Shlomo Riskin

The challenge of an agnostic: to live like a believer

The biblical story of Noah teaches that, even without perfect faith, one may choose to live like a believer


Efrat, Israel — “And Haran died before his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim.” (Gen. 11:28)

When it comes to questions of belief, the agnostic is the loneliest of all. On one side of the fence stands the atheist, confident in his rejection of God and often dedicated to the debunking of religion, which he considers to be ‘the opiate of the masses” (per Karl Marx). On the other side stands the believer, who glories in his faith that the universe is the handiwork of God. The agnostic stands in the middle, not knowing (a-gnost) whether or not God exists, usually despairing of the possibility of acquiring certitude about anything transcending observable material phenomena.

Our Biblical portion makes reference to two very different agnostics, Haran and Noah.  The contrast between them contains an important lesson for agnostics, believers and atheists, alike.

The Bible states that Noah, along with his sons, his wife, and sons’ wives, went into the ark “because of the waters of the Flood” (Gen. 7:7). From this verse, Rashi derives that “Noah had little faith; he believed and he didn’t believe that the Flood would arrive.”

Noah didn’t enter the ark until the water literally pushed him in. Rashi’s phrase that “he believed and he didn’t believe” is really another way of describing an agnostic who remains in the state of his uncertainty; he believes and doesn’t believe. Noah is therefore described by Rashi as the first agnostic.

The second Biblical agnostic appears in the guise of Haran.  “These are the generations of Terah. Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran” (Gen. 11:27).

Why does the text specify “and Haran died before his father in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim” (Ibid. v. 28)? What is the significance of citing the exact place of Haran’s death?

Rashi explains by citing a fascinating midrashic tradition, and at the same time extracts Haran from relative anonymity, setting him up as a counterfoil agnostic to Noah. This midrash details how Terah, the father of the clan and a famous idol manufacturer, brings charges in the court of King Nimrod against his own son. He accuses Abram of being an iconoclast who destroyed his father’s idols while preaching heretical monotheism. As punishment, Abram is to be cast into the fiery furnace.

Haran is present at the trial and takes the position of having no position. He remains on the sidelines thinking that if Nimrod’s furnace will prove hotter than Abram’s flesh, he will side with the king; but if Abram survives the fire, then it would be clear that Abram’s God is more powerful than Nimrod’s gods, and he will throw in his lot with his brother.

Only after Abram emerges unscathed, is Haran ready to rally behind his brother. He confidently enters the fiery furnace (literally: Ur Kasdim), but no miracles await him. Haran burns to death.

Is it not strange that the fate of the two agnostics should be so different? We read how Noah was a man of little faith, and yet not only does he survive the Flood, he turns into one of the central figures of human history. He is even termed “righteous” in the Bible.

In contrast, Haran, father of Lot, brother to Abraham, hovers on the edge of obscurity, and is even punished with death for his lack of faith. Why is Haran’s agnosticism considered so much worse than Noah’s?

Rabbi Moshe Besdin, z”l, explained that while Noah and Haran shared uncertainty about God, there was a vast difference between them. Noah, despite his doubts, nevertheless build the ark, pounding away for 120 years, even suffering abuse from a world ridiculing his eccentric persistence. Noah may not have entered the ark until the rains began—but he did not wait for the Flood before obeying the divine command to build an ark!

Noah may think like an agnostic, but he acts like a believer. Haran, on the other hand, dies because he waits for someone else to test the fires. In refusing to act for God during Abram’s trial, he acted against God. In effect, his indecision is very much a decision. He is an agnostic who acts like an atheist.

Indecision is also a decision. A person who is indecisive about protesting an evil action or a malicious statement is aiding and abetting that malevolence by his very indecisive silence. After all, our sages teach that “silence is akin to assent.”

Noah reached his spiritual level because he acted, not so much out of faith, but despite his lack of it. Our Sages understood very well the difficulty of faith and the phenomenon of agnosticism. What they attempt to teach the agnostic is: If you are unsure, why do you act as if you are an atheist? Would it not be wiser to act as if you were a believer?

We learn from Noah’s life and Haran’s death that perfect faith is not necessary in order to conduct one’s life. Belief is less important than action. In the World to Come, there is room for all kinds of agnostics. It depends primarily on how they acted on earth.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)