Philosophers are supposed to be doubters. When we think of Socrates, the patron saint and martyr of philosophy, we usually fix on the early Platonic dialogues, which depict him as a man who defended no positive doctrine but was such a nuisance with his doubt-inducing questions that the guardians of Athenian orthodoxies put him to death. The Descartes of the introductory philosophy course is cast in a similar mold. He is not the “methodological doubter” who questioned common beliefs only in order to establish his philosophy on the confident foundations of reason’s “clear and distinct ideas.” Rather, for college freshmen, he is the solitary cogitator, sitting in a dark room, wondering whether anything, even his own existence, is beyond doubt. In this conception of the life of the mind, so common in today’s pedagogy, a believing philosopher is almost a contradiction in terms. He is unduly certain that reason can deliver true beliefs on religious topics, or on any topic of consequence. Or he is a fideist who wills his convictions rather than arriving at them through patient consideration of facts, probabilities, and arguments.
As an adolescent reading Plato and Descartes, I bought into the skeptical narrative. In the late sixties, Bertrand Russell was its most ubiquitous exponent due to his professional eminence, his public visibility, and the fluency of his prose. In one essay he questioned whether we can be certain that the world did not come into being five minutes ago and that our conviction of its subsistence through time is not an illusion. Such doubts sounded to me like the proper upshots of good critical reason. Over time, I came to appreciate that one should be skeptical of such thoroughgoing skepticism. Closer reading led me to see that Socrates, behind the scenes of the dialogues, may have respected undialectical religious insights. I read Kierkegaard, whose paradoxes reflected clearer thinking than the almost-forgotten Danish Hegelians he pilloried, and I reflected on Wittgenstein’s oracular aphorisms that pointed philosophers toward “a way out of the fly bottle” and thus led in the direction of common sense.
I remained an adherent of Tennyson’s line: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” And yet I took seriously the comment of my revered mentor Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein that this sentiment, however noble, was not the way to be followed by Jews, who are “believers, the sons of believers.” I have pondered, without coming to a settled opinion, what exactly he meant by this. Was he implying that the Jewish historical experience or the encounter with God through Torah study and obedience made “honest doubt” irrelevant? Or was he putting forward a moral consideration, a duty toward one’s inheritance as a Jew, that dictated the renunciation of thoroughgoing doubt?
I continued reading philosophy and then began to teach it. Philosophically sophisticated engagement with faith and the imperative of questioning continued to represent two ideals that were often, but not always, in tension with each other. On the one hand, philosophy seemed to be virtually the only discipline devoted to excavating and challenging its own arguments and constructing alternatives to them. (Talmudic investigation propagated in the Lithuanian-style yeshivot participates in this relentless self-critique, to some degree.) In this regard, philosophy is a skeptical, even destructive endeavor. On the other hand, the search for wisdom and knowledge becomes futile if confined to systematic doubt and the will to doubt. Thinking clearly and logically has a constructive ambition. It is not only about overturning received truths but also about describing the world and examining the relationships among the truths we discover. At a personal level, all this made me suspicious of glib affirmations of lazily adopted formulas and justifications. At the same time, I wondered whether a stance of astringent intellectual detachment reflected not the apotheosis of intellectual honesty, but the evasion of a life of commitment.
The tension between doubt and conviction can be painful, which is why we often avoid confronting it with an eye toward resolution. As a participant and commentator on religious life, I was, from an early age, aware that many practicing Jews, and many Christians for that matter, do not enjoy a robust intellectual commitment to the principles of their faith. Even on an emotional or experiential plane, they are often divided between affirmation and doubt. What was I to make of this situation? Many seem to have furnished themselves with a comfortable niche of intellectual and religious indecisiveness. They are more interested in what they can wryly or dramatically doubt than in agonizing and struggling over the life-and-death questions that are answered by our religious traditions.
Pace Rabbi Lichtenstein, I could not help judging that among those who classified themselves as “honest doubters” were some who led more strenuous, perhaps more authentic spiritual lives than did their placid neighbors, who practiced their religion either blissfully ignorant of, or willfully oblivious to, the questions and crises that should have troubled their serenity. R. Lichtenstein himself acknowledged this reality. If one must choose between a religious life of commitment marked by anguished doubt or one of observant superficiality, then the former seems the better path, the one that promises richer and more ennobling spiritual rewards.
