Friday, June 01, 2007

Doubt as Belief


In R. Norman Lamm's classic essay "Faith and Doubt", he makes a number of arguments but I believe his primary point is that there is value in grappling with one's faith rather than merely abandoning it. I think it boils down to the following story about the Kotzker Rebbe. (As I heard it:) A chassid went to the Kotzker Rebbe and said, "Rebbe, you have to help me. I can no longer believe." The rebbe replied, "So what do you care?" His point, like R. Lamm's, is that struggling with belief is in itself partial belief and an important part of the road to complete faith.

R. Lamm attempts to intellectually define this point and in doing so he breaks doubt into three types:

  1. Spurious doubt is merely a "specious excuse that spares the doubter the need to commit himself." It is the thoughtless repetition of a mantra.
  2. Methodological doubt is the temporary suspension of belief for the purpose of an intellectual argument.
  3. Substantive doubt is the state of having such a burning question that it overtakes one's thoughts.
For example, a high school student who innocently asks a question about history is engaging in methodological doubt. If he is obssessed with the issue, then he is engaged in substantive doubt.

R. Lamm suggests that R. Sa'adia Gaon, in the introduction to his Emunos Ve-De'os (1:3), allows for a methodological doubt. He also points out that every intellectual argument for faith in Jewish philosophical literature includes a methodological doubt for the sake of establishing a proof. Thus, the above high school student who merely asks a question is not a heretic.

After establishing that, R. Lamm makes a radical leap forward. He says that there has been a change from the medieval times in the concept of knowledge, it once being considered separate from a person's being but now being considered part of a relationship between the knower and the object being known. Therefore, even methodological doubt is a change in the person engaging in it, similar to substantive doubt. Since we have medieval permission to engage in methodological doubt, based on this change in understanding we must now have permission to engage in substantive doubt as well. Therefore, even the obssessed student, who is overtaken with substantive doubt, need not feel that he is outside of the Jewish religion. Even he has religious sanction to grapple with the doubts he has.

I would suggest that perhaps this leap can be challenged. It could be argued that while based on the medieval understanding methodological doubt was permissible, now that our epistomology hs changed even methodological is no longer allowed.

Dr. Joshua Golding wrote a critique of "Faith and Doubt" that was published in Tradition 26:3 (1992). Among his many arguments, he points out that R. Sa'adia Gaon was most likely discussing not methodological doubt but substantive doubt. Therefore, R. Lamm's further step was unnecessary and my counter-argument irrelevant.

Dr. Golding makes some other good points. For example, he divides methodological doubt into two categories:
  • Weak methodological doubt, which is setting aside belief for the sake of argument but remaining within it constraints for the outcome of one's argument.
  • Strong methodological doubt, which is arguing entirely outside of belief, regardless of where it may take you.
He suggests that there is no basis to justify strong methodological doubt.

Dr. Golding further argues that R. Sa'adia Gaon's position is that (substantive) doubt has a role in learning, but that does not automatically mean that it is religiously legitimate. Perhaps someone who doubts is a heretic but in the process of removing that status by learning. Therefore, if one rejects R. Lamm's proof from Rashi, one is left with only the idea that doubt can lead to good. In truth, I don't know that this is so far from R. Lamm's position.

Dr. Golding then infers a further argument from R. Lamm's words. He suggests that the process of learning that R. Sa'adia Gaon discusses is part of the mitzvah of "Da'as Hashem" -- knowing God. Therefore, one who has substantive doubts about God is obligated to struggle with those doubts as part of the mitzvah of believing. However, even this does not prove that someone with substantive doubt is not a heretic. It only shows what halakhah requires of such a person, even if he is a non-believer. (Although I think that rather than calling such a person a "non-believer", it would be better to term him a "not-yet-full-believer.")

Yet, the entire discussion has, I think, enforced R. Lamm's essential point that Judaism has room for, and has even anticipated, people with substantive doubt. They need not feel like they have abandoned their religion but must, instead, follow what halakhah requires them to do with their doubt.

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