Judaism, Doubt and the Binding of Isaac
Rabbi David’s sermon Rosh Hashana Day 2 5778
When I had my second interview to become Rabbi of this community, about 40 members and past members of the Board of Management were invited to hear me and question me. That is a lot of Jews and a lot of opinions in one room – by the well known ratio that would have made 60 opinions I suppose. I remember distinctly one direct question – How will you answer halachic, religious questions that members ask you? My answer, was that if I could answer I would – but if I had a doubt which may well be the case, I would go and look it up in Jewish texts, or ask a Rabbi whose advice I trusted. Now as you know, I got the job! But a time after I began working here, one member who had attended the interview felt that I could have been more direct and confident in my answer. It was a good point. I was at an interview.
But that answer was actually true to a feeling that I have had ever since becoming more religious 25 years ago, and working as a Rabbi over the last 14 years. It is not a complicated feeling really, although many find it too difficult to hold – it is that doubt is a part of life. Sounds simple – but in the religious arena and outside it, the feeling that you have a true, absolute belief which you are totally at one with is paradoxically prevalent. I say paradoxically, because according to the world of thought and philosophy, we are in what is often called the ‘postmodern’ era. It is post modern in that it comes after the modern. The modern was a long era where dogmas developed, narratives developed, identities developed. Nation states were born, nationalism grew – but tragically, the ‘grand narratives’ as they are called lead to the onset of totalitarian ideologies that wreaked so much destruction in the 20th century. As a result, ideology became the problem, so it was better to suspect the real truth of any ideology and any identity.
What is paradoxical, or even a reaction to this postmodern, is that identity, ideology and religion occupies the mind of such a large proportion of the globe. And identity has and is leading still to man made tragedies. From the Bosnian Muslims of the breaking Yugoslavia, to the Rohingha Muslims of today, identity is still understood as a reason to conquer and control other peoples. The globalising world, with mass movement of capital and also population, brings with it much doubt as to how we cope with such a world. National identities that were more rigid decades ago, are being shaken by immigration. In many ways, the slogans of Brexit and Trump were ways of creating more certainty in a world of growing mixedness and doubt. In some ways that is why understanding supporters of Brexit and Trump only as racists is not constructive and also often wrong. What exists though is a desire for more certainty. Britain’s situation as a nation state for instance is clearly in doubt. So any slogan relating to Britain’s position was already precarious. And then we were faced with Take Back Control – a clear, defined position without any doubt. In fact, according to the writer Anthony Barnett, the issue with the Remain campaign was that it did not have an absolute, doubt free position of remaining in the EU. Stronger In suggested the possibility of being strong outside the EU – but maybe stronger inside. Absolute campaigning spoke to a population many of whom wanted to hear absolutes, in a world of growing doubt on many fronts.
But doubt should not be alien to Judaism either, even though it is a religion. Judaism as a religion is based on a twin revelation of Law, one written, which is read from our Torah Scroll, and one that initially was revealed Orally although eventually had to be committed to writing. It would seem obvious to many that belief is central to leading a religious life. And you would not be far wrong. Keeping commandments and not believing in God who commanded them would seem counterintuitive. But belief was not really canonised until long after the Torah was revealed, and long after the halacha, Jewish law was much more developed. We think differently about law than belief. I remember when I was training to be a Rabbi, we would have a weekly session with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the head of our Yeshiva and Chief Rabbi of Efrat where we were situated. He had been Rabbi in Lincoln Square Synagogue (where a brother of one our members is now resident!) back in the 1980’s and was a massively well liked Rabbi in modern orthodox circles. It was my turn one week to give a prepared sermon in front of the Rav – believe it or not I was incredibly nervous. He would always have the habit of telling you that what you have as one sermon should be really 2. So I had a go – and in my sermon somehow I referred to the difference between Orthodox and reform as being one of belief. They don’t believe what we believe. Rabbi Riskin strongly disagreed – the difference he said was all about attitude to the Law. In fact the scholar Chaim Maccoby wrote that the difference between Judaism and Christianity on dogma is that we apply rules to the legal elements of our religion and Christianity to what should or should not be believed.
What is important though for me, is that in the world of Law, Halacha, doubt is widespread. Yes, one has to act in a certain way. You cannot allow doubt to debilitate and prevent one from serving God. You need to know what to do. But much of what we do religiously as Jews today is rooted at some point in what we call a ‘machloket’, an argument. So is an Ashkenazi Jew allowed to eat rice on Pesch – well no, sorry about that one. But before this was codified, it may have been in doubt. And there still is an opinion that allows, which is what makes it better to be a Sefardi on Pesach. We see argument all the time in the pages of the Talmud and the commentaries that come after it. We are an argumentative people. But with argument will of course come doubt. In Ethics of the Father for instance we read ‘Any argument that is for the sake of heaven, will last for ever’. A good argument, is one that never stops, that is not about being victorious – but the onlooker is left in doubt. What should I do. I might go like one opinion – but there may always be the feeling that the other opinion could have been the right one. This is leading many religious people to choose a stricter and stricter approach in halacha. This appoach removes doubt and therefore brings comfort that I won’t be breaking any rules or crossing any lines.
