Faith, Doubt, and Certainty

A sermon by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Rosh Hashanah 5731 (1970)

Years ago, when we held services at Phillips Brooks House, I came to conduct a Friday night service. I met a Radcliffe student, in a sweatshirt, frantically searching for something in the prayer book.   I asked her what she was looking for and she told me that she was looking for the Kaddish. Her grandmother had died and she wanted to take the prayer book to the dorm to recite the Kaddish. I invited her to join us in the service and recite the Kaddish there. She responded that she was not sure whether she believed in God. I then suggested that she need not think in such ultimate terms, that she did not have to settle the matter of God’s existence; that it was a much simpler matter. All she need do is suspend her doubts for the time being so that she would be able to do what she intended to, namely recite the Kaddish with the community. To that she responded that to participate in a service while she was in doubt would be hypocritical. On this note, our conversation came to an end because I had to join the congregation for services. Though the episode happened many years ago, I have often thought about it. In fact, it was inevitable that I should think about it because I realized that the answer I got from that girl was not peculiar to her, but was the kind of answer I might have gotten from any number or, perhaps, from most people in this community. As often happens with conversations which are interrupted, particularly when they are of the kind that deal with important matters, we tend to continue the conversation in our imaginations.

Had we more time I might have asked her whether she was certain of everything else. The more I thought about it, the more her answer seemed problematic. Is not doubt an element in every aspect of our lives? Sometimes, we experience luminous clarity. Everything seems lucid, clear, and easy to grasp. And at other times, we may be in doubt about the spelling of a simple word.

What about marriage? Is it not true that at times, life apart seems inconceivable, and at others, one is nagged by the question – “Was it not a mistake altogether?”

In our work, we may be fully convinced of the choice of profession and perfectly delighted with what we do, and at times we may wonder – “How did I ever get into this?” – and look upon our life’s work as a waste of time or wonder whether it has any merit at all.

There is hardly an intelligent person who has not at times questioned his or her devotion in marriage, affection for children, commitment to work, the validity of the value system, and the strength one needs to be the sort of person he would like to be.

What prevents us from throwing up our hands and withdrawing from all of our endeavors is that we do not permit our doubts to determine our life. We refuse to let the worst moments of doubt dominate our lives. When we do not permit our doubts to paralyze our actions, and when we overcome them, this victory becomes an added source of strength in our life.

Now, if doubt is so constant an element in our life, why do we insist on certainty in matters of faith? Why do we refrain from participating in a religious service or observing the Sabbath unless we have solved the ultimate question of the existence of God?

This question becomes even more insistent and difficult when we realize that even the most devout experience moments of doubt. Someone once defined a religious person as one who lives a life of faith diversified by doubt and an irreligious person as one who lives a life of doubt diversified by faith.

Even the prophets had their moments of doubt. Did not Jeremiah complain: “Wilt Thou be to me like a deceitful brook, like water that fails?” And the psalmist, the source of our devotional poetry, cries out: “O, Lord, why do You hide Your face from me?”

Doubt is undoubtedly as much an element of faith as it is an element in all human endeavors. In fact, I would venture to say that to doubt is human, to be certain divine. Then why do we refuse to accept doubt in the realm of faith when we live with it in every other aspect of our lives?

I suspect that the real answer is that in all the other instances, we overcome doubt because we feel that something substantial, something real, is at stake: one’s marriage, one’s job, one’s profession; whereas in religion, we are not at all certain of the value of the whole enterprise. We are by no means sure that it is worth the effort. This, I’m afraid, is at the crux of the problem; not that we doubt, but that we are in doubt about the value of Judaism altogether.

Zalman Shneor, in a poem entitled “At the Shore of the Seine,” written in Paris in 1908 and one of the earliest “Death of God” poems in Hebrew literature, describes man who has lost faith:

Alas for beliefs that have ceased and are dying,
but man’s faith in himself is still dormant.
God is dead but man has not yet arisen.
Doctrines have been put away,
But life has not come into Freedom.

Then he goes on to ask:

Has man attained illumination
that he has extinguished all of his beacons?

At one time, this skeptical stance vis-a-vis religion constituted an act of rebellion. Man sought to liberate himself from the hold of religion. The rapid development of science seemed to hold the promise for man’s salvation. We all know of the enormous successes of the new science and of the technology based on it. We all can see the enormous increase in man’s power. Indeed, modern man is a giant compared to earlier man. But the hopes to harness all that power and knowledge for the improvement of man’s lot on earth have not been realized. We therefore have to admit that greater power and greater knowledge do not result in greater wisdom and greater goodness. Hence modern man, relying on progress, is sort of a blind giant. What is particularly frightening about this is that what began with a promise of great boon for mankind has not materialized, but instead, all mankind now lives under the threat of annihilation because of this new knowledge. Does that not sound like a repeat performance of the Eden story on a larger scale?

This turning away from religion in the name of progress, problematic as it is for all people, was positively disastrous for the Jew. When Christians turned from faith in God to faith in progress, they remained moored in their national, cultural, and literary heritage. But for the Jew, the rejection of Judaism also meant the wholesale rejection of his entire cultural and literary heritage. This meant alienation from our past and assimilation to the cultures of other people. It meant the assumption of a new identity.

Now that the whole enterprise of progress has turned out to be just another god that failed, we, at least for reasons of self-respect and authenticity, are duty-bound to return to the sources of our culture and religion. Why should we, who have behind us a great past not inferior to any nation on earth, why should we deny or forget that past?

Why should we willingly cut ourselves off from a spiritual heritage that has served as a light and inspiration even to Islam and Christendom? Is our life so illumined that we can afford to extinguish all the beacons? At this point, the break with religion is no longer a rejection for the sake of something more certain, something more promising. At this point, what once was a bold act of heresy for the sake of man has come down to reaction based on prejudice. And if progress might have claimed to move away from God for the sake of accomplishing His goals, we now are bereft of both.

Hosea calls to us:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words and return to the Lord;
and say to Him,
Assyria shall not save us, we will not ride upon horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.
In Thee the orphan finds mercy.

If I may paraphrase Hosea in more contemporary terms, it would be “Power will not save us; we will no longer rely on technology. We will say no more: ‘Our God’ to the work of our hands. But we will seek to discover in ourselves, in light of Your teachings, the compassion which is the saving grace of humanity. Return, O Israel.”


© 1991 Ben-Zion Gold

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