Doubt is the New Faith

Second Day Rosh Hashanah 2022/5783

Of all the commentaries on the Akedah I’ve ever studied, there’s one whose imagination caught my breath and stilled my soul which is usually agitated by the story. It’s not from a rabbi of the Talmud. It’s not from a mystic of the Zohar. It’s not from a professor of Jewish Studies. It comes from the unlikely source of a children’s author named Barbara Cohen and her book called The Binding of Isaac.  Written in 1978, this is a book about the impact of the Akedah on our families, and through them, on our faith. I can’t read the whole story to you now, but I will share it in an abridged form.

The setting is of Isaac, an old man, blind and weak, sitting surrounded by his grandchildren, the 12 sons and one daughter of Jacob.  He is telling them the story of what his father did to him on Mount Moriah when he was a young boy. 

He opens by telling them about the huge, decadent feast Abraham made for him when he stopped nursing from his mother.

“ ‘Our father Jacob never made such a feast for me’, said Reuben, who was the eldest.  ‘Oh well’, replied his grandfather, ‘my father and mother had waited such a long time for me.  My father only had two children, Ishmael and me.  My father loved Ishmael, but Ishmael hated me…”

“ ‘Abraham loved our grandfather best’, explained Joseph, who was dressed in a glorious many-colored coat his father Jacob had given him.  ‘Isn’t that so, Grandfather?’”

Isaac continues to describe how indeed his father loved him more than he loved his other son, and how Sarah was mistrustful of Ishmael and asked Abraham to send him and his slave mother Hagar, away.

‘Did he do that?’ asked Naphtali, who was also a servant’s son.  Isaac’s grandchildren had the same father [Jacob] but had been born to four different mothers.  ‘Did he send his own child away?’ Naphtali asked again.

Isaac continues to tell how deeply Abraham loved him, to the point where God felt Abraham needed to be tested to see if his love for his son exceeded his love for God.  And Isaac tells his grandchildren of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice him on Mt. Moriah. 

But your father wouldn’t do that,’ said Levi.  ‘Not even for God.’

Isaac describes their three day journey in the wilderness, not knowing where his father was taking him or why.

“Didn’t you ask?’ Zevulun, who was always curious, wanted to know.”

Isaac then describes how once he was aware they were going to make a sacrifice to God, his father kept avoiding his questions as to where the animal for the sacrifice was, and how eventually his father bound him upon the altar he had built, explaining that he, Isaac, was to be the lamb for the sacrifice.

“Didn’t you cry? Didn’t you scream?  Didn’t you struggle?’ urged Gad who was a fighter.

‘There was such sadness in my father’s eyes’, the grandfather went on in a dreamy voice as if he hadn’t even heard the question.  ‘He moved so slowly, so heavily.  I didn’t make a sound.  I didn’t make a move.  I couldn’t.’

For a little while none of the children spoke.  Then Simeon said, ‘My father would never do that to me.  Even if God did ask him to.’

‘Well God didn’t ask your father to’, the grandfather replied sharply.  ‘He’s asked it of no one else since.’

‘Don’t be angry with me Grandfather,’ said Simeon.

‘I’m not angry, Simeon,’ said the grandfather in a gentler voice.  ‘I know how you feel.  I couldn’t believe my father would do it to me either.  And if he could, then what was the use of living?  And that’s why I lay there so quiet and so still.  I didn’t believe it was happening.  Even when my father took the knife in his hand, and stretched forth his arm, and the tip of the knife touched my chest, I didn’t believe it.’

‘What happened then, Grandfather?’ asked Dan, the logical one.  ‘You’re here today to tell us the story, so you didn’t die.’

‘Something died,’ the grandfather replied.  ‘I didn’t die, only something in me died.’”

Isaac then tells them how God, moved by Abraham’s obedience, called out to Abraham and told him to let Isaac live, and to sacrifice a ram instead.  In return for Abraham’s supreme love for God, a love that clearly exceeded his love even for his own son, God promises Abraham that his descendants will be numerous and mighty.

‘But grandfather,’ said Dinah, who was the only girl, ‘if the voice of God had not come out of heaven and told your father not to sacrifice you, do you think he would have?  Do you think your father would have killed you?’

‘I don’t know,’ replied the grandfather.  ‘And since I don’t know, that question stood between me and my father as long as he lived.  On the way home, he told me how God had commanded him to sacrifice me, but I never asked him if he really would have done it, and he never told me.’...

‘I don’t think he would have done it,’ Dinah insisted.  ‘What would he have said to Sarah when he came back if our grandfather Isaac had not been with him?  And God didn’t think he’d do it either.  And God didn’t want to find out, for sure.’

