On Doubt

I. Does It Make Sense To Write About Doubt?
If I still struggled as I have in the worst nights, I would never arrive at these sentences, nor will those truly doubting care to read them. Doubt garbs herself with midnight veils woven from her own hair beyond which our powers of certainty cannot peer. “Doubt this!” she cries to anyone who would understand her true nature. And yet, this is her downfall; her own garments eat at her. Doubt may always fairly be doubted. Therefore, let me write.

II. Doubt’s Superpower
Most of our demons melt in the light. Doubt eats the light for lunch.

III. How Doubt Reproduces Within Us, Eats Us From The Inside, And Leaves a Husk
I doubt my doubts are important.

IV. The Wonderful Phenomenon of Doubt in a Social Context
Small doubts are social creatures; doubt’s spawn flock to dorm rooms and coffee shops. Like moths, they are drawn to the light. Better: Like cannons, they are drawn to ships. The small vessels keeping us afloat on the inky depths of unknowing (and make no mistake, even the Hebrews needed dry land in order to walk and to breathe) are ruptured and sunk by the shot of other ships.

“There is no one to pray to,” they aim at your bow. “Your father doesn’t love you,” they snipe at your mast. You can try defending yourself with an argument, but the underlying message is, wouldn’t you prefer to be on a ship whose sky remains clear of iron? Shouldn’t you sail to a more defensible position?

The only response to this that ever works is to undercut their own certainty, to put a hole through their hull, to question their assumptions. You may sink them before they sink you. You may drown in the attempt.

Either way, it’s the sea that wins.

V. Can Philosophy Rescue Us From Our Doubt?
You can doubt that A=A, or that 1=1, or that Truth=Truth. You cannot, however, rationally doubt I=I, that you are yourself, for if you are not yourself, who is doubting? On the other hand, rationality is, itself, an A, not an I. Doubt everything.

VI. Why We Should Be Happy That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt is abhorrent to nature. To frame the sun coming up tomorrow only as a probability is to ignore the sun’s nature and to reject reason, which exists to understand it. “Maybe the sun won’t rise” is technically true, and also calls into question whether there is a sun that has risen every morning for all of recorded history. If the sun’s nature is not responsible for this phenomenon, what is?

I, too, am like the sun. No matter how many times I’ve sinned, day in, day out, always the same, I might stop today. Inductive reason cannot tell me my nature; what I am (and thus, what I will do) is not determined by what I’ve done.

To repent is to doubt.

VII. Where does doubt come from?
The source of doubt is a Truth too great to be known.

VIII. Why We Should Be Sad That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt does not feel like repentance when you have no sight of the G-dly revelation and your faith seems to have died and to believe you can rekindle something real in your creased and blackened heart is harder in your eyes than willing eleven billion dollars into your bank account in the next thirty seconds.

IX. On the Beliefs of Skeptics
“You can never be objective since you doubt only in the context of truths you’ve already assumed,” they say. They complain that doubt is only allowed, in certain schools of thought, in the context of faith. They never complain that their school of thought only accepts faith in the context of doubt. Sanitation workers should not be purists.

X. Since All Connection Depends on Faith
Doubt is to be alone.

XI. Is Doubt a Disease?
Doubt is both better and worse than an airborne virus.

It’s worse because the typical virus doesn’t demand your help to spread, doesn’t have you measuring your friends to determine who is ready for infection. It’s better because a good friend may not only remain a good friend despite infection, but their infection may be the cure for your own.

XII. Is It Rude to Ignore My Doubts?
Like the local branch of the KKK, there’s a big difference between having doubts around and entertaining them.

XIII. Doubt As a Tool
Doubt is a sharpening stone for the blade of faith. Perhaps the sword cannot cut through the stone. Hacking away at the rock will only blunt your faith. But the practiced warrior learns the art of attacking the stone with the right motion at the correct angle. The sword gets sharper.

Perhaps even sharp enough to cut stone.

XIV. Can Amalek Be Defeated?
The Rebbe teaches that Amalek grows with you. At the beginning of your journey, there is one kind of Amalek. Years later, when you have vanquished those doubts, their more refined children still rise against you. In a way, this is freeing, since you will not demand that any one answer vanquish Amalek forever.

Amalek’s ultimate downfall comes only with the answer of Moshiach, which is not really a single answer, but the totality of an unending motion of growth, the classroom of the unknowable Truth.

XV. Who Should Doubt?
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The first line is a problem, true, but can we really say, after the 20th century especially, that it’s worse than the second?

