ROOM FOR DOUBT
“They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24)
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit. There was no water in it, but according to the commentator Rashi, there were snakes and scorpions. At the end of this week’s portion, Joseph is thrown into jail on false charges. The portion ends with him alone and forgotten. Joseph was a man of faith, but one can wonder – did Joseph ever doubt? Is there room for doubt in our religious tradition?
A few years ago I gave a sermon on the High Holidays about faith and doubt. Here is part of that sermon reworked. The prominent Orthodox rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote a book called Faith and Doubt. He wrote, “The path to the knowledge of God is strewn with rocks and boulders of doubt; he who would despair of the journey because of the fear of doubt, must resign himself forever from attaining the greatest prize known to man.” And the Christian theologian Paul Tillich famously wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Here are two great theologians, one Jewish and one Christian, saying that just as we need faith, we also need doubt.
This week I finally saw the Tony Award winning Broadway show Hadestown, which I highly recommend. I was supposed to go six months ago in Los Angeles but had to give up my ticket when I became sick with Covid. The show was worth the wait. It is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are deeply in love when Eurydice suddenly dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to try to rescue his beloved. He is told that they can be reunited if he can walk out of the underworld with her following him. But he must have faith. He cannot look back to see if she is following.
As his journey nears the end, the suspense becomes too much for him. Is she following him? Orpheus begins to doubt and looks back, sees Eurydice following, and loses her forever. In the Broadway version, Eurydice goes to the underworld to help build a wall because she is hungry, and she will be fed down there. Orpheus goes down to find her, and she is allowed to follow him out. But only if he does not look back. The muses sing a song called “Doubt Comes In.” Does doubt cause him to look back? No spoilers here; see the show and find out. It is a wonderful Broadway show built on an ancient Greek legend about doubt.
What I love about Judaism is that it asks us to believe, but it leaves room for doubt. There are few people more difficult to tolerate than those who are so sure of themselves that they become smug and arrogant. It is hard to deal with people who are never wrong. Philosophers speak of something called a cognitive bias, where you only see things that support your point of view and are blind to things that challenge your point of view. Too many religious believers suffer from this cognitive bias.
A bit of doubt is healthy. It can teach us some humility. Can we doubt the existence of God? I think of the Hasidic story of the rebbe who lived a century ago in the old country, who told his followers that everything that exists can teach us something. One Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a train?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about leadership. One car full of energy can pull a string of cars with no energy.” Another Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a telephone?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about gossip. What is said over here can be heard over there.”
Finally, a third Hasid, hoping to get the best of the rebbe, askes, “What can we learn from atheism, doubting the existence of God?” The rebbe answers, “Atheism teaches us the most important lesson of all. We should always think there is no God. When your fellow is in trouble, do not say God will provide. Perhaps there is no God, and you need to provide.” Even doubt about God serves a purpose. If there is no God, we must act in God’s stead.
Joseph was known as Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the righteous. I like to believe that at the bottom of the pit or locked in prison, he had moments of doubt. It is part of being human.