Faith and Doubt Reconsidered
This article originally appeared in Tradition 26:3 (1992).
In his article, “Faith and Doubt,” originally published in Tradition more than twenty years ago,1 Rabbi Norman Lamm addressed, from a traditional Jewish perspective, the problem of to what extent and in what manner it is legitimate or permissible to doubt religious doctrines. Although one would expect this somewhat provocative article to have elicited more reaction from thinking, committed Jews,2 it appears never to have received the scholarly treatment it so richly deserves. One reason for revisiting this article at the present time is the recent publication of Torah Umadda3, where R. Lamm defends the legitimacy of the study of Madda within the framework of traditional Judaism. Clearly, any proponent of synthesis of Torah and Madda must have something to say about to what extent, if any, doubt is legitimate within this framework. Although R. Lamm does respond in his book4 to the objection that exposure to Madda may lead to kefira or denial of religious doctrines, he does not directly address the status of doubt (as opposed to denial). For this we have to reconsider his position in “Faith and Doubt.”
At the outset, R. Lamm describes the intended audience and aims of his paper:
What is here presented is addressed . . . to one who locates himself within the circle of tradition and faith, and finds himself challenged, attacked, besieged byand attracted to the skepticism and denial that reign outside and beckon him to abandon his sanctuary…. He has, factually, entertained doubts, willingly or unwillingly, and he finds his world threatened. Has he, by virtue of his doubting, merely lost his innocence, or is he thereby automatically excluded from the community of believers? Can one legitimately, from the perspective of his Jewish faith, permit himself to be seized by doubts? (p.3)
In order to address these problems, R. Lamm distinguishes various “forms of faith” and “types of doubt.” Cognitive faith involves the intellectual acceptance of religious doctrines, or, to put it another way, the “belief that” certain statements (e.g., God exists, God created the world, God gave the Torah to Israel, etc.) are true. Affective faith involves an emotional investment of trust or “belief in” God. Finally, functional faith involves the behavioral expression of this trust in action (i.e., in the performance of mitzvot). R. Lamm explains that these categories are not intended as “rigid compartments which are mutually exclusive” and that “one category flows into the other” (p.6). By this he seems to mean that one cannot have one form of faith without having at least some measure of the others.
Turning next to doubt, R. Lamm writes:
“Doubt is not denial, any more than assent is faith. Safek, doubt, must not be equated with kefira, for the latter, denial, is itself a conviction. Doubt is . . . a state of suspension between emunah and kefira.” (p.9)
R. Lamm then distinguishes various types of doubt. Spurious doubt is motivated by a desire to evade both the truth and one’s obligations (p.10). On the other hand, methodological doubt is a technique temporarily engaged in by the religious believer “in the process of strengthening his faith so that it may withstand criticism” (p.l0); it is also doubt “for the sake of truth” (p.12). Methodological doubt, in and of itself, does not necessarily involve any weakening of religious conviction. Finally, substantive doubt is real, honest-to-goodness doubt. Although it too betokens a concern for truth, it is not a temporary technique but a pervasive “condition of life” (p. 11); it is the kind of doubt that does involve a weakening of religious conviction.
Having drawn these distinctions, R. Lamm gives short shrift to spurious doubt; there is no question that it is forbidden from a halakhic as well as a moral perspective. Before moving on to consider R. Lamm’s claims regarding the other types of doubt, several comments are necessary. First, it is worth noting that R. Lamm has defined his terms in such a way that while any of the three types of doubt may or may not have an impact on one’s affective or functional faith, all three types directly concern only one’s cognitive faith or cognitive acceptance of religious doctrine.5 This emerges most clearly from R. Lamm’s initial description of doubt as lying somewhere between assent and denial, that is, between cognitive acceptance and cognitive rejection of religious doctrine.
Second, it seems to me that a further subdivision can be drawn between two types of methodological doubt. We may ask, is the religious believer who engages in methodological doubt genuinely willing to reject or deny religious doctrines if his investigations happen to lead him to the opinion that these doctrines cannot withstand criticism? Now, for R. Lamm methodological doubt is motivated both by a desire for discovering truth (p.12) and a desire to strengthen one’s faith (p. 10). And there is nothing inherently problematic in having two different motivations for the same activity. However, it is also possible that one motivation may be stronger or more fundamental than the other. And it seems to me that the question of whether the methodological doubter is genuinely willing to deny religious doctrines (should his investigations lead him to the opinion that they cannot withstand criticism) depends on which motivation is more fundamental. If one’s basic motivation is to discover truth, one engages in methodological doubt with a willingness to maintain or discard one’s own religious beliefs depending on the outcome of investigation. We might refer to this process as strong methodological doubt, since it involves at least a real possibility that one may end up denying the very religious doctrines one started out believing. But if one’s basic motivation is to strengthen one’s faith, then one may not be willing to reject religious doctrines, regardless of where one’s investigation leads. In this case, one’s desire to discover truth is operative so long as it does not conflict with one’s religious beliefs. We may refer to this as weak methodological doubt since the religious person who engages in this technique is after all not genuinely open to rejecting religious doctrines on the basis of investigation. Having made this distinction, we shall have to see whether the claims R. Lamm makes later about methodological doubt apply to the strong or weak variety.
