This I Believe

Rabbi Jim - Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
Entered on July 9, 2007

I believe in the sacred power of doubt.

We need to doubt again, not to undermine what we know, but to find our flawed roots, which are grounded in the sacred. Doubt in a sacred context is holy. The greatest of religious leaders including Abraham and Moses had a sense of doubt that informed their relationship with God and with other humans. They experienced some doubt in themselves, and had to find a way through that doubt to become instruments of the sacred.

When I was sixteen I became confirmed at my synagogue. My rabbi made us memorize our confirmation pledge, and the line in that pledge that rang softly then, and whose volume increases today is, “Out of sincere doubt comes honest conviction.” I believe that the way back to honest conviction is through the power and humility found in doubt.

As a rabbi, people routinely ask me questions with the expectation of an answer. I try to always begin my answers by gauging a sense of their doubt. This may seem to be an odd statement. However, as I look out into people’s lives and souls and hear of their daily troubles, too often I recognize the lack of humility one finds in being able to be whole and yet doubt at the same time. We are too needy of absolute assurance in our lives. It reaches to the point where we either believe in it or rationalize it to a point where we are willing to die based on our beliefs. While we need belief and proof as individuals, doubt continues to be a key ingredient in understanding ourselves as humans and living a meaningful life by acknowledging that our lives are, at some level, a fascinating mystery.

Doubt is a powerful ally today for the soul of our society. We are trapped in a world that seeks to explain and prove. We want to believe or have absolute confidence, and doubt just gets in the way. Once this pursuit was considered an annoyance, but now it has risen to the level of a secular sin. Watching the events of our day, whether the war in Iraq or a bad reality TV show, one item absent from the discussion is doubt. To doubt the value of the sacrifice of our brave soldiers is now a sin, to doubt the veracity of global warming was also a sin, and now our problem is that when we don’t doubt, we lack the primary tool to find humility. Too often we find ourselves increasingly tied to ideas and policies that are destroying our notion of being humans who are flawed, yet sacred. As Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” If to err is human, shouldn’t becoming aware of doubt be one of our greatest expressions of our humanity? The ability to embrace our humanity is found in our humility.

I believe in the sacred power of doubt.