XVI. A Lie
“If He would just reveal Himself to me, I would no longer doubt.”

XVII. Faith Is A Match for Doubt
Just as Haman is special for knowing the truth and yet rebelling against it anyway, a Jew is special for doubting the truth and devoting themselves anyway.

XVIII. Trust
There is no human social system that can survive a pervasive breach of trust. Consider the Beit Din and its laws of testimony. If witnesses cannot be believed, nothing can be believed. Doubt’s last refuge is, therefore, paranoia. Even Haman didn’t try it.

This is why when the Tzemach Tzedek told the chassid, “Believe in G-d because you believe in me, and I’ve seen Him,” it is a good answer. The day it becomes a bad answer is a very bad day.

XIX. A Summary of Everything New We’ve Learned About Doubt the Past 500 Years
Proof is useless because the soul wants certainty, which proof cannot provide.

Certainty, like doubt, will meet you where you are.

XX. The Doubt of Purim
“There is no joy like in the world like the loosening of doubts.”

Purim was not an otherworldly miracle, lighting striking Haman on the point of his triangular hat. That would not remove doubt.

Purim was having no sign of G-d, living within His utter concealment, Haman ascendant, until the moment Haman was destroyed.

Apparently, doubt, too, is His domain…



Originally posted on Hevria.


May G-d Rescue Us From Our Solutions

Based on my everyday experience, it makes sense that the creation of the world is incomprehensible.

What is this thing doing here? Why is it built on a system of soul and body, a painful contradiction seemingly unjustified by anything in the universe? Sure, there’s baseball and hating Michael Chabon, but no joy in this vale of tears is without its price.

Chief, in my reckoning, of all the challenges that G-d places before a soul on this earth is the challenge of doubt. Not the caricature portraying the vacillation between “blind faith” and the ability to “believe,” but the deeper doubt, the one that zigs faith and zags understanding to strike right at what I am.

The problem is that we become attached to things, and even though past pain has made us wise, we (even subconsciously) begin to define ourselves by our views, opinions, and moral judgments.

If we are souls in bodies, you see, these beliefs are bodies. They are not purely of our private selves, but rather various means by which to express those selves in a place our selves otherwise could not reach. We, you see, are like lightning or opera; our souls are not for bottling. We can want whatever we want with our entire being; we are one thing, and that one thing decides what it is. A soul wants (in a passing moment between agonies) to eat pizza, and the soul changes; that’s what it’s now about. The soul is not insecure. It is thoroughly itself, so self-inseparable that it can turn toward pizza and lose nothing.

But imagine being a Jew who believes that Judaism means the Torah is given by G-d, and then there are eighteen articles a day on the falseness of Judaism or (even worse) on how Judaism means never having to say you’re sorry and crying at Disney films.

This puts the body under a lot of stress. A soul, at its protean essence, can simply switch to a new, enlightened outlook. Nothing is stopping it. It may desire to see things today as no Rabbi on earth has evern seen it, and it can fulfill that desire. The soul is of the infinite; it can be about anything.

The only thing holding the soul back, just like a fat kid trying to finish the Presidential Fitness Test, is its body. Your stupid soul got invested in some stupid idea (about Judaism) and you can’t just drop it now for a more palatable cultural/pragmatic Yiddishkeit germane to the New Yorker subscriber’s pillow talk, no more than Eugene can get Presidential with his thighs chafing before his classmates captivated by the heaving mass of his bloated form.

But no, souls in bodies, this is the plan. Infinite dreams, sweaty underwear realities.

If it is any consolation, G-d put Himself in the same stupid bind by creating this world of lies and investing Himself in it. If He wanted, He could go fractally spiral his endless wisdom through infinite dimensions while the stupid world with its ugly continents can’t even do one pull-up. Instead, He is here, in every slimy dismissal and every Hamas missile. Him, Him Him. Why? Because.

Like I said, of all things to make no sense, it makes sense it would be this one.

That’s why the dream of Moshiach is so big and so unworldly. Everyone here, with their own ideas and preconceptions, seeks to either free the soul and deny the body or recognize the body and tame the soul. Some wish to tell us the body/thought is a lie, an artifact created by brainwashing. They all vote Democratic and think they’re G-d. Others laugh at the soul’s freedom and write it off as childish mishegas. They adopt Trumpisms into their speech unexamined and don’t even think G-d is G-d.