Third, it is worth noting that substantive doubt comes in degrees, just as “belief that” or conviction comes in degrees. The agnostic par excellence is at a complete loss as to whether God exists; he is suspended midway between assent and denial. We might say that the agnostic has extreme substantive doubt. Often R. Lamm seems to have such a case in mind when speaking of substantive doubt. But even a person who is rather confident in his belief that God exists may concede that he is not absolutely certain that God exists. Such a person has some small measure of doubt; this doubt neither spurious nor methodological; it is substantive but not extreme. Accordingly, it may not suffice to make claims about the legitimacy of substantive doubt without clarifying what degree of substantive doubt is issue. We shall have to see whether R. Lamm is sensitive to this point in what follows.
Rabbi Lamm’s first major claim is that methodological doubt has “sanction” within the area of cognitive faith (p.13). The meaning of this claim seems to be that if one is motivated by a desire to discover truth and strengthen one’s faith, it is lekhathila permissible to temporarily suspend one’s intellectual acceptance of religious doctrines. Now it seems to me that although he does not explicitly say so, R. Lamm presents two distinct arguments in support of this claim. The first argument is contained in the following passage:
Jewish philosophers have discussed many individual doubts…. The very need to formulate responses implied the existence of the questions, no matter what their intrinsic worth, (p. 11)
Instead of citing some explicit halakhic ruling, R. Lamm here appeals to ma’aseh rav the case of certain Jewish philosophers (such as Saadia, Maimonides, etc.) who are considered exemplars of halakhic observance and who discussed and formulated responses to challenges against religious doctrines. It is worth noting that these philosophers might have done so on the basis of the explicit injunction of R. Elazar in Avot (2:19), “Know how to answer the Apikoros”. It is also worth adding that not only have Jewish “philosophers6” discussed and responded to challenges, but so have Rabbinic figures of the Talmudic period and other later figures known more as theologians (or ba’ale mahshava) and Kabbalists than as “philosophers.” The very fact that they did so shows that they did not always feel entitled or obligated to assert religious doctrines without argument. Moreover, the procedure of arguing on behalf of some proposition presupposes some form of methodological doubt of that proposition. For instance, in order to argue for God’s existence, it is necessary for the religious believer to restrict himself in choosing premises for his argument. Even though he himself believes that God exists, he may not cite “God exists” as a premise for then his argument would be flagrantly circular. In general, once a religious believer engages in argument on behalf of some doctrine, he must first engage in some form of methodological doubt with regard to that doctrine.
Now it seems to me that this argument provides a cogent halakhic justification for the permission of only weak but not strong methodological doubt. From the fact that great Jewish philosophers (and others) method logically restricted themselves in order to address challenges against religious doctrines, it does not follow that they would have been willing to reject those doctrines if their speculation had led them to the opinion that the religious doctrines cannot withstand criticism. Had their speculation them to such a negative result, they may have unabashedly maintained their religious beliefs anyway. In general, the procedure of arguing on behalf of some doctrine presupposes only weak but not strong methodological doubt.
R. Lamm’s second argument in support of his claim that methodological doubt has sanction involves an appeal to Saadia’s Emunot ve-De’ot. In summarizing Saadia’s conception of learning as a process of progress elimination of doubt, R. Lamm writes:
A doubt which remains imbedded in the mind permanently is damaging…. It has no intrinsic value. Nevertheless, Saadia does have something good to say about doubt. If it is devoid of inherent worth, at least it possesses value as a means of acquiring truth. All of learning is a successive removal of doubts . . . doubt therefore has instrumental significance. The safek is not an intrinsic good, but once it is there it can be used. In other words, Saadia approves of methodological doubt, if only as a necessary evil (p. 11).
Now it seems to me that this summary of Saadia’s position is accurate, until and not including the crucial final sentence, which draws the inference that “Saadia approves of methodological doubt.” It is true that Saadia describes the process of learning as a process in which one rids oneself of doubts.7 But here Saadia is talking about ridding oneself of real doubts, or what R. Lamm would call substantive doubts. Clearly, a doubt which “remains imbedded in the mind permanently” and is therefore “damaging” is a substantive doubt, and not a temporary restriction of one’s belief for the sake of argument. Similarly, in Saadia’s discussion of the causes of doubt, which sets the stage for his characterization of learning as riddance of doubt, it is quite clear that his intention is to discuss causes of real, substantive doubt.8 In fact, Saadia is here as much concerned with the causes of full- fledged error as he is with the causes of doubt.9 And in some passages, Saadia characterizes learning as a process of ridding oneself of error as this “error” is real and not in any sense methodological, so too Saadia’s “doubt” is real or substantive, and not methodological.
