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Sermons and Thoughts

Of Certainty and Doubt

21 August 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Ki Teitzei

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

There are some images that stay engraved on your soul – people falling from the sky is one of them: whether in Kabul, at Grenfell or at the World Trade Center. There is little that makes you appreciate more vividly how desperate these human beings are to escape than seeing them risk falling to their deaths from great heights.

Poignantly, our Torah portion this week begins: Ki teitze la-milchama – when you go out to war… The Torah doesn’t hide the ugly aspects of going out to war – the fate of women captured as bounty as described in the difficult passage that we have just read (Deut. 21:10-14). Sadly, the news this week illustrated quite how ugly trying to leave a war can be.

Was it right to leave Afghanistan? Right but maybe with bad timing? A betrayal of the sacrifice of the many British, American, NATO, and, by far in greatest numbers, Afghan soldiers who lost their lives in a war that lasted two decades? Is it Groundhog Day just weeks before the world will commemorate the tragedy of 9/11?

Neither the Torah nor rabbinic literature offers an answer. And yet, I believe our Torah portion does offer an important lesson in response – for our Parashah forces us to reflect on the fine balance of certainty and doubt.

Far from being a document about certainty, our sacred scripture, the Hebrew Bible, is replete with texts about the faithful human capacity to feel forsaken by God or to be exercised that God’s presence, or justice or some other aspect of the divine is not clearly manifest. Things regularly don’t go according to a neat plan – not for humans and not even for God.

For example, our Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains the laws of how we should treat the poor. Yet, only a few chapters earlier in Deuteronomy 15:4 God had promised via Moses that: “There shall be no needy among you!” What is the Torah saying? That there shall be no needy but we need rules how to look out for them? What might I think about God’s providence, if I live an honest and upright life but find myself in such desperate poverty that I am dependent on gleaning the corners of the field, picking the left over olives of the branches and collecting the last few grapes from deep within prickly wines?

In our portion, which focuses on the laws, there is no personal narrative – no story to describe the feelings of the woman captive, the unloved wife, the righteous poor person, those who may be struggling with the idea of a just and generous God.

But the book of Job provides us which such a narrative. Interestingly, the two main interpretations of the story of Job appear to be opposites –the first seen in ‘Job the Patient’ where he refuses to condemn God but seems content merely to revere God and keep far from evil, and then, in contrast, ‘Job the Impatient’ where in his suffering he prays to die and even wishes he had never been conceived.

The author of the Book of Job clearly addresses the theological conundrum of suffering and a goodly God.  ‘Why does it seem that the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive?’  More subtly are four related challenges about suffering: Is suffering necessarily deserved? If not, does God act unfairly or is God, at least, indifferent to suffering? Is it simply not possible to discern the reasons for suffering? Can we always predict the consequences of our actions?

Judaism, in common with all faiths, has attempted to answer this dilemma. Jewish answers would range from a refusal to explain suffering via the disciplinary benefits of suffering to the possibility of correcting suffering in another world. The Midrash even describes God as suffering with the suffering people.

Our tradition does give us various answers, yet there is no certainty and so even a person of great faith might at times find themselves in a place of doubt. I would argue that this is in fact the Jewish way. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner quotes one of his teachers, the late Dr. Samuel Sandmel, as saying: “Gentlemen [in those days it was only men in rabbinical school], if you don’t seriously doubt the existence of God every few weeks, you are theologically comatose.”

Looking at the images from Afghanistan this week, it is easy to lose faith – in humanity and in God. Who really knows what should have been done differently to prevent the tragedy that is unfolding in front of our very eyes? The only clarity that the debate in Parliament offered was that there is no neat answer. I wish it were different – I wish those with more knowledge of the situation could do something to prevent this tragedy. But I am not troubled by the lack of a clear answer. President Biden’s apparent certainty that America had done exactly the right thing seems much more troubling to me. When we see people fall from the sky, mothers handing babies to soldiers so that at least their children would find freedom, I think it is right to exercise doubt.

But while Judaism teaches us a healthy attitude towards doubt, Judaism also challenges us not to succumb to it but to wrestle with it.

Siddur Lev Chadash quotes the 20th century American author and activist Helen Keller, who writes: “It need not discourage us if we are full of doubts… In fact, unless we start with doubts, we cannot have a deep-routed faith… Those who have a faith which is not to be shaken have won it through blood and tears—have worked their way from doubt to truth as one who reaches a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns.”

Facing the complexities of life, it is right to have doubts. But we must not allow ourselves to be paralysed by our doubts. Instead, we must face the struggle to “reach a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns.” This is what it means to be part of B’nei Israel, the children of Israel – the children of Jacob who wrestled with God; this is what it means to be a Jew: to struggle but never give up, to doubt but never lose hope.

Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will.