In Judaism, Doubt Is Not Hypocrisy

Part 27 of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

In the Bible, Job doubts God’s justice and refuses to believe that the sorrows that have descended upon him in any way related to his deeds. God does not dispel Job’s doubt but asks Job to accept the gift of life in a wondrous world where there are no complete explanations for either the good or the bad we experience. We do not have all answers, so all of us are in some state of doubt.

Faith, as Soren Kierkegaard taught, is a leap. Not all of us can make that leap. But our humanity is not diminished according to which side of the chasm we find ourselves, although some of us will have bridged the gaping hole and others will not have jumped it. Doubt urges us to help our fellows as if there is no God to help them, and so both believer and doubter can rise to be angels ministering to a suffering humanity.

Too much is made of the divide between believers, doubters, and non-believers. For Jews, doubt is not hypocrisy. Instead, it is a necessary ingredient of faith. There are many examples from Jewish texts that indicate as much.

Jacob, while nervously anticipating his reunion with his brother Esau, wrestles with a mysterious being through the night. As daybreak approaches he captures the being and insists on a blessing before releasing it. The blessing is a new name, Yisrael (Israel), meaning “he who wrestles with God.” To be a member of the Jewish people is to be b’nai Yisrael, a child of Israel, a part of the ongoing wrestling match between humanity and God.

Uncertainty and doubt have been present in Judaism since the beginning. And why would we ever think that would not be so? Consider for a moment all the meaningful relationships in our lives: our relationship with our parents, our children, our siblings, our friends, our spouse, our co-workers. Are any of these relationships free of uncertainty and doubt? How often are they tested? It is because we value them so that we constantly recommit ourselves to them in spite of the occasional uncertainty and doubt.

Why would we think that our relationship with the Master of the Universe, with God, would be any less challenging? In fact it’s the opposite. Precisely because it matters so much, it is filled with uncertainty and doubt. Those people who engage in the struggle, those who acknowledge and face their doubts, are the ones who have true religion and faith.

Lead image: “Job Rebuked by His Friends” by William Blake. Courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Steven Wernick
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  • ddansab

    So, doubt is a good thing in terms of faith because it reinforces faith, and gives it meaning. But why does a leap of faith add meaning to our relationship with God? The one thing in all the meaningful relationships you mentioned that we absolutely cannot doubt is the existence of the people with which we are in these relationships. If I doubted the mere existence of my parents, it would not add meaning at all. That would be an odd relationship indeed. So why wouldn’t a relationship with God be strengthened if the only thing we could not doubt about Him was His existence? Wouldn’t it seem to make His word infinitely more meaningful? My main question to you, Rabbi, is this; how would you handle a scenario in which one or more rabbis in any of the USCJ congregations is/are no longer able to come out on the side of faith in the struggle with God? When their doubt outweighs all else, like in the five cases of these Christian leaders. Do you allow them to continue as though nothing happened? Encourage further education? Enforce faith intervention? Since doubt is embraced, are Jews impervious to the power of human reason and honest investigation?