Rabbi Sacks on Doubt
Jinsider (March 2010)
The place of doubt in Judaism is very interesting because most people define faith as certainty. I define faith as the courage to live with uncertainty.
We don’t, for a moment, believe that the existence of God is so obvious and overwhelming that you’ve got to be crazy not to believe in God. And this is dramatised in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus. There’s Pharaoh, who doesn’t believe in God. And God sends plague after plague, sign after sign. And he still doesn’t believe in God. And I love the interpretation, it’s a medieval interpretation, that phrase, that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” And most people say that means God took away Pharaoh’s freewill. But one commentator says, No, God had to keep giving Pharaoh freewill. He strengthened his heart. Because otherwise, God would be on him like a tonne of bricks, and he’d have no place for doubt. And God wanted Pharaoh to be free to doubt His existence, so He strengthened his heart.
The truth is it’s pretty obvious that you can look at the world and find it meaningless. You can look at the world and find it meaningful. And if you’re looking for a life without doubt, without risk, and without uncertainty, stop living because you cannot really live without taking risks.
In fact, the Bible makes it pretty clear that God took a massive risk when He created humanity, and that risk didn’t play out terribly well because by Genesis chapter six, God regrets that He ever created man in the first place and it grieved Him to His very heart.
A key sentence for me, and one of the most beautiful in the whole of Judaism, occurs early in the book of Jeremiah, we said on Rosh Hashanah, zecharti lach chesed neureiyich, “I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal.” Leich teich acharei bamidbar be’eretz lo zeruah, “how you were willing to follow Me into an unknown, uncertain land.”
Jeremiah is saying God loves the Jewish people because they had the courage to take a risk, to go into a place they’d never seen before with no map and no roads, just the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. Judaism means the courage to take a risk. If you lack the courage to take a risk, you will never get married. If you get married, you will never have a child. If you’re a businessman, you will never start a new business. The whole of life is facing the unknown because even though we can look up to the heaven and see 100 billion galaxies, each of 100 billion stars. And when you can look within us at the human genome with its 3.1 billion letters of genetic code, we can know everything, but there was one thing we will never know: what tomorrow will bring.
We face an unknown and unknowable future. That means that every single course of action we take, every commitment has its underside of doubt. It’s the ability to acknowledge that doubt and yet say, nonetheless, I will take a risk.
That is what faith is. Not the absence of doubt, but the ability to recognise doubt, live with it and still take the risk of commitment.