In 2012, the poet Tracy Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for her slim volume entitled Life on Mars. The daughter of one of the engineers of the Hubble Telescope and a professor of creative writing at Princeton, she explores the fraught intersection of space and earth, astronomy and theology in her poems. She begins her book with the following poem:
Is G-d being or pure force?
The wind or what commands it?
When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love,
it sprawls In our laps like a gangly doll.
When the storm kicks up and nothing is ours,
we go chasing after all we’re certain to lose,
faces radiant with panic.
She takes on some heavy subjects – our understanding of and relationship to God, the challenges of belief, the texture of the universe and our walk through it. She doesn’t shy away from the contradictions, tensions, or questions we face each day; she dwells right there in the hallways of uncertainty.
I am comfortable confronting my Judaism and my beliefs with honesty and I am willing to ask those big questions and struggle with those inherent assymetries – but in the end what do I do if my struggle and my questions do not bring me back neatly to tradition? In other words, what do I do if this journey is honest and real, yet encounters real doubt? Because if I am honest in my search, there will likely be moments of doubt.
Tonight, on this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we gather here still enveloped by the words and the textures of the tefillot of the machzor. There are powerful images there – we speak of God as Sovereign, as Parent, as Creator, as Supreme and Omnipotent. Many parts of our liturgy on these days of repentance are clear and decisive – strong depictions of God, unwavering images of divine justice and supremacy. And then, there are also quiet but equally powerful moments of doubt. Are we worthy to earn another year? Do we have unfinished business?
We do not know what lies ahead for any of us. We acknowledge that uncertainty is prevalent and recognize our own human limitations. And there seems to be some space for this type of questioning in our prayer, but historically, Jewish doubt has not always been accepted. Anything but.
The Talmud speaks of the apostate, Elisha ben Abuya, who explored Greek philosophy and culture and questioned divine schar ve’onesh, and thereafter, the rabbis refrained from even pronouncing his name. He became known as “Acher”, the Other.
In the 12th century, Maimonides reproached those who shied away from engaging in deep philosophical speculation – in fact, he deemed it one of the highest mitzvoth – , yet he was branded as a heretic by some rabbinic authorities for some of his assertions and arguments in his Guide for the Perplexed.
In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated for publicly questioning divine providence and divine authorship of the Torah. So, this honest admittance of doubt has not always gone smoothly.
But if we are reaching for emunah shelemah – a whole, real, and coherent faith, then that faith needs to be not merely functional, but one that speaks to and engages one’s wholeness, one’s heart, mind, and soul in an honest way. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes movingly about the nature of faith:
“Every one of us, at least once in our lifetime, has been able to perceive the existence of the Creator. Every one of us, at least once, has merited a glimpse of the beauty, the serenity, and the strength which flow from the souls of those who have walked with God. However, such feelings and inspirations are not common occurrences. In the lives of most people, they are as meteors which flare up for a moment and then disappear from sight…Faith means: to guard forever the echo which once burst upon the deep recesses of our soul.”
But in between those rare meteoric moments of connection, there is bound to be some doubt. Substantive doubt is that space between faith and denial, and it issues from a search for personal truth and meaning. But doubt is heavy. It can be paralyzing and can grind away at conviction and commitment.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, in an essay entitled “Faith and Doubt,” tackles these questions head-on. He readily admits that most Jews have moments and areas of real doubt, and Jewish leaders and thinkers need to recognize and confront them. While he asserts that theological doubt should never affect one’s halachic practice or “functional faith,” as he calls it, doubt still exists and must be handled thoughtfully. He argues that substantive doubt can be encountered and elevated by seeking to engage with G-d’s presence in unmediated ways. He says that we can find access to the Divine Presence through tefillah, the study of Torah, and the engagement with our community. But we cannot turn to any of these three spheres in a utilitarian way – to gain knowledge, to gets our requests answered, to access services. We need to approach these spaces in Jewish life with the purpose of getting in touch with G-d’s presence – unmediated arenas of potential devekut – communion – with God.
Parker Palmer, the educator, author and activist, writes in his book A Hidden Wholeness:
“We arrive in this world undivided, integral, whole. But sooner or later, we erect a wall between our inner and outer lives, trying to protect what is within us or to deceive the people around us. Only when the pain of our dividedness becomes more than we can bear do most of us embark on an inner journey toward living “divided no more.”
Palmer recognizes the value of striving for a coherent, undivided life, a life in which our actions and choices, internal and external, are consistent with our beliefs and values. A life that is not fractured and rife with inconsistency. What does this have to do with doubt? Doubt is often an inconsistency, an element that comes in and fractures a neatly ordered system, which is why Jewish doubt has traditionally been shunned and not tolerated.
I believe that doubt can coexist with faith and practice in a coherent life. If doubt is acknowledged as a healthy and genuine part of the struggle for meaning, it can be elevated and used as an instrument – an instrument that can refine and purify ideas that have been left unexamined. It can be a tool for seeking out G-d’s presence in conventional and unconventional spaces. It can guide us in our search for purified coherence.
Don’t fear doubt … embrace it … it is Jewish. The Talmud, Maimonides, Spinoza, Heschel can’t all be wrong. Doubt is the pathway of the modern journey towards faith. And when doubt builds … faith grows.
This is the Shabbat of Return … What does it take to come home … a willing heart, a committed spirit, a desire for wholeness and peace.
הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם.
Hashiveinu eleicha v’nashuva … Chadesh Yameinu Kekedem
Return to us as in days of old and we shall return to you