Defensiveness and Doubts


Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R

Chaya Feuerman, LCSWR

(First appeared in print in the Jewish Press) 

Defensiveness is one of the most destructive traits in relationships. According to the research of John Gottman, Ph.D. if one spouse is observed as behaving defensively toward the other spouse’s concerns there is strong correlation with marital disharmony and ultimately, divorce. Defensiveness can be defined as a pattern of deflecting criticism or complaints of the spouse instead considering, validating and reflecting upon the complaint of the other. The reason why this trait is problematic is that it obstructs the ability for meaningful connection, rational problem solving and finding common ground.


Surprisingly, research shows that even successful couples have the SAME EXACT “problems” in year one of their marriage as in year 30. This indicates that the key to success as a couple is not that solving their problems per se, but rather developing a system of understanding and working together around differences. This is a key point. For example, a miserly, controlling person and an impulsive shopaholic can indeed be happily married, despite the fact that each one can only change their shtick to some degree. The success of their relationship will depend heavily on their ability to respect and collaboratively understand each other’s emotional safety needs, so that they can find ways to engage in their behavior that is part of their personal character and style without triggering the other person's anxiety and violating their safety needs. When this is not managed well, it can be disastrous because it is easy to understand how the miserly, controlling person and the impulsive shopaholic can get stuck in a mutually reinforcing pattern of each one’s behavior triggering the other person's anxiety. The secondary, but more fatal effect of defensiveness is often hostility. After all, it is natural to use aggression to protect oneself when feeling a need to defend. Therefore, spouses who are defensive, can cross the line over to hostility and aggressiveness. The other spouse may also become hostile out of resentment and frustration.  A dangerous mix of passive aggressive and plain aggression in a mutually reinforcing downward spiral. 


However, we are not going to focus on defensiveness in marriage because defensiveness is not only destructive in marital relationships, but also in chinuch, and this is even more overlooked. From a pedagogical perspective, it is a poor way to educate children and help them internalize a deep sense of values and identity. In particular, with our newest generation of young adults, who have unprecedented access to information that has not been available in prior generations, parents who are defensive and fearful about discussing any kind of topic with their children are dangerously naive. By the time our children are young adults, we can assume that there is no social, religious, environmental, psychological or political issue that our children are curious about that they would have been unable to get information on, be it properly or improperly, balanced or biased.


An area that currently is coming to a crisis point in our newest generation of young adults is regarding religious beliefs and how the secular world views them. From our anecdotal discussions with educators, young adults today feel much less connected to their religious and ritual practices. Even if they come from stable, authentically religious and loving homes, and they may not be explicitly acting out, it would surprise many parents to hear what some of their children would say about what they truly believe or don’t believe. Deep down we should not be surprised. Our children are being exposed to superior scientific, logical and reasoning skills in their secular studies. However, their Judaic studies often may be taught without recognition of the cognitive sophistication that this generation possesses. If this is not addressed fearlessly, our children will ask their own questions and learn answers from less savory or appropriate sources.  In a recent article, a noted academic commented that though modern Orthodox schools tend to have a scientific curriculum that includes the accepted view of evolution and the cosmic age of the universe, most do not have a formal curriculum for discussing the apparent contradiction to Torah teachings on these matters.  In the reverse, more charedi yeshivos will probably skip the parts of the curriculum that teach these theories, as if ignoring the scientific consensus will make these ideas (archeological, cosmic and the like) just disappear, like a playground bully who you ignore until he goes away (which, by the way, doesn’t work well with bullies either!)