His plan is much stranger. The soul’s freedom and the body’s cage are one; will and intellect do not contradict. The idolator says a body, by its nature, inherently conveys a certain soul. The Jew knows that body and soul are each his native tongue. Just as the Rebbe did not fear technology or vessel but demanded they be used for holiness, Moshiach will show how the body does not contradict soul but is its pure and perfect expression; nature and miracle are both G-d, are only G-d; the gufei halachos and the nishmasa d’nishmasa are one. To lose the soul or the body is to die, but to find both without contradiction is to live forever.

In the meantime, we live in this exile with Jews who think nothing is more Jewish than criticizing Jews, who think that thousands of years of Jewish parents died to raise their children to reject “inmarriage” as a ghetto. We live in times when just about a whole country of Jews define Judaism as being a wilful soul without a constraining body; they do not see how they are as incarnated as the next gilgul, how they only clash with us because they, too, have bodies; souls love and do not clash. It is not the self of the soul we doubt, but the bodies she expresses through. Where she is of limitless potential, the body is of defined actuality. Where she can infinitely agree, the body cannot occupy another body’s space.

How long must we wait for this doubt to end, this endless self-harm of the body Judaic, this terminal and interminable disunity between self and inner other?  How long must there be tension between the need to unite with brother and sister and solid impermeable realities that separate us? How long must we tolerate?

We are told that it is all one, and we work to see it. We are told He wishes to be together with us even in our bodies. But how much of this can we take?

We cannot live much longer, having to choose between Jew and Judaism, between self and self.

G-d, rescue us from doubt. Destroy Amalek, let us not need to be free of your Torah nor of the selves we see in it. Let us experience the freedom of the body and the entrapment of the soul. Rescue us from our own solutions, and give us Yours, amen.



Originally posted on Hevria.

If Haman Was My Rebbe

I would never take Haman as my Rebbe, nor advise anyone else to do so. But if I did, he would tell me to stop caring about the answers.

The tragedy of Haman, his death-struggle with G-d and the Jewish people that ends with him dangling from his own gallows – it is trivialized by answers. If we seek answers there, we miss the entire point.

“If G-d really exists,” you might ask Haman (if you were stupid enough to make him your Rebbe), “why doesn’t He show Himself?”

“What then?” Haman would answer, before perpetrating some unconscionable act of genocidal violence. What then? Who cares whether He shows Himself or not?

You look at Auschwitz and ask where was G-d, as if some answer to the question will make you happy, as if with the secrets of creation spread out at your feet you would still find your question important. You do not want the release of an answer. You want the draw of the question. Understanding where G-d was would only obviate your question, reduce Auschwitz to something necessary, part of some plan. Really, your question is not searching for an answer; it is a question in search of itself. This is the type of question Haman likes.

Haman would tell you to quit your arrogance and realize your life is not ruled by answers. You do not sit in judgement of it. It is something that largely happens to you, with some rather important choices in the middle. G-d happens to Haman. Haman is a believer, in this sense. G-d is true to him. And he does not care. This is maturity.

Haman repudiates the trendy doubts of small minds, the materialisms and the atheisms, the naturalistic scientism and the happy agnosticism. These are doubts for men who don’t know. Haman is a higher class of rebel. Haman is a man who can know and doubt at the same time; this is the only true form of unbelief. His doubt is unconditional. It is an existential fact of the universe. Haman doubts the same way the sea fills its bed.

Haman sneers at petty men who, faced with the Truth, see no room but to follow it. He is a scion of Agag, a king of Amalek. When the whole world feared to raise a hand against the Hebrews and their almighty G-d, his people stood alone. There is a terrible courage to marching to certain defeat because His dominion cannot seem absolute.

The Jew is Haman’s area of expertise. He knows that in the Jew he finds his eternal enemy. Where he knows and rebels anyway, the Jew doubts and follows anyway. The Jew is doing and then understanding. The Jew cares not for the always-qualified approval of the world. The Jew does not need answers. Just like Haman.

Haman loves learning, and would insist that all his followers be great scholars. Learning is a wonderful experience, where we bring truths into our world and watch them glint in the light of our understanding. They belong to us. Haman is fond of possessions.

Haman would tell his Chassidim (could there be such a thing?!) never to miss a day of Torah study, to always say a kind word to their neighbor and always consider the less-fortunate. Haman would have no problem telling you to give charity or to contemplate the creator or to march for justice in Palestine. It’s all the same to him; whatever you want, darling. As long as you remain the one who chooses, who cares?

