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On Faith, Doubt and Fundamentalism – Parshat Vaera 5775

For a printable PDF please click here: Pasrhat Vaera 5775

Introduction: Events of the past week

Though we have been saying it for years, though we knew there would come a time in the not so distant future that life for Jews in Europe would become intolerable, when it actually happens it is always shocking.  The events of the last week have left us trembling and  appalled. How can these people attest to be acting in the name of God? How can any religion justify such unscrupulous acts of violence? And yet there is a small unrelenting voice in the back of my head that asks myself if in fact it is precisely the ‘religious’ elements of their beliefs that justifies these acts.  It sits there as a deeply hidden fear that maybe we are no different?  Maybe if we too believe in an absolute truth, a total and unapologetic conception of reality, could we not also justify killing others if we believe it aids our own religious ends?

I know that in our religion the value of life supercedes almost anything else.  I know that for the Jewish faith compassion and kindness are the cornerstones of our law system.  But yet I want something more, something that gives me space for flexibility and movement.  Something that allows me to see myself in a totally different weltanschauung to those knife wielding trigger happy enemies.  This is how I see it.  Any one group who believes that they possess the ONLY notion of truth, and who is unable to make space for another’s view or opinion, will undoubtedly end in extremism and violence.  Whether it is fundamental Islam, communism, fascism, or even extreme liberalism; if I cannot listen to the other, make space for a truth that is not my own, or leave room for uncertainty, violence will be the undisputable consequence.  I believe as ever our Torah provides an answer to those voices that haunt me.

Garden of Eden and the introduction of Doubt

Certainty leads to extremism.  If I believe that I, and only I, own the one truth and that everyone must think as I do, I will always have a justification for any action that leads to that end.  I believe that much of God’s lessons to mankind throughout Tanach are built on the importance of leaving open space for ‘uncertainty’.  Our ancient forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, all had to live with uncertainty in their lives.  Each one, through the individual events of their lives, were taught to exist in a realm of uncertainty.  Yes they were given promises by God, but the promises belonged to a distant future, the question of their fulfilment was always uncertain.  Each of the forefathers encountered almost intolerable challenges that beckoned them to the call of the Divine, the call to the uncertainty of their future and their existence.  It summoned them to a life of faith and action in the face of uncertainty. They were not the last, Yonah, Iyov, Eliyahu, each of the these individuals are taught important lessons on the imperative of questioning certainties.[1]

This message begins at the eve of mankind in the garden of Eden.   When the serpent – the Nachash -tempts Chava with the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it acts as the scientist might.  It questions the validity of The Law Giver.  It says to Chava – though God has told you that you will die, it will not really happen.  You will not die if you eat from the tree of knowledge.  Before they eat from the tree Adam and Chava live in a utopian universe.  A world where there are no doubts or uncertainties.  There is the authority of God who  gives them the simple command to guard the Garden.  There are no complexities or differentiations.  Everything is good, everything is harmonious.  Nothing is out of place.  The Nachashנחש , which has the same Hebrew root as the word לנחש – to guess/doubt, is the instigator of rebellion, it creates a doubt, an uncertainty in the minds of Adam and Chava.[2]  It tempts them with the key to knowledge and certainty.  ‘You too can be a God’, it says to them, ‘You too can be immortal, knowing Good and Evil’.  And so they eat from the tree, and by doing so they enter into the world of complexity, differentiation, good and evil, light and dark.  In an attempt to be like God, to ‘know’ for sure, they open instead the door to a world that takes them to a realm of uncertainty, a world that cannot be easily subsumed into boxes and categorise, and an existence that we cannot easily control.   In leaving the utopia of Eden, we enter into the reality of human existence, and with that the uncertainty of our future and cognitive structures.

By planting a doubt in our minds, the Nachash wanted us to believe that knowledge would lead to certainty.  By opening Pandora’s box and shifting us away from an existence of total obedience, to one of choice and uncertainty, the Nachash wanted to enlarge man’s boundaries.

