Category Archives: Philosophical Musings

The Religious Value of Doubt

Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, perhaps the most popular poet of Victorian England, spent seventeen years composing his masterpiece, In Memoriam. Tennyson began working on In Memoriam in 1833 as a tribute to his beloved best friend, Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly at the young age of twenty-two. Many of Hallam’s closest friends, including soon-to-be Prime Minister, William Gladstone, regarded him as the outstanding mind of their generation and were left distraught at his unforeseen and premature loss. Deeply affected by this tragedy, Tennyson was inspired to write In Memoriam, a moving reflection on hope in the face of deep loss and certainty. One of the core themes lying at the heart of Tennyson’s poem is the importance of doubt in religious life:

“Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds/ At last he beat his music out. There lives more faith in honest doubt/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gathered strength/ He would not make his judgement blind, He faced the spectres of the mind/ And laid them, thus he came at length/ To find a stronger faith his own…”

Tennyson challenges us to rethink the common conception that faith and doubt exist as polar opposites. Rather, doubt possesses the power to fortify faith1809-1892 englischer Schriftsteller. CDV-Foto 6,0 x 8,4 cm nach einem Gemälde von P.Krämer herausgegeben von Friedrich Bruckmann Verlag München Berlin.. Tennyson believed that the true man of faith would only be strengthened by confronting the doubts lurking beneath the surface. For Tennyson, the ‘spectres of the mind’ could add a qualitative depth to faith absent from those who follow with a certainty that ignores questions. In a sense, the faith that was able to confront and survive doubt had proved itself as courageous and durable. Describing Tennyson’s poem,  T. S. Eliot would write that In Memoriam was “not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt” (Selected Essays).  In short, doubt too, can acquire a distinctively religious hue.

Other thinkers, however, would contest the compatibility of doubt with religion. Leo Strauss (1899-1973), the German-Jewish emigré to the USA, argued that philosophy and religion were built on fundamentally distinct foundations, each with their own separate means of argumentation and knowledge. In his search for knowledge, the philosopher must be free to doubt even the most dearly held beliefs of morality and religion. Strauss believed that such doubt was incompatible with religion, which asserts certain truths as axiomatic and beyond refutation. In Strauss’ world, doubt and religion belonged to separate spheres and could never meet. Only a select elite could live in both worlds. Building off this core premise, many within the contemporary Orthodox Jewish world cast aside doubt as ‘destructive’ to faith, preferring instead to cultivate absolute certainty as the principal foundation of faith .

What, however, do we mean when we talk about doubt? Doubt has many different variations and distinct meanings. To enable a clearer understanding of doubt, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the German-American philosopher, has helpfully distinguished between three different types of doubt; methodological, sceptical and existential.

Methodological doubt is that of the scientist, the thinker who questions current theories and ideas in order to advance knowledge. This doubt is a mode of enquiry which challenges the status quo to deepen our understanding of the universe. Within Jewish thought, Saadya Gaon (882-942) made methodological doubt the cornerstone of his philosophical world-view. Indeed, at the very outset of his major work of Jewish philosophy, Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Doctrines and Opinions), Saadya underlines the legitimacy of such doubt:

“One might ask: ‘How can it be reconciled with the wisdom of the Creator that he allowed doubts and errors to arise in the minds of his Creatures? We may answer this question at once by saying that the very fact that they are created beings makes them subject to doubt and error. For according to the order of creation they require for every work which they undertake a certain measure of time in which to complete it stage after stage. Cognition being one of their activities , it undoubtedly comes under the same rule.”

Saadya Gaon- Manuscript Emunot
A 12th century copy of Saadya’s Emunot ve-Deot housed in the National Library of Russia.
Saadya carved out a safe space for methodological doubt within Judaism. He believed that doubt comprised a fundamental part of what it meant to be human. Human beings, Saadya argued, never achieve perfection or conclusive results immediately. To be human is to forever exist as a work-in-progress. All earthly endeavours and projects take time to mature and develop to completion. The very same idea can be applied mankind’s beliefs and opinions. Saadya firmly believed that man’s beliefs are never complete but demanded a lifetime of constant refinement and improvement. The very existence of doubt thus ought not to be denied, but rather embraced as a tool that encourages and inspires progress. For Saadya, doubt is critical to man’s intellectual and religious development.

