish belief that there is no destiny that cannot be changed. Even if we are convinced that a particular dream forebodes negative events, we should know that prayer and good deeds can change any destiny.
Since the dawn of time, the endless sea of twinkling planetary configurations has been read to shed the secrets of individual Homo sapiens, or to eavesdrop on the celestial pulling of puppet strings attached to our lives. Do the stars in fact influence our natures or provide information regarding our unknown futures?
This lesson shows that there is strong—although not unanimous—support in Jewish sources for the basic validity of astrology. However, any Jewish belief in astrology is tempered by the fundamental Jewish beliefs that human beings always retain free choice regarding their moral conduct, and no destiny is absolute. As a result, even the Jewish authorities that give astrology some validity caution us not to turn to it for information, and to focus instead on faith in G-d, Who shapes our destinies based on our actions.
Cultures across the map and down the eras have maintained a belief in the negative powers of an “evil eye” and curses, and produced diverse methods of protection from it. What does Judaism have to say? Is there an evil eye, and what might be its effect? Can people harm others by cursing them?
In this lesson, students will learn that there is strong—although not unanimous—support in Jewish sources for the notion that the evil eye and curses can have damaging effects.
The most prominent Jewish theory for explaining the effects of evil eyes and curses is that they attract added Heavenly scrutiny to an individual—and therefore an audit of their behavior in relationship to the blessings they have in their lives.
The lesson then demonstrates a corresponding and effective approach to providing protection through being more private and refraining from unnecessarily flaunting our blessings.
Is there other intelligent life out there in the universe? Does Judaism believe in angels and demons? Can we communicate with the souls of our deceased loved ones?
This lesson teaches that the question of the existence of extraterrestrial life does not have serious theological ramifications in Judaism, and there are traditional sources either way. The important Jewish principle is that we human beings are the purpose of creation.
Regarding angels, traditional sources describe them as spiritual entities that play a role in processing prayers to G-d and His flow of blessings to us. Demons are depicted as impure spiritual forces that cause harm. But both angels and demons lack any independent authority, and thus they should not be subjects of our focus. It is we humans, created in the image of G-d with the gift of free choice, that have the most meaningful relationship with G-d.
Finally, students will learn that Judaism believes that the human soul is eternal and continues to exist after death. We can “communicate” with the deceased by performing good deeds in their honor, thereby giving them pleasure and advancing them in their new world, but any form of direct communication with the spirits of the dead is forbidden by Torah law.