God instead of enlarging the boundaries,  sends us outside the boundaries.  He creates a new paradigm of reality that not only opens our eyes to differentiation, diversity and  disparity, but also to the fact that part of living as human beings is to live with an element of uncertainty.  He send us outside of Eden, and commands us to work the land, to plant seeds, to endure the pain of childbirth and rearing.  In His mandate to man, He makes space for knowledge, but also for uncertainty.  God creates the scientist but also the philosopher.  He shows us a world that needs definitions but also a world that defies definitions;  a world of meaning and a world of futility.

In many ways the Israelites exit from Egypt follows a similar pattern.  Having been relegated to a demeaning existence whose essence was to simply follow orders from a despotic authority, they too live in a world bereft of choice and will.  Though perhaps not the utopia of Eden, it is a world whose sole meaning is tied to heeding to the voice of authority; all is provided, man need only be obedient to the command, he does not need to think or to choose.

Through exiting Eden and Egypt, man is given true freedom.  Laid before him is a world filled with choice, with a multitude of paths ad diversity.  Man must learn to think for himself.  He must educate himself so that the choices he makes are right.  He is presented with good and evil, a plethora of options that all claim to be the ‘truth’.  He wants this freedom, he craves it.  He wants to be like God – to know Good and Bad.   But slowly he realises that with freedom  of action comes consequences of action, with knowledge comes responsibility.  And with the search for certainty a disquieting feeling of doubt.  Mankind discovers this slowly throughout the Bible, the children of Israel discover this through events in the books of Shemot and Bamidbar.  In taking the people out of Egypt and sending man and women out of Eden, God is creating a paradigm that protests total unadulterated obedience to one  thing and one thought and one conception of reality.  It is a lesson in complexity and uncertainty, in thinking and process and a theme that unfolds dramatically in this week’s Torah reading.

The snake and Moshe’s stick

Religion in the ancient world, took on more the form of a superstitious belief system than the dogmatic religion of modern times.  Belief in the gods and worship of them through fulfilling their will, would certainly lead to man’s own desires being answered.  If man could control the gods he would be able to reap the benefits..   Later scientists and philosophical rationalists took the place of the gods.  They also attempted to place the world in man-made cognitive structures and boxes, so as to grasp through cognition our reality and hence ultimately control it.  Science, physics, mathematics, logic, these are all ‘certainties’ that cannot be contested.  It is with these certainties that man attempted to govern his existence.

In an almost parallel track, religion also become a means by which one could control ones fate.  Belief in the dogmas or superstitions preached by the Clergy promised a good life, if not in this world then in the world to come. If man only believed in the absolute truths, religion offered and practised the rule of law it preached, man would achieve eternal redemption.

What all these different beliefs (and I call science a belief) offered were means for man to return to the Garden of Eden, and maybe even to a existence of slavery in Egypt, where I cling to a certainty without any room for reflection or reservation.  In some cases it leads to extreme secularism in others extreme religious fundamentalism, but really they are different sides of the same coin.

In this week’s Parsha Moshe is commanded to take his stick and use it to prove to the Egyptians beyond all doubt that the Israelite God is THE God.  Not unlike many great empires and ideologies after them, the Egyptians believed absolutely in the flawlessness of the Empire.  Their Chartumim – Magicians were the means for ‘proving’ that the gods of the ancient world were alive and kicking.  Magic was another superstition by which I am able to control the gods and my fate.

God commands Moshe to fight like with like.  It is impossible to transform the mindset of a people overnight.  Both the Egyptians and the Israelites were embedded in this way of thinking, and hence to prove His divinity God must ‘disprove’ their gods.  He must render a doubt in the certainty of their magic and their gods.  In creating this doubt, He leaves open the option for faith.   The verse tell us that Moshe’s staff turned into a serpent which consumed the serpents of the Egyptian magicians.