“Who cares?” is your mantra when every answer has a question. You could tell Haman that Amalek is only created by the G-d he believes in to pose an obstacle on the Jews’ way to redemption. “Who cares?” he would ask, before demonstrating clearly that all things which can and cannot be are equal before his true Infinity, and the story of the Jews is merely a contrivance with a beginning and an end, and he would never let you live such a superficial life. A chassid must not be bribed by the surface purposes of contingent, “meaningful” existence. Sure, being a good person is meaningful at some level, but next to eternity…don’t kid yourself, is all he’s saying. “Meaning” is a crutch. If there is something you must do, you do it regardless.

At his tish, Haman teaches: If you do something for G-d because you are certain it means something, you worship not G-d but your own certainty. It is the veil of doubt that makes G-d most real, for we then serve Him in purity. Amalek did it when it was difficult, when G-d was splitting seas and draping darkness, when they were absolutely certain. So a Jew must do it when it’s difficult, when G-d is hidden, when Achashverosh is the clear power in the world.

When Mordechai does not bend and does not bow, Haman understands it perfectly. The Jew cannot be bought with power. They cannot be bought with physical pleasures. They cannot be bought with “meaning,” a life of purpose in the court of a great king. They are stiff-necked and cling stubbornly to the Truth; they will serve G-d, no matter how desolated the holy city, no matter how bitter the exile. There is no way to tear them from this task. Genocide is a quick solution kludged together when all else fails.

Haman, in his plot, brings out the very best of the Jew. They are two halves, and if Haman were (G-d forbid) a teacher of G-d’s wisdom, he would dare his followers to be every bit as committed, every bit as tenacious, as his genocidal plot indicates. He would encourage them in their worship.

In fact, Haman would be happy with the entire Judaism. Except for Purim, of course.

Haman hates Purim, because Purim makes from Haman a Rebbe. Everything is reversed, the chain reaction of his doubt is shown to be a recursive loop in the mind of G-d; it is infinite, He is in it.

He hates Purim, because on Purim it is not the individual who chooses, but G-d who chooses, and G-d can choose anything.

He can choose to make the world mean something.

He can choose to make Mitzvos mean something.

He can choose to know (and so create) the Unity beneath all dualities, and so do away with any dramatic and eternal rivalries. He can make Amalek not some great enemy, but merely another iteration of the same message, another sign.

And He does it all without showing his face, without breaking the doubt.

The doubt is in place.

Yet Haman certainly dies.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Question

“Whip the horses until they know they are horses.” “Whip the horses until they cease to be horses!” – Two versions of the words that inspired Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi to stay in Mezritch and continue his study of chassidus.

~2500 years ago, Pythagoras proved his famous theorem with demonstration strong as prophecy. To this day, the majority of the public who never uses geometry after freshman year still knows that A squared plus B squared equals C squared. This, at least, can be relied upon. The Greeks knew it well. Brilliant men such as Pythagoras and Plato formed (pun!) a religious attachment to mathematics and its truth that nowadays, despite our vastly increased knowledge, seems kind of off. Oh, how the heart in the grips of terror and despair leaps to behold the square on the hypotenuse, a solid form in the midst of so much shifting doubt, the rock of our deliverance!

We may laugh, but we should mourn. It is a terrible tragedy that we have kept the theorem but lost what made it sacred to wise men’s eyes. Indeed, it is perhaps our greatest tragedy. Much of our current confusion is due to a surplus of answers to questions we have never asked. Just as the average man today has possesses riches King Midas could not dream of, we each, through advances both in knowledge and communication, have access to information that would drop Pythagoras to his knees. It does not drop us to our knees or draw our eyes heavenward because, again, like our physical wealth, our knowledge floats around us in a sort of unidirectional nimbus, a halo of stuff that just is, its purpose mysterious. The wealth of Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to sit there awkwardly, immodestly huge, unable to insist on a particular purpose, because after all knowledge is just knowledge and though I can tell you more about triangles than Euclid ever suspected I cannot tell you why it’s important. Though Plato knew less math, he knew what question his math answered and thus he consecrated it.

In losing the questions, our answers cease to seem like answers at all.

I propose that, generally speaking, we are lost in a doubled darkness. Darkness, because we don’t know the question the triangle answers. And a deeper darkness, because even if we had the questions, we wouldn’t know which questions the questions answered. In other words, when we think of this whole business of answers and their questions, we may feel that it’s not so bad. After all, we still have the answers, the facts, whole and complete, and the main role of the questions was to make the answers seem meaningful, to help Plato sleep easier at night. But that’s not how Plato, nor Aristotle, nor, l’havdil, the Rambam saw it. On the contrary — the question that draws forth “the answer” of any creation (what we might in Kabbalah call its chochma) is one of its causes and ultimately the thing that gives it not just meaning to the observer but Meaning in the scheme of creation. Indeed, the notion that each question of a limited nature is the answer to yet another (higher-order) question eventually led even the philosophers of pagan societies toward the existence of something which simply is in-and-of itself, and is not the answer to any further question…

So our path back into the light of understanding, for the Pythagorean theorem or anything else, is to learn the question and then to see how the question is essential to the answer.