The Jewish commitment to the primacy of practice and law over theory and theology can easily be used to bless an outward conformity that masks disaffection and even disbelief. Explaining why actions and behavior are more central to Judaism than are contemplation or dogmatic precision is a complex and controversial matter. One can note, however, that propositions and emotional attitudes are slippery. Creedal affirmations are hard to formulate in a manner immune from misinterpretation and wishful thinking, and thus they can easily deteriorate into vague assertions that lack concrete meaning. Actions are less vulnerable to such distortions. If one fails to do what is commanded or does what is prohibited, the matter is far clearer than any self-investigation of the depth and sincerity of one’s beliefs. Furthermore, actions play an important role in every person’s life; serious conceptual thinking is confined to those with an aptitude for it. And finally, actions speak louder than words. Actions engender feelings more than feelings propagate actions. Christians might well agree that “faith without works is dead.”
Jeremiah rebuked his generation, accusing them of “abandoning Me” (that is, God) and “not observing my Torah,” implying that violating the Torah is somehow worse than departing from God inwardly (2:12). Well-known rabbinic statements elaborate. They explain that God would rather be abandoned than that his Torah be disobeyed, because people who persist in their engagement with the Law may be brought back to God through the illumination that such a life provides. The paradox—that God would rather be obeyed than believed in—has provoked varied homilies and interpretations, each reflecting the orientation of the commentator. But the overall thrust is clear: As long as a Jew practices his religion, his link to God is not severed and there is hope for his restoration to the fullness of interior conviction.
In his studies, Emmanuel Levinas discovered a story by Zvi Kolitz, published in an Argentine Yiddish journal soon after World War II. Levinas initially thought the story was a nonfiction document, as did I, before I befriended its then-elderly author in the 1980s. This work of fiction was written in the voice of a Polish Hasid and is presented as a document buried in the Warsaw Ghetto, where it is uncovered after his murder. The Hasid indicts God for the unprecedented destruction that has been visited on his people. Despite all this, the speaker does not propose to turn away from God. To the contrary, he manifests his protest by continuing to serve him. In his commentary on the story, Levinas ties the man’s resolve to the rabbinic notion that piety is often cultivated and sustained through fidelity to the Law, even when—especially when—human beings are on their own and must make their way without assurance of God’s historical intervention on their behalf.
Levinas’s commentary on this story in Quatrelectures talmudiques expresses his philosophy rather than serving as a rigorous analysis of normative Jewish thought. It reflects the French-Jewish philosopher’s emphasis on the primacy of the moral response: the limitless responsibility evoked by the face of another, which guides us toward infinity as opposed to totality, toward “otherwise than being” as opposed to the concentration on being that characterizes “Greek” philosophy down to Heidegger. In practical religious terms, Levinas champions an austere and one-sided moral maturity in a world from which God is absent. Though traditional Jewish thought knows well that we often experience isolation and alienation from God (see Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, among others), it refuses to take the extreme step of denying divine involvement in human affairs, even in the darkest times. All the same, Levinas brings to our attention one dimension of the Jewish experience. He gives priority to how we lead our lives, putting it at the center of the call to faithfulness, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on and even devaluation of the beliefs about divine intervention that have always been important to popular and sophisticated Judaism alike.
This essay by Levinas was among his first to be translated into English, and it later became the subject of book-length symposia among Christian and Jewish scholars. A familiar history of doubt and belief ascribes the rise of skepticism in the early modern West to confusion about truth. The “new philosophy calls all in doubt,” wrote John Donne. He saw that modern science described a universe quite different from the intuitive world of common sense. Christians desiring true doctrine for their salvation found themselves having to choose among a variety of Reformation and Counter-Reformation teachings, without a vantage point from which to judge which were true and which heresy.
One way out of the impasse was to refrain from full commitment to any competing truths, conforming instead to one confession for reasons of prudence. Or perhaps the individual should remain open to mutually exclusive alternatives, adopting a capacious attitude and ignoring the exclusivists who demanded conformity. In either case, belief becomes detached from objective truth and is increasingly confused with private judgment and subjective preference. This path toward an implicit skepticism is traced in Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt and Ethan Shagan’s The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment..
Ryrie, however, complicates the psychological picture. He maintains that many assertions that deny conventional religious or social truths are not intellectual conclusions but emotional reactions. Individuals and groups scoff, not because they don’t believe, but because they are angry with the established culture; or because they want to test how far they dare deviate from the norm; or because they are motivated by some other feeling that drives them away from orthodoxy. Not every angry epithet amounts to a settled credo. What the Inquisition hears as dangerous heresy may really be defiance of conventional attitudes, which, though dangerous, is different from spiritually or intellectually motivated dissent. Thus, though it is different from religious doubt, the impiety of anger contributes to the diminution of public and private religious commitment.
One would have imagined that the perceived lack of divine justice, which plays such a large role in religious polemics today, would be equally typical of earlier skepticism. In the world of yesteryear, there was a great deal of unexplained suffering—war, pestilence, pain, and other evils. There was much to hold against God. Ryrie is surprised to report that doubts based in God’s perceived failure to prevent evils are not at all frequent in premodern literature.