The grandfather smiled.  ‘God must have known, Dinah.  But I never knew, and even my father couldn’t be sure.  But God – God knows.  And my father and I – we had to be content with not knowing.’”

It’s a masterful story.  What moves me so deeply is the way Barbara Cohen describes the later generations grappling with their family history from the perspective of their own personalities, experiences and beliefs.  We would all be wise to pay careful attention to how our children and grandchildren absorb our life stories, whatever it may be, into their own; we should talk with them about how our actions, or how the things that have happened to us, shape their own self-understanding.

But what haunts me here is Isaac’s suggestion that while he didn’t die in the Akedah, something in him did die.  What exactly was it that was sacrificed for both Isaac and Abraham? The answer, I think, is certainty.

By certainty I mean a sense of trust in our belief and values; confidence in the rightness of our actions and ideals.  There are few things as unsettling as confronting deep, existential doubt about all we thought we knew or believed. To many, doubt is a curse. In one of his last poems written before his death in 1970, Israeli poet Natan Alterman imagines the devil conniving to undo the Jewish people precisely by plaguing us with doubt: “I shall dull his mind, And he will forget that his cause is just.” Many feel that curse in the ambivalent attitude so many Jews, especially young Jews, have today towards Israel, an attitude many Israelis themselves wrestle with given the endless cycles of violence and loss that seem to lead nowhere. To others doubt is a sign of weakness or vulnerability.  Doubts are for the indecisive among us; people who get lost in all their questions. And yet.

Sometimes doubt can be a sign of strength.  In different religious traditions, doubt is even a prerequisite to enlightenment. Christianity’s Dark Night of the Soul is an experience of radical unknowingness, of profound spiritual uncertainty, which leads to clarity and reaffirmation.  One Zen teacher said, “The Great Doubt is when you don’t know what you’re here for, what anybody’s here for, and you’re just thrown into this radical uncertainty that makes you dive into the very depths of your heart and mind to try to find an answer from the inside.” A practical Hasidic teaching suggests that doubting the existence of God is crucial so that if someone asks you for help, you can’t turn them away saying, “God will provide”, because what if God isn’t, and God doesn’t? You have to be the one to help. On a deeper Jewish level, doubt is part of the journey towards self-discovery and peace.

Listen to Rav Soloveitchik’s comment on the Akedah about the nature of our spiritual quests:  

“At the beginning of the religious experience lies the sacrifice of essence; at its end, the discovery of essence.  Indeed, man cannot discover himself without the sacrifice.  For man can find only that which has been lost, and none can retrieve a thing unless it has first left his keeping.”

The certainty that we seek and around which we want to build our lives, in other words, can only be discovered once we have sacrificed it for the revelations that come from doubt.

More than any scholarly commentary, Barbara Cohen’s children’s tale sends this powerful message and elevates what to me is the Akedah’s lasting legacy: not Abraham’s unflinching faith in obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son, and not Isaac’s surrendering to it. The lasting legacy of the story is their willingness to stay the course of a spiritual journey whose path was hardly clear or certain, was even questionable and seemed downright immoral sometimes, and came with a price that could even strain the love between parent and child. The lasting legacy is their commitment to wrestle with the ambiguity and the pain, and to keep responding to the call to build a family and a people whose ultimate purpose was to bring enlightened ethics and healing to the world. 

The legacy is the discovery of essence, of meaning, after having lost it, to borrow the expression of Rav Soloveitchik. And it speaks not just to our spiritual or Jewish wrestling, or that of the younger generation, to find inspiration in the face of disillusionment. It speaks to our inner, personal journeys as well, especially during this time of teshuvah and self-reckoning. 

In a book called Repair of the Soul by Karen Starr, she explains the associations between mystical conceptions of inner, spiritual change and the psychic and emotional growth at the heart of psychoanalytic theory.  One powerful link is this need to stand in the space of uncertainty, to break down our assumptions and question our knowledge of both self and others, in order to be open to the possibility of new insights and be carried forward by the shifts they create within.

Starr explains that faith, either in the classical sense (which some have come here today to discover or rediscover) or faith in our human capacity for change (also what we’re here today to nurture) is not something that involves creating the illusion of security.  Rather, faith requires surrendering to the shattering of security.  As Alan Watts has said, “If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.” Faith is the clarity and purpose we gain when we’re willing to question it all. We can only find what we are prepared to lose. 

“My father and I – we had to be content with not knowing,” says Isaac in Barbara Cohen’s evocative midrash. Father and son had to figure out how to live without the certainty of the limits, or the limitlessness of their love for one another; how to stay in relationship with each other and with the destiny of the Jewish people they were unfolding even once their bond had become filled with doubt, and even lingering resentment.