There is a wonderful statement in the Mishna about arguments and the fixing of Law. The Mishna is full of argument, although as I said earlier, the Law needs to be fixed. So the Mishna asks ‘Why is a minority opinion stated with a majority opinion, even although the Law is fixed as the majority?’ The answer is that there will be times when a future court needs to rely on the minority opinion so it cannot be rejected from our legal history. Another opinion is more beautiful – we are told ‘ so that it teaches the future that no one should be so sure about their opinion’. This is amazing. In a foundation book of our law – we are being told not to be too cocky and sure of ourselves.
And I want to link the centrality of doubt to today’s reading, the famous story of the Binding of Isaac, Akedat Yitzchak. Many understand this story as a pure, clear test of belief in God. According to the 13th century Spanish Rabbi Nachmanides, God knew that Abraham would succeed – so he tested him. Abraham equally understood the command to sacrifice Isaac as a true command from the Almighty and went, together with Isaac who was then 37 years old. The Akedah as we call it, has become a high bar for the sort of belief that we should have or at least be in some way aiming for. We blow the shofar to remind God of the choice Abraham made, and through that remember us for the good. We commit to making clear choices ourselves at this time of year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – there seems no room for doubt.
But an Israeli Rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known as Rav Shagar after the initials of his name, connects the theme of doubt to the story of the Binding of Isaac. He makes an amazing and fundamental insight, by actually introducing an element of doubt into the communication of the message from God to Abraham. A classic exposition, as by Moses Maimonides, is that Abraham only went forward with the plan to kill his son, because he understood clearly the prophetic voice of God. But listen to this Midrash:
‘As Abraham and Isaac were walking, Satan appeared to Abraham and said to him ‘Old Man, are you out of your mind! You are going to slaughter the son God gave you at the age of one hundred? It was I who deceived you and said to you ‘Take now your son…’.
This is incredible. Satan here represents a character who appears in the book of Job and is sent in to the world to test people with suffering. Of course, Satan can also be the confused, voice within. Was this request to kill his son, really coming from God. As Rav Shagar writes,
‘Perhaps that is the essence of the ordeal – the ability to distinguish between two voices. From an ethical standpoint, Abraham is commanded to commit a crime, precisely the kind of crime against which he has railed his entire life…Such an action must spring from absolute certainty that the commanding voice is indeed God’s’
So Abraham passed this ordeal – he walked through the clear uncertainty and nevertheless went forward as if God had commanded. But the doubt was there. The risk was clear. And for us, and our ancestors going back many centuries, who have not been privy to the prophetic voice in any way – all that remains is the doubt. In fact, Rav Shagar goes further to say that
‘The lesson is clear: A conceited, all knowing religious stance renders the trial, and with it the entire religious endeavour, a sham. The trial, along with the religious lifestyle and a connection to God, can exist only in the context of a humble personality that is content in not knowing’
There are big lessons for us here. Doubt is not only OK, but it is a part of being. It is OK when teaching, to also convey a sense of doubt. That is not to say that educators should be transferring a sense of chaos to their pupils. But multiplicity of opinions is OK and empowers young people to work with doubt when they engage with texts and with religion. The eradication of doubt is surely a backword step for our religion. That I suppose is why I have always found difficulty with outreach movements. I suppose they have their place and work for many. But I flinch at the sense of Rabbis and educators claiming how they have absolute belief in the divine, and then attempting to transfer this certainty to pupils, who may be looking for certainty in their lives, to mask their fear of doubt. Many of you may look unknowingly at me, your Rabbi, as someone who should have unchallengeable beliefs of the highest order. No Rabbi today is an Abraham. If I have failed to make you believe in God – it is because it should not be my job, or any Rabbi’s job to make you believe in God. Belief is something personal, woven together between the experiences you have had, the relationships you build, and the personality you are. But if I have succeeded to give you some access to the textual world of Judaism with all its complicatedness – then I am satisfied.
But one last thing – doubt does not mean a free for all and doubt does not negate identity. Doubt needs to coexist with a sense of integrity. I may as a Rabbi want to engage with you around the complexity of Jewish Law and thinking. But I am still a religious Jew and still Rabbi of a Synagogue under the auspices of our Chief Rabbi. That sets out non-moveable parameters of identity.
It is my strong feeling – that if we combine the doubt that comes with complexity and its consequent humility; with the awareness of our situation as a community – we can continue to build a community of integrity, a model community in the United Synagogue.