I shall suggest later that R. Lamm may in fact welcome the present criticism. But at this juncture, given my reading that Saadia regards substantive doubt as a necessary evil that is instrumentally significant, can one at least infer from this the permissibility of engaging in methodological doubt? Ithink not. It is quite possible for someone to hold that substantive doubts are “necessary evils” that must be conquered along the route to knowledge, and still hold that once one has gained such knowledge, one should not methodologically restrict oneself by suspending intellectual acceptance of religious doctrine for any purpose, even for the sake of argument. That is, one might hold that substantive doubts are necessary evils and that methodological doubts are unnecessary evils. Now of course, Saadia himself did hold that (weak) methodological doubt is permissible; indeed, he engages in it throughout the Emunot ve De’ot. But to appeal to this is to appeal to the ma’aseh rav argument discussed above; it has nothing in particular to do with Saadia’s conception of learning as elimination of substantive doubt.
Thus, at this juncture we are left with one cogent argument (i.e., the appeal to ma’aseh rav) on behalf of the permissibility of weak methodological doubt, and no argument on behalf of strong methodological doubt. Toward the end of the next section, I shall suggest another argument in support of weak methodological doubt.
I now turn to R. Lamm s second major claim, namely, that substantive doubt has “limited validity” within the area of cognitive faith (p.15). As mentioned above, R. Lamm reads Saadia’s discussion in the Emunot ve-De’ot as providing some sanction for methodological doubt. R. Lamm then tries to extend this sanction to cover substantive doubt as well; there is no need here to summarize this “extension,” since I have already argued in the previous section that Saadia’s discussion itself concerns substantive doubt. In this respect, R. Lamm may welcome the criticism of the previous section, for if my argument is correct, R. Lamm may appeal directly to Saadia for some sanction, of substantive doubt.
However, there is still a serious problem to be faced in understanding the very meaning of the claim that substantive doubt has validity. As R. Lamm himself says “…it is irrelevant to ponder whether we ought or ought not to engage in substantive doubt; it engages us, rather than the other way around” (p.12). In other words, unlike methodological doubt, substantive doubt is not defined as an activity or technique but rather as a state or condition. Therefore, in claiming on the basis of Saadia that substantive doubt has validity, R. Lamm cannot mean that it is “permissible to engage in substantive doubt,” for this would make no sense. To pull the question in halakhic terminology, what is the nafka mina of the claim that substantive doubt has validity?
One might respond that the force of this claim is that a person who has substantive doubt about religious doctrines is not ipso facto considered a denier or kofer. Since there are various laws that pertain to the kofer (e.g., his writing of a sefer torah is not valid, his slaughtering of an animal is not kosher11, etc.) such a claim would have significant practical consequences. Another, somewhat stronger, possible response is that the person who has substantive doubt is not ipso facto a sinner, much less a kofer? On this view, a person with substantive doubt has nothing to do teshuva for a thought of course he has much room for improvement with regard to his cognitive faith. However, while either of these two claims may or may not be halakhically valid, I contend that R. Lamm’s argument on the basis of Saadia cannot reasonably be construed to support either one of them. For, it seems that all one can say on the basis of Saadia is that substantive doubts have “instrumental significance” and are “necessary evils” to be overcome in the process of learning. Now a necessary evil is no less an evil just for being necessary. Indeed, upon reading Saadi one might be inclined to analogize substantive doubt to sin, and say that for Saadia, learning is a process of riddance of doubt in the same way that spiritual growth (the process of becoming a tzaddik) is a process riddance of sin. Thus, Saadia’s discussion, in and of itself, does not support the claim that substantive doubt is not in some way sinful or heretical. Indeed, there is a rather striking statement in the Emunot ve-De’ot to the effect that even a person who has doubt that God exists is considered a kofer!12
It seems to me that the only way one can argue from a halakhic point of view that substantive doubt is not heretical is to consider how the Talmud defines a kofer and to explore whether the Talmud leaves room for a distinction between substantive doubt and kefira. This R. Lamm does (on p. 16-18) in his discussion of Rashi’s commentary on the case of Hillel’s willingness to convert a non-Jew who had openly declared lack of belief in the Oral Torah13. Rashi seeks to explain Hillel’s willingness to convert his person even though it is forbidden14 to accept someone as a convert if he refuses one iota of Torah whether Oral or Written. R. Lamm reads Rashi as attributing to Hillel the view that only rejection or denial constitutes kefira, whereas merely not believing or doubting does not constitute kefira. Ashe himself acknowledges, R. Lamm’s reading of this Rashi is a matter of debate,15 and I myself have nothing to say to advance this debate one way or the other. However, even if his reading of the Rashi is correct, it is misleading to suggest, as R. Lamm does, that it constitutes “sufficient warrant for the thesis that doubt can be acknowledged as legitimate” (p.18). For “legitimate” connotes “not sinful,” and there is no basis for this in the Rashi even on R. Lamm’s reading. In any case, R. Lamm’s appeal to this Rashi does not stand or fall with Saadia’s discussion of doubt in Emunot ve-Deot. As I have indicated above, Saadia’s discussion does not imply that substantive doubt is not heretical or sinful.
