Reasonable Doubts Blog


A Fresh Look At Doubt

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 6th, 2010

Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Prof. Howard Wettstein, professor of philosophy at University of California. When I first walked into the room I was struck by the audience.  The first person I saw was a tall middle-aged man with a long gray beard, misshapen black hat, dusty black suit, and Crocs with no socks. I thought I might be in the wrong room but he indicated to me that this was indeed the room designated for the lecture. The crowd that would eventually fill the room was diverse, Some men wore black suits and black hats, others were in jeans and tee shirts. Some women were in shorts and flip flops, others in long skirts and hair coverings.  The subject of the lecture, “Doubt – A mode of religious life,” was clearly a subject that crossed religious sociological boundaries.

Dr. Wettstein was a middle-aged man, balding head, white mustache and beard, and a kind face. He explained that while his teaching formerly focused on technical philosophy, he recently began to focus on philosophy of religion. He opened his lecture by telling us a bit about his background. He grew up in a secular Jewish home, but decided to attend Yeshiva University which is where he received his first exposure to religious Judaism. He fell in love with the learning and the lifestyle and he graduated from Rav Moshe Besdin’s starter’s shiur to Rav Aharom Lichtenstein’s shiur and eventually he studied briefly under Rav Soloveitchik. But while he was enamored with the learning he always entertained doubts. He never quite understood how he could prove that Orthodox Judaism was more true than any other way of life. He met with his rabbanim often but eventually decided that he needed to leave orthodoxy.

He studied philosophy and became an academician. When he reached his forties he went through a transformation. He explains that a certain sentence in Heschel caught his attention. Heschel says that the word “belief” is not found in the Tanach. The concept is prominent in both Christianity and Islam, but does not exist in classical Judaism. The Torah speaks of Fear of God and Love of God, but not belief. This led him to ask himself – if religious Judaism is not a system of beliefs, what is it? He explained that for thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel religion is an “affective attitude” – it’s a stance or responsiveness one has to life and to God. It’s a relationship.

Dr. Wettstein explained this theory further by comparing it to a Greek model. He said that loving God in medieval rationalism, which is largely based on Greek philosophy, means something very different from loving God in the Torah. In medieval rationalism God is the most perfect being. How can you love something so perfect and beyond you? Loving God for medieval rationalists means worshiping perfection. This type of love has no reciprocity.

The Torah portrays love of God very differently. If we look in Shir Ha’Shirim we see love of God is modeled on human love. It involves a relationship. Dr. Wettstein’s point is that when we look at religion from the viewpoint of medieval rationalism (as most people do) we see a very different portrait of religion from the one actually portrayed in the Torah. And the viewpoint of the rationalists which makes God into the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being, makes God into something we can’t have a relationship with.  Dr. Wettstein’s proposal is that in order to understand religious Judaism we must abandon the widely accepted views of the medievals like the Rambam and embrace the anthropomorphic language of the the Torah.

Dr. Wettstein went on to explain that often the most passionate part of a relationship is when you try to fix a rift in it. Doubt is the rift in our relationship with God and ironically it might be the most dynamic part of a person’s religious life. Perhaps this is what God truly seeks.

Dr. Wettstein provided me with a unique perspective on doubt. We generally view doubt as a negative experience. It is something we need to conquer, to resolve. But Dr. Wettstein’s point is a good one. Our most passionate exploration of religion and God emerges from doubt. Our deepest sense of desire for God emerges from the fact that we aren’t sure there is a God. So often in Judaism as in every relationship things stop sizzling. They become rote and unfeeling. Doubt shakes things up. It forces you to perceive God from a different perspective. It forces you to accept what you couldn’t accept before – the paradox of faith. Accepting paradoxes in life is an uncomfortable thing to do. But maybe it’s good to be uncomfortable with religion so that you don’t become too comfortable with it.

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4 Responses to 'A Fresh Look At Doubt'

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  1. Danny said,

    on July 7th, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Excellent post! I think this attitude is extremely enlightening and really broaden our religious horizons.

    However, just for the sake of accuracy, I’m a bit bothered by the following sentence:
    “Dr. Wettstein’s point is that when we look at religion from the viewpoint of medieval rationalism (as most people do) we see a very different portrait of religion from the one actually portrayed in the Torah.”

    Yes, people who are philosophically trained and ensconced in a world of western intellectualism might think of G-d this way. Also, traditional Jews who learn their Jewish thought and gemera from the same place (the medieval Jewish thinkers) might be inclined towards this belief.

    However, if you look beyond this small group, there are groups where both the leaders and lay-people think and speak about G-d in this way. My personal exposure on a large scale has been mostly to Chabad/Breslover/Carlbachian chasidum, but I’m sure its a larger group.

    Also, a number of modern Jewish thinkers (Heschel, Berkowitz, Soloveitchik and Hartman, to name a few) deal with this issue and anyone exposed/inclined towards such thought would have encountered this before.

    Nonetheless, I do find the insight about the nature and role of doubt in religious development insightful.


  2. on July 17th, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you for your clarification, Danny. I accept that my Jewish world view is somewhat limited to Jews who view religion through highly intellectual lenses. I think that is why I fell so completely in love with the existentialism of Rav Soloveitchik that you mention in your comment. In may ways I am envious of your Chassidic background.

    I am sorry it took me so long to post your comment. I’ve been a bit under the weather.

  3. Jon said,

    on July 18th, 2010 at 12:25 am

    I’m not sure if taking Wettstein’s views to their conclusions is helpful for Torah Jews. Your summary hints at Wettstein *eliminating* said beliefs about God and replacing them with an attitude. Seems as though Wettstein’s actual arguments need to be discarded in favor of the conclusion that we can actually make use of.


  4. on July 18th, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Jon-
    I can see from my summary how you could read that into Wettstein’s theory but my take on Wettstein is a bit different. I don’t think Wettstein would be in favor of eliminating beliefs about God at all. I think he is responding to a certain reality. That reality is that there are many Jews out there who go through periods of faith crisis. Wettstein is simply studying these periods of crises, particularly periods from his own life, and acknowledging that these periods have been very powerful ones in terms of religious life. Would Wettstein shake up other people’s belief systems so that they can experience this powerful religious experience? ( I think this is the question you are asking.) It’s an interesting question, and nobody confronted him with it that night, But I sincerely doubt that he would. It is a very risky proposition. I think he is just making an interesting point about periods of doubt. He is describing not prescribing. His description is helpful for those who are going through faith crises to understand what they are going through and possibly why.

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