The second form of doubt, according to Tilluch, is sceptical doubt. This form of doubting denies and rejects all certainty. According to Tillich, sceptical doubt, is more an attitude than an assertion, an attitude which leads to “despair or cynicism, or both alternately.”

Finally, we arrive at existential doubt. Here, Tillich’s description is worth quoting at length:

“Existential doubt does not question whether a special proposition is true or false. It does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time, the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt about itself.”

It is this final form of existential doubt which is implicit in the very act of faith itself. The existential doubter is painfully aware of the fact that he seeks to understand and experience the infinite, an entity which he will never fully grasp. In spite of this deep existential insecurity, the true man of faith is able to maintain his beliefs and convictions.

In the realm of Jewish philosophy, R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin during the 1920s, also championed the cause of existential doubt as a crucial part of religious life. In 1924, Weinberg penned an essay on the essence of Jewish faith:

“Faith and unbelief are not always pure opposites. There is a form of belief, which is basically nothing more than unbelief, a lack of self-confidence, a negation of inner personality, a renunciation of inner independence. The lethargic, sufficient and comfortable faith often means only inner emptiness and inner carelessness. The readiness to capitulate to strong impressions, which one’s own spiritual armour cannot cope with, robs men of their natural bulwark of personality. They allow themselves to be overrun and overcome by external influences… This person believes because he is unable to deny… This ‘Belief’ does not earn a positive designation. This man only reflects the absence of unbelief and never works as a driving force for creative power. The true, creative, religious belief… springs forth from a profusion of moral strength, it is no passive spiritual perspective, rather the opposite: an impetuous expression of increased spiritual activity, which strives for creative action… This true form of belief does not arise because unbelief has been killed from the heart of man, rather belief comes to these even more and picks it up… Such a religious personality is at once humble and masterly, pays tribute to God and shatters idols, builds with one hand God’s altar and tears down cultic statues down with the other. He builds and destroys, his works of destruction are themselves a constructive work.”

Weinberg believed that religious personalities were able to confront their theological or existential doubts with vigour and confidence. Those who do not fear ‘unbelief’, who positively struggle with and surmount their inner doubts, in Weinberg’s eyes, were worthy of admiration. This celebration of doubt rests upon the core notion that those who acknowledge and confront doubt, on whatever level, transform their own act faith into an active personal decision. The faith which embraces doubt and yet is able to thrive becomes a creative force. In this light, doubt enhances and ennobles the very faith it so often seeks overthrow.

 

Between Memory and Forgetfulness: From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur

Standing before the crowded theatre in Stockholm in the Winter of 1986, Elie Wiesel surveyed the room as he delivered his Nobel Prize lecture on the critical importance of memory. “Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.”  Wiesel believed that any leap into the future without a deep awareness of the past would ultimately prove futile. In Wiesel’s words, without dreams there can be no hope, no future without memory.

Memory, of course, plays a central role throughout Jewish thought and practise. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, in his pivotal study on Jewish history and memory, Zakhor, wrote of the unique emphasis Judaism places on memory: “Only in Israel, and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” No commandment figures as frequently and indeed as powerfully as the resounding call to remember.  A casual perusal of the Torah reveals a plethora of such instructions: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Dev. 32), “Remember the day you left Egypt” (Dev. 17), “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Dev. 25) and “Guard yourself lest you forget what your eyes saw…. the day you stood at Chorev” (Dev. 4). By preserving the memory of these pivotal moments of history, we perpetuate the values those events contain into the future.

Whilst memory presents a ubiquitous feature throughout the Jewish year, it receives particularly poignant attention on Rosh Hashanah. One of the names adopted by the Jewish tradition to mark this transition between one year and the next is Yom Hazikharon, ‘the Day of Remembrance’. Rosh Hashanah is thus to be a day dedicated to memories, to recall and reflect upon the past. As the previous year fades into the distance, the Jewish calendar provides a brief period of careful remembrance before the onset of the new annual cycle and the fresh year gathers apace.

