One of the most powerful things for me during my conversion has been confronting doubt – not trying to stop doubting, but trying to learn to be okay with doubt, and to engage with doubt. It’s actually been one of the most freeing and the most frightening things I’ve ever done.
Doubt, in many of the religious traditions I’ve been part of, is considered either sinful or the next thing to sin. It’s an indicator that you don’t have faith if you have doubt. For example, Thomas (one of Yeshua’s apostles) is vilified for his doubt – for saying “yeah, okay, you guys say he rose from the dead, but let me see the nail holes first before I believe that.” Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is an insult in Western society. We’re generally not good with doubt. Heck, just type “doubt” into a Google image search and you’ll find all kinds of images that put down, vilify, or reject doubt as a bad thing. It’s a hard habit to break – generally, Westerners (by which I mean Christians) aren’t good with ambiguity, which is where doubt resides. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. Let’s not have maybes, or possiblys – they make things more complicated and we don’t like complications.
Judaism, on the other hand, is pretty good with doubt. How do I know this? Because it’s good with debate, and debate doesn’t happen if the matter is settled, and the matter is only settled if nobody doubts the settlement. But look at the Talmud – the arguments of rabbis over the Law indicate that things are not, in fact, settled. They are up in the air!
In the same vein, today, a friend of a friend on Facebook shared this link:
One of the things that hit me hardest from this article was this part:
Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was as if this were the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish (or worse). They asked questions like:
- “If I’m not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?”
- “If I don’t believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?”
- “The Romans had
so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?”
- “My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?”
And I noticed that what was hitting me from these questions as a main theme was the doubt. The questions are all saying things about whether doubt is a valid thing for Jews to feel, to acknowledge, and – pardon me for saying so – to wrestle with. Is it okay for me to be unsure about God? Is it okay for me to feel like God isn’t doing the job that God is supposed to do? How do we know we’re right about God being One? And in the classic question Kushner addresses in When Bad Things Happen To Good People: My wonderful grandparent died too young – where was God when that happened? (That question is very close to one of my main reasons for exploring Judaism – where was God when my father died too young at 63?)
Fortunately, the campers were assured that yes, doubt is a perfectly valid thing to wrestle with and to feel, and it doesn’t make you less of a Jew, or a less-good Jew, to have doubts.
It is okay to doubt. That has been so very, very hard for me to wrap my mind around. More than a year ago now, I wrestled with this very thing in Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth. I’ll just share the meditation from my best friend’s siddur that hit me so hard at that time.
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.
But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
The demand of “faith and no doubt” is inconsiderate, unrealistic, and unfair. But looking at this meditation again, I can see that in the year-plus since I last posted it, I’ve come to a détente with doubt. I’ve reached the point where I can now say, “I’m not sure about that – I don’t know the answer to that” and although it still makes me nervous, it doesn’t make me feel like the world is going to end if I don’t have an answer right this second.
And if doubt is okay, then by definition, disagreement is, too. I don’t have to be in lock-step with everyone else in order to be a good Jew. I don’t have to agree with anyone else’s perceptions or experiences of God to believe in God.
That is more freeing than I can ever say in words.
The power of doubt is that it allows us to question. The power of doubt is that it allows us to form our own bond with God, in whatever way that works for us – even if that way is sometimes doubting that God exists. The power of doubt is that it allows us to learn and grow and understand.
It’s a tool I was denied for many years. But I’m never giving it up again.