Whatever was the case in the past, the world of my adolescence and early adulthood was populated by Holocaust survivors, and I grew up in the shadow of widespread reflection on the Hitler era and its legacy. The skepticism or heresy of anger grows more powerful in the face of overwhelming evils in private life and in history. That is how it was in my youth, when post-Holocaust theology was in full bloom. The late Michael Wyschogrod staunchly opposed the attempt to build a new Jewish theology for which the ashes of Auschwitz spoke more authoritatively than the revelation at Sinai. Nevertheless, he stated flatly that after the Holocaust even the most faithful Jew was a little bit angry with God. That anger explains the powerful allure of the story that drew Levinas’s attention and evoked his commentary.
And so, we see that religious doubt rarely rests solely in the operations of our intellects. Doubt and passionately heretical stances emerge from human experiences such as confusion, resentment, and anger, and are not merely products of human reasoning. For this reason, it is perhaps best to look to literature for illumination, rather than to philosophical debates about the reasonableness of belief. Two treatments of disillusionment with religious doctrine combined with the persistence of residual faith and practice have intrigued me since I first came across them. One is Jewish; the other is Roman Catholic.
Haim Be’er is an Israeli writer, now in his late seventies, who has firsthand knowledge of the religious Zionist milieu of Jerusalem. I knew that Be’er and I had graduated from the same religiously oriented elementary school, where he preceded me by a few years. Yet, when I first read his topical novel Et ha-Zamir, which had become a notorious bestseller owing to its jaundiced portrayal of religious hyper-nationalism in the run-up to the Six Day War, I couldn’t tell whether he was writing as a critic from within the Orthodox camp or as a disaffected dropout. Some of the mystery was dispelled by his memoir of his childhood.
Be’er’s family lived in the Mea Shearim quarter, a lower-class bastion of rigorous Orthodoxy in Jerusalem (though it was then more religiously mixed than outsiders thought). His mother cultivated a shrewd, even cynical perspective on her surroundings and apparently kept an inner distance from its dominant pieties. Be’er’s father, by contrast, first comes across as a man eager, perhaps desperately eager, to fit in. Some incidents, such as his efforts to secure the attendance of as many prominent rabbis as possible at his son’s bar-mitzvah, and his attempt to turn the bar-mitzvah itself into an over-the-top display of devoutness, are so exorbitant that many readers might find them incredible, and one wonders whether Be’er takes liberties as a memoirist. More innocent was his father’s extravagant attachment to hazzanut, Jewish cantorial performance. There was little the elder Be’er would not do to build up his local synagogue as a forum for young musical talent, and he remained devoted to the most promising of his proteges. The father’s love of music stretched the boundaries of Jewish law to the breaking point. A strictly Orthodox shul would not have condoned the use of a tuning fork on Shabbat; Be’er’s did. Israeli radio featured a program of cantorial selections on Shabbat afternoon. Tuning in on Shabbat was out of the question for the Be’ers. But their next-door neighbor turned up the volume so that Mr. Be’er could relish the singing with the tacit understanding that he would receive preferential treatment when he patronized the Be’ers’ store during the week.
On one Shabbat, the young Be’er abandoned his father’s synagogue for another. At the ensuing family dinner, his father reproved him for his absence, whereupon the lad confronted his father with his religious hypocrisies and inconsistencies. The older man did not become angry; he suggested they study Talmud together after the meal. The text he chose dealt with the laws governing a burning house on Shabbat. It dealt with a practical question: Given the general prohibition of carrying objects from a private domain to a public one on the Sabbath, what objects can be rescued from the burning building? The answer: It is permissible to salvage enough food for two meals. “And why are we discussing this?” asked the son. “Don’t you understand?” responded the father. For he had become an atheist after his brother was murdered by the communists. The elder Be’er explained that he had no God, but even a refugee from a dwelling in flames requires food to survive. His love for liturgical music amounted to the “two meals” allotted by the Talmud.
In the memoir, we hear the son’s version of his father’s words, a father of whom he is critical. We hear about the father’s loss of faith at a remove. The father is justifying, or rationalizing, his deviations from Orthodoxy, reporting a conclusion he claims to have reached many years before. He does not speak of confusion or uncertainty arising from his alienation from traditional belief. He does not analyze his behavior and feelings in terms of anger at God, though the declared trigger of his atheism, the murder of his brother, with the problem of evil in the background, points to severe disappointment and aggravation with him.