Today, the questions are becoming stronger, as technology and social progressiveness are opening new doors, and children know more than many adults about what is on the horizon. Here are just a few examples of legitimate and logical questions that children today may have, and if we avoid the pressing reality of these questions, they will find answers from secular sources that do not endorse our core values and lifestyles:


  1. How could there be so much genocide in the Torah ?
  2. Why are women given less opportunities to engage in mitzvos, and restricted from certain roles and status? There are many answers that have been accepted, but as time goes on and social realities change, may feel less and less acceptable.  If frum women can become doctors, lawyers and judges, and indeed may need to do so to support their families, why is their ritual role so limited?
  3. The media, the prevailing psychological opinion, and culture endorses the natural reality that homosexuals are born with their tendencies. If so, young people today may wonder how the Torah can expect them to live deprived of a basic need? This is of course especially relevant if the young person is going through this conflict, but also relevant  if a close friend or relative is.
  4. How is evil allowed to exist in the world? Why do good people die or suffer? Why did my teacher/relative/classmate die?
  5. The universe is huge with billions of stars. How could it be possible that there isn't life on other planets? If so, what role does the Torah have for those forms of life and why are they not mentioned anywhere?
  6. If science in the future allows us to create new life, or true artificial intelligence, or even extend human life perhaps to a level of immortality, what is the role of the Torah and the World to Come then?
  7. Man potentially has the power to destroy the world via nuclear war, biological war, or environmental collapse. Will Hashem let that happen?
  8. And of course, “an oldie but goody”, the Earth clearly bears signs and evidence of age far older than the Jewish calendar indicates. Even the majority of stars are further than 5777 light years away. If so, their light would not even reach us if the Earth was only that old. How can this be explained?


A typical “old school” reaction to this kind of list would be: “Why are you writing about this and giving people bad ideas? Better you should keep quiet, and not make trouble.” Actually, this concern was a topic of an ancient disagreement between the Rambam and the Ra’avad. The Rambam in chapter 5 of Hilchos Teshuva raises famous paradox of how can G-d have foreknowledge of a person’s behavior without the person losing their free will. While there are various ways to understand the Rambam’s response, the Ra’vad felt that the Rambam had no right to raise a question to which their was no easy answer. His biting words are: “The author did not conduct himself in accordance with the custom of the sages. A person should not start a line of questioning that he does not know how to complete. He initiated difficult questions, left them unanswered, and resorted to relying on faith. It would have been better to leave matters alone, and allow people their simple faith, than to arouse in people doubts.”


In fact, some understand the Rambam as having given an answer, however clearly the Ra’avad felt the Rambam did not, and endorses a pedagogical strategy of not raising questions that cannot be answered. If the Rambam was raising the question without a clear answer, we can explain his rationale as follows: He believed most people were sophisticated enough in his time that they would indeed ask the question he raised. He then presumably felt the risk benefit ratio of bringing up the question and offering some recognition of the theological challenge would be more helpful than ignoring it. Regardless of what was wise a millennium ago, with the degree of sophistication, cognitive ability, and access to information that our young adults have today, common sense indicates that we should indeed anticipate and raise these questions, working with our children preemptively within age appropriate and intellectually appropriate bounds. Otherwise, we risk children giving up on a deep understanding and respect for Judaism because they will see it as incapable of addressing, and irrelevant to their daily concerns.


Any of the sample questions we raised earlier have several possible and reasonable answers, however the goal of this column is not to provide theological answers. There are different traditions and different approaches, and much ink has been spilled by great Jewish thinkers, and the best and worst of them are available for anyone (including your children!) to research on the Internet. What is most important is to not be defensive or frightened of the questions, and especially that you might not be able to find a satisfying answer. When we act defensive, our children perceive our unconscious discomfort and fear, and this leads them to suspect that we are afraid that there is no good answer. Instead, the approach ought to be as follows: We should convey a confidence that the Torah offers enough evidence of its depth and wisdom that no doubt there are answers to these questions, though at times it may be difficult to find these answers.


But that is not enough. We also need to shift the responsibility of finding a solution from our shoulders to our childrens’ shoulders. After all, why must we feel responsible to act as sole defenders of the faith? If we buy into that role, the result will be that the child will adopt the role of the questioner and skeptic, constantly poking holes in our attempts to answer the questions. Instead, consider stating the following message: “That is an excellent question. Since this is part of your heritage and tradition, I'm sure you wouldn't want to lose out on an opportunity to understand it more deeply. Would you like to do some research on this topic? If you wanted to find out more about this topic, how would you do it? Do you like to read books about it, or are you the kind of person who likes to listen to lectures or just ask several people and gather information? How would you like me to help you with your concern?” The value of this response is on many levels. It gives a message that you are not at all concerned or afraid, and that you believe in the Torah’s authenticity, based on your general life experience and not any single question or answer. Second, it also places the responsibility of answering the question on the child, with the parent playing a role of a coach. That is, “I am here to help, but this is your responsibility and your challenge.” This is another way of subtly suggesting (true or not!) that you are not overly concerned with the question, giving the child an indirect unconscious answer. You are communicating and modeling faith, without preaching.  This is a powerful tool in and of itself, as children are hard-wired to unconsciously internalize and emulate their parents values and modes of thinking.