Memory also takes centre stage at the very heart of the Mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah. The central blessing devoted to Zichronot summons God’s all-knowing memory: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning.  For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is anything hidden from Your eyes.  You remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You….” Evoking God’s memory on Rosh Hashanah prompts us to reflect honestly and frankly upon our selves and our actions. Rosh Hashnah presents a day to gaze earnestly and sometimes painfully at the moments in our past we might otherwise wish erased from the records.

In many ways, Yom Kippur marks a tectonic shift away from this marked emphasis on memory. The very first prayers we utter on Yom Kippur are the words of Kol Nidrei. This harrowing piece is dedicated to annulling the promises, oaths and vows we have taken over the previous year. Yom Kippur thus begins with an act of wilful and concerted forgetfulness. The process of forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur can only begin once we have undergone a moment of such forgetfulness. This purposeful act of abandonment, discarding the unrealistic commitments made over the past year, enables us to enter the new year fresh and with clear vision.

In order to move forward and develop, we cannot simply  perpetuate the aged and dusty goals of erstwhile years. The very act of self-creation, perhaps the ultimate act of freedom, necessitates a degree of forgetfulness. As Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) proclaimed in the realm of economics, often one needs to destroy in order to create. It is perhaps for this very reason that Yom  Kippur itself is ushered in by the tones of forgetting. On Yom Kippur we erase our old vows and thereby unhinge our inner selves to mould a new vision and pave a novel path for the year ahead. Judaism certainly encourages memory, yet a degree of forgetfulness carves out a space for change and, ultimately, hope. Hold on to the past too tightly and we run the risk of replaying and re-enacting a past we wish to avoid.


Remembering and Forgetting Torah

This complex combination of memory and forgetfulness appears, perhaps surprisingly, in the realm of Torah learning too. Here too we see that creativity is spawned through the act of forgetting. The rabbinic caution against the dangerous pitfalls of forgetfulness suggests a distinctively negative vision of forgetfulness. In Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:8) Rabbi Meir warns that “one who forgets even a single matter of his study, it is as if he is liable for his soul…” Forgetfulness is thus closely associated with moments of sin. The Talmud (Temurah 16a) describes how hundreds of laws were suddenly forgotten due to a momentary exhibition of arrogance on Joshuah’s  part.  A similar tale (Pesachim 66a) is told of Hillel the Elder who forgot a particularly pertinent teaching after sharply and unjustly reprimanding his questioners.

Despite these condemnations, numerous positive descriptions of forgetfulness abound. The Talmud (Bava Metziah, 85a) writes: “R. Zeira, when he journeyed to the land of Israel, observed a hundred fasts to forget the teachings of Babylonia.” R. Zeira underwent a period of forgetfulness to create a space for the creative regeneration necessary to attain higher spiritual heights.

Another Talmudic piece (Eruvin, 54a) describing Moses’ shattering of the tablets illustrates that forgetfulness does indeed play a vital role within our lives. The Talmud writes: “If not for the breaking of the First Tablets, the Torah would never have been forgotten.” And yet, when Moses does indeed shatter the tablets, God, according to the Talmud, offers His ultimate seal of approval: “Yashar Kochaha.” Forgetfulness thus appears to receive the ultimate sanction.

In a rather remarkable commentary, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 3) seeks to explain this positive endorsement of forgetfulness:

“We learn from here a great novel idea, that Torah can grow through forgetfulness, to the point where it is possible to receive Divine congratulations for forgetting the Torah… Not only this, but the whole basis for arguments within halakhah stems from forgetting…. we seen from here that divergence of opinion and the exchange of ideas contributes to the growth and splendour of the Torah which is born specifically through forgetting the Torah.”

According to R. Hutner, forgetfulness and  spiritual creativity are intimately intertwined — forgetfulness provides the fertile ground for novel Torah ideas to sprout and flourish. Memory is paramount in any conception of Torah, yet a degree of forgetfulness allows each generation to breathe renewed life into the revered Jewish tradition. It is this oscillation between remembrance and relinquishment that lies at the very heart of the transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from memory to forgetfulness.