The trouble is, we don’t like doubt. In fact, we find it hard to tolerate because our brains are not wired for doubt. We’re wired for “fight or flight” which makes standing in a place of uncertainty completely counter-intuitive. It’s said that the human brain reacts within a quarter of a second to statements that contradict our personal ethical beliefs.  We almost instantly stop listening and start arguing. Combine that with a society that increasingly privileges dogmatic thinking and it’s no wonder we’ve become so terrifyingly polarized. Not just in the United States, but even here, in Sweden, in Israel, and around the world. 

The challenge is to slow down and question whether everything is as it seems to be; to entertain doubt - in ourselves and in each other. Not only to question our own reaction to what the other is saying or doing, but also to consider that they themselves may be struggling with self-doubt which often leads people to double-down in their convictions. “‘There was such sadness in my father’s eyes”, Isaac recounts for his grandchildren. “He moved so slowly, so heavily.” Perhaps this was Avraham’s doubt Isaac was seeing. Whether it’s love, politics or even religion, admitting that we’re not sure about some things in life is far scarier for some than to just go full-throttle in an effort to drown out the nagging wonder. When we remember that as human beings we all experience uncertainty, it just may generate more patience and compassion between us for how we react to it.  “From the place where we are absolutely right,” wrote the poet Yehudah Amichai, “flowers will never grow in the Spring”. 

It’s one thing to try this strategy on the smaller stages of our personal relationships. But what about on the world stage? 

The late historian, Howard Zinn, wrote a well-known essay in 2004 called “The Optimism of Uncertainty” in which he advises us to question our assumption that all that we know about the world, its leaders and institutions will remain unchanging.  “We forget”, he wrote, “how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.”

Think about the conflicts that mean most to us as Jews, as Canadians, as North Americans. What if those who were at the forefront were able to harness the power of doubt, were prepared to question their assumptions about their own motivations and those of their opponents in order to create more solutions.

It’s doubt that keeps science progressing at an astonishing pace, forcing doctors and researchers to continually question their understanding of how the world works in an effort to make it work better. We can’t sit here, most of us with 4 and maybe even 5 Covid vaccines in our arms, and not be grateful for how such doubt has brought us together for the first time in three years.

Sometimes, the most healing thing we can do for ourselves is to doubt our own self-doubt. When we’re convinced of our worthlessness and failure, we find ourselves on a dark path.  But when we’re prepared to question our feelings of despair, psychologists tell us it can mean the life-saving difference between self-destructive behavior and reaching out for help.  If we admit to not fully understanding everything about our feelings, fears or anxieties, we create a crack in our defeatism, allowing in the light of possibility and hope to help us find our way.

Julius Lester, the late academic, activist and author of both children’s and adult’s books, considered the Binding of Isaac one of three core Jewish sacred myths, along with the stories of Sinai and the Exodus. And just as we relive the drama of Sinai at Shavuot and the Exodus at Pesah, on Rosh Hashanah we’re meant to relive the drama of the Akedah. We’re meant to imagine ourselves bound upon the altar coming face to face with death; with the chaos of life. With the mystery of it all. We’re meant to experience the angst of trusting those to whom we are inextricably tied - Isaac to his father; his father to his god, even when we have every reason not to. We’re meant to be broken open by the sheer power of love that moves us to trust sometimes against all our instincts, and that moves us to blunt the harshness of life’s terrors for each other. After all, was it really God who called the whole thing off? Was it the angels? Might it have been Abraham’s own internal alarm triggered by his ultimately inviolable bond with his son, but retold in a way that would save both his dignity and the dignity of his god? We’ll never know. As Rabbi Susan Laemmle declares, “The Akedah comes to remind us that we are bound, even when we don’t quite understand why and to whom; even when we are impossibly torn between conflicting loyalties.” 

To relive the drama and the promise of the Akedah story we have to confront the doubt that permeates our bonds with one another, our bonds with Judaism, our bonds with the god we may, or may not believe in. Like Isaac, we have to be willing to undo everything we know about ourselves in order to be remade. We have to find the courage to stand in the face of our own shattering in order to be repaired. 

On the very place where the Akedah is said to have happened, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was built. The historic symbol of our spiritual power stood atop the place of our greatest vulnerability, where our story nearly came to an end. The reason is clear: Like Isaac sitting at the end of his long life, surrounded by the grandchildren who were living proof of his having wrestled with his suffering, with his loss of clarity, but nonetheless built a life and family in its wake, it is only by facing our deepest vulnerabilities that we can discover our greatest strength. 

On this day of Rosh Hashanah, If you’re searching for your way, allow yourself to wander.  If you’re seeking clarity, let go of your certainty.  We can only find what we’re wiling to lose.

Shanah Tovah