Reasonable Doubts Blog


Can Doubt be Part of Faith?

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 7th, 2010

In my last blog I spoke of an interview that I came across in the Bilblical Archaeological Review. I found a few interesting statements within the interview but one that stands out was made by James F. Strange an archaeologist and a Baptist minister. I admit that when I first read his statement I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. He said, “I think I would say that faith/unfaith is a false dichotomy. I think faith always contains elements of unfaith and vice versa..” It wasn’t until I read an article by Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, that I began to comprehend what Strange was getting at.

Dr. Lamm’s article entitled “Faith and Doubt” deals with the subject of faith crisis in Judaism. In one section he explores the concept of doubt in halakhah. He quotes a Gemara from Shabbat 31A which tells the story of a non-Jew who approached Shammai and declared that he only believed in the Written Law, not the Oral. When he asked Shammai to convert him and teach him Written Law, Shammai refused. But when he approached Hillel with the same request Hillel accepted. Hillel converted this non-Jew and then convinced him of the veracity of the Oral Law by getting the non-Jew to rely on him.

According to Rashi, Shamai rejected the non-Jew’s proposal because of the law that if a proselyte wants to be converted and he accepts the whole Torah with the exclusion of one item he is not accepted. But Hillel viewed this non-Jew differently. Hillels saw this non-Jew as someone who did not deny the validity if the Oral Law, just it’s Divine origin. And Hillel was sure that he could convince this non-Jew of the Divine Origin of the Oral Law by getting him to rely on Hillel.

Rabbi Lamm reads this gemara as distinguishing between one who denies and one who doubts. Someone who outright denies has incorrect convictions; one who doubts has no strong conviction and is willing to be taught. One who denies is an apikores and cannot be converted; one who doubts is searching for the Truth and is welcomed into klal yisrael.. Rabbi Lamm incorporates doubt into an acceptable halakhic category and then goes one step further and says, “faith, in its cognitive sense, is the tension between itself and doubt.”

Incorporating doubt into the definition of faith is an important step. It speaks to the dichotomies of faith, the tensions that are so often aroused within a person of faith. Abraham doubted God’s justice when God wished to destroy Sodom. Moshe doubted God’s wisdom when He chose Moshe to be the leader of the nation. Iyov doubted God’s existence when his property, children, and health were taken from him. These are all very human reactions to very human events. These are all a natural part of a life of faith.

As an integral part of faith, doubt serves the purpose of defining and refining the concept of faith for the individual. When Abraham doubted God’s justice God gave him a mini-course in the workings of His justice. Questions often lead to new revelations and doubt becomes the means through which one ultimately strengthens his faith.  Faith and Doubt it seems are actually two sides of the same coin.

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