At a superficial level, Mr. Be’er’s conduct suggests what is today called “social Orthodoxy” (a parallel term might be “heritage Catholicism”). This is a selective attachment to parts of religious tradition out of nostalgia, aesthetics, sociability (“Goldstein goes to synagogue to talk to God; I go to talk to Goldstein”), or ethnic solidarity. This leads us to say that the father is subsisting on spiritual “comfort food” rather than genuine nourishment. But I find this assessment inadequate. How many Jews who adopt a casual attitude toward religious practice allocate the time and effort invested by Be’er’s father in religious matters, even to the point of semi-comical extremes? And how many turn to the Talmud to explain their paradoxical loyalty to the dictates of a God they no longer believe in? If we take the elder Be’er at his word (as recorded by his son), the loss of belief is involuntary and painful. He compares himself to a man driven from his only home.
Be’er grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was around that time that Graham Greene, then at the height of his renown as a Catholic novelist (though he insisted he was a novelist who happened to be a Roman Catholic, darkly hinting he was not a good one), published “A Visit to Morin.” The story is told by an agnostic English wine salesman, Dunlop, who had been intrigued by the writer Morin’s novels when he was exposed to them as a teenager studying French. In those youthful days, Dunlop was taken by the way Morin stretched the orthodoxy of one character to the point where he was like “a man stranded on a long strip of sand from which there was no advance, and to retreat was to surrender.” Now, traveling in France and drawn to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Dunlop sees the aged writer and wonders what scruples keep him from receiving communion. He ends up accompanying Morin to his home, where he learns that Morin is no longer a believer. The story Morin recounts is a familiar one: He took up with women; unable to confess and repent, he withdrew from the sacrament. Over time, his belief faded away.
Strangely, however, Morin takes his loss of belief as a confirmation of his faith that what the church teaches is true. He had sinned, refused to seek absolution, and in accord with church law distanced himself from the sacraments, and the consequence was that he became separated from God. For him, the shriveling of belief in God under his circumstances was greater proof of God’s revelation than the rational arguments adduced by theologians. If so, suggests his visitor, Dunlop, why not return to the sacraments and regain God, now that he is old and no longer driven by sexual desire? No, answers Morin, he cannot return.
As long as I keep away from the sacraments my lack of belief is an argument for the Church. But if I returned and they failed me, then I would really be a man without faith, who had better hide himself quickly in the grave so as not to discourage others.
Be’er’s and Greene’s stories are paradoxical. They offer neither a path forward nor a basis for retreat. The kind of truth they convey is psychological rather than epistemological. They shine light on the mysterious ways in which we mix belief with unbelief, and unbelief with belief. And in thinking about these stories, I have come to see an important element that did not attract my attention when I was younger. The concerns that drove me to philosophy and to the life of the mind, and remained relevant to me as a teacher, ultimately revolved around a practical, ethical preoccupation. What is my vocation in this world? What am I to do? As the young Kierkegaard put it in a striking journal entry: “What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” In the here and now, these questions are of utmost urgency, more pressing than the question of God’s existence and the fate of one’s soul after death.
From the vantage point of such fundamental questions, both the elder Be’er and the writer Morin are engaged in a secondary pursuit. Neither of them is looking for answers that will direct their lives to a new beginning or confirm their present life commitment. The two men are explaining rather than justifying their religious positions. Theirs is not a philosophy of ambition or anxiety, but one of regret and resignation. Mr. Be’er’s atheism, as he tells it, has been imposed on him by the injustice of his brother’s murder. Morin’s is a just consequence of his own choices: to violate church teachings and cut himself off from the sacraments. For a young person asking how to lead his life, Be’er and Morin might be fascinating interlocutors. But they stand on the sidelines. They are fixed on the past, not led forward by an appetite for the future.
Formal education is given to the young, whose lives are before them. In this process we naturally privilege the stages in life that are decisive. We provide resources for them to develop a mature, intelligent religious commitment. We anticipate existential questions that arise in thoughtful minds. We illuminate vocational choices and offer guidance. The atmosphere is one of urgent questions that seek meaningful answers, which is why probing doubt can serve as a useful, perhaps essential purpose in education. It purifies reflection, intensifying the power of conviction when we settle upon our answers.
Yet in all this, we are liable to pay less attention to the questions of belief and faith that visit us in old age, when most of us look back more often than forward, when we lack the opportunity and energy to rewrite the course of our lives before it is too late. Trained to press toward the transcendent truth so that we might serve it more fully, we are tempted to dismiss the kind of situations depicted by Be’er and Greene as exceptional or paradoxical. This is unwise. The bleak landscape they describe, one of defeated or disillusioned souls condemned to relive mediocre compromises or irrevocable failures, may come closer to the disappointment and disillusion that accompany many of us as we approach the end of our journeys—with the ebbing of our strength and the death of our dreams and plans, with no path of advance and no refuge for retreat. Truth be told, there comes a point in life when you are on the sidelines. And perhaps, for some of us, at least part of the time, to grasp at the meager two meals rescued from calamity is as significant in our spiritual history as the all-important desire to serve God that inspired us so many decades ago.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.
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