In a completely different context, our tradition shows us how to help someone articulate an idea without overly enabling the person. As we might expect, in Jewish courts, the judges were forbidden from aiding a plaintiff or defendant in their claims. In fact, the original process of Beis Din frowned upon legal assistance such as lawyers, because litigants should be able to speak for themselves honestly and simply. Thus the dictum in Pirkei Avos (1:8) forbidding a judge from arguing on  behalf of a plaintiff or defendant. However, what is a judge to do in a case where he discerns that the defendant became somehow tongue-tied, overwhelmed, or is lacking in intellectual acumen to express his point? Would justice be served if the judge remained quiet? On the other hand, if the judge were to try to argue the case, it would violate the impartiality of the process. Therefore, the tradition offers us the following solution, whereby the judge cautiously and carefully helps bring out the point that he perceives the defendant wants to make. In other words, the judge must act as a coach, somehow extending and articulating the point that the defendant presumably wants to make, without overtaking the process and going beyond the boundaries. Here is what Maimonides (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:11) states:


“If it appears to a judge that one of the litigants wants to express myself but he does not know how to organize his thoughts, or he sees that he is in some kind of distress but cannot express myself due to being angry or overwhelmed, or that he is intellectually limited, it is permitted for the judge to help him somewhat. The judge is allowed to help him open his argument, as it states in Proverbs ‘Open up your mouth for the mute.’ However, one must be exceedingly careful and circumspect to avoid overstating the case and become as if he were the litigant’s personal attorney.”


The application of this idea to parenting and pedagogy is helpful. A parent should think of him or herself as a coach, helping the child think things through and articulate and open up what he or she would have wanted to say. The parent should be an amplifier and potentiator of the child’s own thought process, but resist the urge to do the thinking for the child. That is very different than speaking for them and overtaking their own intellect.


It is worth noting that contradictions between science and faith are as old as the Middle Ages, at least. One of the myths about Jewish philosophy is that only the Rishonim from the rationalist schools of thought, such as the Rambam and the like, deal with these questions, however the more mysticism-oriented Rishonim such as the Ramban simply relied on faith. This is simply untrue, as we shall demonstrate. While indeed, Rishonim such as the Ramban rejected Greek philosophy and science as an integral informant of Jewish values in contradiction to the Rambam, they never, ever denied science and realities that they verified as true with their own two eyes or basic common sense. This is worth repeating: There is no Rishon (unlike some acharonim) who ever resorts to faith alone as a response to a perceived contradiction between religion and science. When a Rishon is faced with a scientific fact that was demonstrated to be true and undeniable, unlike how fundamentalist religious people respond today, they never resorted to denying reality. Instead, they would re-evaluate the religious belief and reinterpret it in light of the emerging fact.


Let us examine a compelling example from the Ramban, an authoritative Rishon and mekubal who, unlike the Rambam, expressed little regard for, or belief in the primacy and value of Greek philosophy, nor did he consider it as an asset to spiritual development and truths. Yet, when he encounters the clearly demonstrable scientific fact, that a rainbow comes from the light spectrum and can be created at will via refracting light through a glass of water, he does not deny it. Even though he observes that the simple reading of the Biblical text indicates that G-d created the rainbow only after the Flood, the Ramban accepts the scientific fact as an actual fact (imagine that!), and reinterprets the verses accordingly. He does not stick his head in the sand and deny what he has been able to demonstrate as true. Here is what he states in his commentary (Bereishis 9:12): “We are forced to accept the Greek science that demonstrates that it is the rays of the sun as refracted via the moisture of the air that makes a rainbow. ” How the Ramban reinterprets the verse is beyond this column, the point is, he conceded the reality of a demonstrated scientific fact and was not defensive at all.  The Ramban was well-versed in the science of his day, and knew that the light spectrum could not have been just created after the flood; it was way too intricately tied into to other laws of nature to allow for any adjustments after the original activities of creation.