Take, for example, the terse teaching of the Baal Shem Tov I wrote about last year at this time“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.”

It is entirely possible to know this teaching for years and even think about it often without ever knowing what question it answers. I’ve done it.

It’s not just the question of whether G-d has divine providence over everything. If that were all, the teaching would just say that. It appears that “everything” is not enough; we must hear about a leaf in a breeze, and the leaf in the breeze is not itself merely analogous to “everything.” What is the significance of the leaf?

The significance of the leaf is its insignificance. We are learning that G-d cares about the leaf in the wind because something about the leaf implies G-d shouldn’t care about it. The Baal Shem Tov doesn’t teach that “Every single hand you are dealt in poker is ordained by G-d,” or “Every wheel that falls off one’s wagon is divinely decided.” Such teachings imply a question predicated on a deterministic universe, where the antithesis of divine providence is luck or happenstance. The question would be, “Does G-d rule over even the things that seem random?” and the answer would be yes. Instead, we have a leaf turning in the wind, an example we wouldn’t normally consider luck or happenstance because we barely consider it an occurrence. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov’s question, as betrayed by his example, is, “Does G-d rule over even the lowly, insignificant creations?” and the answer is yes. In short — Q: Does G-d have time for my frivolities? A: G-d has time even for a leaf.

The difference between the actual question and the possible question is vast. The Baal Shem Tov is not asking whether G-d has control over those things which seem given over to chance or nature. This would implicitly acknowledge a dichotomy between the things that we think must happen (e.g., our rug must stay on the living room floor and not levitate us to a whole new world) and things where, well, the Creator can fudge the numbers (I get a straight instead of a full house), and we would be answering that both deterministic nature and “chance” are ruled over by one G-d. Compare to the leaf in the wind, in which the implication is a hierarchy of significance, that G-d would seem to care more about the Truth or human beings or animals than He does about a single part of a single plant, and we insist that, in fact, even the unimportant things are important to Him.

It is the difference between whether we have as our baseline a universe of unranked answers, or a universe of answers demanding questions which demand further questions. To say G-d cares even about a poker hand is to have as our question whether anything is truly random, to look at the universe as a collection of facts possibly attributable to a different cause than the apparent one. But to say G-d cares even about a leaf is to have as our question whether the inherent hierarchy of the universe, the fact that some things are greater and better than others, is reflective of G-d’s involvement in the creation — that better things are close to Him, and smaller/worse/lesser things are far. The first approach says that everything matters because nothing matters because the hierarchy is an illusion. The second approach says that the hierarchy is true but G-d still cares about everything, and you work out the contradiction.

If the teaching were about playing cards or wagon wheels, we might think that G-d treats differently with necessity and happenstance, and the Baal Shem Tov comes to teach us that he cares equally for both. Really, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us something far deeper and more profound — that there is a G-d utterly unbound by nature, and a universe of occurrences that spirals forth from the creator in ranks of importance, purpose, and meaning. It is only logical that G-d should care more about an angel or the form of a triangle than a single leaf in the wind. It is only logical that He should care more about the question than the answer.

The Baal Shem Tov comes and teaches us that G-d cares even about the answers, about the brute facts, about our dead triangle, and not just Plato’s sacred one. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that even now, at the end of history, in the multilayered dark, the appearance of chaos and questionless answers is false, because even the answers come directly from G-d, and what at first glance seems unimportant is as G-dly as the Infinite Light.

We live in a time when our answers have forgotten they are answers. The Baal Shem Tov’s question, about the significance of that which seems insignificant, reminds the answer that it is an answer, that G-d cares about even the irrelevant leaf. But now that the G-d cares about the leaf, how insignificant is it really? The need for the question, for viewing the leaf as a tiny creation in a universe of vastly more important beings, is eliminated. The leaf, by the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, has gained its own direct connection to G-d; its own soul is on display.

The answer has been whipped and forgotten it’s an answer, much like the unmoved mover who creates and sustains the world, and even the darkness has become light.


Originally posted on Hevria.