Thus, hadra kushya ledukhta that is, our original question returns to its place, namely, what are the normative consequences of R. Lamm’s claim that, on the basis of Saadia’s authority, substantive doubt has limited validity within the area of cognitive faith? I believe we can tease out a good answer to this question by focussing on R. Lamm’s remarks in the following passages:
Cognitive faith is not an abstract, static acknowledgment of truth; it is a violent struggle in the attainment of emet [truth]…. The emet which cognitive emunah [faith] affirms is not given to us for the price of mere assent; it is the prize for which we must engage in a fierce intellectual struggle…. The only way to avoid cognitive doubt is to ignore it; worse yet, to abandon the enterprise of cognition or daat ha-Shem [knowledge of God], (pp 15-16)
In these passages, R. Lamm introduces a new element into his discussion, namely, the “enterprise of cognition or da’at ha-Shem.” Whereas before R. Lamm had defined cognitive faith as the mere intellectual acceptance of or assent to religious doctrine without reference to how such assent is arrived at, here “cognition” is not merely a matter of assent but of “knowledge.” Although R. Lamm does not explicitly say so, his intention in using the term “knowledge” is to connote belief that is rationally well grounded in the mind of the believer. The pursuit of da’at ha-Shem, then, is the pursuit of rationally well grounded beliefs about God. Indeed, this is Saadia’s conception of da’at ha-Shem, and for Saadia it is a religious obligation or mitzva to pursue this goal.16
It is in light of this mitzva that we can best make sense of R. Lamm’s claim that substantive doubt has “validity” within the area of cognitive faith. This claim should be taken to mean that if one has substantive doubt with regard to religious doctrine, it is permissible, and it would seem, obligatory, to dwell consciously on one’s doubt, in order to wrestle with it intellectually and try to resolve it through rational means, and thereby strive to attain da’at ha’Shem.17 For, if I find myself having substantive doubt about some religious doctrine, this is an indication that my belief of that doctrine is not rationally well grounded in my mind,18 and that I am not fulfilling the mitzva of da’at ha-Shem with respect to that doctrine. It will not do to repress the doubt or to “sweep it under the rug,” since then I would still be lacking a rationally well grounded belief in that doctrine. Rather, I must reflect on my doubt and address it rationally. Although R. Lamm does not explicitly express himself in this way, this claim seems implicit in his discussion of Saadia, and it is one that Saadia would have strongly endorsed. Moreover, the claim that one ought to reflect rationally on one’s substantive doubts is not inconsistent with the view that substantive doubt itself is sinful or even heretical. There is no paradox here, just as there is no paradox in saying that although it is forbidden to sin, it is obligatory to reflect on one’s sin in order to do teshuva.
Finally, we may infer from this conclusion that it is lekhathila permissible, and in certain circumstances, obligatory, to engage in weak methodological doubt. Since the mitzva of da’at ha-Shem requires not only belief in certain religious doctrines but also rational grounds for these beliefs, it follows that the religious believer must seek arguments for those doctrines, even if in his heart he has no substantive doubt whatsoever. And, as I have already pointed out, the process of arguing requires engaging in weak methodological doubt. Hence we may conclude that it is permitted, and in certain circumstances, obligatory, to engage in weak methodological doubt.
I turn next to R. Lamm’s third major claim, namely, that “… this grant of legitimacy to doubt must be limited to cognitive faith and must not affect functional faith or halakhic practice” (p. 18). The meaning of this clair seems to be that it is not halakhically permissible to excuse oneself from religious observance on the basis of substantive doubts about religious doctrines. While this claim is made from the point of view of halakha, we must remain aware of the fact that from the point of view of the doubter himself, the binding status of halakha may also be in doubt! This in itself
does not constitute a criticism of R. Lammas claim, but its relevance will emerge shortly.
R. Lamm’s argument for this claim is contained in the following passage:
Once we violate a halakhic norm on the basis of a cognitive doubt, we have in effect ceased to function as believers and begun to act as deniers – not even as doubters. One can suspend intellectual judgment; one cannot suspend action. . . . If, as we have been insisting, doubt can be acknowledged as part of cognitive faith and in spiritually valid tension with it, then the functional commitment must be absolute; otherwise it reflects the utter hypocrisy of the claim for the religious validity of cognitive safek. (pp. 18-19)
There are two problems with this argument. First, it seems quite possible for someone to “act as a doubter” within the framework of Judaism. Consider the fact that there are many halakhot, and, over the course of time, various halakhot apply. So suppose I am in doubt, and because of this I keep some halakhot and not others, or, on some occasions I observe the applicable halakhot and on other occasions I do not. Why then am I not “acting as a doubter”? Indeed it seems to me an actual fact that many people do “act as doubters,” sometimes observing and sometimes not observing halakha. Needless to say, I am not here advocating that a doubter do this – I am merely pointing out that within the context of the halakhic framework, it is genuinely possible to act as a doubter without acting as an denier.