There are Rishonim who take a much more radical approach toward science and the Torah, which some might find unsettling, and certainly does not represent the consensus of Jewish thought. Yet it is worth learning about their ideas to better understand the broad range of possible authentic Jewish responses. The Ralbag, a respected Rishon whose faith and standing as a great authority has never been rejected, is an excellent example, (though notably, many of his radical opinions have been rejected.) The Ralbag was also a renowned scientist and astronomer of his time, even in the secular world, and even invented an astronomer’s tool that was used for centuries, known as “Jacob’s Staff”.) One can find a fascinating position put forth by the Ralbag in his commentary on Iyov (chapter 40). He notes that there were scientific astrological inaccuracies in regard to Yechezkel's prophetic description of the heavenly spheres as well as the Biblical description of Avraham’s prophecy regarding his descendants being as numerous as the stars. The Ralbag was thoroughly convinced of the scientific veracity of his observations and found them to contradict the descriptions of astrological phenomena in the prophecies. His response is neither a repudiation of science nor reinterpretation of the verse. Instead, he reframes the scope of prophecy itself. He states: “Prophecy comes in accordance with the scientific knowledge level of the prophet.” In other words, if even the most outstanding prophet believed the world to be flat in the science of his day, the vision that he sees would come to him within this rubric, as it does not detract from the essential truth of the message.


There are a far reaching implications to this concept put forth by Ralbag. It is not clear how far he would take it, but in essence he is saying that any scientific truth that was accepted at the time that the prophet received the prophecy, would be incorporated as part of the metaphoric, allegorical and symbolic language of the prophecy without any requirement of scientific veracity. This is an extreme, but logical extension of the principle of "the Torah speaks in the vernacular of people", as often referenced by the Rambam (see for example Hilchos Yesode Hatorah, ch. 1). The sensibility of the Ralbag’s approach is compelling. If G-d gives a prophet a vision or message, He will use the prophet’s language, vernacular and even scientific frame of reference, as the purpose of the prophecy is not to teach science, rather to impart moral lessons.  This remarkable and radical view can perhaps be abused and become a slippery slope where every aspect of the Torah that doesn’t make sense can be seen as simply the prophecy incorporated the prevailing belief, however even so, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the halacha, it is just a form of parshanus, just as the pashut peshat can differ with the midrash halacha.  Such an approach, with careful and due consideration may be helpful for the religious thinker in modern times, as science is demonstrating with greater accuracy and veracity certain ideas that seem to contradict certain Torah ideas.


Ironically, the scientific objections that were raised by the Ralbag quoted above are no longer relevant or true, which in and of itself is a sobering reminder that even when science appears to be verifiably true, it may not withstand the test of time, while Torah will.


The point of this intellectual exercise and exploration is to encourage the reader to develop a broader sense of what is possible and within range of authentic belief, and to allow for the confidence to encourage young questioners to ask as many questions as they wish without fear that we do not have the answers. There is no one single answer and it is not our job to answer all the questions. Our responsibility is to convey to our children a calm, non-defensive trust and belief that the Torah has enough depth and sophistication to allow those who study it to find meaningful answers, or at least feel confidence in its basic integrity, even when some questions are still open. This is not the same as blind faith. This is also not the same as refusal to accept scientific reality. It is more comparable to a true to life relationship. Consider that we are citizens of a particular country. Do we understand or agree with every law? Even if we don't, we do not violate the law. This is because we are loyal to the idea of citizenship. We are citizens of the Torah and have a covenental relationship with G-d. This covenant does not depend on answering every question, though it also does not require us to ignore our natural curiosity and to do our best to explain as much as we can.

For Video versions of this click here, and look for title and daf.  

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)