We are currently living in a transitional phase of monumental proportions and far-reaching consequences. Our religious beliefs are being challenged as never before. We are forced to our knees due to extreme shifts and radical changes in scientific discoveries; our understanding of the origins of our holy texts; our belief in God; the meaning of our lives; and the historical developments of our tradition. We find ourselves on the precipice, and it is becoming more and more of a balancing act not to fall off the cliff.
We keep asking ourselves: Can we survive and overcome? What are the tools to make that possible? Or, shall we drop our earlier beliefs, give in and admit our defeat?
In the old religious climate everything was certain. We knew the truth. Traditional Judaism gave us the foundations, and everything was under control. The tradition was safeguarded behind shatterproof glass, well protected and unshakable. But now, all certainty is affected by skepticism and the glass has been broken.
Today, faith dangles in the free flow of doubt, and we need to learn how to live in this new stratosphere.
The truth is that Jewish Orthodoxy (from the Greek orthos (“true” or “right”) and doxa (“opinion” or ‘belief”) never existed. Originally, Judaism was highly unorthodox. While it always believed in God and Torah, it never offered any specifics of what God meant or what Torah consisted of. That was left to speculation, never to be determined. The early Sages, as testified by the Talmud and philosophers, disagreed on some of the most fundamental issues of faith.
But over the years we wanted more certainty. We wanted it handed to us on a silver platter, so that we could avoid debates and live a life of religious comfort, apathy and mediocrity. Influenced by other religions, we adopted the need for cast-iron certainty and psychological security. So we began to rewrite Judaism in a way that would fit into the notions of established religions – well structured, with a good dose of dogma. What we did not realize is that by doing so, we misrepresented Judaism by losing sight of the plot, thus doing it a great disservice.
We need to realize that our epoch of uncertainty is in fact much more conducive to authentic Judaism than all the conviction we’ve had in previous generations. It forces us to rediscover what Judaism is really about and gives us the opportunity to rebuild where rebuilding is required and leave untouched what should remain untouched.
Because we are compelled to reconsider, we will delve more deeply into the great resources of Judaism and stay away from all superficiality to which Judaism has lately succumbed. The greater the challenge, the more profound are the discoveries. Knowledge is important, but doubt is what gives you an education.
Moreover, we will actually be able to enter the minds of all those biblical figures who lived in constant ambiguity about God and the Torah. Avraham’s great doubts concerning the reliability of God in connection with His request to sacrifice his son Yitzchak was a most traumatic experience. It was the pinnacle of religious uncertainty.
Moshe’s bewilderment at not knowing who God was when he asked to see Him and God’s refusal to reveal Himself are the climax of intense religious struggle. In the desert, the Israelites asked whether God was among them. This came close to pantheism or even atheism. Nadav and Avihu’s unauthorized offering of a “strange fire” in the Tent of Meeting came from a feeling of ambiguity about whether the only way to serve God was by merely following the strict demands of halacha as given by God, or whether one could explore new avenues to divine service.
On one occasion, the Israelites were not sure whether the Torah was indeed the word of God. Korach challenged this very belief and declared that it was not from heaven and that Moshe and Aaron were not prophets (1). This must have caused a major crisis among the Israelites.
What we all know deep down is that we have to renew Judaism from within. Not by letting it go, but by raising it up. Not through Reform and Conservative Judaism, or Orthodox dogma, but through a radical purifying process that will take years.
The goal is not at all to be sure that the Torah was given at Sinai, or that all its stories are true. There are very good reasons to believe it is, but we don’t know for sure and we should not know for sure. Is it not marvelous to take a leap of faith and live according to something that one cannot be sure of? Of what value are convictions that are unaccompanied by struggle?
Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It can only burst forth at singular moments. It does not arise out of logical deduction, but out of uncertainty, which is its natural breeding ground.
We need to understand that faith is “the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises” (2), and “we can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand” (3).
To believe is not to prove, not to explain, but to yield to a vision.
The aim of halacha is to teach us the art of living with uncertainty. Halacha was not meant for those who are sure, because nobody can act out of certainty.
The most challenging question in all of life is what do you do and what do you believe when you are not sure. It is that notion that moves the scientist, the philosopher, and most of all the religious personality. We must destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. To be religious is to realize that no final conclusions have ever been reached or can ever be reached.
Halacha is the upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. In that way, Judaism doesn’t turn into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamic can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of fluid matter, which halacha then turns into a solid substance. The purpose of halacha is to chill the heated steel of exalted beliefs and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like arrows, which dart hither and thither, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring, while halacha must be straight and unswerving but still adaptable.
Doubt only appeals to the intellect. When one prays, one is involved in something that the intellect can never reach. When one studies Torah and hears its divine voice, it becomes something different than what academic study can ever achieve. It is in a separate category, which is closed to the solely scientific mind.
It is crucial that we see these facts for what they are. Only when we realize that intellectual certainty is not the primary path toward finding religious truth, will we be able to deal with our new awareness that the transitional phase we now experience has great purpose and has to be part of our religious struggle and identity. It won’t be easy. Novelty, as always, carries with it a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is common than with that which is different. But go it must.
1. See the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10.
2. Samuel Butler and Francis Hackett, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (Nabu Press, 2010), p. 27.
3. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010), p. 81.