A second problem concerns R. Lamm’s claim that doubt is “spiritually valid” only if one’s functional commitment is “absolute.” R. Lamm makes asimilar claim in writing that “. . . in the absence of a total commitment to Halakha . . . doubt loses its religious value” (p.24). Now it is indeed true that from the halakhic point of view, the slightest deviation from halakha is bad. But here R. Lamm appears to assert that from some moral or spiritual standpoint external to halakha, a doubt is not “spiritually valid” if it is held by a person who is not totally committed to halakhic practice. Now of course, partial commitment to halakha may be a result of laziness, half- heartedness, or hypocrisy. However, I submit that it need not be, if a person has substantive doubt about Jewish religious doctrine. We must remember that the doubter himself may doubt whether halakha is binding upon him; this in itself may cause him to be only partially committed. As long as the doubter is wrestling with his doubt and trying to resolve it, and as long as he is sincerely and honestly trying to reach the truth and do what is right, there is at least some “religious value” to his doubt, whether or not he is totally committed to halakhic observance.
These two problems beset R. Lamm’s argument on behalf of his claim that it is somehow “spiritually invalid” to allow substantive doubt to interfere with functional faith or halakhic practice. However, we can make a much simpler argument for this claim, once we take full cognizance of the fact that the claim is made from a halakhic point of view (which may of course be different from the point of the view of the doubter himself). We need only say that whereas the mitzva of da’at ha-Shem requires a Jew to address his substantive doubts not by ignoring or repressing them but by confronting them rationally, there is no permission to terminate or even temporarily suspend one’s commitment to halakhic norms on the basis of substantive doubt. One is still totally bound by the norms of halakha, even if one has extreme substantive doubt about all Jewish religious doctrines.
Now if someone were to object from a moral or even halakhic point of view that it is insincere for someone with extreme substantive doubt to maintain full halakhic commitment, we can respond that one need not have full conviction in a creed in order to sincerely “act as if” the creed is true. Relevant here is R. Lamm’s example of the man who substantively doubts whether he can save a drowning child but who nevertheless valiantly attempts to do so (p. 19). We would not say this person is “insincere” on the contrary, we would congratulate him for doing something even though he doubted whether he would succeed. To take another example, a person who substantively doubts whether a certain bottle of fluid is poisonous is not insincere if he acts as if it is poisonous (e.g., by carefully pouring it down the drain). Similarly, a person who substantively doubts (but also does not deny) that the laws of kashruth are divinely ordained is not insincere if he chooses to abide by those laws on the grounds that there is (to his mind) some small chance that they are divinely ordained. In this way, one may argue that it is not necessarily insincere for a person who has substantive doubt about all Jewish religious doctrines to maintain a total commitment to halakhic observance.
Thus far I have tried to support the (rather unsurprising) claim that, from a halakhic standpoint, a Jew is totally bound by the norms of halakha, even if he has substantive doubt. However, this is not quite the same thing as saying that substantive doubt may have no halakhically legitimate impact on the nature of one’s observance. Indeed it may turn out that, in certain specific cases, the fact that some individual has extreme substantive doubt renders certain mitzvot inapplicable to him from the halakhic standpoint itself.
Such a case might occur, for example, if there is some mitzva that requires a person to express or declare a belief in some religious doctrine. Now it seems that there is such a mitzva indeed a whole class of such mitzvot namely, that of verbally affirming certain religious tenets, as in the recitation of kriyat shema and the portion of birkhot keri’at sheim that begins with emet ve-yatziv.19 The doctrines contained in these passages include, among others, that God is one, that God miraculously took Israelfrom Egypt, and that God will redeem Israel in the future. Now considered an individual who has such extreme substantive doubt about these doctrines, to the degree that he cannot be said to believe them. If it is correct to construe the mitzva of the recitation of keri’at shema and emet ve-yatzi as involving the expression or declaration of one’s belief in these doctrines, Then it would seem that such a person cannot fulfill this mitzva even if he uttered the words. For ex hypothesi this person does not have any such belief to express or declare. Of course he could utter the words, but so could a kofer for that matter he does not thereby fulfill a mitzva. And since he cannot fulfill the mitzva, it seems reasonable to excuse the substantive doubter from uttering the words.
Now it might be said that even the extreme substantive doubter should utter the words anyway on the grounds that he has “nothing to lose.” But he does have something to lose, since, given his extreme doubt, it is insincere for him to affirm those doctrines. As we said above, a person who doubts whether the laws of kashrut are divine is not insincere if he abides by these laws on (what is to his mind) the small chance that they are after all divine. However, it would be insincere for him to affirm unequivocally the proposition that “the laws of kashrut are divine.” Similarly, it is insincere for a person who has extreme substantive doubt regarding the doctrines contained in keri’at shema to affirm them. Now this insincerity problem is not merely a moral issue but a halakhic one as well. For the halakha itself forbids insincerity”,20 and so it appears that even on halakhic grounds the substantive doubter should refrain from affirming these doctrines. At the very least, the obligation to affirm these doctrines must be balanced against the obligation to be sincere, and in the case of the substantive doubter, the latter may turn out to override the former.
