Friday, December 27, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Circumcision - Va-era 5774

Does God hear our prayer? All the time? Sometimes? Never? Not sure?

I was recently part of a discussion here at Temple Israel about tefillah, during which I remarked that I am not certain that God hears all prayer. Maybe God is listening sometimes, I said, but most of the time I am not convinced.

I professed what some might describe as doubt, although I would call it honest faith. And based on what we read today in Parashat Va-era, doubt is not necessarily an impediment to having a good, solid relationship with God. Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, clearly expressed his own doubts regarding God’s instructions. And he came out looking pretty good, right?

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. However, he said, I redeemed myself later by offering good reasons to participate in tefillah. (I will discuss those reasons this afternoon at Se’udah Shelisheet. If the herring in cream sauce is not enough of an incentive to come to Minhah, then maybe a discussion of how to get more out of services is! 3:55 PM.)

I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Now there is certainly a school of thought out there which believes that the rabbi is somehow different, that the rabbi must believe all that Jewish tradition teaches us about God with perfect faith. I disagree, and furthermore I might add that this is a ridiculous proposition, because “Jewish tradition” conflicts with itself! Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And which do we believe? And, by the way, does God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disengenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith.  

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We here at Temple Israel, and the Conservative movement in general, maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

It seems that not a single sermon goes by now that I do not mention the Pew Research Center’s recent study on American Jews, which found that about a quarter of us, 22%, think of ourselves as “Jews of no religion.” For many of these Jews, surely doubt is an issue, although 45% claim some belief in God. But the greater issue in my mind is indifference. I am certainly no expert on this subject, but my suspicion is that many of those who identify themselves as “Jews of no religion” are not necessarily rejecting Judaism, but rather indifferent to it because they have never found any reason to think of it as valuable to them. Or they reject “organized religion.” Or they have never found a faith community that suits their needs, that welcomed them.  Or they were turned off by our “pay-to-pray” model. Or, as was the case with my wife Judy, they are interested in their Jewish heritage but do not know where or how to start learning. Not everyone can have the good fortune to marry a rabbi!

Let’s face it: religion is a hard sell today. The “Jews of no religion” group reflects the wider trends in American society, where the fastest-growing religion is “none.” These are deeply skeptical times; we have no more heros, no more prided institutions, brimming with hubris, to which we can look for uncorrupted inspiration. The American century is over, having dissolved by means of the assassinations of two Kennedys, the Watergate scandal, Vietnam, the Iranian Revolution, and so forth. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind - government, corporate, religious, even medical - run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors - Israelite farmers - faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary through the middle of the 20th century and among the foremost Jewish philosophers of our time, was unapologetically open about the human struggle with God. Regarding experiencing God, he wrote (Man is Not Alone, 165):
Each of us has at least once in his life experienced the momentous reality of God. Each of us has at least once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered.
Rabbi Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says elsewhere (God in Search of Man, 154-5) that
Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?
We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do. How then can we be certain of anything? Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.
  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in this morning’s reading, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” In other words, his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed.

There are, therefore, two things that come out of Moshe’s obstructed state:

1. That Moshe clearly is doubtful of his own abilities. And let’s face it, this is not somebody lacking in confidence! He grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace and must have had some kind of regal bearing. And remember the story of the Egyptian taskmaster? He is not a shrinking violet. But he is, nonetheless, doubtful.

2. That Moshe is concerned about his “uncircumcised lips” points, perhaps to a greater issue: that he fails to understand that his self-doubt is a strength, that as the Torah's chosen Everyman, he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Ultimately, it is not his lips that are  uncircumcised, but rather his heart -- he does not grasp that he is, in fact, capable, reverting instead to his default position of doubt.

Moshe overcomes his uncircumcised lips, and with an all-star supporting cast of Aaron, Joshua, Nahshon ben Aminadav, and of course God, he manages the Exodus and leads the Israelites (almost) to Israel.

So what do we learn from all of this? That we can cut away that hardening around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in the Jewish world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.


  1. Now for the hard part- what does TI have to offer the 22%? The Chabad model is certainly not ours but why should a skeptical non-affiliated Jew join us? What do we, as a community, really have to offer?

  2. I think that we (Temple Israel of Great Neck and the non-Orthodox Jewish community at large) need to develop a new framework to reach out to those who are still reachable (not all of those 22% are in that category) to demonstrate that Judaism, Jewish learning, and Jewish life are valuable.

    Such a framework might include something like Chabad's outreach model: supporting young rabbis just out of school to go into communities or to college campuses to focus on outreach, to making connections with/between Jews, to making sure that non-Orthodox Judaism is not just confined to synagogues. The difficulty with the synagogue model, to which most of us are dedicated, is that you can only be "reached" if you show up, which most of American Jews are not doing.

    For some time now I have been thinking about such outreach professionals creating something more like the Kabbalah Center (which, like Chabad, is not an approach to Judaism that comports with my values, but has been highly successful). That is, to create a study center where Jews come to learn about the wisdom and values found in Jewish tradition. The Jewish bookshelf, ancient and modern, is saturated with such material, and most Jews are entirely unaware of it. Again, this would require outreach professionals to make connections and bring people in, and would also necessitate a certain amount of (dare I say it) "marketing."

    At Temple Israel in particular, we have the potential to build such a center - we have in fact already in the initial stages of a fundraising initiative to create it.

  3. I received this comment from a member of Temple Israel, and with his permission am reposting:

    Dear Rabbi Adelson:

    It is a "snow day" today and what better than to catch up on reading. I read your comments on "Faith , Doubt , and Circumcision". It was heartening and informative to hear my own feelings expressed so well by you. Intellectually it is difficult to have faith in prayer and God ,yet there is something that drives us and me to the synagogue (although less often than than I should) and to the traditions of Judaism. We have been members of Temple Israel for over 45 years and we have seen the growth of the synagogue to a truly inclusive, egalitarian shul. It's too bad that the "Jews of no religion" have not had the opportunity to see what a liberal synagogue is like. Many years ago, at the time of the death of my father, I had a discussion with rabbi Waxman about my doubts and his approach was quite similar to yours.

    I wish you and your family a very healthy and happy new year.