‘When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then thou shalt say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.’ 10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so, as the LORD had commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. 12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. (Shemot 7)

In a stunt enacted to create absolute belief in the One God, the narrative subtly but discernibly invites the reader to rethink the very message of the spectacle itself.

The proof is an invitation to doubt.  The serpent, the paradigm of certainty, is also the origin of doubt.  The reality he purports to present, is in fact not real, and the consequences of that reality are doubt itself.  When Chava listens to the serpent, in an attempt to be like God, she in fact is introduced to a world of self doubt, where things are not as they seem, where knowledge is not certain, and hidden layers emerge.  Perhaps in an attempt to know it all, to achieve a total certainty, to prove beyond all doubt, we become the very paragon of doubt itself.[3]

Yes it was a necessary evil, but as the serpent proves, an evil that comes with consequences.  It is not surprising that the first generation do not enter Israel, because they did not believe.  How could they not believe? After everything they saw, everything God did for them? Is it possible that generation were ‘doubting’?  Of course it is.  Because in a world where we do not leave space for doubt, where we are unflinchingly cling onto the our absolutes, is a reality that will necessarily start cracking when the miracles or proof run out.  If however we understand that part of being human is that we do not understand everything, that perhaps there are truths that exist beyond our own four cubits, that belief is not about proving beyond all doubt, but acting despite my doubt, then religion can’t ever give way to fundamentalism.

It is this I believe that is the very foundation of God’s brit with mankind and the people of Israel.  A covenant can only work when both partners are entering into it as free agents.  A covenant that is obtained through compulsion, without choice, is not a covenant at all, but force.  Hence to truly be God’s partners in this world, we had to learn to live without the miracles and the proofs, we had to in a sense move beyond the miracles, to become free willed individuals.   Part of moving beyond, leaving Eden and Egypt, is that a space for doubt and uncertainty is created, and though we often see that as negative, I believe it is actually at the very heart of our faith.  For without it, we would never question ourselves and our actions, we could never question when our laws contradict our innate ethical sensibilities; instead we would justify all means for our absolute ends.

The Brit-covenant- that begins with Avraham and see its culmination at Har Sinai, is faith that God has in man as much as man in God.  It is a faith whose essence is not absolute unwavering obedience that coerces other to believe my truth through power and force, but acting as free willed individuals to work with God towards rectifying the world.

The serpent entices us to choose absolute knowledge.  It wants us to be ‘Like God’ knowing good and evil.  It wants us to believe in absolutism and hence justifies all means including violence that accomplish our ends.   To be man means to be mortal, humbled by the mystery of existence.  It means making space for the Other that is not like me, and acknowledging the limits of my cognition. It is to believe with perfect faith that I am not perfect, and neither is my knowledge.  In this assumption lies the greatest antidote to fanaticism and the answer to those who claim ‘religion is the problem’.  In fact true belief that makes space for others that don’t think like I do, is actually the answer and the response to the dark forces that plague the world today.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov

[1] See where i address this theme in the Yonah and Abraham narratives. Iyov needs expounding in depth but suffice to say that Gods reaction to Iyov is immersed in a the notion of living without answers.  Eliyahu believes in ‘proving’ God beyond all reasonable doubt at Har Carmel.  At Har Chorev God comes to denounces the fire and light show, and offer a new paradigm of faith that makes space for an inner voice, a silence and a listening to the other and finding God in the hidden not in tne revealed, which of course means being open to doubt and uncertainty.

[2] This word play i saw in the book The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader by Aaron Wildavsky

[3] It is fascinating to note that the reason Moshe cannot enter the land has its source in his misuse of his stick.  The imperative on his part to use the magic to prove to the people God’s existence is  mistake for the second generation, because that generation are beyond magic.  For them God no longer resides in the miracles but in the word.  Hence he must speak to the rock and not hit it with the stick.

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