Moreover, in his quest to gain or regain a rationally well grounded belief in these doctrines, it may be counterproductive for someone with extreme substantive doubt to repeatedly utter them, since by doing so he in effect may “brainwash” himself into an irrationally held belief in those doctrines. This of course will pervert his quest for genuine da’at ha-Shem, which, as we said above, requires rationally well grounded belief.
In summary of this section, while R. Lamm does not succeed in showing that it is hypocritical or “spiritually invalid” to allow substantive doubt to interfere with one’s commitment to halakhic practice, it is patent that halakha itself does not give general dispensation from halakhic norms on the basis of substantive doubt. However, it is also arguable that a person who has extreme substantive doubt about religious doctrines may be within his halakhic rights to refrain from certain mitzvot, such as, those which involve verbal affirmation of those doctrines.
Next I turn to R. Lamm’s fourth major claim, which concerns doubt and affective faith. R. Lamm’s thesis here is that “. . . just as we proposed the sealing off of functional faith or halakhic conduct, from cognitive doubts, so must we exclude such doubts from the area of affect, insofar as it is within the power of the will to do so” (p.23). His argument for this thesis is contained in the following passage: “If my cognitive doubts are indeed authentic religious phenomena, they must be confined to intellection and must not disturb my personal trust in and love for God” (p.23). In using the phrase “cognitive doubt,” R. Lamm refers to what he earlier called substantive doubt with regard to the cognitive acceptance of religious doctrine.
Unfortunately, R. Lamm does not make clear why a cognitive doubt should be regarded as an “inauthentic religious phenomenon” if it disturbs one’s trust in God. On the contrary, it seems to me that a doubt that does not affect one’s trust in God is an inauthentic religious phenomenon, or at least an inauthentic doubt. To take an example from another sphere, if I really and substantively doubt that my wife is loyal, why ought this not affect my emotional relationship of trust in my wife? The same holds in the religious sphere. In fact, R. Lamm seems to concede that there may be some practical difficulty in excluding cognitive doubts from negatively impacting on affective faith, as evidenced by the mitigating phrase “insofar as it is within the power of the will to do so.”
In any case, it seems to me that in the succeeding passages, R. Lamm undercuts his own thesis. For, in expounding his position, R. Lamm distinguishes two kinds of affective doubt. The first type involves a “trauma” within the trust relationship, that is, an emotional distance from or even bitterness toward God, brought on by, for example, the experience of suffering that seems undeserved. Of this type of doubt, R. Lamm writes that “it is an . . . integral part of man’s relation with God, his deepest religious experience, and neither can nor should be removed” (p.24). Apparently, then, R. Lamm does not advocate “excluding” this type of emotional doubt from affective faith.
R. Lamm writes that the second type of affective doubt “reverts to a cognitive type doubt” regarding certain propositions about God, e.g., “God is just”, “God is merciful”, etc. (p.24). Such cognitive doubts may also be brought on by the experience of suffering that seems undeserved. But now it is no longer clear what R. Lamm’s thesis about “excluding” cognitive doubts from the area of affect amounts to. For he has conceded that the first or emotional kind “neither can nor should be removed.” As for the second type of “affective doubt” this turns out to “revert” or “reduce” to a doubt within the area of cognitive faith, and we already have R. Lamm’s stated position that substantive doubt plays a legitimate role within the area of cognitive faith, which at this juncture R. Lamm does not in any way retract or qualify. Hence it is not at all clear what is meant by the claim that cognitive doubts must not impact on affective faith, even “insofar as it is within the power of the will to do so” What R. Lamm takes away with one hand, he gives back with the other.
Finally, turn to R. Lamm’s suggestion about how to rectify a situation of cognitive doubt, that is, substantive doubt with regard to cognitive acceptance of religious doctrines. R. Lamm suggests that cognitive doubts regarding certain doctrines about God (in particular, those concerning God’s mercifulness or justice) may be dealt with by “proceeding from the propositional to the emotive, from belief-that to belief-in” (p.25). Whereas cognitive doubt involves suspension of belief that certain propositions are true, the belief in God involves an emotional relationship with God, an “I-thou” as opposed to an “I-it” relationship. So the suggestion seems to be that by renewing or reinforcing one’s emotional bond with God, one will escape one’s cognitive doubts or at least not be bothered by them. In elaborating this suggestion in the penultimate section of his paper, R. Lamm specifically recommends prayer, Torah study, and participation in the community as ways of “relocating” or regaining one’s religious conviction.
