Tag Archives: doubt

Countdown, -9 and counting: 3 Elul and Searching

Today is the 3rd of Elul, which is 9 days from the day I become a full Member of the Tribe.

BlogElul 2015

I have been reading about Elul this week, on Anna’s Jewish Thoughts and Jewels of Elul. And it occurs to me that Elul is a time of preparation – and I am preparing. Not just for the beit din and mikveh, but for the High Holy Days, of course. Every Jew is, in their own way, preparing for those.

Today’s theme, if you will, for 3 Elul is “search.” We can search outside ourseives or inside ourselves, but to search – to seek, if you will – is so much a part of me that it’s part of my blog name (“shocher” – שׁוֹחֵר – means “seeker”).

A year and a half ago, when I first contemplated the day I’d finally meet the beit din, I thought the following things, none of which were very realistic:

  1. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no further doubt that God exists.
  2. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts about being a Jew.
  3. Once I meet with the beit din, I will have no doubts, period.

I’m sure you can see how that’s not realistic. Everyone doubts. “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth,” as the meditation from my best friend’s siddur warned me. But how does this connect to seeking or searching?

Well, seeking includes doubting. It includes not being sure. And it includes something I’ve never been comfortable with: being comfortable with not being sure. I have so much baggage between my religious upbringing and having been abused by an emotionally disturbed parent, not to mention being autistic, that doubt has always been something I’ve been afraid of. Even as a scientist, while seeking answers about social problems from my data, I have fought the possibility that my answers might be wrong. I have fought the possibility of doubt.

But seeking has to include doubting, or it’s not seeking. Searching has to include the possibility that we might not find what we’re looking for in the form we are expecting, or that we might not find it right now but we might find it later, somewhere else, or that it might not even exist at all. Searching has to include the ability to say “I’m not sure that this is what I was looking for,” and also “I’m not sure that this answers my question.”

If the beit din asks me what Judaism has given me, I know one thing that I will be able to tell them. Being able to say “I’m not sure,” being able to say “I don’t know” – these are priceless things to someone like me. Because even now, saying “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” makes my stomach clench with anxiety.

But it’s not as bad as it used to be for me. Not nearly. Because now I have Judaism, and Judaism both allows me to doubt and more or less expects that I will doubt. I’m not going to be punished for doubting, or arguing, or having a different opinion than the Jew sitting next to me at Torah study. That’s both expected and encouraged.

So becoming a Jew has given me, among other things, permission to doubt and not feel like I’m going to go to hell for it – either literally or figuratively.

Every now and then I still have doubt that God exists. Every now and then (usually when I see something egregious or upsetting inside the Jewish community) I have doubts about being a Jew – not doubting that I want to be a Jew, or that I am a Jew, but that I can accept that Jews who attack others are still Jews too. In Christianity it was always the opposite – if they attacked people they weren’t a “real Christian.” Judaism does not give me this “No True Scotsman” dodge. But the people that I’ve written about here on my blog, who’ve made me worried and made me doubt, are also Jews. By making it formal and official that I’m a Jew, I’m also declaring a connection to them, however reluctant I am about that aspect of it.

For me, acknowledging that I will be part of one of the most hated, persecuted, and reviled groups on the planet is easy compared to acknowledging that I’ll be part of a group that includes people like the ones who burned down that Palestinian baby’s house and burned him to death, or murdered that young woman at Jerusalem Pride.

But I’m still going to do it. Why? Well, that’s another thing that Judaism has given me as I’ve been searching for these last eighteen months and more: a name for my drive for justice. Tikkun olam. Healing the world. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. And if my being a visible Jew gives an anti-Semite a moment of doubt, or if my being a visible Jew causes someone to search out answers they might not have considered before, then that’s a step in the right direction.

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The Power of Doubt

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 thquestion-mark-309085_1280e 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:

Kids’ Questions are the Antidote to the Pew Study’s “Jewish No Religion” Category

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.

MEDITATION

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.

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