Religious Doubt in Jewish Life

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by R. Gil Student

Since a religious life is one of faith, you would expect that religious doubt would be unwelcome. In an important essay, Rabbi Norman Lamm argues that doubt can play a valuable role in religious life. A Medieval philosopher adds another role for doubt in religious life that Rabbi Lamm did not explore.

I. Three Kinds of Doubt

In “Faith and Doubt,” the title essay of R. Lamm’s 1971 book (revised in 1985 and again in 2006), he identifies three categories of doubt. Spurious doubt “does not issue from a question that expresses an authentic concern for truth” (p. 9 of the 2006 edition). A genuine doubt has to be honest, has to be humble, has to be critical of not just its object of concern but of itself. A doubt for the sake of doubt attempts to avoid truth, not seek it. In this hyper-cynical age, we must be wary of spurious doubt that masquerades cynicism as intellectualism.

Methodological doubt plays a role in acquiring knowledge. Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos Ve-Dei’os, introduction, sec. 3) sees doubt as a natural starting point. Knowledge exists externally so a person must remove his doubts through study in order to arrive at truth. While not a positive phenomenon, methodological doubt serves an important role. “Certainty can be attained, but only by means of doubts that are conquered, and doubt therefore has instrumental significance” (R. Lamm, p. 11). Methodological doubt is part of a learning process, not an element of your faith. It is an abstract method of examining a problem. You believe while still trying to work out the details.

Substantive doubt is a state of questioning. It is a faith that includes doubt. “In methodological doubt, I possess and direct the question; in substantive doubt, the questions possesses and directs me” (R. Lamm, p. 11). While R. Sa’adia Gaon does not discuss this kind of doubt, R. Lamm suggests that it, too, can have value in a life of faith. It is a starting point that encourages deepening your faith. Substantive doubt, when part of a struggle, is an element of faith itself. “I begin by believing despite doubt; I end by believing all the more firmly because of doubt” (p. 15). “Doubt, so conceived, becomes not an impediment, but a goad to reinvestigate and deepen cognitive faith assertions” (ibid.).

Methodological doubt is part of the acquisition of knowledge. Substantive doubt is part of living a life of faith. Substantive doubt feels the pull and push of emotions, the frustrations of life in all of its complexities. When a child dies tragically, substantive doubts asks why. If that is the end of the conversation, substantive doubt damages faith. If it is part of the healing or at least coping process, and it merges into a stronger faith, substantive doubt has enhanced religious life. Rabbi Lamm’s insight is the validation of substantive doubt when it strengthens faith.

II. A Fourth Type

Rav Yosef Albo discusses a fourth kind of doubt that is at once detrimental but commonplace among even the most devout. In explaining the necessity of the concept of repentance, Rav Albo magnifies the nature of any sin (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:26). How can anyone violate a command of the Almighty? The Talmud (Sotah 3a) declares that no person sins unless overcome by a spirit of folly (ru’ach shetus). While this could mean a temporary insanity or sensual distraction, Rav Albo understands the phrase intellectually. A person can only sin if he believes that God does not exist, does not punish sinners or did not give the commandments. In other words, sin entails what I call permissive doubt, even heresy, that enables you to transgress.

Rav Albo does not seem to be attributing complex intellectual calculations to the casual sinner. Rather, he is describing the subconscious intellectual process of sin. If we truly believe and remain conscious of God’s command and providence, we will never sin. Our ability to submerge this recognition, to focus our thoughts on our own desires rather than the overwhelming presence of God, requires a diminished faith. We do not fully believe or we would stop ourselves from following our desires.

Subconscious doubt underlies every sin. Rav Albo continues that nearly everyone sins. Therefore, the vast majority of people deserve punishment as heretics. The cure for this heresy, for the subconscious doubt, is repentance. By returning to God, you strengthen your faith and remove all doubts. Sin leads to repentance; doubt leads to faith. While we do not celebrate sin, we recognize that it is a part of religious life. Nearly everyone sins; therefore, nearly everyone experiences permissive doubt. This permissive doubt underlying sin is a part of religious life. Just like repentance allows us to grow from sin, to become better people than we were previously, it also allows us to deepen our faith and awareness of God’s presence.

Normally, we think of religious doubt as an obstacle to faith. From another perspective, it can be seen as a seed for deeper faith, a stimulus for religious growth.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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