Several comments are necessary here. First, the question arises as to how the mechanism of “reverting” from belief-that to belief-in is supposed to work in order to allay one’s doubts. In attempting to explain this, R. Lamm describes how the Biblical Job’s cognitive doubts about God’s justice were (somehow) erased or pushed aside only when he finally encountered the divine “Thou”. R. Lamm writes:
Once this Thou appears, all my belief-that doubts are removed, not by being resolved, but by being pushed into irrelevance. In the presence of the beloved and mysterious Thou, questions are no longer meaningful, because the whole category of discursive belief-that has been subsumed under and swallowed into affective belief-in. (p.25)
Now there are two problems with this interpretation of how Job’s doubts were resolved. First, it is not at all clear how the category of belief-that to be “subsumed under” the category of belief-in. This cannot mean that at some point a belief-that becomes just a certain sort of belief-in. For a belief in some being is an emotional relationship with that being, and a belief that some being exists, or that some being has a certain property, is a cognitive attitude about that being. And, while it may be difficult to draw a hard and fast distinction between emotion and cognition a la Plato, it is also difficult to regard a cognitive attitude as ever becoming just a certain sort of emotional relationship. Furthermore. R. Lamm himself recognizes earlier in his paper that belief-in always presupposes some belief that (see p.8). If I have a belief in God, I must perforce also believe that God exists, that God is trustworthy, etc. To use Talmudic terminology, beliefs-in are not porhin ba’avir [flying in the air] without some anchor in beliefs-that. Accordingly, it is not clear what is meant by the claim this at some point the category of belief-that is to be “subsumed under” that of belief-in. This leaves us wondering how the mechanism of “reverting” to belief-in is supposed to allay one’s cognitive doubts or “push them into irrelevance.”
A second, related problem is that in his description of Job’s finalencounter with the Divine Presence, R. Lamm underemphasizes the cognitive dimension of this event. One crucial thing about this “encounter” is that in it God reveals himself in some way to Job. And while indeed a revelation of God may be a highly emotional event, it is also one in which a person becomes cognitively aware of God. Hence if the message to be drawn from the story of Job is that cognitive doubts may (at least in some cases) be allayed through an encounter with the Divine Presence, it does not follow that these doubts are to be allayed by “subsuming” the cognitive under the affective. On the contrary, the moral of the story of Job may be that cognitive doubts are (at least sometimes) to be allayed by deepening one’s cognitive awareness of God! Finally, it would have been much more in keeping with the tenor of R. Lamm’s previous argumentation had he insisted that substantive doubt about religious doctrine must be addressed through cognitive rather than emotional means. Recall the argument above that it is permissible (and, it would seem, obligatory) to reflect on one’s substantive doubts in order to resolve them, precisely for the sake of fulfilling the mitzva of da’at ha-Shem, which requires belief that is rationally well grounded in the mind of the believer. Hence a person who has substantive doubt about some religious doctrine ought to confront his doubt directly and address it cognitively. This may be done either through deepening one’s cognitive awareness of God in religious experience or perhaps (a la Saadia) through an intellectual investigation of both the sources of one’s doubts, as well as the grounds for accepting religious doctrines, in an attempt to attain a cognitive faith that is well grounded in one’s mind and reasonably free from substantive doubt.
By insisting that cognitive doubts be addressed through cognitive means, I do not mean to deny that the cultivation of certain religious emotions (e.g., ahava, y’ir’a, bitakhon) or for that matter the observance of religious bodily practices (i.e., performance of mitzvot ha-guf) may play a crucial role in bringing about the resolution of cognitive doubts. It may very well be that certain cognitive experiences can be attained, and certain lines of argument can be discovered, only by people who have observed certain practices or cultivated the appropriate sorts of emotions. A person who does not keep Shabbat is unlikely to experience the divine presence on that day, and a wicked person is unlikely to come up with a proof for God’s existence. However, do claim that neither the observance of mitzvot ha-guf nor the cultivation of certain religious emotions is sufficient to address one’s cognitive doubts. Both from the standpoint of man’s search for truth, and from the standpoint of the mitzva of da’at ha-Shem, cognitive doubts should be confronted and addressed cognitively.
1 Tradition, 9:1-2 (Spring-Summer 1967). The article was reprinted in slightly more expanded form in Faith and Doubt: Studies in Jewish Thought (New York : Ktav, 1972) pp. 1-40. Page references in the present paper are to the latter edition.
6 Consider Rabbinic responses to various heretical challenges in Bereshit Rabba, 1:7, 8:9 ; Shemot Rabba, 29:1. Toward the end of Midrash Temura, what might be called a “proto-argument from design” is attributed to R. Akiva, also in response to the questioning of a min. To name just a few later sources, consider the Maharal’s arguments that the Torah is divinely revealed in Tiferet Yisrael; Ramban’s famous Disputation at Barcelona against Christian interpretation of Scripture; Ramak’s elaborate arguments in support of Kabbalistic theological doctrines in Pardes Rimonim.
7 See Emunot ve-Deot, Introduction, Section III. The following passage is from Samuel Rosenblatt’s translation in Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948): “. . . the process of knowing on the part of men begins with things that are at first jumbled, obscure, and ambiguous. However, by the power of the intellect which they possess, they do, in the course of time, continually refine and purify those [complexities] until the uncertainties depart from them and the pure essence is extracted dissociated from any doubt” (p. 10).
8 See Rosenblatt’s translation, p. 4: “For example, if a person were to seek one Reuben. . . . he could be in doubt about him for only one of two reasons: either (a) because he does not know him well, so that the latter might be standing before him without being recognized by him, or he might see someone else and think he is Reuben; or (b) because he takes the easiest course, abandoning thoroughness. The result [in the latter case] is that his love of ease inclines him to seek his object with the least effort and the slightest concern, wherefore, indeed, he does not discern it.”
9 See ibid., pp.4-5: ” …in regard to things of the intellect, confusion may arise from one of these two causes: either (a) because the seeker of intellectual knowledge is unacquainted with the methods of evidence, so that he declares a valid proof to be no proof and, conversely, he declares what is no proof to be a valid proof, or (b) because, even though he is conversant with the processes of reasoning he takes the quickest and easiest course so that he jumps at the conclusion before having completed the task of reasoning about it.”
That Saadia is as much concerned with the causes of error as with doubt emerges even more clearly from Yosef Kafah’s Hebrew translation entitled Sefer ha-Nivhar be Emunot Ve’Deot (Jerusalem: Makhon le-Mehkar ule-Hotso’at Sefarim, 1969). Whereas Rosenblatt translates the opening passage of Section II as “I shall preface this book . . . with an account of the causes by which uncertainties may beset the minds of men”, Kafah translates הרני מקדים לספר זה… הודעת גורמי השבושים לבני אדם. The emphases are mine. The term שבוש connotes confusion, mistake, or error, and not doubt or uncertainty.
12 See Treatise V, end of Chapter iv (in Rosenblatt, p. 219); the passage is quoted below in foot 20. In this connection, consider a similar statement by Maimonides in the Commentary to 41 Mishna, Sanhedrin 11:1, where he writes that anyone who doubts one of the principles of Faith is a kofer. In Yosef Kafah’s translation, this passage reads: וכאשר יפקפק האדם ביסוד מאלו היסודות הרי זה יוצא מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר ונקרא מין אפיקורוס וקוצץ הנטיעות.
However, R. Lamm might interpret passage as concerning “spurious doubt.” The matter requires further investigation.
17 The precise scope of the term daat ha-Shem requires further investigation that it turns out If only some, but not all doctrines of Judaism fall under the rubric of daat ha-Shem, then the claim that one is obligated or at least permitted to intellectually confront one’s doubts holds only with respect to some but not all doctrines.
18 It is possible that a “doubt” about some religious doctrine may arise even though the belief in that doctrine is rationally well grounded in the mind of the believer. But in this case, the doubt would no longer be substantive but spurious due to the desire to escape the truth or one’s obligations
19 One might regard all verbal mitzvot (e.g., berakhot, kiddush, etc.) as involving or presupposing some sort of affirmation of belief. I mention keri’at shema and emet ve-yatziv as examples of affirmation par excellence.
20 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah. Hilkhot De’ot, 2:6. It may be objected that although it is clearly forbidden to assert things which one knows to be false, it is perhaps permissible to assert things about which one is in doubt, especially where a religious obligation is at stake. However, there is at least one Talmudic opinion which indicates otherwise. The mitzva of bikurim (bringing first fruits to the temple) normally involves a verbal declaration by the individual bringing the fruit to the effect that the fruit indeed comes from land owned by him. This verbal declaration is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy, 26:3-10. In cases where one is in doubt about whether one owns a given piece of land, one brings the fruit but does not make the verbal declaration (see Mishna Bikurim 1:6). In Bava Batra 82a, the objection is raised that there seems to be nothing lost in having the person make the declaration, since if in fact the land is not his, he regarded as merely reading passages in Scripture. One response to this objection is given by R. Ashi, who says that to do so would be, i.e., it would smack of lying on this view, apparently, it is forbidden to assert something about which one is in doubt. Indeed in Emunot ve-De’ot, Treatise V, Chapter iv, Saadia has very harsh words for those doubters who pray to and supplicate before God as if they were believers. In Kafah’s translation:
אבל הכופר והוא העוזב את היסוד… או שהיה מסופק באמונתו והרי הוא נקרא בשם דתי, וייתכן שהוא מתפלל ומתחנן ואין לא שילם ולא מאמין. והרי הוא משקר ומרמה בדבריו ובאמונתו… והרי זה נקרא מי שנתחלל שם שמים בו.
It is instructive that Saadia singles out prayer and supplication as especially inappropriate for the substantive doubter. This bears out my own contention that although it may not be permissable for the extreme substantive doubter to engage in verbal affirmations, it is still obligatory for him to observe the other mitzvot.